Institutional Anomie Theory Research Paper

This sample Institutional Anomie Theory Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need help writing your assignment, please use our research paper writing service and buy a paper on any topic at affordable price. Also check our tips on how to write a research paper, see the lists of criminal justice research paper topics, and browse research paper examples.

What began as a monograph aimed at accounting for the excessively high rate of violent crime in the United States (Messner and Rosenfeld 1994), Messner and Rosenfeld’s institutional anomie theory (IAT), an identity provided by Chamlin and Cochran (1995), is perhaps the quintessential sociological theory of crime among the more recently minted theoretical approaches over the past two or three decades. The theory is a purely macro-social theory of crime and is in fact a cross-national theory of crime stressing the interplay of social structural and cultural feature of modern nation-states as the ultimate cause of crime. The paper below traces the origins of the theory, describes the theory in detail, reviews the empirical work testing key propositions of the theory, and discusses current controversies surrounding the development of the theory.

In 1994, Messner and Rosenfeld published their book entitled Crime and the American Dream where they first introduced their conceptualization of anomie.

Building on the work of Durkheim, Merton, and others (or building upon the Mertonian paradigm), Messner and Rosenfeld proposed the institutional anomie theory (hereafter, IAT) arguing that anomie is derived from the interplay between the culture and social organization of a society. Their theory shifts the focus away from Merton’s development of individualized strain theory and toward the expansion and reformulation/clarification of the macro-level relationships articulated by Merton throughout his career. Thus far, empirical support for IAT has been mixed. The purpose of this research paper is to describe Messner and Rosenfeld’s institutional anomie theory and its theoretical underpinnings, review the empirical support for this theory, and discuss some of the controversies in the literature surrounding this theory as well as the policy implications derived from this theoretical perspective.

Origins Of The Theory

Messner and Rosenfeld draw heavily upon the works of Emile Durkheim and Robert K. Merton to lay the foundation for their theory. Durkheim first introduced his concept of anomie in the late 1800s when he was describing the division of labor in societies as they transformed from the simple mechanical societies to the more complex organic societies of today. Durkheim noted that as societies become more complex and increase in size and density, the division of labor becomes more specialized and the capacity of societies to regulate behaviors weakens. Durkheim was not particularly concerned with explaining crime rates, but rather sought to explain conditions of deregulation or normlessness, which he termed “anomy” that he felt led to various forms of deviant behavior.

Durkheim believed that humans had insatiable desires and it was the responsibility of society to provide the appropriate restraints. Durkheim thought, “human activity naturally aspires beyond assignable limits and sets itself unattainable limits” (Durkheim 1951: 247). Durkheim proposed that in mechanical societies, the society exercised a relatively high degree of control over individuals. In societies undergoing rapid change, such as those evolving toward organic societies, this degree of regulation or control was weakened. In these situations, society loses the ability to regulate man’s aspirations, and they can escalate beyond their abilities to fulfill them. If man’s desires exceed his ability to satisfy them, then he will be in a state of anomie (Durkheim 1951: 246). Therefore, Durkheim was proposing that both the type and occurrence of deviance (including crime) is tied to changes in social conditions. Durkheim also described other situations where a society might lose its ability to regulate individual goals and therefore might lead to increases in anomie, including those of both economic prosperity and economic distress.

Merton, setting out to explain the relatively high crime rates present in the United States, attributes his initial ideas to the writings of Durkheim. While Merton borrowed the concept of anomie from Durkheim, he greatly expanded its meaning and proposed a slightly different interpretation. Merton’s concept of anomie differed from Durkheim’s in several important ways. First, Merton believed that it was society, not man’s innate desires or human nature, that ascribed man’s aspirations. Merton and later theorists recognized that American society was uniquely different from other societies. He believed that the distinctive feature of American society was its emphasis on what has been termed the “American Dream.” He contended that American society placed an overemphasis/exaggerated emphasis on monetary success. As a result, all citizens are taught that success is measured by the achievement of monetary or material goals. Therefore, it is the society, not a biological drive, that provides man’s aspirations. Society is also responsible for prescribing the acceptable means of achieving these cultural goals. Merton (1938) refers to these methods as the institutional norms. The institutional norms emphasized in America include means that are primarily based on what is referred to as the “Protestant work ethic.” These include education, hard work, perseverance, etc. A balanced society, Merton contended, is one in which there is an equal emphasis or a balance between the cultural goals and the institutionalized means of achieving these goals (1957: 134). In such a society, utilizing these means should in and of themselves provide citizens with success or a sense of achievement. Further, in such a society, there would be a variety of values through which citizens could achieve/obtain culturally validated virtue or worth (Kornhauser 1978: 162).

In American, however, there is an overemphasis on the goals to the detriment of the means, setting up an environment where the achievement of the goals (winning) is more important than the process (playing the game) (Merton 1938). It is this disjunction between the goals and the means that Merton referred to as anomie. American society is, therefore, an imbalanced culture (Kornhauser 1978; Merton 1938). Kornhauser (1978: 163) points out that our culture is imbalanced because it does not provide a “sufficient variety of values whose achievement carries public recognition of moral worth.” In American society it is the accumulation of wealth that is correlated with the moral values of stability, hard work, thrift, discipline, ambition, diligence, etc. (Kornhauser 1978: 165). In other words, achievement of the monetary goal affirms the existence of these other virtues. A balanced society would provide other ways to demonstrate these virtues. As Kornhauser points out in our society, there are no rewards for “hero of production” or “heroine mother of the year” (Kornhauser 1978: 163). In addition, Merton maintained that citizens are also taught to believe that this universal cultural goal is available to all and prescribes the acceptable means of achieving these goals. In reality, this is not the case. He believed that the availability of the institutional means varies by social class and is not equally available to all. In particular, the institutionalized means are restricted to those in the lower class structures. As Kornhauser (1978: 165) describes when items such as a “diploma, job title and bank account provide the only public insignia of moral worth, large numbers of people are shut out of the moral community defined by these achievements.”

Although Merton proposes a variety of methods in which individuals can adapt to this strain or the inability to achieve the culturally prescribed goals through the institutionalized means, his theory is most useful in explaining utilitarian, profit-motivated crimes. Individuals who engage in these types of criminal behaviors, termed innovators, are simply utilizing the most efficient means available to them to achieve the universally accepted cultural goals. Individuals who engage in this type of criminal behavior accept and believe in the culturally induced goals. In fact, it is society that has pressured them into engaging in this type of conduct, by limiting their access to the institutionalized means of achieving these goals. Merton’s proposed theory was, therefore, a theory of societal anomie. Bernard (1987: 268) simplifies Merton’s cultural argument to the following propositions:

  1. “The value attached to the goal of monetary success varies in different cultures and
  2. At a cross-cultural level, variations in the value attached to monetary success are positively related to rate of utilitarian, profitoriented criminal activity.”

Institutional Anomie Theory

It is upon this foundation that Messner and Rosenfeld developed their version of anomie theory. Much like Merton, they developed their theory to explain the disproportionately high crime rates in America compared to other countries. Also similar to Merton, Messner and Rosenfeld believe that America places a high value on monetary success. However, they expand upon this idea by proposing that American society is unique in its emphasis on the cultural values embraced in the “American Dream.” According to Messner and Rosenfeld, the cultural ethos of the American Dream refers not only to the goal of material and monetary success but also to the ideal that this goal can be pursued by everyone under conditions of open and individual competition (Rosenfeld and Messener 1995). This high level of crime coupled with a strong belief in the American Dream is termed “American exceptionalism” by Messner & Rosenfeld (2005).

The American Dream as envisioned by Messner and Rosenfeld embodies four fundamental value orientations: (1) individualism, (2) universalism, (3) achievement, and (4) materialism. Individualism is a highly prized value that stresses not only individual rights and freedoms but also the belief that individuals should be self-reliant and that success or achievement is individually accomplished.

Universalism is the belief that all individuals, regardless of their social class and background belief, are encouraged to aspire to the goal of monetary success. These two values combined underscore the belief that with hard work, anyone has the ability to succeed. Achievement stresses the importance of this success. One is ultimately judged by the achievements he or she has accumulated. Success in America is defined by the accumulation of monetary rewards. This belief that money is the ultimate reward in our society is the value of materialism. These four values together promote what has been referred to as the Horatio Alger ideal of rags to riches.

Embracement of the American Dream has had a number of benefits for the United States leading to an expanding economy, technological innovation, and social mobility (Messner and Rosenfeld 2007: 8). However, this value orientation, along with the capitalist economy present in the United States, also operates to influence citizens toward the unrestrained pursuit of materialistic and monetary goals. It is both the exceptionally high crime rates, along with the strong emphasis on the American Dream that sets the United States apart from other nations.

However, these cultural values in and of themselves are not what lead to exceptionally high rates of serious crime. IAT theory postulates that it is the interaction between culture and the social structure that leads to crime. The social institutions highlighted by Messner and Rosenfeld include the economy, polity, family, and educational system. These institutions assist societies in (1) adapting to the environment, (2) mobilizing and deploying resources for the achievement of collective goals, and (3) socializing members to accept society’s fundamental normative patterns (Messner and Rosenfeld 2007: 72).

Each of these social institutions assists with one or more of these goals. For example, the economy, in its responsibility for the production and distribution of goods, helps in the adaptation to the environment. The family assists in propagating society and in caring and socializing the children. The political system is responsible for protecting members of society as well as mobilizing the resources to assist in attaining the normative goals. The education system not only helps to prepare members of society for assuming adult roles but also shares responsibility with the family to socialize society’s youth. The relationship between these institutions is both dependent and antagonistic. For a harmonious society to exist, these institutions must cooperate with one another. For example, the economy is reliant on both the family and the educational system to produce quality citizens who will make efficient and effective workers. On the other hand, they are in competition with each other for resources and value orientations.

This interplay between these social institutions is crucial to IAT. One of the central assumptions of IAT is that a dominant economy coupled with weakened controls from the other social institutions in society produces a state of anomie conducive to serious crime. Economic dominance is expressed in a number of ways. First, the role of noneconomic social institutions is devalued in comparison to the economy. For example, the role of the educational system in imparting knowledge is devalued, as the system is more valued for its role in training future workers. The second way this is expressed is by accommodation of economic norms by other institutions. This is exemplified by the family sacrificing family time for the sake of work schedules. Finally, economic values penetrate these other domains. For example, Messner and Rosenfeld point to terms such as “accountability” and “consumer-driven classroom” as evidence of the penetration of economic values into the educational system.

When the institutional balance of power is skewed, these noneconomic institutions are weakened in terms of their ability to regulate social behavior. When the economy is dominant, this can lead to crime by both stimulating anomie and by simultaneously weakening the organizational controls associated with the noneconomic institutions. IAT not only predicts anomic offenses when the institutional imbalance of power is in favor of the economy but also predicts criminal behavior in situations of imbalance. For example, corruption is expected to result in situations where the polity is the dominant institution. Likewise, “crimes in defense of the moral order” result in situations where family or religion dominates (Messner and Rosenfeld 2001). In sum, anomie results from “a strong cultural emphasis on ends over means” that is not guided by a strong moral foundation (Rosenfeld and Messner 1997: 214). In this type of situation, the type of means selected, including criminal behavior, is dependent on a cost-benefit or utilitarian analysis. Consequently, a society where the economy is dominant and the culture is anomic is expected to also have high crime rates, particularly serious and utilitarian or instrumental offenses.

Messner and Rosenfeld expanded upon Durkheim and Merton’s concept of anomie by both refocusing on the macro-level causes of anomie and by examining the connections between the cultural ethos of the American Dream and the interrelationships among social institutions (Rosenfeld and Messener 1995). In more recent iterations of their theory, they have discussed how IAT explains the racial and gender distribution of crime. For instance, they suggest that females are less involved in criminal behavior because of their greater investment in noneconomic institutions such as the family as well as gender differences in value orientations (Messner and Rosenfeld 2007). In contrast, Messner and Rosenfeld argue that African-American investments are different with struggling attachments and alienation from the major institutions in our society.

Policy Implications

The policy implications derived from this theory are typically outside of the control of the criminal justice system. For instance, one way that societies can mitigate the influence of a dominant economy is by reducing its citizen’s reliance on the market economy for their well-being. This is typically accomplished by welfare policies such as unemployment, social security, and health insurance. These policies help to restore the institutional balance of power as well as protecting individuals from market fluctuations (Batton and Jensen 2002).

IAT theory also suggests more complex initiatives that would be difficult and that many might be unwilling to undertake. Because the source of high crime rates lies within the tenets of the American Dream, reducing crime significantly would necessitate rethinking the basic tenets of the dream – many of which are responsible for the innovation and success that is often considered uniquely American. Likewise, crime would be reduced if we strengthened the noneconomic institutions in our society. Messner and Rosenfeld, for example, suggest strengthening the family by promoting initiatives such as paid family leave, flexible work schedules, and employer-provided child care (2007: 112). The primary criminal justice reform associated with IAT theory is to reduce our reliance on mass incarceration and to promote effective prisoner reentry programs (for a thorough discussion of this issue, see Rosenfeld and Messner 2010).

State Of The Art (Empirical Tests Of IAT)

While IAT theory is relatively new to the field, there have been a number of empirical tests conducted to determine the efficacy of the theory. These studies have primarily focused on examining the impact of the institutional balance of power between the social institutions and its effect on crime rates. Comprehensive and frequent investigations are most likely hampered by the methodological difficulties involving both the measurement of and collection of empirical data on the key concepts in the theory.

One of the first tests of IAT’s main propositions was conducted by Chamlin and Cochran (1995). They examined 50 states in the USA to determine the impact of institutional imbalance on property crimes. They utilized the percentage of families below poverty level as their measure of absolute economic deprivation. In addition, they included measure for the polity, family, and religion. They examined the institutional balance by testing interactions between their poverty measure and measures for the church, family, and polity. They found all of these interactions to affect property crime rates in the directions predicted by the theory. They found that in the presence of strong noneconomic institutions, the influence of poverty on property crime was lowest. With one exception (family disruption), they also found that these results held up when they utilized alternate measure of income inequality in place of poverty rate.

Piquero and Piquero (1998) also examined property and violent crime rates using crosssectional data from the United States. They also measured the strength of the economy by the percentage of persons below the poverty level. They likewise measured the strength of the polity (percent receiving public aid and percent voting in presidential election), education system (proportion of population enrolled full time in college, percentage of high school dropouts, teacher’s salary relative to the average pay), and the family (percent of single parent). They explored whether the strength of these institutions moderated the effect of the economy on crime while varying their operationalization of the key concepts. They found mixed support for the theory. The percentage of persons in college (education) and the percentage receiving welfare (polity) decreased both property and violent crime rates. Also consistent with the theory, the percentage of the population below the poverty level (economy) and the percentage of single-family homes (family) increased both types of crimes. When examining the interactions, they found the cross-product term of economy and education to be significantly related to crime rates. Specifically, when more persons were enrolled full time in college, the economy had its weakest influence on property crimes and violent offenses. Similarly, the interaction between the economy and the polity significantly influenced the violent crime rate. However, when they utilized alternative measures for these concepts, the results were not replicated. They concluded that such tests of the theory are sensitive to the operationalizations of the key concepts.

In 2003, Maume and Lee predicted homicide rates in US counties with populations of 100,000 or greater. They examined the influence income inequality (economy), voter turnout for presidential elections (polity), the average educational expenditure per person (education), rates of divorce (family), and rates of adherence to civically engaged religious dominations (religion). One of their primary focuses was on determining the exact nature of the relationship between the economy and non-economy institutions on crime rates. Specifically, they tested whether noneconomic institutions mediated or moderated the influence of the economy on homicide rates. They also disaggregated homicide rates to predict both instrumental and expressive homicides. They found the economy to be a strong predictor of both types of homicides. In their analysis they found more support for the notion that noneconomic institutions mediated the relationship between income inequality and homicide. They found only limited support for the notion that they moderated this relationship as only the level of welfare expenditures interacted with income inequality.

Kim and Pridemore (2005b) advanced the literature by examining the utility of IAT theory in explaining homicide rates in 78 regions in transitional Russia. They measured the strength of the economy using a ratio of the top 20 % of income to the bottom 20 %. They also examined the impact of socioeconomic change on homicide. They only found limited support for direct effects on crime and no indication that the noneconomic institutions of the polity, education, or family interacted with change to affect crime. When they substituted their socioeconomic measure for the change measure and then looked at absolute deprivation (population below poverty line), their findings remained the same. Therefore, in this setting, social institutions did not help ameliorate the effects of poverty and social change on violence.

Schoepfer and Piquero (2006) expanded the discussion to examine the efficacy of IAT theory in predicting embezzlement rates between states in the USA. They found their measures of the economy (percent unemployed), policy (percent of registered voters who voted in general state and local elections), and education (percent that did not graduate from high school) to all be directly related to embezzlement rates. They also tested several cross-product terms and found the economy polity to be associated with embezzlement such that high levels of voter participation reduced the impact of the economy on embezzlement rates.

In 2008b, Bjerregaard and Cochran as well as Frerich, Munch, and Sanders assessed IAT utilizing cross-national data sets. Frerichs et al. (2008) predicted robbery and homicide rates among twenty developed, post-welfarist nations. They evaluated the institutional balance of power between several measures of the economy (Gini coefficient, P90/P10 ratio, union density rates, public social expenditures, unemployment, and mass imprisonment). Contrary to the expectations of IAT theory, they found that low female employment, high levels of union density, and low unemployment sometimes increased crimes. Likewise, they found that decommodification also increased crime. In contrast, low divorces and high public social expenditures and high imprisonment rates reduce crime. Bjerregaard and Cochran (2008b) also investigated homicide and theft rates across 49 nations. They found that the family and education institutions moderated the relationship between the economy and homicide. Likewise, education and the polity tempered the relationship between the economy and theft rates. Similar to Piquero and Piquero (1998), they found these results to be sensitive to the various operationalizations of the key concepts.

Collectively the results of these studies provide moderate support for IAT theory. The majority of the studies support the notion that noneconomic institutions moderate the relationship between the economy and crime (for an exception, see Maume and Lee 2003). Utilizing indirect measures of the key theoretical concepts support for the various propositions exists. The most common finding is that various measures of the economy including income inequality, poverty, and unemployment are related to crime rates. The findings regarding the influence of the noneconomic institutions are more mixed with various studies confirming these relationships and several refuting them. In addition, these results appear to be sensitive to the measurements utilized in the studies.

Another set of studies has focused on the idea that decommodification or welfare policies ameliorate the impacts of a dominant economy. This was first addressed by Rosenfeld and Messner themselves in 1997 when they studied the influence of Esping-Andersen’s measure of welfare expenditures (decommodification) on homicide rates in 45 nations. They found decommodification to be negatively related to homicide controlling for a variety of demographic and socioeconomic factors.

Hannon and DeFronzo (1998), integrating IAT with social support theory, looked at whether welfare assistance moderated the relationship between income inequality and crime in the United States. Confirming IAT theory, they found that high levels of welfare assistance did reduce the impact of economic deprivation on crime. Pratt and Godsey (2003) assess this relationship cross-nationally by measuring both social support (GDP spent on health care) and economic inequality (ratio of median incomes of the richest to poorest 20 % of citizens). They found economic inequality to have a strong, positive effect on homicides and social support to have a negative effect. Looking at the interaction between these two concepts, they found the effect of economic inequality on homicides to be lessened in situations of high levels of social support.

Savolainen (2000) went a step further and looked at sex-specific homicide rates using two cross-national data sets including the one previously used by Rosenfeld and Messner (1997). Income inequality (Gini coefficient) interacted with decommodification to influence homicide. Specifically, in situations with high levels of decommodification, income inequality reduced homicide rates for both men and women. These findings were supported in both samples. However, they also found the influence of income inequality on homicide to be restricted to nations with low levels of decommodification. Taking a slightly different approach, Stucky (2003) found the effects of economic deprivation on crime to be weakest in those metropolitan areas with strong local political structures.

Messner et al. (2002) studied this issue longitudinally investigating 150 countries over a 20-year time period. Confirming previous findings, they noted that income inequality had a positive impact on homicide rates. They also supported the notion that well-developed social welfare institutions mitigate the effect of income inequality on homicide. Batton and Jensen (2002) likewise researched this issue longitudinally across the United States, but they found that high levels of decommodification did not reduce homicide rates. They also examined these relationships across various time periods and found a negative relationship between unemployment and homicide for recent years. They attribute this finding to increasing levels of juvenile violence, potentially rising nonemployment rates and more females joining the workforce. Again, the findings from these studies are mixed, although the majority shows support for the proposition that decommodification buffers the influence of market forces on crime rates.

The above-discussed studies have been criticized in the literature for failing to test the fundamental assumptions underlying IAT. The studies discussed below have all focused on a different approach to researching IAT theory by attempting to confirm the notion of American exceptionalism. Specifically, they sought to determine both whether the values associated with the American Dream are universally supported and whether or not the United States is unique in its value system.

Value Orientations

Jensen (2002) was one of the first to decry the lack of empirical data on the degree to which societies embraced the goals and values described by Messner and Rosenfeld. Utilizing data from the World Values Survey, he examined value orientations across 38 nations. He found that the USA did not rank as high on materialistic values or normlessness compared with other nations. In fact, the United States scored toward the top in terms of rating the family, religion, and leisure as important. The USA also ranked sixth in agreement with the statement that “less emphasis on money and material possessions would be a good thing” (p. 59). In addition to ranking value orientations, Jensen also analyzed the extent to which decommodification influenced crime rates by strengthening the family. He discovered that the higher the investment in decommodification, the less likely citizens were to have children and the more likely they were to divorce (p. 62). Decommodification was also positively related to the importance of leisure and negatively related to the importance of religion, and not significantly related to the importance of family. Ultimately decommodification was found to significantly increase burglary rates. The findings from this study are clearly contrary to the expectations of institutional anomie theory.

Chamlin and Cochran (2007) followed suit and utilized the World Values Survey to measure cultural attitudes and ultimately determine how they correlated with homicide and robbery rates. They also do not find evidence that the United States is particularly materialistic. In fact, they find that the “fledgling, market economies that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union most enthusiastically embrace the so-called ‘American Dream’” (p. 53). There was also no significant correlation between the importance of work and homicide and robbery rates. Interestingly, they found that if they limited their analysis to the economically developed nations, this correlation became strong and significant, implying that IAT may have salience only among developed nations.

In order to determine cultural values, Muftic (2006) took a unique approach and compared American to foreign-born college students. She asked the students several questions designed to tap into core value orientations such as individualism, achievement, and fetish for money and then correlated those values with cheating behaviors. Consistent with IAT theory, she found that students born in the USA indicated higher dedication to universalism and monetary fetishism and higher levels of cheating behaviors. These value orientations were also found to be related to cheating behaviors (except for the value of achievement). She also investigated attachment to and importance of family, polity, education, and the economy. In a multivariate analysis, the family and polity were found to be significant and negatively related to cheating. However, students who were employed (involvement in the economy) were less likely to cheat. Finally, attachment to or involvement in noneconomic institutions were not found to moderate the influence of values on cheating. Cullen et al. (2004) applied IAT to explain unethical business practices. Their findings were also mixed. The findings with regard to the values of universalism and pecuniary materialism support IAT, while the results for individualism and achievement do not.

Baumer and Gustafson (2007) also looked at geographic areas in the United States. They used individual-level data from the General Social Survey to measure commitment to pursing monetary success and the legitimate means of achieving that success and macro-level measures of the polity, education system, family, and religion. They found broad support for IAT. Their interactive models showed that when there are strong beliefs in the cultural goals of monetary success coupled with low attachment to legitimate means, higher rates of instrumental crimes result. When they considered the impact of social institutions only, the family and welfare assistance reduced this effect.

Controversies In The Literature

While these studies advance certain tenets of IAT, the findings overall are mixed with several propositions finding support and others not. All in all there is more support for the notion that social institutions moderate rather than mediate the influence of the economy on crimes. It is important to note that several studies find these results to vary depending on the operationalizations utilized.

Despite the advances made in empirically testing the theory in the past decade, a number of issues remain unresolved. For instance, the exact nature of the causal relationship between social institutions and the economy in affecting crime rates is somewhat uncertain. While the majority of studies have supported the notion that social institutions moderate the relationship between economy and crime, a few have refuted this perspective instead finding that these institutions play a mediating role (e.g., Maume and Lee 2003).

Another controversy that currently exists is the extent to which the core values of the American Dream central to IAT are universal. Findings surrounding this question have been mixed, with several researchers refuting this claim (e.g., Jensen 2002). Further, some research appears to suggest that the values held by Americans are not as unique as the theory suggests failing to provide support for the notion of American exceptionalism (Chamlin and Cochran 2007; Jensen 2002).

One of the most challenging issues facing the advancement of this theoretical perspective is the fact that IAT is not readily amenable to falsification. In general, the studies reviewed imply partial support for IAT. This may be in large part due to the fact that researchers are only indirectly testing main propositions of the theory due to the difficulty in both operationalizing the key concepts (e.g., economic dominance) and data challenges inherent in cross-national research. In the future, we need to find adequate sources of measuring crime rates cross-nationally. It would be especially helpful if we could disaggregate homicide offenses so that researchers could focus on the violent acts committed for instrumental or utilitarian purposes. Better data sources would allow future researchers to expand the scope of the dependent variables utilized.

Open Questions

There are still several open questions that exist in determining the efficacy of IAT. One of the primary issues involves the extent to which IAT is compatible with other theoretical perspectives. Rosenfeld and Messner (1997: 218) acknowledge that they are “heavily indebted to insights associated with traditional bonding and socialdisorganization theories.” They also recognize that “Mertonian insights about the social structuring of criminal incentives and opportunities have yet to be incorporated systematically and formally into the framework of IAT” (Messner and Rosenfeld 2006: 144).

Relatedly, Jensen (2002) has pointed out that other theoretical perspectives could likewise explain several of the findings from the literature testing IAT. For example, he points out that the mediating structure relating economic dominance to crime is consistent with social control and social disorganization perspectives. Further, he criticizes previous empirical tests of IAT for failing to incorporate variables central to other criminological theories into the analysis (p. 56). Future research needs to more fully incorporate key concepts from other theoretical perspectives in order to disaggregate the impact of IAT.

Another issue is the degree to which IAT can be integrated with micro-level explanations of crime. Both Durkheim and Merton advance individual-level explanations along with their structural focus. In fact, Messner et al. (2008: 177) point out that in integrating these two levels of analysis in research on IAT, it will be necessary to include indicators from other theoretical perspectives, and they encourage further efforts along these lines.

Finally, the applicability of the theory to explaining offenses other than serious crimes such as robberies and homicides is not well developed. Although these offenses were clearly the focus of Messner and Rosenfeld’s presentation of the theory, it is unclear the extent to which the theory would apply to other types of crimes. Researchers have started to explore this issue predicting unethical business practices (Cullen et al. 2004), cheating behaviors among college students (Muftic 2006), and embezzlement rates (Schoepfer and Piquero 2006).

Messner and Rosenfeld offer us a unique reformulation and expansion of Merton’s original anomie theory. In doing so they focus on the role of cultural values, social institutions, and the ability of these institutions to regulate behavior. Their theory helps describe the role of anomie in explaining cross-national variations in crime in general and high rates of serious crimes in the United States in particular. Finally, they refocus policy initiatives toward the wider cultural and social structure issues. The challenge will be to operationalize the key concepts in the theory to better advance our empirical tests of this theory. Messner and Rosenfeld have introduced an intriguing explanation for America’s serious crime rates and presented a challenge for future researchers to develop the means to empirically assess its validity.


  1. Batton C, Jensen G (2002) Decommodification and homicide rates in the 20th-century United States. Homicide Stud 6:6–38
  2. Baumer EP, Gustafson R (2007) Social organization and instrumental crime: assessing the empirical validity of classical and contemporary anomie theories. Criminology 45:617–663
  3. Bernard TJ (1987) Testing structural strain theories. J Res Crime Delinquency 24:262–280
  4. Bernburg JG (2002) Anomie, social change and crime: a theoretical examination of institutional-anomie theory. Brit J Criminol 42:729–742
  5. Bjerregaard B, Cochran JK (2008a) Want amid plenty: developing and testing a cross-national measure of anomie. Int J Confl Violence 2:182–193
  6. Bjerregaard B, Cochran JK (2008b) A cross-national test of institutional anomie theory: do the strength of other social institutions mediate or moderate the effects of the economy on the rate of crime? West Criminol Rev 9:31–48
  7. Cao L (2004) Is American society more anomic? A test of Merton’s theory with cross-national data. Int J Comp Appl Crim Justice 28:17–31
  8. Chamlin MB, Cochran JK (1995) Assessing Messner and Rosenfeld’s institutional anomie theory: a partial test. Criminology 33:411–429
  9. Chamlin MB, Cochran JK (2007) An evaluation of the assumptions that underlie institutional anomie theory. Theor Crim 11:39–61
  10. Cochran JK, Bjerregaard B (2011) Structural anomie and crime: a cross-national test. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol 55:1–15
  11. Cullen JB, Praveen Parboteeah K, Hoegl M (2004) Crossnational differences in managers’ willingness to justify ethically suspect behaviors: a test of institutional anomie theory. Acad Manage J 47:411–421
  12. Durkheim E (1951) Suicide. The Free Press, New York
  13. Frerichs S, Munich R, Sander M (2008) Anomic crime in post-welfarist societies: cult of the individual, integration patterns and delinquency. Int J Conflict Violence 2:194–214
  14. Hannon L, DeFronzo J (1998) The truly disadvantaged, public assistance, and crime. Soc Probl 45:383–392
  15. Jensen G (2002) Institutional anomie and societal variations in crime: a critical appraisal. Int J Sociol Soc Policy 22:45–74
  16. Kim SW, Pridemore WA (2005a) Social change, institutional anomie and serious property crime in transitional Russia. Brit J Criminol 45:81–97
  17. Kim SW, Pridemore WA (2005b) Poverty, socioeconomic change, institutional anomie, and homicide. Soc Sci Quart 86:1377–1398
  18. Kornhauser R (1978) Social sources of delinquency. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  19. Maume MO, Lee MR (2003) Social institutions and violence: a sub-national test of institutional anomie theory. Criminology 41:1137–1172
  20. Merton RK (1938) Social structure and anomie. Am Sociol Rev 3:672–682
  21. Merton RK (1957) Social theory and social structure revised. Free Press, Glencoe
  22. Messner SF (2003) An institutional-anomie theory of crime: continuities and elaborations in the study of social structure and anomie. Cologne J Sociol Soc Psychol 43:93–109
  23. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (1994) Crime and the American dream, 1st edn. Wadsworth, Belmont
  24. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (1996) An institutional-anomie theory of the social distribution of crime. In: Siegel L, Cordella P (eds) Contemporary criminological theory. Northeastern University Press, Boston
  25. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (1997) Markets, morality, and an institutional – anomie theory of crime. In: Passas N, Agnew R (eds) The future of anomie theory. Northeastern University Press, Boston
  26. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (2001) An institutional-anomie theory of crime. In: Paternoster R, Bachman R (eds) Explaining criminal and crime: essay in contemporary criminological theory. Roxbury, Los Angeles
  27. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (2004) Institutionalizing criminological theory. In: McCord J (ed) Institutions and intentions in the study of crime: beyond empiricism, advances in criminological theory, vol 13. Transaction, New Brunswick
  28. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (2005) The present and future of institutional anomie theory. In: Cullen FT, Wright JP, Blevins KR (eds) Taking stock: the status of criminological theory advances in criminological theory. Transactions, New Brunswick, pp 127–148
  29. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (2006) The present and future of institutional-anomie theory. In: Cullen FT, Wright JP, Blevins KR (eds) Taking stock: the status of criminological theory, advances in criminological theory, vol 15. Transaction, New Brunswick
  30. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (2007) Crime and the American dream, 4th edn. Thompson, Belmont
  31. Messner SF, Rosenfeld R (2009) Institutional-anomie theory: a macro-sociological explanation of crime. In: Krohn MD, Lizotte AJ, Hall GP (eds) Handbook on crime and deviance. Springer, New York
  32. Messner SF, Raffalovich LE, Shrock P (2002) Reassessing the cross-national relationship between income inequality and homicide rates: implications of data quality control in the measurement of income distribution. J Quant Criminol 18:377–395
  33. Messner SF, Thome H, Rosenfeld R (2008) Institutions, anomie, and violent crime: clarifying and elaborating institutional-anomie theory. Int J Conflict Viol 2:163–181
  34. Muftic LR (2006) Advancing institutional anomie theory: a microlevel examination connecting culture, institutions, and deviance. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol 50:630–653
  35. Piquero A, Piquero NL (1998) On testing institutional anomie theory with varying specifications. Stud Crime Crime Prev 7:61–84
  36. Pratt TC, Godsey TW (2003) Social support, inequality, and homicide: a cross-national test of an integrated theoretical model. Criminology 41:611–644
  37. Rosenfeld R, Messener SF (1995) Crime and the American dream: an institutional analysis. In: Adler F, Laufer WS (eds) The legacy of anomie theory. Transaction, New Brunswick
  38. Rosenfeld R, Messner SF (1997) Markets, morality, and an institutional anomie theory of crime. In: Passas N, Agnew R (eds) The future of anomie theory. Northeastern University Press, Boston
  39. Rosenfeld R, Messner SF (2003) Crime and the American dream. In: Cullen FT, Agnew R (eds) Criminological theory past to present: essential readings, 2nd edn. Los Angeles, Roxbury
  40. Rosenfeld R, Messner SF (2006) The origins, nature, and prospects on institutional-anomie theory. In: Henry S, Lanier M (eds) The essential criminology reader. Westview, Boulder
  41. Rosenfeld R, Messner SF (2010) The normal crime rate, the economy, and mass incarceration: an institutionalanomie perspective on crime-control policy. In: Decker S, Barlow H (eds) Criminology and public policy: putting theory to work. Temple University Press, Philadelphia
  42. Rosenfeld R, Messner SF (2011) The intellectual origins of institutional-anomie theory. In: Cullen FT, Jonson CL, Myer AJ, Adler F (eds) The origins of American criminology, advances in criminological theory, vol 16. Transaction, New Brunswick
  43. Savolainen J (2000) Inequality, welfare state, and homicide: further support for the institutional anomie theory. Criminology 38:1021–1042
  44. Schoepfer A, Piquero NL (2006) Exploring white-collar crime and the American dream: a partial test of institutional anomie theory. J Crim Justice 34:227–235
  45. Stucky TD (2003) Local politics and violent crime in U.S. cities. Criminology 41:1101–1135

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to buy a custom research paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655