Anomie theory is important for explaining whether crime is a normal or abnormal (pathological) social phenomenon (Cartwright, 2011). It describes a lack of social norms, lawlessness and normlessness (Cartwright, 2013). In detail, it is a breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community.
This theory was first coined by Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist in his book Suicide published in 1897 (Cartwright, 2013). Later on, Robert Merton, the President of American Sociological Association, developed the link between anomie and social structure.
Unlike Durkheim, Merton used the notion from Durkheim’s anomie theory and explains that social structure could exert pressure on an individual and directly cause deviance (Cartwright, 2011). This theory is better known as the Anomie-Strain Theory. Furthermore, in 1994, Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld, like Merton, brought more attention to social organization and social institutions instead of focusing on individuals when analysing crimes (Cartwright, 2011), so the Institutional-Anomie Theory was developed.
In order to understand the anomie theory better, the developments of this theory from Emile Durkheim to Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld should all be considered. For Emile Durkheim, his main concern about anomie was social solidarity (Cartwright, 2011). Based on this concern, he divided solidarity into two categories: mechanical solidarity, which maintains low adaptation skills; and to the contrary, organic solidarity whose inertia sensitively needs changes (Cartwright, 2013). Durkheim observed that these two groups would co-exist.
The reason is that anomie is impossible when solidarity is organic. Their sensitivity to change leads to evolution among this form of labour. Later in 1897, Durkheim pointed out that the suicide rates were due to the dramatic economic changes, such as economic depression and the sudden growth of the economy (Cartwright, 2011). “According to Durkheim, these periods of anomie –times of normlessness, lawlessness, and unregulated choice – made individuals more susceptible to committing suicide or engaging in deviant behaviour” (Cartwright, 2011, p. ). In this study, Durkheim associated anomie with the influence of a lack of the norms. In Durkheim’s study of anomie theory, two notions should not be neglected. Firstly, Emile Durkheim referred to society much like a functioning organism (Cartwright, 2011), evidence for the theory can be easily found in his referring to the society as “the social organism” or “the functions of the central organ” (Cartwright, 2011, p. 6). In order to maintain the continuation of the organism, each of the integrated parts has to be working well.
Secondly, Durkheim discussed crime as an “abnormal” activity, which indicates that a certain proportion of crimes are normal and happens in most societies, (Cartwright, 2011). f in the steps of Durkheim’s study, Robert Merton described more about the relationship between social structure and anomie theory, later known as the anomie-strain theory. The definition of the word “strain” in the verb form means to subject to tension or stress. This meaning is very similar to the strain theory.
The theory indicates that the social structure of a society may pressure or force the citizens to commit crimes, due to the failure to provide many individuals’ with “the conventional means necessary to realize those culture goals”, which also means that the individual lacks access to cultural goals, such as money, job, or education (Merton, 1938). In Merton’s publication Social Structure and Anomie, he provides a good example that explains his theory.
For example, in the USA, the society’s general goal is wealth; therefore, in order to achieve this certain goal, the institutionalized manner is to be hard-working or obtaining education (Merton, 1938). Based on this theory, Merton identifies five modes of adaptation, including conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion (as cited in Cartwright, 2011, p. 21). According to Merton, innovators are most likely to engage in criminal behaviour, since they may accept the recognition of certain cultural goals but reject achieving the goals in a legitimate way (Merton, 1938).
This illegitimacy adjustment as the major concern involves two features (Merton, 1938). Firstly, such antisocial behavior “by certain conventional values of the culture and by the class structure involving differential access to the approved opportunities for legitimate, prestige-bearing pursuit of the culture goal” (Merton, 1938, p. 27). Secondly, it is the consideration of equal significance. Because of the limitation of legitimate effort, for those individuals with formal education and few economic resources, success is hard to get (Merton, 1938).
In addition, Merton declared that the theory he studied was incomplete, since various structural elements were neglected; for example, “the relevance of cultural conflict for an analysis of culture-goal and institutional-means malintegration” has not yet been examined, and “the social function performed by illicit responses” has also been omitted (Merton, 1938, p. 30). As for Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (1995), their study, known as the institutional-anomie theory, focused more on how criminal behavior is affected institutionally, such as by schools, churchs or companies.
Messner and Rosenfeld declared that criminology has overly focused on analyzing the behavior of individuals, such as mental illness, but paid less attention on how social organization and institutions influence the behaviour (Rosenfeld & Messner, 1995). Based on the comparison chart that Messner and Rosenfeld established in Crime and the American Dream: an Institutional Analysis, the statistic shows that the United States of America has the highest rates of robbery or homicide among a number of countries (Messner & Rosenfeld, 1995).
The reason is due to “the crime causing nature of American-style capitalism and its unique cultural goals or aspiration” (Cartwright, 2011, p. 52). Messner and Rosenfield are also concerned about the normal functions of social institutions. The definition of “institutions” means “relatively stable sets of norms and values, statuses and roles, and groups and organizations” (Messner & Rosenfeld, 1995, p, 60). At this point, Messner and Rosenfeld introduced four major social institutions: political system or polity, economy, institution of family and institution of education (Messner & Rosenfeld, 1995).
Even though these four institutions may not seem directly relevant to crime; however, according to Messner and Rosenfeld, in order to analyse the crime in the United States, the interconnection between these four institutions are central (Messner & Rosenfeld, 1995). In this study, Messner and Rosenfeld (1995) also talked about the institutional balance of power. Due to the monetary need of every cooperation and institution, the economy “has come to dominate the other three institutions” (Cartwright, 2011, p52).
The devaluation of the economy has overcome the other three major institutions. At last, the dominance of the economy has developed to a very extreme level, and the monetary goals bring out the term “the ends justify the means” (Cartwright, 2011, p, 52). As the development of anomie theory, from Emile Durkheim to Robert Merton to Messner and Rosenfeld, is discussed, the elements that tie these together is that they all try to figure out the reasons that cause criminal behavior and examines as to why crime happens.
This also counts as a similarity between the three anomie theories. In the article “Cheap Capitalism” written by Hongming Cheng, he characterized cheap capitalism by “low prices, inferior quality and unsafe condition of goods or services to maximize profits” (Cheng, 2012, p, 254). Cheng also pointed out that the cheap capitalism is “facilitated by cheap labour and raw materials and, more importantly, associated with degraded morality in the business world” (Cheng, 2012, p, 254).
In my opinion, the article provides a good example of and explanation for crime in the non-capitalist countries, such as China. Cheng gives an example about food crime, which involves rampant institutions using cheap and dangerous industrial chemicals in foods (Cheng, 2012). One explanation will be that the food industries provides low-quality food to cheap labourers, since the poor working class cannot afford buying expensive but healthy food (Cheng, 2012).
The case is related to the institutional-anomie theory studied by Messner and Rosenfeld (1995). One way to cause crime could be due to the social structure and social institutions. In the article, Cheng also provides a table of scales from 1 (not very important) to 4 (very important) that describes the factors that may lead to and influence the food crime. It turns out that social culture, moral and values got rated 3. 8 out of 4, followed by “lack of adequate enforcement” that got 3. 6 (Cheng, 2012).
From this table, it shows that “moral anomie is a major factor that associated with food crime” (Cheng, 2012, p, 265). From my perspective, the institutional-anomie theory is connected to this case the most. In conclusion, the development of anomie theory, from Emile Durkheim to Messner and Rosenfeld, provides brilliant ideas and thoughts that explain crime thoroughly. The evidence that supports their theory is solid and valid. Based on this, it makes the theory complete and reasonable.