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date: 23 January 2019

Institutional Anomie Theory Across Nation States

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Please check back later for the full article.

Institutional Anomie Theory (IAT) was originally formulated as a quintessentially macro-level theory of crime focused on features of large-scale social systems. The main substantive claim of the theory is that an institutional structure characterized by the dominance of the economy over other, non-economic institutions tends to be conducive to high levels of crime. Such economic dominance in the institutional structure is theorized to be manifested through three primary processes: the norms and values associated with the economy penetrate into other realms of social life; non-economic roles tend to be accommodated to the requirements of economic roles when conflicts emerge; and non-economic functions and roles are devalued relative to economic functions and roles. Economic dominance in the configuration of social institutions is linked with crime via complementary institutional and cultural dynamics. The enfeeblement of non-economic institutions accompanying economic dominance limits their capacity to perform their distinctive social control and socialization functions, and anomie permeates the culture. The defining feature of such anomie is that the egoistic or utilitarian motives associated with the market economy prevail, and technical expediency guides the selection of the means to pursue personal goals. IAT has informed a growing body of research dedicated to explaining cross-national variation in crime rates. While empirical studies have generated mixed results, the research literature is generally supportive of the theory. The most consistent conclusion from these studies is that the scope and generosity of the welfare state are associated with reduced levels of crime, especially lethal criminal violence, either directly or by mitigating the effects of other criminogenic conditions, such as economic inequality or economic insecurity. The precise nature of the effects of the different social institutions on crime, for example whether they exhibit “mediating” or “moderating” relationships, remains uncertain. The cultural dynamics informed by IAT have received less attention, but recently some efforts to incorporate culture have been promising. Along with the studies conducted exclusively at the level of nation states, an emerging area of research applies IAT in a multilevel framework. The results have been mixed here as well, but these studies have indicated how structural marketization translates into shared values that help explain individual variation in criminality. Several challenges remain for future research. IAT is cast at a high level of abstraction, which creates ambiguities about the precise nature of any causal structure among variables and the most appropriate procedures for operationalizing the main concepts. Moreover, research indicates that it might be important to focus not only on the strength but also on the content of non-economic institutions as the economy penetrates into non-economic institutions. Another challenge pertains to the role of religion as a non-economic institution, given research revealing that its functioning as a protective non-economic institution deviates from that of other non-economic institutions.