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Jón Gunnar Bernburg

Originating in the tradition of classical sociology (Durkheim, Merton), anomie theory posits how broad social conditions influence deviant behavior and crime. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim was the first to discuss the concept of anomie as an analytical tool in his 1890s seminal works of sociological theory and method. In these works, anomie, which refers to a widespread lack of commitment to shared values, standards, and rules needed to regulate the behaviors and aspirations of individuals, is an intermediate condition by which social (dis)organization impacts individual distress and deviant behavior. An observant of the massive social changes of 19th-century Europe, Durkheim argued that anomie resulted from rapid social change and the weakening of traditional institutions, in particular the reduced authority of such institutions in the economic sphere, as well as changes in the principles underlying social inequality. A few decades later, the American sociologist Robert Merton re-formulated anomie theory, arguing how a particular malintegration of the culture-structure constitution of modern society produces high rates of crime. Echoing selected themes in Durkheim’s work, and discussing the United States as a prime example, Merton argued how a shared overemphasis on monetary success goals undermines individual commitment to social rules, and generates a particularly acute strain on individuals in disadvantaged social positions. Thus having implications for research on crime rate differences between societies as well as between individuals and groups within the society, anomie theory has inspired a broad range of both macro- and micro-level applications and extensions. On the one hand, the theory has shaped studies of crime rates across large social units, such as countries and metropolitan areas. Such research, while often limited in terms of the types of crime that can reliably be compared across large social units, has linked crime with economic inequality, materialistic values, the institutional dominance of market-driven processes and values, and rapid social change. An important development in this tradition is the advent of multilevel research that links societal factors with individual normlessness, strain, and criminal behavior. On the other hand, micro-level implications of anomie theory, often referred to as classic strain theory, have shaped studies of individual and group differences in criminal behavior within societies. This type of work often studies youths, at times bringing in notions of gangs, subculture, and differential opportunities, focusing on the criminogenic effects of strain stemming from opportunity blockage and relative deprivation. Yet the work rarely examines individual normlessness as an intermediate process linking social structure and delinquency. Finally, anomie theory has been extended and applied to research on business/corporate and white-collar crime. While more research is needed in this area, the extant work suggests how anomie theory provides a particularly powerful explanation of national-level differences in business/corporate crime (e.g., bribery). The article concludes by noting that an increased emphasis on multilevel research may lead to an integration of the macro-level and micro-level extensions and applications of anomie theory in the future.


Andreas Hövermann and Steven F. Messner

Institutional Anomie Theory (IAT) was originally formulated as a quintessentially macro-level theory of crime focused on the properties 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.