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Anomie & Strain

Published onJan 04, 2023
Anomie & Strain

Lesson Objectives

Learning Activities

Learning Assessment

  1. Know the tenets of Anomie / Strain theories

  2. Identify the development of Anomie / Strain theories

  3. Distinguish between Anomie / Strain theories and theorists

  4. Apply Anomie / Strain theories to real-world criminal cases

  5. Discuss Anomie / Strain theories’ ability to explain crime

  6. Evaluate Anomie / Strain theories’ ability to explain crime

Read Merton; Rosenfeld & Messner; Agnew

Complete Study Guide Anomie / Strain

Read Review Anomie / Strain

Watch Theorist Video Rosenfeld

Watch “Chris and Shanann Watts' seemed to be in love, say friends, family: 20/20 Dec 7 Part 1” and “Desperate search after Shanann Watts, young daughters disappear from home: 20/20 Dec 7 Part 2”

Annotate “Chris and Shanann Watts' seemed to be in love, say friends, family: 20/20 Dec 7 Part 1” and “Desperate search after Shanann Watts, young daughters disappear from home: 20/20 Dec 7 Part 2”

Explain how Strain theory applies to the crime in the video

Come up with your own example of Strain theory operating in another case, such as a recent news event or your own life

Overview and Reading Quiz. Anomie / Strain

Theorist Video Quiz. Rosenfeld

Video Discussion. Strain


Given that this is a criminological theory class, I can’t reiterate the following enough. So, you’ll keep seeing the following:

Theory is a statement about how something affects something else.

Scientific theory states how something empirical (an independent variable) affects something else empirical (the dependent variable).

Something is empirical if you can hear, see, touch, smell, or taste it.

The reason it is good for theories to be empirical is they can be tested and falsified.

Indeed, whether a theory is good isn’t only about being valid. Also, a theory is better if it is simpler, more general, more original, and more useful.

Criminological theory states how something (an independent variable) affects crime (the dependent variable).

The vast majority of criminological theories make statements about why communities, individuals, and situations are more likely to have or commit crime.

Note that criminological theories rarely, if ever, only focus on empirical somethings, but let’s ignore that.

There are a lot of criminological theories that differ in a lot of ways. Mostly though, you should think of criminological theories as being based in one or more disciplines, such as economics, biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on.

Criminology, to be clear, is not a discipline. It’s a field of study; that is, the study of crime.

Current Course Section

After the introductory material, this course has seven sections reflecting major disciplinary approaches to the study of crime. However, because criminology is interdisciplinary, sometimes the lines between disciplines have become murky, so some of the sections have elements of multiple disciplines.

The current section focuses on sociological theories of crime.

As with “theory,” “criminology,” and many other words, “sociology” and “psychology” have different meanings. In this class, simply think of them as the study of society and the human mind, respectively.

For this section, you will read three works relating to a particular strand of such theories, namely that of “anomie” and “strain.”

Before briefly going over those works, I’m obliged to remind you that we won’t examine every criminological theory of this sort. But if you want to see further examples, you should either do a Wikipedia search or, maybe better yet, browse the Oxford Bibliography entries on Criminology.

Readings and Theories Therein

First, you should read Merton’s article, “Social Structure and Anomie.”

Before going into what that article discusses, I should mention that we could have started this section by reading Durkheim. He was a French scholar around at about the same time as Lombroso (late nineteenth century).

Many criminologists consider Durkheim to be the father of the sociological study of crime, much like Lombroso is considered the father of the biological study of crime.

In 1897, Durkheim published a book titled Suicide. Therein, he theorizes suicide to be caused by anomie, among other things.

I thought about having you read an excerpt of this book, but ultimately decided that wasn’t necessary. But if you’d like to read it, I’ve put a copy of it along with the other readings I’ve posted. To be clear, you won’t be quizzed over it.

To learn more about Durkheim, I also recommend that you check out the Wikipedia page on him;

That background helps to understand the Merton article. For whatever reason, he never bothers to define anomie in this article. There’s different definitions of it, some more complicated and specific than others.

In this course, simply think of anomie as a societal breakdown of commonly held ideas about what is “right” and “wrong.” When a society is in a state of anomie, there are less cultural controls holding back bad behavior.

So, what should you get out of the Merton article? At least a couple things. One is the argument that a lot of crime in the U.S. happens because people herein place particular importance on being successful (e.g., making a lot of money) but not everyone will achieve it.

In essence, Merton is saying that some people commit crime because they want something they can’t actually have, yet society tells them that can have it and should want it. American society is in a state of anomie, then, in that the emphasis on success reduces the importance of gaining success in the so-called “right way,” the result of which is more crime.

Second, you should read Rosenfeld and Messner’s article, “Crime and the American Dream.”

When reading it, pay attention to their definition of the American Dream, which Merton alludes to but never actually defines, and their description of Merton’s theory.

In addition, you should pay attention to how they develop Merton’s theory. Like Merton, Rosenfeld and Messner talk about how the American Dream weakens restraints on gaining success “the right way” and that this leads to crime.

Also, Rosenfeld and Messner go into how the U.S. emphasis on the economy winds up seeping into other “institutions” – family, politics, education – and how this further exacerbates the crime rate.

Third, you should read Agnew’s article, “Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency.” Before describing that article, we should go back to Merton real quick.

As you’ll read in the Merton article, he alludes to the idea that people get “strained,” which basically means stressed, by their inability to achieve what society tells them they can and should achieve. The idea of strain theory, basically, is that when people get stressed, they are more likely to commit crime.

Note that whereas anomie explains crime at the community-level, strain theory explains crime at the individual-level; the second and third readings talk more about that distinction.

Getting back to Agnew, his article expands and updates strain theory in several ways. Also, he talks about how strain theory is different from social control theory (i.e., social bond theory) and social learning theory, which are examined in other sections.

Merton, Robert K. 1938. Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review 3:672-682. (Paywalled here.)

Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 1995. Crime and the American Dream: An Institutional Analysis. Pp. 159-181 in The Legacy of Anomie Theory, ed. Freda Adler and William S. Laufer. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. (Fair use.)

Agnew, Robert. 1992. Foundations for a General Strain Theory. Criminology 30:47-87. (Paywalled here.)

Theorist Video Annotation

For this section, you’ll watch an interview with Richard Rosenfeld. He’s one of a handful of criminologists who are popular for developing community-level, or “macro,” theories of crime. He talks a lot about that approach to criminology during the interview, and also his interest in how the economy affects crime. If you’re interested in reading some of his work, you can find it by clicking on this link:


Crime Video Discussion & Gist of This Section

Recall that you’re doing discussion posts to see whether you can apply the theories to the real world. Some theories can be complicated, but their fundamental points don’t need to be. People, including you, may disagree with me (this is what makes academia fun), but I think the gist – or essence – of the theories examined in this section is as follows:

  • The dependent variable is crime, meaning acts prohibited by law.

  • Crime is theorized to be affected by anomie and strain, defined above.

In theory, a community is more likely to have crime if marked by higher levels of anomie, and an individual is more likely to commit crime if strained. Also, those theories could be thought of as operating at the situational-level of analysis.

  • An individual is less likely to commit crime in a community in which residents agree on what is wrong and they are willing and capable to do something about it.

  • An interaction is more likely to result in crime if it occurs in a community with more anomie or involves individuals with more strain.

  • A small place, such as a bar, is more likely to have crime if it is in a community with more anomie or if the individuals therein have more strain.

If you truly understand the above, you’ll be able to do very well on the video discussion. If you don’t get it right now, don’t worry about it. The readings, video, study guide, and quizzes will get you where your knowledge where it needs to be – if you truly do your best on them.

Chris and Shanann Watts' seemed to be in love, say friends, family: 20/20 Dec 7 Part 1
Desperate search after Shanann Watts, young daughters disappear from home: 20/20 Dec 7 Part 2

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