Anomie theories (sometimes also called strain theories) deal with the question of why norm breaks occur more clearly in certain societies or historical epochs than in others. The focus is on the link between crime and the social structure of society. According to anomie theories, crime arises in particular as a result of the pressure exerted by the unequal distribution of socio-economic resources in society. Anomie can thus be described as disturbed stability in society due to inequality in the social structure or a lack of individual or collective strategies for adapting to changing social circumstances.
The French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who introduced the concept of anomie to sociology for the first time in 1893 and understood it as a form of rulelessness in societies, is regarded as a pioneer of anomie theory. Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe the pathological effects of the rapidly developing social and labour division in early industrialism. The associated weakening of norms and rules for the allocation of goods led to intensified competition for the increasing gains in prosperity.
If there is a discrepancy between cultural (primarily economic) goals and given possibilities to realize these goals, a structural burden arises from this. This results in a weakening of norms, anomie and finally an increased crime rate.
Robert Merton, on the other hand, is regarded as the main scholar of anomie theory. Merton’s explanations of anomie emerged in 1938 under the influence of the theoreticians of the Chicago School. These led Merton to explore the topic of “social integration” and the need to control human desire. In contrast to Durkheim, Merton focused his reflections on the discrepancy between pre-defined goals and the limited social resources available. To this day, his theses are among the most remarkable in criminology and criminal sociology. They have often been integrated into other crime theories (such as Cohen’s subculture theory, Cloward & Ohlin’s theory of differential opportunities, or Greenberg’s age theory) or criticized as examples of all kinds of etiological crime explanation (as happened through the labeling approach).
In addition, anomie theory has undergone some reformulations and extended interpretations: Messner and Rosenfeld dealt with the subject of anomie because they did not find Merton’s remarks satisfactory: In their Institutional Anomie Theory (IAT) they extend the anomie concept to include the influences of economics and social institutions.
Robert Agnew’s remarks on General Strain Theory are also based on Merton’s anomie theory. In contrast to Merton, who explains that the occurrence of anomic states depends exclusively on the distribution and access to economic resources. Agnew also names other, diverse factors that can cause stress and strain and thus crime.