The basic idea of Robert K. Merton’s anomie theory is that most people strive to achieve culturally recognized goals. A state of anomie develops when access to these goals is blocked to entire groups of people or individuals. The result is a deviant behaviour characterized by rebellion, retreat, ritualism, innovation, and/or conformity. Crime results predominantly from innovation.
Merton’s anomie theory was published in 1938, but due to the unawakened social interest it represented a so-called “sleep theory”. Only the renewed publication in the year 1954 provided for public interest. Merton refines Durkheim’s remarks by describing the missing social rules that lead to anomie and linking them to the aspect of the value-medium discrepancy. Anomic conditions are no longer seen in the gap between needs and satisfaction, but in the discrepancy between goals and means.
Crime arises from the divergence between the social objectives recognised as legitimate and the limited access to the means necessary to achieve these objectives. This discrepancy between goals and means varies from class to class, but is possible in all strata. The discrepancy results in a disorientation of the individual and causes psychological stress as well as social conflicts. The focus of his interest is not the deviation of individual individuals (micro level), but the search for the explanation of different deviation rates of different societies and groups (macro level).
Merton’s typology of models of adaptation
In order to be able to cope with this pressure, individual recourse is made to one of the following 5 behavioural patterns
Acceptance of cultural goals and adaptation to social change
Acceptance of cultural goals, non-recognition of legal means to achieve the goals.
Lowering / abandoning the cultural goals and maintaining legal means to achieve them.
Rejection of cultural goals and legal means
Combating the objectives and the means to change social structures.
According to Merton, people from lower social strata tend to resort to such means because they have fewer opportunities than higher strata to achieve cultural goals.
The different adaptation reactions and the approval/availability (+) or rejection (-) of cultural goals and institutionalized means can be presented in the following table:
|Mode of adaptation||Culture goals||Institutionalised means|
Implication for criminal policy
Merton’s anomie theory refers to the much quoted connection between social and criminal policy (“The best criminal policy is a good social policy”, Franz von Liszt). Since crime in the form of innovation (or even retreat and rebellion) is the result of social-structural inequalities, it must be the task of criminal policy to resolve them. Economically weaker persons must be allowed to advance to higher social strata or at least be helped to achieve their goals appropriately.
The less society is characterised by social inequality, the fewer people will become anomic. The goal must therefore be a genuine social and welfare state in which it is possible for everyone to achieve cultural goals by legitimate means.
Critical appreciation & relevance
Merton’s anomie theory is predominantly utilitarian in nature: people act criminally because they lack alternative possibilities. In this context, Merton explains monetary crimes such as robbery or burglary, but not crimes such as murder or rape. Due to the lack of access to legitimate means to achieve goals, Merton explains criminality only within the lower class, because it can be assumed that the middle and upper classes actually have these means at their disposal. Access to illegitimate means is not considered. Furthermore, Merton does not answer the question of why people react differently in stressful situations. – Why does someone become a ritualist or innovator? In addition, there is no precise explanation of terms. The term ‘cultural goals’ is only insufficiently described.
In addition, Merton sees the transition from conformal to criminal behaviour as a “leap” rather than a process, without this “criminal career” being explained in more detail.
- Merton, R. K. (1938) Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Oct., 1938), S. 672-682.
- Brown, S., Esbensen, F.-A., Geis, G. (2010): Criminology. Explaining Crime and Its Context. S. 240-244.
- Vito, G./Maahs, J./Holmes, R. (2007): Criminology. Theory, Research, and Policy. S. 154-156.