According to Institutional Anomie Theory (IAT), crime is an indirect consequence of the dominance of the economy over other sectors of society. If a society is primarily shaped by economic interests, economic logic permeates other social institutions and areas (such as education). This results in utilitarian behaviour on the part of members of society, a decline in social control and an increase in crime.
Institutional anomie theory is an extension of Merton’s anomie theory. Messner’s and Rosenfeld’s approach is based on an image of society borrowed from structural functionalism. Society can thus be divided into four institutional structural areas:
- family (reproduction, care/support of persons in need of help)
- education ( imparting norms and values)
- politics (monitoring, control of collective goals)
- economy (production and distribution of economic goods)
Each of these institutions has a function (see reference in brackets). A proper balance between the different institutions in society is crucial for a regulated coexistence. If, however, the institutions are in a strong imbalance and can no longer regulate each other, collective motives for action, values and goals and crime will emerge.
In the 1980s, in the wake of the desire for a free market, primary and thus disproportionate economic development took place, resulting in an imbalance with the other institutions. An unbridled striving for financial gain arose in society to withstand the pressure to achieve prosperity. Relations with the other institutions became increasingly loose and their norms and values were no longer learned. The focus is on the economic factor. This results in a lack of orientation, because the other institutions are no longer protected.
Messner and Rosenfeld illustrate the influence of the economy on other social institutions with the following developments:
Devaluation of what is not related to money.
Sectors that do not come into contact with the economy are measured by economic efficiency criteria (e.g. universities and companies).
Penetration of the non-economic sector with the language and logic of economic efficiency. (e.g. word imprints from the financial sector find their way into everyday language).
The dominance of the economic sector is also expressed in the idea of the “American Dream”, according to which material success targets have top priority (“from dishwasher to millionaire”). The IAT combines Merton’s anomie theory (achievement of cultural goals – here: economic success) with control theory assumptions (influencing other areas of society).
Implication for criminal policy
Messner and Rosenfeld’s comments on anomie theory suggest a strategy to reduce crime. The population would have to be equipped with a well-developed economic safety net (welfare, pensions, retirement benefits, a well-developed health care system), so that one would be satisfied with a lower economic status than others. Additionally a political and mass media emphasis on the family, education and politics sectors would be conceivable in order to compensate for the overemphasis on the economic sector anchored in society and thus give people other purposes in life than purely economic ones.
Critical appraisal & relevance
From today’s perspective, Messner and Rosenfeld’s demand no longer appears to be wishful thinking and a warning appeal to the policies of most Western countries. In many places, societies are under the dictates of the economy and neoliberal social orders. By tolerating politics, companies listed on the stock exchange that are worth billions avoid paying taxes that are missing as government revenues for investments in social systems. Disruption (Latin: disrumpere – tear to pieces, break to pieces, smash) – in other words the smashing of old business models becomes the measure of all things – regardless of the preservation of jobs, the influence of trade unions and traditional business relationships.
In the USA there is a (successful) businessman at the head of the state who boasts of being able to lead the country like a business enterprise. Millions of voters are apparently prepared not only to accept this promise but also to accept substantial cuts in the social system (e.g. health insurance).
While the gap between rich and poor continues to widen globally, advertising promises inclusion of all through consumption, which is financed in installments and also fools the destitute into joining the middle class.
- Messner, S.; Rosenfeld, R. (2007). Crime and the American Dream. Belmont, CA, Thomson/Wadsworth
- Messner, S.; Rosenfeld, R. (2009). Institutional Anomie Theory: A Macro-sociological Explanation of Crime. In: Handbook on Crime and Deviance. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research, Part 2, SpringerLink, S. 209-224.
- Messner, S. (2003). Sozialstruktur und Anomie. An institutional Anomie Theory of crime: Continuities and elaborations in the study of social structure and anomie. In: Oberwittler, D./Karstedt, S. (Hrsg.): Soziologie der Kriminalität. S.93-109.
- Messner, S.; Rosenfeld, R. (1996). An Institutional Anomie Theory of the Social Distribution of Crime. In: P. Cordella, L. Siegel (Hrsg.): Readings in Comtemporary Criminological Theory. Boston, S. 143-148.
- Vito, G./Maahs, J./Holmes, R. (2007): Criminology. Theory, Research, and Policy. S. 158-160.
- Larry J. Siegel 2009: Criminology (10th edition). Thomson Wadsworth; S.177-178.
Theorie, Kritik, empirische Bewährungsprüfung und Fortentwicklung im Zusammenhang einer empirischen Studie zum Haftverlauf von Gefangenen des Jugendstrafvollzugs. –Forschungsprojekt Max-Planck-Institut (1979-1997)
Empirical review of the IAT
- Chamlin, M. B.; Cochtan, J. (2007). An evaluation of the assumptions that underlie institutional anomie theory. Theoretical Criminology 11(1), S. 39-61.
- Hirtenlehner, H./ Bacher, J. / Oberwittler, D. / Hummelsheim, D. / Jackson, J. (2010). Kultur, Institutionen und Kriminalität. Eine Prüfung der Institutionellen Anomietheorie mit Viktimisierungsdaten aus Europa. In: Monatsschrift für Kriminologie und Strafrechtsreform, 93(4), S. 274 – 299.