Applying Anomie Theory in Criminal Case Analyses

Last Updated: 03 July 2023

It is arguable that crime is a multifaceted and complicated phenomenon that continues to puzzle scholars. Merton’s anomie theory is instrumental in the field of criminology to help in understanding criminal behavior in society. In a seminal 10 page paper titled “Social Structure and Anomie,” Merton (1938) presented his anomie theory to help in explaining deviance and high rate of crime that was prevalent in America at a time when the two were unevenly distributed within the social classes (Vito & Maahs, 2012; Stults & Baumer, 2008). Rather than solely considering the biological influence on criminal tendencies, Merton's anomie theory is founded on the premise that society has a great impact on individual criminal behaviors (Vito & Maahs, 2012). It is important to understand the meaning of anomie at this stage. According to (Akers, 2000), anomie was coined by Emile Durkheim, a founding father of sociology, to mean the difference between individual aspirations and what the individual can actually achieve. It is a form that social malintegration that materializes when there is an imbalance between the legitimate social means of achieving goals and valued cultural goals (Akers, 2000). This essay supports the relevance of Merton’s anomie theory in explaining crime since it is arguable that an imbalance between social norms and cultural goals have a hand in crime as advocated by Merton (1938) in his article.

Anomie Theory and the Understanding Contemporary Crime

Adapting Durkheim’s theory of anomie, Merton attributes criminal behavior and culture and the social structure of the society (Zhao and Cao, 2010; Merton, 1938). However, unlike Durkheim, Merton argues that a sudden social change is not to blame for criminality or deviance behaviors but the society that assigns flat rate goals to all members regardless of unequal opportunities to attain the goals (Stults & Baumer, 2008; Zhao and Cao, 2010). According to Briggs & Friedman (2009) and Merton (1938), two significant concepts come into effect when talking about the anomie theory. First off, that the society imposes higher expectations or cultural goals on its people (Briggs & Friedman, 2009). For example, society expects that people make money and become successful (Briggs & Friedman, 2009). Secondly, society approves or legitimizes certain ways or means of achieving the above goals. For example, it is a societal expectation that individuals go to school, work hard, and delay their gratification, just to mention a few (Briggs & Friedman, 2009). According to Zhao & Cao (2010), from a functionalist viewpoint of social norms, when an individual fails to meet the societal expectations, they either develop deviance or criminal behaviors. Therefore, Merton's theory forms a basis for explaining why crime develops within the society on account of its expectations and the goals it sets for an individual.

According to Goode (2008) and Vito & Maahs (2012), crime is higher in societies where there is a strong emphasis on achieving success, yet the social and economic structures only grant limited access to opportunities that are likely to make one achieve the cultural goals. In this context, the society has an undue cultural emphasis on the success goals and less emphasis on the legitimate means of attaining the goals (Vito & Maahs, 2012; Stults & Baumer, 2008; Merton, 1938). Consequently, there is intense pressure on individuals to succeed as well as the lack of legitimate means, leading to criminal behavior when people cannot match up their success with societal expectations. In the case of a gap between the cultural goals and the means of achieving success, there result in four adaptations including retreatism, ritualism, innovation, and rebellion, which are the sources of anomie (Merton, 1938; Vito & Maahs, 2012). As a means of achieving the cultural goals, the innovators are likely to pursue unacceptable means leading to criminal behavior (Vito & Maahs, 2012). For instance, in a lower class social structure in the society, where there are obstacles, individuals are likely to engage in selling drugs as a means of amassing wealth and be like the those in the higher social structures.

According to Vito & Maahs (2012) and Merton (1938), ritualism and retreatism are not relevant in explaining crime but deviance. In this case, ritualists abandon the cultural goals and stick to accepted means of attaining the goals while retreatants are social dropouts who are morally opposed to violating social norms but who feel withdrawn from the society (Merton, 1938). Another relevant adaptation is rebellion where an individual opposes both the cultural goals and the legitimate means of achieving the goals. Intuitively, rebellion best explains the reactions of terrorists and street gangs who prescribe their agenda and means of pursuing their set goals (Vito & Maahs, 2012; Akers, 2000; Merton, 1938; Stults & Baumer, 2008). Another adaptation referred to as conformity is only applicable in explaining low crime and deviance as it comes in where there is a balance between the cultural goals and the legitimate goals.  According to Merton (1938), crimes such as violence, terrorism, and drug trafficking are common options for people in the lower social, cultural, and economic capital (Akers, 2000; Stults & Baumer, 2008). In this context, the individuals in the higher levels of social, cultural, and economic capital are likely to pursue other means of achieving their goals (Akers, 2000).

As Zhao & Cao (2010) reveal in their article, democracy is just a precondition for the prevalence of anomie. For instance, in a democratic society like the U.S.A., the cultural barrier to vertical mobility is removed, that is the cultural goal is constant (Akers, 2000; Morten, 1938). However, the structural barrier of upward mobility for the poor remains the same. Therefore, the people at the lower class are likely to suffer from anomie or strain since the new culture imposes them to take a credible means and achieve economic success (Goode, 2008; Zhao and Cao, 2010). Secondly and from the above example, inequality such as poverty is a source of anomie (Zhao and Cao, 2010). Finally, it is also true that anomie is not natural but imposed to individuals or groups by their social interactions and norms (Zhao and Cao, 2010; Goode, 2008; Merton, 1938; Smith & Bohm, 2007).

Furthermore, taking it from society, the existence of gangs is a reaction from the feeling of being outcasts or failures in society. The same case applies in some instances of drug abuse and petty crimes such as hate crimes. Such people create a sub-culture or a micro-society where they are sure of creating their rewards, norms, and laws (Goode, 2008; Smith & Bohm, 2007). Authentically, such examples that are widespread in the society correlate well with the rebellion strata described by Merton (Goode, 2008; Smith & Bohm, 2007). Therefore, it is worth mentioning that anomie results from the rapid social change, which compels individuals to adapt differently as explained by the five adaptation strata.

Merton's theory of anomie on the root course of deviance and crime is useful in understanding contemporary crime to some extent but cannot be generalized to all crimes (Vito and Holmes, 2012). For example, crimes such as rape, child abuse, hate crimes, domestic violence, and homicides, just to mention a few, lack the idea of attaining success in social, economic, and cultural capital (Akers, 2000; Goode, 2008). In simple terms, the theory is more inclined towards setting a clear ground for the understanding of the property or commercial crimes rather than crimes such as those with religious motivation (Vito and Holmes, 2012; Akers, 2000; Goode, 2008). Rather, the theory assumes that even when there is diversity in motive, all deviants seek similar rewards yet this is not the case for psychopaths, murderers, and sociopaths (Goode, 2008; Akers, 2000). On the other hand, as is the premise of the theory, it is very helpful in explaining corporate crimes and fraud scandals that are deeply cutting into the stems of the modern materialistic society.

Nonetheless, the problem with this again is that the theory fails to address the motivation of criminals to have power or respect, which bring personal satisfaction (Akers, 2000). Finally, Merton’s anomie theory is not grounded on a strong comparative or historical situation but on American Society. However, there are some differences in processes, social constructs, and beliefs in the broader context of the political economy in other countries.


In sum, Merton's Anomie theory is relevant in explaining crime. The theory that sufficed after the article published by Robert K. Merton in 1938 seeks to explain what happens when the society places cultural goals and sets the legitimate means of achieving the goals. In this case, when an individual is not able to meet the goals or is unable to access opportunities that expose them to the accepted means, they are likely to have the pressure which makes them adapt in different ways. The individual might decide to be rebellious, ritualist, conformist, retreatant, and innovator provided they fit within the society. Such adaptations as rebellion and innovation explain the prevalence of crimes such as burglary, pick-pocketing, drug and human trafficking, and prostitution, among others, in the lower social structures of the society. Even when the theory is useful in explaining crime, it is criticized for not being generalizable to all crimes as the motives of the criminals in such crimes as rape and domestic violence is not same as motivation for street gangs and terrorists. Furthermore, the theory is founded on the American Dream, which is not the case in other countries.


Akers, R. (2000). Criminological theories (1st Ed.). Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Briggs, S. & Friedman, J. (2009). Criminology for dummies (1st Ed.). Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.

Goode, E. (2008). Out of control (1st Ed.). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Social Sciences.

Merton, R. (1938). Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review, 3(5), 672-682.

Smith, H. & Bohm, R. (2007). Beyond Anomie: Alienation and Crime. Critical Criminology, 16(1), 1-15.

Stults, B. & Baumer, E. (2008). Assessing the Relevance of Anomie Theory for Explaining Spatial Variation in Lethal Criminal Violence: An Aggregate-Level Analysis of Homicide within the United States. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 2(2), 215 – 247.

Vito, G. & Maahs, J. (2012). Criminology: theory, research, and policy (3rd Ed.). Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett.

Zhao, R. & Cao, L. (2010). Social Change and Anomie: A Cross-National Study. Social Forces, 88(3), 1209-1229.

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