Mrs. Lois Whitley
Merton’s Theory of Anomie
Anomie means the absence of societal norms and ethics in a social group. Robert King Merton developed the Merton theory of Anomie. Robert King Merton was born on July 5th, 1910 and died in February 2003. He is a renowned sociologist better known for the coinage of terms like “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “role models.” Robert spent much of his life as a tutor at Columbia University in upper Manhattan, where he rose to the professor status. Because of his many contributions to the sociology of science, he was award a National medal of science to commemorate his research work. Merton is considered to be the father of modern sociology and other works relating to criminology. The theory is based on analysis of the American culture and anomie. He hypothesized that every American citizen wanted to achieve the American dream. However, that was not true, as people have different ways of attaining success and people lacked the same resources and advantages.
The theory argues that crime in the modern society is a multifaceted concept that has affected the education systems for some time now. This disagreement is backed by previous work done by Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist. He is known for being the first to formulate the concept of anomie in his theory of social strain and deviance. Durkheim used anomie to explain the breakdown of social plus cultural norms, such as traditions and principles, due to a rapid social change (Siegel). Merton twisted the Durkheim concept slightly to depict a situation of lack of culture’s norms on the contributing factors to success and the culture’s rules in the right manner to attain the set goals. Robert, therefore believes that this led to nonconformity towards the American dream. Merton’s idea was that the impoverished children from lower class neighborhoods lacked the resources essential to obtain a proper education. Therefore, these children would eventually find themselves immersed in delinquent activities to achieve the goals and dreams that they otherwise were not presented (Siegel). As individuals turn to crime in an attempt to find success some ended up dealing drugs and therefore drifting away from the American Dream. Because the American dream is unachievable to them, they develop deviant behavior. The theory is used in modern day criminology as the strain theory. Anomie is when there is an ailment in which there is a comprehensive absence of social and ethical normal values in a society or a community. In other words, Anomie is a condition where normlessness or where a lack of moral direction occurs due to an individual having the disadvantage to meet personal goals.
Drug use increases during times of normlessness and this is most closely associated with “functionalism.” The norms and institutions of a society can be regarded as its organs, and these norms and institutions help in the proper function of the culture. In the absence of rules, roles and fundamental laws, the society will not be able to function correctly. Thus, a condition of normlessness will arise, and this will encourage increased use of drugs.
The basis of the theory of deviance is that crime breeds where a gap or disjunction exists in society mainly due to economic problems. The anomie theory hypothesizes that individuals are likely to achieve consistent success in the society; the approach also tries to uncover why social crimes are concentrated in low-class setting (Merton 1938). The answer to the hypothesis is that the lower-class people are the most vulnerable to economic pressure and therefore have the urge to do anything they consider necessary to achieve their financial aspirations. This same concept can be used when looking into why juveniles participate in gang activity. Juveniles who feel alienated from society due to their social or economic level tend to find groups to conform to. These groups will have these adolescents become involved, if not already, in criminal activities to show their loyalty. These gangs leave the juvenile feeling a sense of accomplishment.
Application of the theory
To develop his social framework and anomie, Merton revised Durkheim’s argument of anomie and twisted it to clarify different acts of deviance in the States. Just like Durkheim, Merton wanted to come up with a sociological perspective of deviance in society. He argued that the social structure exerts pressure on people, pushing them to engage in social crimes (McShane ; Marilyn, 2013).
According to Merton, Anomie is the cornerstone of the continued rise of deviance in the society especially in the Western culture as compared to other cultures, more especially the deviant behavior is spread across race and social class. Merton emphasizes in the U.S mainly because much emphasis has been laid on monetary success, but the resources for achieving that are lacking. This has created a social strain and individuals are driven to engage in crime and therefore end up getting convicted while chasing their dreams. The society is championing the appropriate means of achieving success. Albeit, education, ambition and challenging work both at school and at work are the proper means of attaining success (Miller, William ; Rick, 2001). On the other hand, the culture is indecisive in what they will consider norms when it comes to the appropriate means of being successful.
Notably, the majority of the people in America come as minority groups. Thus their access to conventional means of success is restricted (Stults, Brian ; Eric, 2008). By the time Merton was writing the theory the U. S was utterly a racist society, African Americans were denied access to education, and if the lucky managed to acquire the knowledge, it wasn’t enough to guarantee them a job opportunity as compared to whites (Stults, Brian & Eric, 2008). Other societies have different ways of allocating resources and power, and therefore the standards of success are different. For instance, a person born in a typical Indian caste system will have the same kind of success as those in the upper-class. However, in the US individuals of different classes do not get similar success opportunities, consequently exposed to higher rates of deviance and crime than other cultures (Stults, Brian & Eric, 2008). The theory emphasizes first on achieving success more than the means of attaining those goals and second, the emphasis on success as much as race, ethnicity and social class hinder the progress of the less privileged groups.
The influence of the neighborhood characteristics on a person’s delinquency is inquired by using multilevel and multisource design; various data sources are used to evaluate individual misconduct, and the impact of neighborhood characteristics is measured the multilevel models (Froggio, 2007). As with other multilevel studies that have been acquitted out so far, the consequence of the neighborhood characteristics on individual delinquency turns out to be kind of limited (Miller, William ; Rick, 2001). Although more than marginal neighborhood consequences were found for the age at which juveniles first come into contact with police and for recidivism. Nevertheless, these consequences cannot be assigned to ‘classical’ neighborhood characteristics such as financial neediness and lack of social control (Froggio, 2007).
Causes of strain in society
Failure to attain anticipated goals- inability to achieve the set goals is categorized into three key subsections. They are the traditional concept, the gap between expectations and real achievements and the difference between an individual’s viewpoint and the actual results they get (Froggio, 2007). To attain the first subcategory, a person must set short-term, intermediate and long-term goals; it is also essential for an individual to understand that some of the goals they have set may never be achieved due to unavoidable circumstances which include lack of opportunities (Froggio, 2007). The second section adds disappointments to the individuals while the final part urges people to stop desiring and put the effort in achieving them.
Removing Positive Stimuli- Removing positively anticipated stimuli leads to strain among the youth (Froggio, 2007). For instance, losing a close family member or friend may lead to stress that hinders the chances of success.
Presence of Negative Stimuli – Negative stimuli causes defiance in teenagers more than other groups. Individuals who respond to stimuli negatively or with are more likely to exhibit deviant behavior (Froggio, 2007). Such stimuli include child abuse and in some cases peer influence.
The significance of the theory
The theory guides individuals to acknowledge the cultural and social structures as these norms are essential in creating a balance between social means and cultural goals (Stults, Brian & Eric, 2008). Anomie rises from a state of chaos and when societal values and norms are not accepted. The theory was written to American citizens who were in search for the American dream, however, in the effort to achieve that, many people lack the resources and capabilities to compete equally (Stults, Brian & Eric, 2008). Due to this imbalance, many struggles to get desirable possessions, like money, a strain is created. Individuals must adjust to find alternative means. Such adjustment includes:
Conformity- This one agrees to both Structurally permitted methods and culturally allowed goals.
Innovation- This one agrees with the culturally permitted goals but finds a new path to achieve it.
Ritualism- This one agrees with the structurally permitted means but also somewhere believes that he will not be able to achieve his goals.
Retreatism- This one does not need to achieve any goal or is ready for any path. This one completely has withdrawn from society.
Rebellion- This set of people don’t believe in achieving any goal set by society or wish to take the beaten path to achieve it. They refashion the whole of the social frame.
According to Robert K. Merton’s strain theory, the ‘American Dream’ encouraged individuals to attain success. The aim to achieve seems probable as the American society presents an equal opportunity for everyone regardless of class, gender or ethnicity (Stults, Brian & Eric, 2008). In the American Dream the more material and wealth one possesses more successful they are considered. Merton argues that the goals are unachievable because the success factors are not equally distributed (Stults, Brian & Eric, 2008). This leads to strain that pushes people to indulge in social crimes. For instance, individuals get involved in selling drugs to get money.
Strain can be depicted through:
Social-Structural strain occurs at the cultural level. If the social structures present barriers that are inherently part of the structure or there are not enough laws, the people’s perspective changes.
Individual Strain: Occurs when an individual is straining to achieve success, an individual’s goes through a series of stressful and painful situations to gain success. In such cases, an individual will do anything to gain success.
Cons of the theory
Criticism of the Anomie theory is that it appears to suggest that all people in the lower economic class will lean towards pursuing a deviant lifestyle. This statement is not always found to be true. Several people within the lower socio-economic status have achieved what is coined the ‘American dream.’ The primary disadvantage of this theory is that it was tested on a sample size selected from only the US, raising a concern on the viability of the approach to explain Juvenile deviance outside of America (Froggio, 2007). Up to now, few applications of the argument have been made on non-western cultures.
Merton himself stated the weakness of the theory is saying that the fundamental sources of deviant behavior remain but a prelude (Froggio, 2007). The theory fails to include a detailed description of the social structure aspects that incline to one direction rather than different responses that individuals should explore in the imbalanced social structure (Merton, 1938). The theory also failed to address the psychological process that determines the answer to specific occurrences.
Anomie makes the society unstable through mal-integration between societal and social structure and within the cultural goals and institutional means. The former transpires when culturally set goals are applied to everybody, but the methods for achieving the goals are not accessible in the society (Froggio, 2007). The latter states that the goals are embraced highly in the community but the mean are not embraced. In such incidences, individuals cannot compete successfully due to inaccessibility of the means. For some people like, African Americans, a racist society can reduce their chances by restricting the opportunities for them to educate themselves and thereby earn a respectable living. People are denied opportunities to achieve success based on race, ethnicity or class.
The Anomie theory is mainly concerned with understanding the strains in the society rather than the cause of the strain, consequently collecting information of social injustice in the community. However, it is true that society’s emphasis on material success causes crime, Merton claimed that crime increases when a gap between society’s success goals and available opportunities exist. The theory points out this discrepancy between cultural ideals and realities. The strain is caused by a cultural gap where people know the value of success, but the resources needed to gain the success are not provided for to everyone. The theory also has a role to play in juvenile delinquency, as the theory states, lack of resources pushes individuals to commit a crime in the desire to gain success. If a juvenile is growing up in a lower economic community this child will be less likely to become successful later in life.
Froggio, Giacinto. “Strain and juvenile delinquency: A critical review of Agnew’s General Strain Theory.” Journal of loss and trauma 12.4 (2007): 383-418.
McShane, Marilyn, ed. An Introduction to Criminological Theory. Routledge, 2013.
Merton, Robert K. “Social structure, and anomie.” American sociological review 3.5 (1938): 672-682.
Miller, William J., and Rick A. Matthews. “Youth employment, differential association, and juvenile delinquency.” Sociological Focus 34.3 (2001): 251-268.
Siegel, Larry J, and Brandon Welsh. Juvenile Delinquency: Theory, Practice, and Law., (2018): 148-149.
Stults, Brian J., and Eric P. Baumer. “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 (IJCV) 2.2 (2008): 215-247.