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Criminology Institutional Anomie Theory
by
Jukka Savolainen

Introduction

As a distinct explanatory framework, institutional anomie theory emerged in criminology in the mid-1990s. The first edition of Messner and Rosenfeld’s book Crime and the American Dream appeared in 1994 which is also when the first empirical application of the theory was presented at the forty-sixth annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology—this study was later published in the journal Social Forces. Institutional anomie theory (IAT, henceforth) is best understood as an elaboration of macrolevel elements in Robert K. Merton’s classic anomie theory. Following Merton, IAT retains the idea of systemic imbalance as a source of aggregate-level differences in criminal offending. The theory derives its name from its focus on “institutional balance of power” as the causally salient macro-level entity. Messner and Rosenfeld argue that an institutional arrangement where the (market) economy is allowed to dominate without sufficient restraints from other institutional spheres, such as the family and the polity, will be particularly criminogenic. They propose that the American society is an example of such a social system, in part because capitalism developed in the United States in a virgin territory as far as preexisting institutional structures. It is notable that, at the level of individual behavior, IAT is independent of strain theoretical assumptions frequently associated with Merton’s anomie theory. Indeed, by focusing on the restraining potential of families and other conventional institutions, IAT is highly compatible with control theoretical explanations of crime. This bibliography is organized into four sections. The first section covers publications focused on theoretical discussions of IAT. This is followed by the literature dedicated to empirical tests of hypotheses derived from the theory. The third section consists of research studies that cannot be characterized as direct “tests” of IAT but are nevertheless informed by the theory. The bibliography concludes with a list of review articles.

General Overviews

Messner and Rosenfeld’s monograph Crime and the American Dream (Messner and Rosenfeld 2007) is the most extended and authoritative statement of institutional anomie theory. This popular textbook is currently in its fourth edition. In addition to their book, Rosenfeld and Messner have produced articles and book chapters (Rosenfeld and Messner 1995, Rosenfeld and Messner 2006, and Rosenfeld and Messner 2010b) describing the intellectual origins and the core assumptions of the theory. Additional overviews discuss IAT from a thematic point of view. Messner and Rosenfeld 2000 and Rosenfeld and Messner 1997 discuss globalization, and Rosenfeld and Messner 2010a discusses criminal policy.

  • Messner, Steven F., and Richard Rosenfeld. 2000. Market dominance, crime, and globalization. In Social dynamics of crime and control: New theories for a world in transition. Edited by Susanne Karstedt, and Kai-D Bussman. Oxford: Hart.

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    Drawing mainly on writings by Karl Polanyi and Fred Block, this chapter offers a discussion of criminogenic tendencies inherent in advanced capitalism. Serves as an informative source to study the intellectual foundations of IAT.

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  • Messner, Steven F., and Richard Rosenfeld. 2007. Crime and the American dream, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

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    An accessible and brief textbook that develops the key arguments of IAT through a comparative cross-national examination of the American crime problem. Offers a historical account of the anomie perspective. Concludes with policy prescriptions derived from IAT. Originally published in 1994 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth). Subsequent editions have elaborated on this text’s main themes.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 1995. Crime and the American dream: An institutional analysis. In The Legacy of Anomie Theory. Edited by Freda Adler, and William S. Laufer. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    A nontechnical introduction to the theory. Offers an abbreviated version of the core argument developed in Messner and Rosenfeld’s Crime and the American Dream.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 1997. Markets, morality, and an institutional-anomie theory of crime. In The future of anomie theory. Edited by Nikos Passas and Robert Agnew. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    Contextualizes IAT as an example of sociological theorizing on “markets and morality.” Describes IAT as an integrated cultural anomie theory and structural control theory. Offers IAT as an explanatory framework to study crime in the globalizing market economy.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 2006. The origins, nature, and prospects of institutional-anomie theory. In The essential criminology reader. Edited by Stuart Henry and Mark M. Lanier. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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    IAT research program in a nutshell: a quick summary of the theory, prior research, and future challenges in less than eight pages. Observes that there is more support for the structural than cultural assumptions of IAT.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 2010a. The normal crime rate, the economy, and mass incarceration: An institutional anomie perspective on crime control policy. In Criminology and public policy: Putting theory to work. Edited by Hugh Barlow and Scott Decker. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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    A discussion of IAT from the perspective of public policy and the recent decline in the US crime rate. Argues that strong association between economic cycles and the level of crime is consistent with the theory. Describes mass incarceration as a “stopgap” approach to crime control. Focuses on the issue of prisoner reentry as the most urgent challenge for American criminal justice policy.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 2010b. The intellectual origins of institutional-anomie theory. In The origins of American criminology: Advances in criminological theory. Vol. 16. Edited by Francis T. Cullen, Cheryl Lero Jonson, Andrew J. Myer, and Freda Adler. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    This autobiographical essay reflects on the disciplinary roots of IAT. Rosenfeld and Messner frame their agenda as an effort to craft a sociologically complete theory of crime. The following thinkers are singled out as the main influences: Merton, Durkheim, Parsons, Marx, Polanyi, and Mills. Most of the paper is dedicated to tracing the core ideas of IAT to these sources with reference to each authors’ personal biography in the field.

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Theoretical Commentaries

This section includes theoretical appraisals that can be understood as independent in that they have not been authored by the originators of institutional anomie theory. Two of these articles are critical of IAT—Jensen 2002 on theoretical grounds, and Chamlin and Cochran 2007 on methodological grounds. In a more supportive vein, Bernburg 2002 explores the intellectual and sociological landscape of the theory, while Sims 1997 offers a Marxist reconstruction of IAT.

  • Bernburg, Jón-Gunnar. 2002. Anomie, social change, and crime: A theoretical examination of institutional anomie theory. British Journal of Criminology 42:729–742.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/42.4.729Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A theoretical study with a focus on exploring intellectual links to Durkheim, Merton, and Polanyi. Argues that contemporary trends in capitalism (deregulation, globalization) make IAT particularly relevant for our times.

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  • Chamlin, Mitchell B., and John K. Cochran. 2007. An evaluation of the assumptions that underlie institutional anomie theory. Theoretical Criminology 39–61.

    DOI: 10.1177/1362480607072734Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Questions the testability of IAT due to difficulties with finding acceptable measures of key concepts. Suggests that the empirical scope of the theory may be limited to advanced Western nations.

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  • Jensen, Gary. 2002. Institutional anomie and societal variations in crime: A critical appraisal. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 22:45–74.

    DOI: 10.1108/01443330210790094Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds Messner and Rosenfeld’s characterization of American culture simplistic and without empirical merit. Argues that the association between decommodification and crime can be explained more parsimoniously by established criminological theories, such as social learning and control theories.

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  • Sims, Barbara A. 1997. Crime, punishment, and the American dream: Toward a Marxist integration. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 34:5–24.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427897034001002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    While sympathetic to Messner and Rosenfeld’s agenda, Sims argues that IAT would benefit from more explicit inclusion of insights from Marxist criminology. She proposes an integrated theory that aims to offer a more complete analysis of the American crime problem, including crime control.

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Empirical Tests

The studies covered in this section represent direct tests of IAT in that they attempt to operationalize the key concepts of the theory in an effort to examine its core assumptions and assess hypotheses. There are divergent views among scholars with respect to the test-implications of IAT. Despite the cross-national scope of the theory, several studies are focused on regional variation within a single country (predominantly the United States). Although aggregate-level studies dominate the literature, IAT has also been tested with individual and multilevel data sets. Finally, there are differing interpretations as to the proper way to measure and model the interplay among cultural, structural, and institutional forces.

US Studies

This set of studies is unified by the assumption that there is significant variation in the strength of social institutions within the United States. The article by Batton and Jensen 2002 stands out as the only one that attends to historical variation in the institutional context. All the other studies examine regional differences with cross-sectional data. Chamlin and Cochran 1995 was the first to propose that IAT implies an interactive association between economic deprivation and social institutions. This study inspired a critique from Jensen 1996 and a subsequent rebuttal by the authors (Chamlin and Cochran 1996). Later research has found mixed support for the assumption that social institutions buffer the effect of economic stress on property and violent-crime rates in the United States (Piquero and Piquero 1998), including white-collar crime (Schoepfer and Piquero 2008). Findings from Maume and Lee 2003 favor the view that institutions mediate rather than moderate the influence of economic variables on crime. Adding complexity to this literature, Baumer and Gustafson 2007 integrates elements from IAT and Merton’s classic anomie theory. This study is notable for its use of survey data to create aggregate-level indicators for theoretical concepts difficult to measure with official statistics.

  • Batton, Candice, and Gary Jensen. 2002. Decommodification and homicide rates in the 20th century United States. Homicide Studies 6:6–38.

    DOI: 10.1177/1088767902006001002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Test the validity of IAT as an explanation of historical trends in the US homicide rates (1900–1997). Finds support for the prediction that the level of decommodification buffers the effect of economic stress (unemployment) on levels of homicide.

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  • Baumer, Eric P., and Regan Gustafson. 2007. Social organization and instrumental crime: Assessing the empirical validity of classic and contemporary anomie theories. Criminology 45:617–663.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2007.00090.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A meticulous study that examines the empirical implications of both Merton’s classic anomie theory and IAT. Main strengths: detailed discussion of the causal models and creative use of measures. Finds support for key claims of each theory. The analysis is limited to geographic areas in the United States.

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  • Chamlin, Mitchell B., and John K. Cochran. 1995. Assessing Messner and Rosenfeld’s institutional anomie theory: A partial test. Criminology 33:411–429.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1995.tb01184.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first test of IAT with American, not cross-national data. Finds consistent support for the hypothesis that the strength of noneconomic institutions (family, polity, and religion) moderates the impact of economic disadvantage on property crime.

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  • Chamlin, Mitchell B., and John K. Cochran. 1996. Reply to Jensen. Criminology 34:133–134.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1996.tb01199.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In response to Jensen’s 1996 critique of their 1995 study, the authors argue that it is Jensen who has misunderstood the nature of the reported interaction terms.

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  • Jensen, Gary F. 1996. Comment on Chamlin and Cochran. Criminology 34:129–131

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1996.tb01198.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Chamlin and Cochran 1995 have misinterpreted the theoretical meaning of their findings.

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  • Maume, Michael O., and Matthew R. Lee. 2003. Social institutions and violence: A sub-national test of institutional anomie theory. Criminology 41:1137–1172.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2003.tb01016.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses US county-level data to test two interpretations of IAT. According to one interpretation, noneconomic institutions are expected to moderate the influence of economic stress. The alternative hypothesis predicts that social institutions mediate the effect of economy. Finds support for mediation but not moderation. Also finds that effects are stronger on instrumental than expressive homicide.

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  • Piquero, Alex, and Nicole Leeper Piquero. 1998. On testing institutional anomie theory with varying specifications. Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention 7:61–84.

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    A state-level analysis of property and violent crime rates in the United States. Reports mixed evidence for the hypothesis that social institutions moderate the influence of economic deprivation on crime: findings are sensitive to the operationalization of key concepts.

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  • Schoepfer, Andrea, and Nicole Leeper Piquero. 2008. Exploring white-collar crime and the American dream: A partial test of institutional anomie theory. Journal of Criminal Justice 34:227–235.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2006.03.008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the capacity of IAT to explain state-level variation in embezzlement rates in the United States. Finds mixed support for the hypothesized interaction effects. Polity moderates the effect of unemployment.

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International Studies

Most of the studies under this category, such as Bjerregaard and Cochran 2008a, Bjerregaard and Cochran 2008b, Messner and Rosenfeld 1997, and Savolainen 2000 are based on aggregate-level data with (industrialized) nations as units of analysis. A multilevel design featuring individuals nested within countries is used in Cullen, et al. 2004. Muftić 2006 is a creative example of an individual-level analysis of cross-national differences. Finally, Kim and Pridemore 2005a and Kim and Pridemore 2005b use aggregate-level data from Russia.

  • Bjerregaard, Beth, and John K. Cochran. 2008a. A cross-national test of institutional anomie theory: Do the strength of other social institutions mediate of moderate the effects of the economy on the rate of crime? Western Criminology Review 9:31–48.

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    A cross-national test of IAT using alternative measures and model specifications. Finds more support with theft rather than homicide as the outcome variable. Overall, does not find robust evidence of mediating or moderating effects of noneconomic institutions.

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  • Bjerregaard, Beth, and John K. Cochran. 2008b. Want amid plenty: Developing and testing a cross-national measure of anomie. International Journal of Conflict and Violence 2:182–193.

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    Proposes and tests a new cross-national measure of institutional anomie: a multiplicative function of GDP, economic inequality, and the index of “economic freedom.” Finds support for this construct: national levels of homicide highest in countries characterized by “want amid plenty.”

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  • Cullen, John B., K. Praveen Parboteeah, and Martin Hoegl. 2004. Cross-national differences in managers’ willingness to justify ethically suspect behaviors: A test of institutional anomie theory. Academy of Management Journal 47:411–421.

    DOI: 10.2307/20159590Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Introduces IAT to the literature on managerial ethics. Uses a special module of the World Values Survey to examine the capacity of cultural orientations and institutional context to explain cross-national differences in attitudes about misconduct. Finds mixed support for eight hypotheses derived from the theory.

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  • Kim, Sang-Weon, and William Alex Pridemore. 2005a. Poverty, socioeconomic change, institutional anomie, and homicide. Social Science Quarterly 86:1377–1396.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0038-4941.2005.00351.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses IAT to examine regional variation in Russian homicide rates. Finds that the strength of noneconomic institutions (family, education, polity) is inversely related to homicide. However, social institutions fail to moderate the effects of poverty or socioeconomic change.

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  • Kim, Sang-Weon, and William Alex Pridemore. 2005b. Social change, institutional anomie, and serious property crime in transitional Russia. British Journal of Criminology 45:81–97.

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    A replication of the above with property crime as the dependent variable. Socioeconomic change and the strength of social institutions are not related to rates of property crime, either interactively or as main effects.

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  • Messner, Steven F., and Richard Rosenfeld. 1997. Political restraint of the market and levels of criminal homicide: A cross-national application of institutional-anomie theory. Social Forces 75.4:1393–1416.

    DOI: 10.2307/2580676Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first empirical test by the originators of IAT. Introduces the index of decommodification as a measure of “institutional balance of power.” Results show that this index is inversely related to national homicide rates controlling for traditional predictors, including economic development and income inequality.

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  • Muftić, Lisa R. 2006. Advancing institutional anomie theory: A microlevel examination connecting culture, deviance, and institutions. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 50:630–653.

    DOI: 10.1177/0306624X06287284Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An individual-level comparative study of cheating behaviors among native and foreign-born college students in the United States. Focused on differences in cultural orientations with respect to economic success. Strong adherence to the ideology of the “American dream” is associated with increased levels of cheating.

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  • Savolainen, Jukka. 2000. Inequality, welfare state, and homicide: Further support for the institutional anomie theory. Criminology 38:1021–1042.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2000.tb01413.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first cross-national test of the hypothesis that a strong welfare state buffers the criminogenic effects of economic disadvantage. Essentially a synthesis of Messner and Rosenfeld 2007 and Chamlin and Cochran 1995. Finds support for the hypothesis in two complementary data files.

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Research Applications

Over the years, IAT has emerged as one of the leading theoretical frameworks in macrolevel research on crime. As a result, there are a number studies that are not designed as direct tests of IAT but draw on key elements of this theory. The influence of this perspective is particularly notable in cross-national research interested in the effects of public policy (Neumayer 2003), welfare state regimes (Freirichs, et al. 2008), social support (Pratt and Godsey 2002 and Pratt and Godsey 2003), religion (Jensen 2006) and moral climates (Karstedt and Farrall 2006), and the exceptional homicide pattern in Finland (Savolainen, et al. 2008). In addition, IAT has informed US studies of the role of welfare payments (Hannon and DeFronzo 1998) and local political structures (Stucky 2003) in the level of crime.

  • Freirichs, Sabine, Richard Münch, and Monika Sander. 2008. Anomic crime in post-welfarist societies: Cult of the individual, integration patterns and delinquency. International Journal of Conflict and Violence 2:194–212.

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    A pooled time-series analysis of crime in twenty economically advanced societies during the period 1970–2004. Drawing on the anomie paradigm and welfare capitalism literature, this study examines the consequences of conservative, liberal, and social democratic welfare regimes on national levels of homicide and robbery. Finds mixed evidence for the hypothesis that a mismatch between cultural individualism and structural exclusion is criminogenic.

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  • Hannon, Lance, and James DeFronzo. 1998. The truly disadvantaged, public assistance and crime. Social Problems 45:383–392.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1998.45.3.03x0197oSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using social support and anomie perspectives as the theoretical framework, this study examines the influence of poverty and welfare assistance on urban crime rates in the United States. Finds that welfare buffers the criminogenic effect of the underclass population size.

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  • Jensen, Gary F. 2006. Religious cosmologies and homicide rates among nations. Journal of Religion and Society 8:1–14.

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    The focus of the study is on religious worldviews as an explanation of cross-national differences in homicide. Considers IAT as an alternative framework to the research findings. Argues that results contradict Messner and Rosenfeld’s assumptions about American value orientations.

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  • Karstedt, Susanne, and Stephen Farrall. 2006. The moral economy of everyday crime: Markets, consumers, and citizens. British Journal of Criminology 46:1011–1036.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azl082Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Draws on IAT and the concept of “moral economy” to examine the willingness of ordinary citizens to engage in mundane norm violations. Evidence from survey data from three European regional units yields support for the assumption that commodification of labor increases instrumental offending by creating “market anomie.”

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  • Neumayer, Eric. 2003. Good policy can lower violent crime: evidence from a cross-national panel of homicide rates, 1980–97. Journal of Peace Research 40:619–640.

    DOI: 10.1177/00223433030406001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A pooled times series analysis (a regression technique suitable for joint analysis of time series data) featuring an exceptionally large number of national units representing developing as well as economically advanced countries. Finds that in a global setting more fundamental aspects of institutional health—such as democracy, economic growth, and human rights—supersede economic inequality and welfare spending as cross-national predictors of homicide.

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  • Pratt, Travis C., and Timothy W. Godsey. 2002. Social support and homicide: A cross-national test of an emerging criminological theory. Journal of Criminal Justice 30:589–601.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0047-2352(02)00192-7Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the association between public investment in socially supportive institutions (health care and education) and homicide levels across nations. Views IAT as an example of a more general “social support” perspective. Replicates the hypothesis that socially supportive institutions moderate the impact of economic inequality on homicide.

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  • Pratt, Travis C., and Timothy W. Godsey. 2003. Social support, inequality, and homicide: A cross-national test of an integrated theoretical model. Criminology 41:611–643.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2003.tb00999.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Develops a theoretical framework that integrates IAT with the social support perspective and the general strain theory. Uses health care spending as the national measure of social support. Finds that social support and economic inequality have robust main effects on homicide and that the former moderates the influence of the latter.

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  • Savolainen, Jukka, Martti Lehti, and Janne Kivivuori. 2008. Historical origins of a cross-national puzzle: Homicide in Finland, 1750–2000. Homicide Studies 12.1: 67–89.

    DOI: 10.1177/1088767907311850Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Addresses a major anomaly for IAT: the comparatively high homicide rate in a nation with exceptionally strong collective institutions of social protection. Argues that specific elements of the Finnish welfare state segregate economically marginalized men into a lifestyle dominated by heavy drinking and idleness, creating an activity pattern conducive to elevated levels of violence.

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  • Stucky, Thomas D. 2003. Local politics and violent crime in US cities. Criminology 41:1101–1136.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2003.tb01015.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A city-level analysis informed by IAT, social disorganization theory, and urban politics research. Finds that characteristics of local government and political structures moderate the influence of economic stress and family disruption on violent crime rates.

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Reviews

The shortage of review articles dedicated to institutional anomie theory is not surprising given its brief history in the field. Each of the three contributions in this category has been authored by one or both of the originators of the theory. The most recent iteration (Messner, et al. 2008) can be viewed as a cumulative update of its predecessors (Messner 2003 and Messner and Rosenfeld 2006).

  • Messner, Steven. 2003. An institutional-anomie theory of crime: Continuities and elaborations in the study of social structure and anomie. Cologne Journal of Sociology and Social Psychology 43:93–109.

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    This first review article of the IAT provides a historical introduction to the theory, reviews evidence from a handful of empirical studies, and outlines directions for future research.

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  • Messner, Steven F., and Richard Rosenfeld. 2006. The present and future of institutional-anomie theory. In Taking stock: The status of criminological theory. Edited by Francis T. Cullen, John Paul Wright, and Kristie R. Blevins. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction.

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    A decennial appraisal of IAT by its founders. Provides an updated summary of the theory and an analytical review of empirical research informed by IAT. Authors conclude with a discussion that identifies the main challenges for future research.

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  • Messner, Steven F., Helmut Thome, and Richard Rosenfeld. 2008. Institutions, anomie, and violent crime: Clarifying and elaborating institutional anomie theory. International Journal of Conflict and Violence 2:163–181.

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    Addresses a number of conceptual and empirical puzzles that have emerged in the course of the IAT research program. It seeks to explicate the causal role of institutional and cultural dynamics with increased precision by explicating linkages across levels of analysis. The authors suggest avenues for future research.

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LAST MODIFIED: 04/14/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0132

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