In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anomie

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • General Overviews
  • Empirical Research on Merton’s Anomie Theory
  • Empirical Research on Institutional-Anomie Theory

Criminology Anomie
Eric P. Baumer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 February 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0006


The term anomie has been widely used for the past several centuries to describe societal conditions. Although it has been defined and applied in different ways throughout history, it has been prominent in historical discussions of the consequences of rapid social change and the intersection of culture and social structure. Anomie theory was popularized by the classic works of Émile Durkheim and Robert Merton. It is also central to Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld’s contemporary explanation for the substantial variation observed in rates of serious crime across nations generally, and to their explanation for why America exhibits one of the highest rates of serious crime in particular. Merton’s anomie theory and Messner and Rosenfeld’s institutional-anomie theory (IAT) are prominent criminological theories and have stimulated a relatively large body of empirical research over the past few decades focused on identifying the social and cultural conditions that are most conducive to producing particularly high or low levels of crime.

Foundational Works

The concept of anomie has been used and defined in a variety of different ways over the past several centuries. In the social science literature, the concept is most closely associated with the theoretical writings of Jean Marie Guyau, Émile Durkheim, and Robert Merton. Orrù 1987 provides an excellent overview of the development and varied uses of anomie throughout history, including how the concept was defined and used by these prominent theorists. Orrù traces the origins of anomie to ancient Greece, but he credits Guyau with introducing the term to the sociological literature during the 19th century, influencing, among others, Émile Durkheim. While Durkheim did not focus on crime per se, his theoretical writings on anomie from the late 1800s have been particularly influential in shaping several criminological theories, including social control theory, social disorganization theory, and classic and contemporary anomie theories. Highlighting the consequences of rapid social change, Durkheim emphasizes the importance of societal norms in regulating individual goals and pursuits, and he conceives of anomie primarily as a state of weak social regulation of such goals. Durkheim’s writings on this topic focus on outlining some of the social transformations that may stimulate anomic societal conditions, and on some of the consequences of high levels of societal anomie, perhaps most notably elevated suicide rates (Durkheim 1997a, Durkheim1997b). There are some apparent inconsistencies in how anomie is defined and applied in Merton’s theoretical writings (see Sztompka 1998), but he most consistently refers to anomie as a social context in which there is a lack of consensus regarding the normative means of pursuing culturally valued goals. As elaborated in this discussion of theoretical perspectives of anomie (Merton 1938), Merton views anomie as a central source of the high levels of deviance observed in the United States. Merton’s theoretical writings have been interpreted in divergent ways, with some scholars emphasizing the consequences of anomic social organization and others focusing on blocked opportunities and other “strains.” The latter idea does not focus on anomie, per se, but has been instrumental in the development of “strain theories,” which have been influential in criminology and are developed extensively in the works of Albert Cohen, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, and Robert Agnew (see Merton’s Anomie Theory). For a review, see Bernard, et al. 2009. Anomie is central to Merton’s insights on the role of social organization in generating differential rates of deviance across social collectivities. Messner and Rosenfeld, in the first edition of Crime and the American Dream (Messner and Rosenfeld 1994), build on and extend Merton’s anomie theory by articulating more clearly the major sources of the anomic cultural imbalance observed in America, and by elaborating on how this cultural imbalance combines with institutional imbalances to translate into higher levels of acquisitive crime (crime directed toward the acquisition of money or material goods) and serious violence.

  • Bernard, Thomas J., Jeffrey B. Snipes, and Alexander L. Gerould. 2009. Vold’s theoretical criminology. 6th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive assessment of criminological theory that outlines the influence of Merton’s theory and the development of strain theory. A great resource for undergraduate and graduate students who wish to develop a foundation in criminological theory.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1997a. The division of labor in society. Translated by Lewis A. Coserorge. New York: Free Press.

    Seminal original contribution in which Durkheim outlines key arguments relevant to the social conditions that give rise to anomie. See especially the introduction and the first chapter of Book Three, “The Anomic Division of Labor.” Appropriate for those seeking an in-depth exposure to Durkheim’s use of anomie. Originally published in 1893.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1997b. Suicide: A study in sociology. Edited by George Simpson. Translated by John A. Spaulding. New York: Free Press.

    Seminal original contribution in which Durkheim outlines key arguments relevant to the causes and consequences of anomie, with a focus on explaining group-level variation in suicide rates. Appropriate for those seeking an in-depth examination of Durkheim’s writings on suicide and on the development of anomie in his work. Originally published in 1897.

  • Merton, Robert K. 1938. Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review 3:672–682.

    DOI: 10.2307/2084686

    One of the most influential papers in the history of criminology. Merton outlines his anomie theory and discusses how it can explain variation in levels of deviance between and within societies. Essential reading for serious students of anomie theory. Suitable for graduate students and advanced undergraduates.

  • Messner, Steven F., and Richard Rosenfeld. 1994. Crime and the American dream. 1st ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    A concise book that outlines an argument for why America has higher levels of serious violence than many other nations. Provides a rich discussion and critique of Merton’s theory and offers a clear statement of what has become widely known as institutional-anomie theory (IAT). A highly accessible and relatively short book suitable for those interested in geographic variation in crime.

  • Orrù, Marco. 1987. Anomie: History and meanings. Boston: Allen and Unwin.

    A thorough analysis of the origins and various uses of the concept of anomie throughout history. Excellent source of information on how Durkheim and Merton define and use anomie in their respective works.

  • Sztompka, Piotr. 1998. Robert K. Merton’s four concepts of anomie. In Robert K. Merton and contemporary sociology. Edited by Carlo Mongardini and Simonetta Tabboni, 163–171. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

    An overview of the different definitions of anomie that have been inferred from Merton’s scholarship. A good source for those seeking to obtain a detailed understanding of the complexity of Merton’s arguments about anomie and crime.

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