Welcome to the first in a new category of articles: brief introductions to major theories relevant to crime. Since my academic training is in sociological criminology, that will tend to be the pool of literature I draw on. I intend to branch out into related disciplines as I learn more about them. Like most of the other writing you’ll find here, these are intended for understanding by a broader audience and not as pieces of academic writing in their own right. As the archive grows, these theory articles will inevitably become interlinked with research reporting to show how theory and research play off of each other.
This first article will focus on Robert K. Merton’s classic “Social structure and anomie,” which spawned a branch of criminological thought that became known as strain theory.
Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) was born Meyer R. Schkolnick and grew up in the South Philadelphia slums. An avid reader, the boy spent endless hours in the local Carnegie library where the lighting was better than the gaslights that lit his home. Merton Americanized his name as a teenager before going on to become a legend in sociology. During a long academic career, Merton coined phrases such as “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “unintended consequences.”
In 1938, Merton published “Social structure and anomie,” a paper that would become a classic in criminological theory. Like many sociological works relevant to crime, it is important to keep in mind that Merton’s focus was not just crime, but deviance from social norms. Crime, almost by definition, is an example of such deviance.
In “Social structure and anomie,” Merton started by noting a tendency in the sociological theory of his time to look at the social order as nothing more than a tool to manage people’s biological impulses. When things went wrong, it was often thought to be because the social order failed to keep people in line.
“Nonconformity is assumed to be rooted in original nature,” Merton wrote. “Conformity is by implication the result of an utilitarian calculus or unreasoned conditioning.”
The problem Merton had with this tendency was that it didn’t allow for deviation from socially prescribed actions that weren’t caused in some way by biological drives. He argued that not only are there nonbiological reasons for deviation, but there are actually circumstances where the “infringement of social codes constitutes a ‘normal’ response.”
Ends and means
In developing this argument, Merton focused on two of the many elements of social structure: culture goals and institutional norms.
Institutional norms are the culturally approved means of attaining the goals celebrated by a given culture.
“Every social group,” argued Merton, “invariably couples its scale of desired ends with moral or institutional regulation of permissible and required procedures for attaining these ends.”
The catch, however, is that these means and ends are not universally and equally accepted within society. There may be an equilibrium so long as people are satisfied with achieving the goals and that the goals are achieved directly from the approved means.
In some social groups, the importance of achieving the goals will be stressed more than the means approved by the overarching culture. Merton used sports as an example to illustrate his point, arguing that when winning becomes more important than winning within the rules of the game, illegal but effective tactics will be favoured over those allowed by the rules:
The star of the opposing football team is surreptitiously slugged; the wrestler furtively incapacitates his opponent through ingenious but illicit techniques; university alumni covertly subsidize ‘students’ whose talents are largely confined to the athletic field.
When ends and means meet
Merton described five different adaptations that can result: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.
He noted that these adaptations aren’t descriptions of personality and “that persons may shift from one alternative to another as they engage in different social activities.” That is, someone who is a conformist in one situation may be a rebel in another.
When conforming, people accept both the culture goals and the institutionalized means of achieving them. Almost by definition, this is the most common of the five adaptations. Those who work in legitimate jobs in pursuit of a house, a family, a car, and the rest are in this category.
Innovators accept the goals, but reject the approved means. They may resort to careers that are outside the law (e.g. drug dealing, thievery, etc.) in order to secure the goals of their society.
In ritualism, the goals are rejected, but the approved means are followed anyway.
Retreatists reject both the approved means and ends of society. Merton argues that this is the least common adaptation of the five. Writing about 70 years ago, Merton suggests:
In this category are some of the activities of psychotics, psychoneurotics, chronic autists, pariahs, outcasts, vagrants, vagabonds, tramps, chronic drunkards and drug addicts.
Rebels also reject the means and ends, but the similarity ends there. New ends and means are substituted for the ones rejected.
Merton argued that innovation, ritualism, and rebellion are possible when successfully achieving the culture goals is difficult or impossible through the approved means.
“This theoretical analysis may go far toward explaining the varying correlations between crime and poverty,” wrote Merton, noting that crime and poverty tended to go hand-in-hand in the the United States more than in southeastern Europe.
He argued that while the U.S. appears to have more chances for upward mobility than the European countries, the European class structures are characterized by a system where the culturally approved “symbols of achievement” are different for each class. Those in the lower classes, argued Merton, were not encouraged to want the same things available to and desired by those in the upper classes. The American situation had, and still has, everyone pursuing the same set of goals, even though the roads to those goals are not as open for some as they are for others.
Merton argued that the extreme result of such a society is anomie, or “cultural chaos.” This chaos isn’t a result of the social order failing to rein in biological drives, but of it failing to manage what he called the “means-and-goals phases of the social structure.”
Room for improvement
In the final passage of “Social structure and anomie,” Merton acknowledged that his theoretical analysis is incomplete, noting that it does not address things such as the factors the lead to one response or another.
It would be a shame if this were the end of the matter. Thankfully, it is not. Merton’s paper influenced a number of other theorists and researchers throughout the 20th Century. Stay tuned for reviews of their work.