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CriminologicalSocial Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories
Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application
Chapter 8
Social Disorganization,
Anomie, and Strain Theories
Introduction
S ocial disorganization and anomie (also referred to as strain) theo-
ries have evolved from different theoretical and research tradi-
tions. They are included in the same chapter, however, because they
have a common theme. Both propose that social order, stability, and in-
tegration are conducive to conformity, while disorder and
malintegration are conducive to crime and deviance. A social system (a
society, community, or subsystem within a society) is described as so-
cially organized and integrated if there is an internal consensus on its
norms and values, a strong cohesion exists among its members, and so-
cial interaction proceeds in an orderly way. Conversely, the system is de-
scribed as disorganized or anomic if there is a disruption in its social
cohesion or integration, a breakdown in social control, or
malalignment among its elements.
Both theories propose that the less there exists solidarity, cohesion,
or integration within a group, community, or society, the higher will be
the rate of crime and deviance. Each attempts to explain high rates of
crime and delinquency in disadvantaged lower-class and ethnic groups.
At one time or another, both theories have focused specifically on delin-
quent or criminal gangs and subcultures.
Social Disorganization and the Urban
Ecology of Crime and Delinquency
Social disorganization theory was first developed in the studies of
urban crime and delinquency by sociologists at the University of Chi-
cago and the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago in the 1920s
and 1930s (Shaw and McKay, 1942; 1969). Since then, the theory has
most often been applied to urban crime and deviance, though the con-
cept of social disorganization has also been applied to the conditions of
159
160 Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application
a family, a whole society, or some segment of society (Rose, 1954). The
Chicago studies plotted out the residential location of those youths who
had been referred to juvenile court from different areas of the city.
These studies showed that the distribution of delinquents around the
city fits a systematic pattern. The rates of delinquency in the lower-
class neighborhoods were highest near the inner city and decreased
outwardly toward the more affluent areas. The inner city neighbor-
hoods maintained high rates of delinquency over decades, even though
the racial and ethnic makeup of the population in those areas under-
went substantial change. The same pattern of declining rates of delin-
quency as the distance from the inner city neighborhood increased was
found within each racial or ethnic group (Shaw and McKay, 1942;
1969).
These findings were explained by reference to a theory of urban ecol-
ogy that viewed the city as analogous to the natural ecological commu-
nities of plants and animals (Park et al., 1928). The residential, com-
mercial, and industrial pattern of urban settlement was described as
developing an ecological pattern of concentric zones that spread from
the center toward the outermost edge of the city. Directly adjacent to
the commercial and business core of the city was a “zone in transition,”
which was changing from residential to commercial. It was in this area
that the highest rates of delinquency were found.
This transition zone was characterized by physical decay, poor hous-
ing, incomplete and broken families, high rates of illegitimate births,
and an unstable, heterogeneous population. The residents were at the
bottom end of the socioeconomic scale, with low income, education,
and occupations. In addition to high rates of delinquency, this area had
high official rates of adult crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitu-
tion, and mental illness. All these forms of deviance and lawlessness
were interpreted as the outcome of social disorganization within this
urban area. The Chicago sociologists emphasized that residents in this
area were not biologically or psychologically abnormal. Rather, their
crime and deviance were simply the normal responses of normal peo-
ple to abnormal social conditions. Under these conditions, criminal
and delinquent traditions developed and were culturally transmitted
from one generation to the next. Industrialization, urbanization, and
other social changes in modern society were seen by the Chicago soci-
ologists as causing social disorganization by undermining social con-
trol exercised through traditional social order and values.
Restatements and Research on Social Disorganization
Since the pioneering studies of Shaw and McKay, a great deal of re-
search has been done on the ecology of urban crime and delinquency.
Studies and research data on urban crime remain an important part of
Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 161
criminological research. While some studies have been patterned
closely after the social disorganization approach of the early Chicago
studies, others only indirectly relate to it.1 It is difficult to judge the ex-
tent to which the original Chicago research and subsequent research
has verified social disorganization as an explanation of crime. A trend
in the migration of both white and black middle-class residents, as well
as industry and business, out of the large cities into suburban commu-
nities has resulted in even more deprivation, decay, and other condi-
tions of social disorganization within the urban centers. This trend has
left a population of the “truly disadvantaged” (Wilson, 1987) or an “un-
der class” with high rates of unemployment, welfare support, illegiti-
mate births, single-parent families, drug use and abuse, and violence.
Research continues to find that arrests, convictions, incarcerations,
and other measures of official rates of crime and delinquency are
alarmingly high among the residents in these neighborhoods.
To what degree the relationship between inner-city residence and
crime is the result of social disorganization remains uncertain. Often
the research does not carefully measure social disorganization. The
very fact that crime and deviance are high within an area is itself some-
times used, tautologically, as an empirical indicator that the area is so-
cially disorganized (see Bursik’s 1988 review of this issue). Further-
more, even in those areas characterized as the most disorganized, only
a minority of youths and even smaller minority of adults are involved in
crime. There is also the question of how much concentration of official
crime rates in these areas results from higher rates of criminal behavior
among its residents or from race and class disparities in police prac-
tices (Warner and Pierce, 1993).
Moreover, exactly what physical, economic, population, or family
conditions constitute social disorganization? Is it true that physical,
economic, and population characteristics are objective indicators of
disorganization, or does the term simply reflect a value judgment about
lower-class lifestyle and living conditions? By the 1940s, the term “dif-
ferential social organization” (Sutherland, 1947) had been introduced
to emphasize that these urban neighborhoods may not be so much dis-
organized as simply organized around different values and concerns.
Edwin Sutherland’s (1947) education and part of his academic career
were at the University of Chicago, and he acknowledged the influence
of the Chicago sociologists (Sutherland, 1973). His theory of “differen-
tial association” complements differential social organization by ex-
plaining crime as behavior learned through an exposure to different
conforming and criminal patterns (see Chapter 5 on social learning
theory).
Social disorganization has received renewed theoretical attention
through the work of Robert Bursik, Robert Sampson, and others who
have reanalyzed the theory, related it to current theories, and addressed
162 Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application
some of the criticisms of this theory (Sampson, 1995). Bursik (1988;
Bursik and Grasmick, 1993) points out that Shaw and McKay were not
trying to propose that urban ecology, economic conditions of urban
neighborhoods, and rapid social changes are the direct causes of crime
and delinquency. Rather, he argues, they were proposing that social dis-
organization undermines or hinders informal social controls within
the community and neighborhood, thus allowing high rates of crime to
occur. Therefore, the absence or breakdown of social control is a key
component behind the concept of social disorganization that, Bursik
contends, ties it to modern social control theory (see Chapter 6). Bursik
also links the assumptions of the ecological distribution of crime op-
portunities in routine activities theory to the social disorganization ap-
proach. Sampson and Groves (1989) have pointed to the same problem
identified by Bursik: social disorganization theory does not propose
that such factors as social class and the racial composition of a commu-
nity are direct causes of crime and delinquency. Yet, these are the vari-
ables that have been used to measure social disorganization. Research
has not directly measured the components of social disorganization it-
self. Therefore, Sampson and Groves (1989:775) concluded that, “while
past researchers have examined Shaw and McKay’s prediction con-
cerning community change and extra-local influence on delinquency,
no one has directly tested their theory of social disorganization.”
Sampson and Groves (1989) proffered an empirical model of social
disorganization that remedied this problem. Their model contains the
usual measures of “external” factors affecting social disorganization,
such as social class, residential mobility, and family disruption, but
then goes beyond these variables to include the measures of three key
components of the concept of social disorganization: community su-
pervision of teenage gangs, informal friendship networks, and partici-
pation in formal organizations. Their data from British communities
supported this model. They found that most of the external factors
were related to social disorganization, as predicted. The links in the
model were completed by showing that the measures of social disorga-
nization were good predictors of rates of crime victimization. Though
not very adequately, the model also explained the rates of criminal of-
fenses.
More recent research has not followed the Sampson and Groves
model of measuring social disorganization directly. Social disorganiza-
tion continues to be measured indirectly by social conditions in differ-
ent areas of the city. Warner and Pierce (1993), for instance, report
strong relationships between rates of telephone calls to police (by vic-
tims of assaults, robbery, and burglary) and neighborhood poverty, ra-
cial heterogeneity, residential instability, family disruption, and high
density of housing units as measures of social disorganization.
Gottfredson and associates (1991) tested social disorganization theory
Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 163
by correlating census-block level data on disrupted families, poverty,
unemployment, income, and education with individual-level self-re-
ports of interpersonal aggression, theft and vandalism, and drug use.
The independent variables accounted for individuals’ delinquency, but
the relationships were not strong and varied by type of delinquency and
gender. Moreover, the adolescents’ social bonds and peer associations
mediated the effects of social disorganization on delinquency.
Silver (2000) acknowledges the points made by Sampson and Groves
and by Bursik about the need to measure social disorganization di-
rectly if the theory is to be properly tested. Nevertheless, since direct
measures cannot be found in census data, he continues to use indirect
indicators of neighborhood disorganization such as disadvantage (e.g.,
poverty and unemployment) and mobility (e.g., average length of resi-
dence). In a study in Chicago, he found that these neighborhood level
measures do have an effect on violence among former patients released
from a psychiatric institute, but not as much as individual level vari-
ables such as impulsivity and prior history of violence. Similarly,
Wikstrom and Loeber (2000) found that delinquent involvement begun
in the latter teenage years, but not early onset delinquency, is related to
neighborhood disadvantage and instability. Those adolescents at high
risk (because of poor parental supervision, differential peer associa-
tion, delinquent attitudes, and impulsivity) were more likely to be de-
linquent regardless of neighborhood context. Jang and Johnson (2001)
do try to measure social disorganization directly with perceptions of
neighborhood disorder and test its relationship to adolescent sub-
stance use. Their research did find a significant relationship but also
found that the individual’s religiosity acts as a protective factor for
youth in neighborhoods perceived as disordered. However, substance
use was more strongly affected by social bonding variables and most
strongly by social learning variables. Having substance-using peers and
adhering to pro-use attitudes mediated much of the neighborhood ef-
fects and virtually all of the buffering effects of religiosity.
These findings echo those of the earlier research by Gottfredson et
al. (1991) and lend support to the theoretical proposition of Bursik
(1988; Bursik and Grasmick, 1993), Sampson (Sampson and Groves,
1989), and others that social disorganization has an effect on crime and
deviance because it affects informal social control in the community.
Also, given the measures in these studies, one is led to the conclusion
that the informal social control affected by social disorganization is
that which comes through variables and processes referred to in theo-
ries of social learning (peer associations and attitudes), social bonding
(family supervision and religiosity), and self-control (impulsivity).
164 Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application
Classic Anomie/Strain Theories
Merton’s Theory of Social Structure and Anomie
Anomie/strain theories2 provide an explanation of the concentration
of crime not only in the lower-class urban areas but also in lower-class
and minority groups in general, as well as the overall high crime rate in
American society. This theory leans heavily on the work of Emile
Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology. Durkheim (1951 [1897])
used the term anomie to refer to a state of normlessness or lack of social
regulation in modern society as one condition that promotes higher
rates of suicide. Robert Merton (1938; 1957) applied this Durkheimian
approach to the condition of modern industrial societies, especially in
the United States. To Merton, an integrated society maintains a balance
between social structure (approved social means) and culture (ap-
proved goals). Anomie is the form that societal malintegration takes
when there is a dissociation between valued cultural ends and legiti-
mate societal means to those ends.
Merton argued that American society evinces this means-ends dis-
juncture in two basic ways. First, the strong cultural emphasis on suc-
cess goals in America is not matched by an equally strong emphasis on
socially approved means. Everyone is socialized to aspire toward high
achievement and success. Competitiveness and success are glorified by
public authorities, taught in the schools, glamorized in the media, and
encouraged by the values that are passed along from generation to gen-
eration. Worth is judged by material and monetary success. The Ameri-
can dream means that anyone can make it big.
Of course, this success is supposed to be achieved by an honest effort
in legitimate educational, occupational, and economic endeavors. So-
cietal norms regulate the approved ways of attaining this success, dis-
tinguishing them from illegitimate avenues to the same goal. However,
Merton perceived American values to be more concerned with acquir-
ing success, getting ahead, and getting the money at any cost, than with
the right and proper way to do so. While other industrial societies may
have the same problem, American society is especially prone to stress
achievement of the ends over utilization of approved means. When suc-
cess goals are over-emphasized, the norms governing their achieve-
ment become weakened, producing what Durkheim conceived of as an-
omie.
Americans, then, are more likely than members of more integrated
societies to do whatever it takes to achieve success, even if it means
breaking the law, in part because legitimate efforts to succeed are not as
highly valued in American culture. Hence, we have higher crime rates
than other societies.
Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 165
Second, there is a discrepancy between means and ends perpetuated
by the class system in America and, to a lesser degree, other industrial-
ized societies. The success ethic permeates all levels of the class struc-
ture and is embodied in the educational system to which persons of all
social classes are exposed. The American dream promotes the ideal
that equal opportunity for success is available to all. In reality, however,
disadvantaged minority groups and the lower class do not have equal
access to such legitimate opportunities. They are socialized to hold
high aspirations, yet they are relatively blocked off from the conven-
tional educational and occupational opportunities needed to realize
those ambitions. This anomic condition produces strain or pressure on
these groups to take advantage of whatever effective means to income
and success they can find, even if these means are illegitimate or illegal.
Although Merton (1938) presented his discussion of the forces that
create anomie in American society at the macro-structural level, he also
proposed that individual behavior is affected by the culture structure.
He identified five “logically possible, alternative modes of adjustment
or adaptation by individuals” to the societal condition of anomie (Mer-
ton 1938:676; emphasis in original).
The first, “conformity,” is the most common response: one simply ac-
cepts the state of affairs and continues to strive for success within the
restricted conventional means available. The second type of adapta-
tion, “innovation,” is the most common deviant response: one main-
tains commitment to success goals but takes advantage of illegitimate
means to attain them. Most crime and delinquency, especially income-
producing offenses, would fit into this adaptive mode. Another deviant
mode, “rebellion,” rejects the system altogether, both means and ends,
and replaces it with a new one, such as a violent overthrow of the sys-
tem. Yet another, “retreatism,” refers to an escapist response: one be-
comes a societal dropout, giving up on both the goals and the effort to
achieve them. Merton placed alcoholics, drug addicts, vagrants, and
the severely mentally ill in this mode. Finally, there is “ritualism,” in
which one gives up the struggle to get ahead and concentrates on re-
taining what little has been gained by adhering rigidly and zealously to
the norms.
Innovation is the most frequently adapted non-conformist mode
among members of the lower class. The high rate of crime in the lower
class, therefore, is explained by its location in a society that subjects it
to high levels of anomie-induced strain. This strain is produced by the
disjuncture between society’s dream of equality and success for all and
the actual inequality in the distribution of opportunities to realize that
dream. This inequity is most severe for members of the lower class, the
disadvantaged, and minority groups. Relatively deprived of legitimate
means, while still imbued with the American dream, they respond by
resorting to illegitimate means.
166 Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application
Merton’s theory was almost immediately embraced as a quintessen-
tial sociological theory of crime. Early social disorganization theorists
such as Shaw and McKay (1942) quickly adopted the basic anomie con-
cept of the disparity between success goals and access to legitimate
means.
[C]hildren and young people in all areas, both rich and poor, are ex-
posed to the luxury values and success patterns of our culture. . . .
Among children and young people residing in low-income areas, inter-
ests in acquiring material goods and enhancing personal status are de-
veloped which are often difficult to realize by legitimate means because
of limited access to the necessary facilities and opportunities. (Shaw
and McKay, 1942, reprinted in Williams and McShane, 1998:66)
By the 1950s, Merton’s theory was widely accepted and applied in mod-
ified form specifically to subcultural delinquency.
Cohen: Status Deprivation and the Delinquent Subculture
Albert K. Cohen (1955) followed Merton by emphasizing the struc-
tural sources of strain that lead to deviant adaptations by the lower
class. But Cohen applied it specifically to the delinquent subculture
found among lower-class adolescent males. He recognized that the de-
linquent subculture has an effect on and plays a role in influencing in-
dividual lower-class boys to become involved in delinquent behavior.
But he denied any interest in the explanation of variations in individual
behavior or why the delinquent subculture was maintained over a pe-
riod of time. Instead, he wanted to explain why it existed in the first
place.
Cohen’s version of anomie/strain theory is in basic agreement with
Merton’s theory, because both perceive blocked goals as producing de-
viance-inducing strain. However, rather than the inability to gain mate-
rial success, in Cohen’s view, it is the inability to gain status and accep-
tance in conventional society that produces the strain. Status in con-
ventional society is achieved by meeting society’s standards of dress,
behavior, scholastic abilities, and so on. The most pervasive of these
standards, according to Cohen, are those of the middle class. Adoles-
cents are most likely to be confronted by the middle-class criteria of re-
spectability and acceptance in the public schools. Middle-class expec-
tations are imposed by teachers and administrators on students from
all class backgrounds. Such standards as good manners, appropriate
demeanor, non-aggressive attitudes and behavior, attention to grades,
studying, and active participation in school activities are among the
ways that students gain status and approval.
Middle-class adolescents, supported by middle-class parents, are
best able to meet these standards. They achieve recognition and gain
status by measuring up to these standards, not only in the eyes of adults
Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 167
but to a large extent in the eyes of their peers. However, lower-class
youths, especially boys, cannot always meet these standards. They do
not have the verbal and social skills to measure up to the yardstick of
middle-class values. As a result, their “status deprivation” produces
“status frustration.”
According to Cohen, the delinquent subculture is a collective re-
sponse to this frustration, and the nature of its delinquent activities re-
sults from a “reaction formation.” The criteria for acceptability found
in this subculture can be met by lower-class boys, who gain status in de-
linquent gangs by adhering to “malicious” and “negativistic” values in
opposition to conventional standards. If non-aggression is acceptable
in the middle class, then a reputation for aggressive toughness is the
way to gain status in the delinquent subculture. If polite classroom be-
havior and making good grades will gain greater standing in the eyes of
the teachers, then classroom disruption and disdain for academic
achievement will gain greater standing in the delinquent subculture.
Cohen argued that Merton’s image of deviants turning to illegitimate
means because of the deprivation of legitimate means is too rationalis-
tic to apply to the “non-utilitarian” delinquent subculture. For example,
most of the property offenses committed by delinquent youths are re-
ally not intended to produce income or gain material success by illegal
means. Rather, they are non-utilitarian responses to status frustration
that also meet with the approval of delinquent peers.
Cloward and Ohlin: Differential Opportunity and Delinquent
Subcultures
Shortly after Cohen’s theory was published, Richard Cloward and
Lloyd Ohlin (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Cloward, 1959) proposed a “dif-
ferential opportunity” theory of delinquency. Their theory drew from
the anomie theory of Merton and Cohen’s subcultural theory on the one
hand, and from Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization and Suther-
land’s differential association theories on the other. Although the gen-
eral propositions of their theory have subsequently been applied to a
whole range of delinquent and criminal behavior, Cloward and Ohlin
developed it specifically to account for types of, and participation in,
delinquent subcultures.
In Cloward and Ohlin’s view, Merton’s anomie/strain theory incor-
rectly assumed that lower-class persons, who are denied access to legit-
imate opportunities, automatically have access to illegitimate opportu-
nities. They interpreted Sutherland, as well as Shaw and McKay, as fo-
cusing on the cultural transmission of delinquent values in lower-class
urban areas and implicitly demonstrating the importance of the avail-
ability of illegitimate opportunities. Their theory combines anomie,
differential association, and social disorganization by proposing that
168 Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application
deviant adaptations are explained by location in both the legitimate
and illegitimate opportunity structures.
Motivation and the aspiration to succeed by themselves do not ac-
count for either conforming or deviant behavior, argue Cloward and
Ohlin. The individual must be in deviant or conforming “learning envi-
ronments” that allow one to learn and perform the requisite skills and
abilities. Just because legitimate opportunities are blocked does not
necessarily mean that illegitimate opportunities are freely available.
Some illegitimate roles may be available, while others may not be at all.
Just as there is unequal access to role models and opportunities to ful-
fill conforming roles, there is unequal access to illegitimate roles and
opportunities.
Among adolescent boys, it is clear that deprivation of legitimate
means produces a strain toward delinquent activities, but what kind of
delinquent patterns they will become involved in depends on what ille-
gitimate opportunities are available to them in their community. Boys
from racial and ethnic minorities, especially those in the lower-class
neighborhoods of large urban centers, are most likely to be deprived of
legitimate educational and occupational opportunities. Therefore, high
rates of delinquency are to be expected among them. But the kind of
subculture or gang delinquency they adopt depends on the nature of
the illegitimate opportunities available to them. These opportunities
are determined by the social organization of the neighborhoods or the
areas of the city where they are raised.
While Cohen posited a single delinquent subculture, Cloward and
Ohlin saw several subcultures. Though they recognized that delinquent
gangs carry on a variety of illegal activities, they argued that these
gangs develop more or less specialized delinquent subcultures, depend-
ing on the illegitimate opportunities in their neighborhoods.
The first major type of specialized delinquent subculture, “criminal,”
is characterized by youth gangs organized primarily to commit in-
come-producing offenses, such as theft, extortion, and fraud. Theirs is
a more or less utilitarian choice of illegal means that corresponds with
Merton’s innovation adaptation. Such gangs are found in lower-class
ethnic neighborhoods organized around stable adult criminal patterns
and values. Organized and successful criminals reside or operate
openly in these neighborhoods, providing criminal role models and op-
portunities as alternatives to legitimate ones.
The second major type of delinquent subculture, “conflict,” is ex-
pressed in fighting gangs. Status in these groups is gained by being
tough, violent, and able to fight. They are found in the socially disorga-
nized lower-class neighborhoods with very few illegal opportunities to
replace the legal opportunities that are denied them. There are few suc-
cessful or emulated adult role models, either conventional or deviant.
Youths become alienated from the adult world and view most of the
Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 169
adults they encounter as “weak.” They are unable to develop the skills,
either legitimate or illegal, to achieve economic success and see no way
to gain conventional or criminal status. In frustration they turn to
gangs in which the only status to be gained is by fearlessness and vio-
lence.
The third major type of delinquent subculture, “retreatist,” is pri-
marily focused on the consumption of drugs and alcohol. Retreatist
gang members have given up on both goals and means, whether con-
ventional or illegal. Cloward and Ohlin did not specify the type of
neighborhood in which retreatist gangs are found, but they described
their members as “double failures.” Double failures not only perform
poorly in school and have little or no occupational prospects, they are
neither good crooks nor good fighters. They escape into a different
world in which the only goal is the “kick” and being “cool.” While most
sustain themselves by one type or another of a non-violent “hustle,” sta-
tus and admiration can be gained only within the gang by getting high
and maintaining a drug habit.
Miller: Focal Concerns of Lower-Class Culture
Walter B. Miller (1958a), following Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin,
concentrated on the delinquency of lower-class male gangs (or, in
Miller’s terms, “street corner groups”) in economically deprived neigh-
borhoods. He also agreed with anomie/strain theorists that the com-
mission of delinquent behavior is motivated by the attempt to gain de-
sired ends. But rather than positing a distinct delinquent subculture(s)
adapted to the availability of legitimate or illegitimate opportunities,
Miller proposed that delinquent behavior is a youthful adaptation to a
distinct lower-class culture. Delinquency is one way of achieving or
gaining acceptance according to the expectations of this lower-class
culture. Lower-class youth learn and act according to the central values
or “focal concerns” of lower-class adults, but the delinquent adoles-
cents express and carry out these values in an exaggerated way. These
values are: trouble (revolving around getting away with law violations),
toughness (showing physical power and fearlessness), smartness (abil-
ity to con or dupe others), excitement (seeking thrills, risk-taking, dan-
ger), fatalism (being lucky or unlucky), and autonomy (freedom from
authority, independence). By demonstrating toughness, smartness, au-
tonomy, and the other characteristics implied in the focal concerns,
lower-class males achieve status and belonging in the street corner
groups. These qualities can be demonstrated and the valued ends
achieved by fighting and other forms of illegal and deviant behavior.3
170 Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application
Research on Classic Anomie/Strain Theories
Because Merton’s theory of social structure and anomie offers expla-
nations of both macro- and micro-level processes, empirical studies
conducted on his theory and the theories of Cohen and Cloward and
Ohlin have utilized both individuals and larger groups as units of analy-
sis. The extant research on these classic anomie/strain theories has ad-
dressed a number of different questions.
Are Crime and Delinquency Concentrated in the Lower Class
and Minority Groups?
In both theory and practice, anomie/strain theories emphasize the
predominance of crime and delinquency among the lower-class and
minority populations, the most deprived of legitimate opportunities.
All varieties of this theory discussed so far have predicted an inverse re-
lationship between social class and law-breaking, and by extension of
the assumptions and logic of anomie, one is also led to expect higher
rates of crime and delinquency in disadvantaged minority groups.
As we have already seen, early urban research based on official sta-
tistics found a disproportionate amount of crime and delinquency in
the lower-class and minority groups. Studies of self-reported delin-
quent behavior that began in the 1950s, however, raised serious ques-
tions about the class distribution of delinquency (Nye, 1958; Akers,
1964). By the 1970s, nearly all of the self-reported delinquency studies,
as well as the few self-report studies of adult crime, found little differ-
ence in the levels of delinquent behavior by socio-economic status
(SES) (Tittle and Villemez, 1977). Studies using official measures of
crime and delinquency continued to find more offenders in the lower
class than in the middle and upper classes, but even in these studies the
correlations were not high (Tittle et al., 1978). The effects of class and
race were stronger in longitudinal studies of official arrest histories
from delinquency to adult crime (Wolfgang et al., 1972; Wolfgang et al.,
1987).
Some researchers have argued that, if self-report studies would uti-
lize more effective measures of illegal behavior, then they too would
find crime and delinquency to be related to both social class and race
(Hindelang et al., 1979). They contend that self-report studies only
measure the more trivial offenses and do not include high-frequency of-
fenders, whereas official measures pick up the more serious, frequent,
and chronic offenders. Their conclusion, then, is that there may be little
difference by class and race in low-frequency, minor offenses, but there
are considerable class and race differences in the most frequent and se-
rious offenses. Some self-report studies that include high-frequency
and serious offenses have found them most likely to occur in the lower
Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 171
class, as is found in studies using official measures (Hindelang et al.,
1980; Elliott and Ageton, 1980; Thornberry and Farnworth, 1982). Up
to now, however, “overall . . . recent analyses concerning the strength of
an SES/delinquency relationship, as revealed by officially recorded
measures relative to self-report measures, show mixed results” (Tittle
and Meier, 1990).
Other researchers have concluded that, while there is no relation-
ship between class and delinquency or crime in general, there is a rela-
tionship under some conditions. Some argue that a correlation exists
when social class is dichotomized and the most disadvantaged
underclass is compared with every other class level. Others maintain
that the relationship is stronger among blacks than whites and among
males than females. It has also been suggested that the relationship will
hold true for urban centers but not for suburban communities, and for
lower-class youths in middle- or upper-class communities but not for
those in predominantly lower-class neighborhoods. However, research
evidence does not clearly support a class/crime relationship under
these conditions. Research by Dunaway et al. (2000) on self-reported
crime among urban adults uncovered little direct effect of social class
on criminal behavior regardless of how class is measured.
It is possible that the relationship between class-related access to le-
gitimate opportunities and the official crime rate is different for blacks
and whites. LaFree et al. (1992), for example, found that the burglary,
homicide, and robbery arrest rates in the United States since 1957 were
related in the expected direction to indicators of economic well-being
among white males but not among black males. The unemployed are
expected to experience the greatest strain of blocked opportunities and
are more likely to commit crime than the gainfully employed. There is
mixed support for this hypothesis. It is also proposed that offenders
who are apprehended and imprisoned are more likely to come from the
ranks of the unemployed (Chiricos, 1991). However, there is little evi-
dence that unemployment motivates people to commit criminal acts
(Kleck and Chiricos, 2002). Moreover, crime is as likely to affect unem-
ployment as vice versa (Thornberry and Christenson, 1984; Cantor and
Land, 1985).
Self-report studies find class and race variations in criminal and de-
linquent behavior, but they are not as great as the class and race differ-
ences in officially arrested, convicted, and/or imprisoned populations.
This may result in part from disparities in criminal justice decisions.
But it may also result from a tendency for relatively small numbers of
serious, chronic offenders who commit a large number of offenses, and
who are the most likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system,
to come from lower-class and minority groups. (See Chapter 9.)
172 Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application
Social Structural Correlates of Crime Rates
Correlating crime with social class as a test of anomie conforms to
Messner’s (1988) argument that Merton’s anomie theory is a theory of
social organization, not a theory of individuals’ criminal motivations.
Therefore, the proper test of the empirical validity of anomie theory is
to determine the social structural correlates of rates of crime. Bernard
(1987) also contends that anomie theory is a structural theory that
makes no direct predictions about individual criminal behavior, and
anomie theory cannot be verified or falsified by individual-level tests
(see also Burton and Cullen, 1992; Bernard and Snipes, 1995). There
have been a number of macro-level studies testing the effects on city, re-
gion, and state crime rates of such structural factors such as class, pov-
erty, inequality, unemployment, family instability, and racial heteroge-
neity. Although there are inconsistent findings in these studies, some
have found fairly strong effects of these structural variables on both
property and violent crime rates. (For a review of these studies and a re-
port of new research on structural correlates of crime that resolves
some of the earlier inconsistencies, see Land et al., 1990.)
Much of this research is not presented as a test of anomie theory, and
none of it provides a direct measure of anomie as malintegration of cul-
tural goals and societal means. In this sense, no structural version of
anomie theory has yet received substantial empirical support. Never-
theless, it is reasonable to infer anomie from conditions of inequality
(and perhaps other structural variables). Thus, the findings on s


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