During the course of the last century, several theorists have developed theories of why people commit crime.  One of these theories that as been developed, and then modified by others, is the idea of social and institutional anomie.  This paper will discuss the origins and definitions of anomie in our society and the effect anomie has on the individual.  This paper will also explore several different views on the affect of different types of anomie in the American society.  The ideas of Durkheim, Merton, and others will be analyzed and compared to construct a more complete view of the anomie idea and how this belief is currently being utilized in society and the field of criminal justice.  Finally, the hypothesis of the relationship between the powered elite and effect on the societal norms will also be discussed.  

Anomie is defined by Durkheim as “a breakdown of social order as a result of a loss of standards and values.” (Adler et al. 2007p.7)  This definition shows the basic idea of what anomie is, but does not discuss the effects it can have on an individual or on a society.  There are two significant types of anomie that will be discussed in this paper, anomie of the individual and anomie of the societal institutions.  The idea behind the concept of anomie is very similar to the idea behind social strain theory; individuals have the desire for economic and social well-being, but do not always possess the ability to obtain those goals.  According to Merton, individuals have;

Cultural aspirations, or goals that people believe are worth striving for and institutionalized means or accepted ways to attain the desired ends [and anomie occurs when a] disparity between goals and means fosters frustration, which leads to strain. (Adler et al. 2007p.119) 


This believe of personal anomie is also reinforced in Messner and Rosenfelds, Crime and the American Dream when they state, “they are the goals that “everyone” knows about, that “everyone” thinks are important, and that “everyone strives for (p. 57)” Using the combination of Durkeim and Merton, it is possible to see the effect that social class and economic status has on the obtainment of personal goals within he capitalistic society. “Mass conformity to a mass culture is seen in all aspects of social living (Jeffery, 1959. p533). These social expectations that drive the American populous to strive for success also cause individuals to cause crime.  The anomie, or social withdrawal, that affects those of the lower economic standards is nothing more than the pressure to “depart from the institutional norms and to adopt illegitimate alternatives” (Reiman 2007, p179) to acquire the societal goals.

            Another form of anomie refers to the withdrawal from the basic values and institutions that are considered to be the foundations of a society.  Education, family, religion, economics plus countless others are examples of institutions that work together in order to help to support the norms and values of society.  According to Pierre Bourdieu, the biggest responsibility of the societal norms is to produce what he calls ‘cultural capital’.  This cultural capital is the;

Effective functioning of all three of the primary institutions –the economy, education and the family- presupposes an environment with at least a modicum of social order.

                        (Messner and Rosenfeld, 2007 p.73). 

Institutional anomie occurs when the basic values of the society are no longer able to maintain the social control.  When one social institution (economy) undermines, and then dominates, the remaining institutions (family, religion, politics etc), the idea of the American Dream “stimulates criminal motivation and at the same time promotes a weak normative environment (anomie)” (Messner and Rosenfeld, 2007 p.85).  The social rules that govern the daily lives of our society are in the process of being corrupted by the single institution of economics.  The economy has had such an impact on society that the;

Economic institutions have invaded other institutions (politics, religion, family, etc), making it harder for them to do what they were originally intended to do

(Messner and Rosenfeld, 2007 p.85). 


There are there major ways that the economy directly effects the other primary institutions; the devaluation of non-economic roles and functions, the accommodations of other institutions and the penetration of economic norms.  As stated first in Messner and Rosenfield, and then also reinforced by Adler; “as long as there is a disproportionate emphasis on monetary rewards, the crime problem will increase” (Adler et al. 2007 p.125).

Anomie has, and will always be a part of society.  Individuals will go through good and bad social and economic periods, cultural norms will continuously shift and evolve over time, politics will continue to change and the family will continue to exist.  The next question to be asked is ‘who decides what is, and is not, considered to be the social norm and what is characterized as deviant, and outside the norm’?  The American society consist of individuals from all races, religions ethnic groups, back grounds and ages.  This paper will discuss how privileged, white, rich males who set the standards for society to follow enact a majority of the legislation. The suggestion being made in this paper is that the privileged elite comprises the group of individuals who are withdrawing away from the norms of society and creating legislation to enforce their deviant beliefs. 

Anomie is considered to be the withdrawal away from the social norms.  This withdrawal is normally done by those considered to be deviant from society.  Society uses the word deviant to define actions or individuals that do not conform to the accepted normal behavior.  The textbook Criminology defines deviance as “any behavior that members of a social group define as violating their norms” (Adler et al. 2007 p.129). As explained by Durkheim and Merton, those individuals who are not able to adapt to the changes in society, or are not able to obtain the goals of society, are the ones who experience the social withdrawal or change of anomie.

            The difference in social class and power has been an issue in society since the beginning of recorded time.  Through history, it is possible to see the effects of a ruling class maintaining the lower classes in social subservience.  Examples of this authority include the Egyptian pharaohs and the slaves, the English lords and peasants and the French bourgeoisies and the proletariats.  These are all examples where a minority elite has maintained social dominance over the lower class majority.  As stated by Marx;

Political power, properly so called is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. (Marx and Engels 1848 pp 2.74)


And then restated more recently by Messner and Rosenfield in Crime and the American Dream, “that more powerful groups are able to promote their interest at the expense of less powerful groups” (p.32). These two viewpoints display a distinct similarity between the views of the writers and the status of society, even though the statements are made over 150 years apart.

In today’s society, all levels of government, local, state and federal, elected and appointed officials are responsible for creating and maintaining legislation that affects the lives of the general population.  Currently, the population for the United States as of 2000 is 301,299,081(Census 2000). The legislatures of the United States equal 535 (435 Congress and 100 Senators).  These law- makers comprise approximately 1/100th % of the population.  This group, plus the wealthiest 5% of the country create most of the legislation that guides our society.   The rationale is that these lawmakers are acting on behalf of the general population, however, how many people have discussed on a one-to-one basis their personal views, concerns and issues facing the country with their legislature.  Even though these representatives are elected officials, how accurately do they represent the American population? 

The American public contains a diversity of separate ethnic, religious and national backgrounds.  The social systems that make up the society are as diverse as the separate towns and cities that comprise the United States.  A vast majority of the powered-elite in this country are privileged white males.  This privileged society clearly comprises a significant minority in the composition of the American population, but has the authority to create legislation that affects the majority.  The crime that this elite group is guilty of committing is the crime of self -interest.  Sociologist Barry Krisberg makes the statement that:

Crime is a function of privilege.  The rich create crime to distract attention from the injustices they inflict on the masses.  Power determines which groups the privilege.

             (Adler et al. 2007 p.205) 

The powered elite posses considerably more privilege than a majority of the United States.  On the reverse side of this spectrum exist the lower class of society.  One theory that has been used to is that the “criminal justice system as serving the powerful by successfully repressing the poor” (Reiman, 2007 p7) This statement will be examined and the criminal justice process will be shown to discriminate against the lower class.

            There are two major types of crime in current society, high-class white-collar crime, and the lower class street-level crime.  White-collar crime is significantly more costly to the American taxpayer, but far less likely to be prosecuted in the court system.  Crimes committed by stockbrokers, lawyers and medical personnel historically receive little, if any, jail time.  According to the Harvard Medical Practice Study:

100,000 hospital patients die annually of adverse reactions to medication and 2.2 are injured.  Further, experts have estimated that more than one million serious drug errors occur annually in hospitals alone. (Reiman, 2007 p89)


Since it is the powered elite that makes these “errors” the terms of “negligence” and “involuntary manslaughter” are seldom heard.   This example, in addition to the 4,928 workplace deaths in 2003 (Reiman, 2007 p85), supports that argument that reach corporations and doctors are significantly less likely to receive any formal punishment for their actions.

The other end of this spectrum includes the lower class aspect of street-crime.  These are the criminals that comprise a vast majority of the population incarcerated in the nations correctional systems.  The majority of those individuals incarcerated are young, poor, black males, very different from the privileged white males of the legislation. This social class stereotype is what the average American citizens think of when they discuss the term “criminal”.  The legislation that enacts the “crimes” that these individuals are convicted, create a endless circle among the lower class that enables the privileged elite separate from those beneath them.  This separation is achieved through the election polls.  Once a person is convicted of a felony, their right to vote in national (or any) elections is revoked.  This protects the legislation from being voted out by those of the lower class.  Another consequence of these crimes is the weakening of the social institutions within the lower class society. 

Imprisonment is undermining the family and other community institutions, depriving children of male role models and depriving women of potential husbands and support (Reiman, 2007 p33)


This deprivation of the lower class enables the powered elite to maintain compliance within the social structure.  Another penalty of being poor is the accessibility to bail, bond or adequate legal counsel.  The ability of an individual to afford Bail, bond or adequate counsel, is another example of privilege available to those with money. Those poor individuals arrested are less likely to be able to assist in their own defense while they are in jail awaiting trial. The belief of social control is not society controlling itself, but society being controlled by those in a higher economic or social class.

            The idea of social anomie that was established Durkheim suggest that crime is committed by the poor as a result of the social strain put upon them by society.  The lower class maintains the same goals and dreams of the middle and upper classes, but is unable to achieve those goals.  I am suggesting that the completely opposite is true.  With the powered elite maintaining authority over the social structure of the United States, they are the group that is experiencing the social withdrawal of anomie.  The upper classes of society withdraw itself from the ethnic and social composition of the American population, and then creates legislation to widen the gap of separation. 




Work Cited

Adler, Freda, Mueller, Gerhard O.W. and Laufer, William S. Criminology. 6th Ed. McGraw Hill 2007.


Jeffery, Clarence Ray. An Integrated Theory of Crime and Criminal Behavior.
The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, Vol. 49, No. 6 (Mar. - Apr., 1959), pp. 533-552


Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich.  The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Translated by Samuel Moore (cited by paragraph number)


Messner, Steven F., & Rosenfeld, Richard.  Crime and the American Dream. Fourth edition. Thomas Wadsworth 2007.


Reiman, Jeffery.  The Rich Get Richer And The Poor Get Prison:  Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice. Eighth Edition. 2007.


U.S. Census Bureau 2000.  http://