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Durkheim's Anomie Theory

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Crime is Necessary

Crime is necessary; it serves a function in society. Although it is not preferable, with the progression and evolution of modernity and emphasis on monetary success, crime is inevitable because a perfectly stable, uniform, and able society is impossible. As the father of sociology and a functionalist, Emile Durkheim provides a variety of explanations of society’s ills, like crime and deviance, and accounts for the punishments and repercussions that follow. He asserts that man is a product of his social environment; thus, socialization begins at birth and continues through language and interaction with other people. The basis of his theory rests on the idea that the “conscience collective of a society varies alongside the division of labor. In less complex and more primitive societies, people tended to do and think alike and there was little tolerance for difference” (Smith, 2008). According to Durkheim, one of the pivotal points in history in terms of crime and deviance was the industrial revolution. As this revolution evolved, there was a steep increase in immigrant migration into the United States. With this increase in immigration and the evolution toward a more modern society came rising levels of individualism, flexibility, and diversity amongst belief systems. This was the first sign of problems in the new society. Although these immigrants found no protest to their own belief systems, they failed to adapt them to the previously held norms the American people valued. Inevitably, there was a sense of imbalance between the previously held norms and values and the new and evolving ones.  This imbalance, Durkheim deemed  anomie.’ According to Durkheim, anomie reflects a sense of normlessness, the lack of any societal norms that spurs the tendency to act in a deviant way. In general terms, Durkheim’s theory of anomie proposes that because of industrialization and the need for cheap labor in this newly modern society, the influx of immigrants inherently brought with them their own sets of norms and values. Thus came a temporary imbalance of norms, anomie, which enhances individual’s propensity to commit crime in search for a stable environment. In turn, Durkheim puts forth not just a theory for the social origins of crime, but also he theorizes about the social origins of law and punishment.

Before addressing Durkheim’s explanation for crime and deviance, it is necessary to discuss his theory regarding the origins of law and punishment. In it’s entirety, he describes “the law as a concrete and objective indicator of morality…the law is restitution rather than simply repressive” (Smith, 2008). From this comes the conclusion that law is a production of the collective society, a myriad of all beliefs of society, an embodiment of everything a society holds to be right, true, and just. This concept of the ‘collective conscience’ has everything to do with where societies laws, and ills, come from. Initially, Durkheim asserted that crime holds some religious qualities. Because “religion was a reflection of the force of a shared collective conscience…early legal codes were also religious codes,” thus providing Durkheim the ability to argue, “offenses against the gods were offenses against society” (Durkheim, 1964).  Crime became a deeply meaningful thing, very passionate and powerful, that ultimately prompted for very strong emotions, anger and vengeance specifically. Because of this, punishment was less about the offense or the offender and held more weight in regard to restoring the cohesion and core values of society.

So what are these social origins of crime? As previously stated, the fragmentation amongst society from the evolution to a more industrial and modern society, and the anomic division of labor, provide the basis for crime and deviance. This division of labor emerged as a result of the “needs of society which has become larger through an increase in population and a more highly integrated interactive network” (Khorn, 1980). Durkheim theorized that there is a bundle of ‘social facts,’ or empirical facts describing societal tendencies, that determine individual qualities. Drawing on statistics, he drew a correlation between suicide rates and social variables. What he deemed egoistic or anomic suicide were those that described “weak social integration and failed moral regulation” as seen through the conclusion that protestants, intellectuals, and single people had higher suicide rates than religious folk, specifically Catholics and Jews. In other words, the individual and isolated people had a higher tendency for suicide than the collective and densely networked community because of their lack of cohesion and relationship with the collective conscience of society (Smith, 2008). More rare cases of altruistic and fatalistic suicide were common when an individual was too closely bound to the group. Ultimately, this study concluded that social cohesion, or group solidarity, and the values held to be true by the collective conscience could both prevent and generate deviant activity.  Of the two types of solidarity, mechanical and organic, Durkheim concluded that organic solidarity, the more complex of the two, which emphasizes a community’s interdependence upon each other, is far stronger than mechanical solidarity in which there are common beliefs within society solely because the individuals are alike. This “solidarity based on the functional interdependence necessitated by and productive of the industrial revolution” would replace the dependence on the conscience collective (Krohn, 1980).

Although there have been a small handful of direct examinations of Durkheim and his theories, there are a few studies that have analyzed more specific aspects of social disorganization and its effects. Theorists Gibbs and Martin, and later Miley and Micklin, focused on suicide and how the social integration enabled or inhibited such behavior. When Miley and Micklin developed the research, they theorized that “population and technological development will be directly related to the division of labor…and the division of labor will produce a decrease in status integration which, in turn, will increase suicide rates,” furthermore, supporting Durkheimian theory (Krohn, 1980). In contrast to Durkheim’s emphasis on the division of labor, research and analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau and the Uniform Crime Report done by Webb, found that relationship of population size, density, and proportion of communication, did not decrease the rates of crime. However, when analyzing Webb’s research it is necessary to recognize that he did not include the concept, or measure, of anomie (Krohn, 1980).

There are various different perspectives on what anomie is and how it affects deviant behavior. On one hand Durkheim claims that anomie refers to the ill-formulated goals within the culture of an industrial society; whereas, Robert Merton relied on the Marxist explanation of anomie, which claims that there is normlessness due to the inadequate means available to fulfill society’s goals. Ultimately, each theory revolves around the weight that the market economy holds in regards to the spirit and atmosphere of the cultural. Rather than the ethos of the culture being dependent on the values set forth by family and education, “the pursuit of self interest, attraction to monetary rewards and competition, become exaggerated relative to the value orientations of these institutions…economic dominance stimulates the emergence of anomie at a cultural value” (Bernburg, 2002). In regard to crime, the emphasis on competition and materialism combined with anomic ethic, as theorists have termed it, spark a disregard for the moral status of the way in which one achieves goals.

            This strain of anomic theory is called “Institutional anomie theory.” This position incorporates the idea that if the market economy is left unregulated by other social institutions it will ultimately be obtrusive to society. According to Merton, this notion of anomie is a result of the “uneven distribution of opportunities in the social structure because it fails to live up to its promise of equal opportunity” (Bernburg, 2002). Durkheim, on the other hand, claims anomie is more than just one simple thing; anomie is the normlessness of goals in which the “absence of social authority causes our capacity for feeling in itself insatiable and bottomless” (Bernburg, 2002).  In addition, anomie may also come forth “when socially prescribed goals are practically unattainable…to pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness, ends are not really undefined…they are limitless” (Bernburg, 2002). Ultimately, anomie institutional theory uses Merton’s definition of anomie but brings attention to the social criticism what Durkheim’s definition emphasizes. Merton highlights an imbalance between the components of how a society is made up; however, Durkheim focuses on the social make up itself.

            As Durkheim’s theory has progressed as a basis of modern theory and policy, it has had to adapt to the values and norms of an immensely modernized and industrialized society. Institutional anomie has become the primary basis to the concept of normlessness and the basis of crime and deviance in accord with the concept of anomie that Durkheim asserted initially. In short, Institutional anomie describes a society in which economic values, like monetary success, penetrate non-economic institutions, like family, education, and policy. From there, community values and social bonds are weakened, ultimately causing social controls over self serving behavior, like deviance and crime, to be vastly reduced. Inherently in its nature, institutional anomie theory has some similarities to Robert Merton and Robert Agnew’s strain theory of crime and deviance. Strain theory asserts that there is a discrepancy between culturally defined goals and the means available to achieve these goals. Currently, the culturally defined goals are wealth and material success and that happiness is equivalent to these goals; thus, the institutionalized means to acquire these goals that are hard work and education. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that those who do not succeed are inherently lazy or inept in some way. Through the application of Merton and Agnew’s strain theory it is simple to see the trouble that the lower and middle class face. The institutionally defined means of education and hard work are only attainable by those who are wealthy or financially comfortable enough to access a formal education or well paying occupation. As a result, or consequence, of this inability or unrealistic goal the middle and lower classes are subject too there is strain, or anomie. Therefore, this sense of anomie, imbalance, and division of labor justify the modes of adaptation the disadvantaged resort too. The modes of adaptation are, more often than not, criminal, ultimately supporting Durkheim’s anomie theory.

            So what does the criminal justice system do to avoid this? What are the policies put forth to deal with this inevitable dependence on crime? Although difficult, it is essential to strengthen the non- economic social institutions, like church or public school educations. There must be less emphasis placed on the importance or status of private school education. In addition, it is necessary to equalize the opportunities for success. The lower level employees must have the same amount of opportunity that the upper level employees have, or once had. The lesser employees must not be alienated within the workplace or held accountable for things that the upper level employees are excused of. The current crack down on white-collar crime is an example of how the criminal justice system is working to even the playing field in the work place. Due to the fact that monetary success and status are the goals set by the collective conscience, as Durkheim would say, the criminal justice system has began to withdraw from the biased environment that causes this anomie and strive to balance the means by which success is attainable.

Works Cited

Bernburg, J. (2002). Anomie, social change and crime. British Journal of Criminology, 42(4), 729-742. doi: 0007-0955

Durkheim, E. (1964). The division of labor in society.. New York, Free Press of Glencoe.

Krohn, M. D. (1980, Dec). A Durkheimian Analysis of International Crime Rates. Social Forces. 57(2), 654-670. from JSTOR

Smith, P. (2008). Durkheim and Criminology: Reconstructing the Legacy. Australian & New Zealand Journal Of Criminology (Australian Academic Press), 41(3), 333-344. doi:10.1375/acri.41.3.333

 

 

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