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Anomie Theory, Control Theory, and Understanding Crime

Gregg Lee Carter

KEY QUESTIONS: Do people with more education and more prestigious jobs commit fewer crimes? Do people with strong social attachments (e.g., family, church) commit fewer crimes?

KEY CONCEPTS: deviance, anomie, control theory, street crime, white-collar crime

SOURCE OF DATA: General Social Survey

Robert K. Merton's classic essay on the causes of crime and deviance emphasizes that a society's cultural goals may not be accompanied by realistic means for attaining them-at least not for everyone (see Chapter 6 in his Social Theory and Social Structure: Enlarged Edition. NY: Free Press, 1968). Those who want the accepted goals but do not have ready access to the accepted means to attain them may "innovate" and come up with their own means. Thus, for example, the inner-city adolescent whose family has few resources to send him to private school, or to help him get a job or start a career, and who attends a school where the majority of students will drop out may well find himself out on the streets as a young man with few prospects. From the popular culture-television, movies, magazines-and from his friends and family he has absorbed the cultural goal of material success. Unable to achieve it by conventional means-that is, by getting an education and using his networks to get a good first job-he tries to reach this goal through criminal means (he steals, sells drugs, etc.).

We tend to associate crime with poor, minority-group neighborhoods. Given this association, Merton's argument has great intuitive appeal. However, it has not stood up well to the test of empirical confirmation. The argument implies an inverse relationship between social class and crime-that is, the higher the social class standing of the individual (as indicated, say, by his or her annual income), the lower the probability that the individual is a criminal. In studies of street crime (muggings, robberies, assaults, murders), the relationship can be confirmed; but when crime is defined more broadly, to include white-collar and business crimes, and when crime is measured by indicators other than official police reports (e.g., by self-report), the relationship is weak and inconsistent.

Merton's theory of crime and deviance has become known as "anomie theory" in sociological jargon. He adopted the concept of "anomie" from Durkheim's writings (e.g., see his Suicide: A Study in Sociology. NY: Free Press, 1951 [org. 1897]). Anomie means being without norms or in a state of normative confusion; it can be used to characterize individuals, groups, or societies. Whereas Merton viewed anomie as arising from blocked opportunity, Durkheim saw it more as a product of the weakening of the quality and quantity of social ties-which may be caused by rapid social change, divorce, and other threats to the solidarity of the groups to which individuals belong.

Following in the footsteps of Durkheim, Travis Hirschi (see the endnote below) demonstrated the importance of an individual's attachment to the group in keeping the individual in check (i.e., in line with normative expectations for behavior). Hirschi emphasizes that the key question in the study of deviance is not "Why do individuals commit deviant acts?" but rather, "Why don't individuals commit deviant acts?" His answer is founded on a fundamental principle of human reality: People like to be liked and accepted; to achieve this they conform to expectations of those whom they want to like and accept them. Thus, Hirschi found that adolescents who had strong ties to their families and to their schools were less likely to commit delinquent acts-because such acts are frowned upon by these two groups. Hirschi's interpretation of Durkheim has become known as the "control theory" in sociological jargon, implying that individuals with strong attachments to mainstream groups (e.g., family, school, church) are held in check, or controlled, from committing deviant acts.

General Social Survey data allow us to assess the relationship between social class and crime through the examination of the empirical associations between these two variables. These same data also allow us to examine crime from a control theory perspective. The patterns in the findings below should prod you to begin thinking about the true nature of deviance as it relates to social class and social integration.

The key variables we will examine are:

Ed (Years of Schooling) <12 yrs, 12 yrs, 13-15 yrs, 16+ yrs
Prestige (Occupational Prestige Scores) 12-32 (=Low), 33-46 (=Medium), 47+ (=High)
Attend (How often do you attend religious services?) Yearly (or less), Monthly, Weekly
SatFamily (How much satisfaction do you get from your family life?) 6=very great, 5=great, 4=quite a lot, 3=fair, 2=some, 1=little, 0=none. Low (0-2), Medium (3-4), High (5-6)
Arrested (Have you ever been picked up, or charged, by the police for any reason other than a parking or traffic violation, regardless of whether you were guilty?) No, Yes

Finding for Social Class and Crime

In his writings on anomie, Merton contends that those without a great deal of opportunity to achieve the "American dream" (material success)-that is, the uneducated and the poor-would be most motivated to steal and commit street crime. Let's examine the social class®crime relationship at the individual level of analysis, using education ("Ed") and job prestige ("Prestige") as measurements for the social class standing of an individual, and whether or not the person has ever been arrested committing a crime ("Arrest"; note that the "arrest" might have been for any kind of offense, not just street crime).

Prediction: Ed and Arrested are negatively related—that is, the more educated an individual is, the less likely that he or she as been “arrested.”

Finding: Weakly confirmatory, e.g., those individuals that have <12yrs education have a (13.7%-8.7%=) 5% greater chance of being arrested compared to their counterparts with 16+yrs education.


The slope is nearly flat and the data points are jagged and inconsistent. At best, we can say that there is a very weak relationship between social class, as measured by educational attainment, and crime-as measured by odds of having been arrested.

Prediction: Prestige and Arrested are negatively related.

Finding: Weakly confirmatory, e.g., those individuals with a Prestige value of 12—32 have a (14.9%-9.4%=) 5.5% greater chance of being arrested compared to their counterparts with a Prestige value of 47+.


The data pattern evident here is slightly more confirmatory than in preceding table; however, the relationship is still very weak and, indeed, the difference in percentages between 33-46 and 47+ is statistically insignificant. How should we interpret the very weak relationship that does exist? Jeffrey Reiman's research offers one powerful interpretation. In his The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1995), he persuasively demonstrates that, all things equal, individuals from the bottom half of the social class system are much more likely to be arrested and sent to jail than are those from the top. Among the more important reasons why this is so are the following: The criminal justice system concentrates more of its resources on the detection and prosecution of street crime as opposed to white-collar and corporate crime; and street crime is the kind of crime the poor are most likely to commit. At the level of street justice, the police are more likely to arrest poor and minority individuals compared to middle-class whites. Once arrested, the poor are less likely to have a private attorney, and such attorneys are generally more successful in arguing cases. If convicted, probation is more commonly granted to those holding jobs¾especially if the jobs are prestigious and have been held for a long period of time; but the poor are least likely to be in this employment situation. Thus, given Reiman's findings, we would not be convinced that the weak negative association between social class and arrest-probability found in the tables and graphs above are truly reflecting that the poor are more criminally prone.

Social Integration and Crime

Let's pursue the Durkheim/Hirschi/control theory of crime at the individual level of analysis. According to control theory, we would anticipate individuals with strong social attachments to conventional groups (e.g., the family; church) to deviate less from expected (socially acceptable) behaviors. We can test this prediction by crosstabulating and graphing "Arrested" by "SatFamily," and then by "Attend" (see variable definitions above).

Prediction: SatFamily and Arrested are negatively related.

Finding: Moderately confirmatory, e.g., those individuals who are least satisfied with family life (SatFamily = "Low") have a (21.8%-10.2%=) 11.6% greater chance of having been arrested com-pared to their counter-parts who have a "High" degree of satisfaction with family life.

Prediction: Attend and Arrested are negatively related.

Finding: Moderately confirmatory, e.g., those individuals who attend church Yearly have a (18.2%-5.7%=) 12.5% greater chance of having been arrested compared to those who attend church Weekly.


As would be expected by Durkheim, there are moderately strong inverse relationships between satisfaction with one's family life and the odds of having been arrested, as well as between church attendance and the odds of having been arrested. Durkheim would, of course, interpret frequent church attendance as an indicator of strong social connectedness¾that is, church would be a source of friendships and emotional support that could potentially assist individuals in times of crisis and keep them on the straight and narrow path of noncriminal behavior.


In sum, the sociological data indicate that less prosperous individuals are more likely to be involved in street crime, while the more prosperous are more likely to be involved in white-collar and business- related crime. Thus, even though social class can predict the type of crime a person might become involved with, it does not tell us the overall propensity for a person to be or not to be criminally prone. On the other hand, when we examine data that reveal how connected an individual is to his or her family and to other groups, such as to a church, we find that those who are well connected to such groups are less likely to be criminally prone. Of course, there are many other reasons why an individual does or does not become involved in crime, but the General Social Survey data allow us to unveil a particularly important one (social integration).

See, for example, Travis Hirschi, Causes of Delinquency (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), key portions of which are reprinted in Part 8 of Gregg Lee Carter, Empirical Approaches to Sociology, 3rd edition (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001); Charles R. Tittle, et al., "The Myth of Social Class and Criminality: An Empirical Assessment of the Empirical Evidence," American Sociological Review 43:5 (October 1978), pp. 643-656; and Charles R. Tittle and Robert F. Meier, "Specifying the SES/Delinquency Relationship," Criminology 28 (1990), pp. 271-299.

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