Anomie is a well-known theory within the disciplines of sociology and criminology. Robert Merton first published about the theory in 1938 in an article titled "Social Structure and anomie" (Hunt, 1961:59)...
While Merton was pondering the concept of anomie, the United States was undergoing significant changes. At the beginning of the twentieth century the United States experienced a huge influx of immigrants. America was the land of opportunity and individuals were in search of the American dream of prosperity. However, the dream was not equally attainable for everyone. Certain opportunities were only available to those with training. To make matters worse World War I occurred, followed a decade later by the Great Depression, and twelve years beyond that World War II began. It would probably be fair to say that at the time Merton was writing "Social Structure and anomie" (1936-1938) and sociologists were reviewing it, the United States was less than stable (Hunt, 1961:58). Goals remained universal, while the means for attaining them did not.
It was after reading Emile Durkheim's theory of anomie that Robert Merton set out to expand upon the concept. Merton began by stating that there are two elements of social and cultural structure. The first structure is culturally assigned goals and aspirations (Merton, 1938: 672). These are the things that all individuals should want and expect out of life. Including success, money, material things, etc. The second aspect of the social structure defines the acceptable mode for achieving the goals and aspirations set by society (Merton, 1938:673). This is the appropriate way that people get what they want and expect out of life. Examples include obeying laws and societal norms, seeking an education and hard work. In order for society to maintain a normative function there must be a balance between aspirations and means in which to fulfill such aspirations (Merton, 1938:673-674). According to Merton balance would occur as long as the individual felt that he was achieving the culturally desired goal by conforming to the "institutionally accepted mode of doing so" (Merton: 1938:674). In other words, there must be an intrinsic payoff, an internal satisfaction that one is playing by the rules and there must also be an extrinsic payoff, achieving their goals. It is also important that the culturally desired goals be achievable by legitimate means for all social classes. If goals are not equally achievable through an accepted mode, then illegitimate means might be used to achieve the same goal. There often times is a disparity between goals and means. Too much emphasis is placed on the goal and not enough emphasis is placed on achieving it through acceptable means. For some citizens there is a lack of opportunity. This leads individuals to seek out the goal by whatever means necessary. According to Merton crime is bred through this process. Simply put, overemphasis on material success and lack of opportunity for such material success leads to crime.
To supplement his theory Merton developed five possible reactions to such a disparity between goals and means. The first and most common reaction is Conformity. An individual in this category accepts the goal together with the institutionalized means. A second possible reaction is Innovation. In this case the individual accepts the goals that society sets for him, while rejecting the institutionalized means. This is the type of individual who would turn to deviance or illegitimate means in order to reach the sought after goal. The third possible reaction is Ritualism. In this instance the goal is rejected because the individual does not believe it can be reached and legitimate means are selected. In the fourth reaction, Retreatism, both the goal and the means are rejected. Merton gives as examples such individuals as the mentally ill and defected, drug addicts, and alcoholics. Essentially, people who are in society, but do not take part in the functioning of society. The fifth and final possible reaction is Rebellion. Merton reserves rebellion for those individuals who due to frustration would elect to adopt a new social order in place of the old (Merton, 1938: 678).
Merton maintains several times that too much emphasis is placed on goals and not enough on achieving them legitimately. He uses the example of winning the game, not how the game was played. Merton contends that the lack of coordination between the two phases results in anomie. He states that one of societies main functions is to provide a basis for normal behavior and when it fails to do so "cultural chaos or anomie" ensues (Merton, 1938:682). Merton's apparent solution is to balance the two components of social structure.
[excerpted from a paper by Margaret Evans]