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This essay is about how Robert Merton theory accounts for crime and deviance within a contemporary society. I will look at how he believes crime is a result of an ambitious society, and whether or not we can blame crime on the wider society and not on the deviant themselves. I will show how Merton and also Durkheim (1958-1917) construct their theories of crime from different principles, However, both use the theory of `anomie’ (also referred to as ‘strain theory’) in their bid to explain the negatives of society and the effect it has on the individuals who live here in retrospect to crime. I will look at the different approaches each functionalist uses to explain anomie, and how it fits in with their theories of contemporary society. I will also look at how they both agree on this theory, but differ on its initial causes. I also investigate how both believe that crime at some stage is a normal integral part of a contemporary society, and a result of ones self, but they differ on it value to society.
Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist and functionalist, introduced the concept of anomie in his book The Division of Labour in Society, published in 1893. He used anomie to describe a lack of morale that was occurring in society. Durkheim’s book was first published 119 years ago however astonishingly his theories can still be applied to today’s contemporary society. Anomie is a state were social norms are in crisis. They are vague and confused or even perhaps not present. Durkheim strongly felt this was a cause of deviance. In 1897 Durkheim used the theory again in his study on suicide.
Durkheim’s One Cause of Suicide, Barclay D. Johnson, American Sociological Review, Vol. 30, No. 6 (Dec., 1965), pp. 875-886, Published by: American Sociological Association
Merton works within the overall functionalist perspective which puts a great deal of emphasis on the role of society, particularly its merging aspects, it states that crime and deviance is a positive attribute to society due to many aspects which I will delve into further on in this essay. Merton now adapts a concept he adopts from the book ‘suicide’ written by the functionalist, Durkheim in 1897. Durkheim strongly suggested that it is not the individual but culture that creates deviance. He stated that “Crime is an integral part of society”. He went on to further say that a deviant could also be viewed as a visionary to society and that deviance strengthens society by bringing communities together in times of crisis. In order to illustrate the importance of collective forces on the individual, Durkheim examined the subject of suicide.
In Durkheim’s work, anomie referred to a situation in which cultural norms in a society break down because of sudden rapid change. He stated that rapid social change disrupts such norms and controls producing anomie, characterised by agitation, dissatisfaction, anxiety and a myriad of other characteristics relative to suicide and other deviance. Anomic suicide, for example is a result of the economic cycle. This can occur during a major economic depression such as the much recent recession, when people are not able to achieve the goals that they have learned to pursue, but it can also occur when the economy experiences a sudden and peoples once reasonable aspirations are now easy to achieve if not already achieved and they no longer have goals or something to work towards, also people do not know how to limit their aspirations and be satisfied with their achievements. Merton however changes Durkheim’s theory slightly, to refer to a situation in which there is an apparent lack of adequacy between the culture’s norms about what constitutes success in life, goals, and the culture’s norms about the appropriate ways to achieve those goals otherwise known as the means.
Durkheim, E, Spaulding, j, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Free Press; Reissue edition (11 May 2010)
Merton’s take on anomie became the explanation for extremely high rates of deviant behaviour occurring in the United States compared with other societies, and also gave an explanation for the spread of deviant behaviour across groups defined by class, race, ethnicity and gender. Merton views the United States as a polar example of a society in which aspiration and goals are an integral part of society and pressure is put upon the people of America to aim towards a goal, however the goal is already set, The American Dream. The social structure in America, is however, characterised by major divisions and harsh economic inequality. Along with this huge division in social classes, people are also criticised as being quitters if they diminish their goals. On the other hand, however, the culture is at best indecisive in its norms about the appropriate means of being successful. Hard work in school and then in the economic workplace are favoured and are the culturally approved means of success, but there’s also an element of appreciation for the successful rogue who breaks the rules using immoral or illegal avenues and still achieves success.
The end result is more appreciated then the journey to get there, so sometimes a blind eye can be turned to certain corners that may be cut in order to achieve success. A highly successful billion pound American company has recently been exposed for how it cuts corners to obtain high revenues; nobody asked how they were so successful until it was challenged. Some people saying Starbucks had a very good financial advisor as they were actually ‘not doing anything illegal’ but morally it was wrong. Starbucks were very happy to continue their tax avoidance practices knowing it was probably immoral, however slightly this has tarnished Starbucks they are still a success story and whatever measures they are doing now is only to protect the brand, not because they feel they have a moral duty. In America, in other words, success is probably rated a lot more highly than virtue. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/dec/03/amazon-google-starbucks-tax-avoidance
A Critical Look at Merton’s Anomie Theory, Alex Thio, The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 139-158, Published by: University of California Press.
The Legacy of Anomie Theory: Advances in Criminological Theory, Freda A. Adler, William S. Laufer, Robert King Merton, Transaction Publishers, 1 Nov 1999
In addition, the United States, along with all other countries has minority groups whose access to success by conventional means is clearly limited. In the period in which Merton was writing, Society as a whole was a clearly racist. Black Americans were severely limited when it came to education and the workplace. Even so, the same goals were not just emphasised to the white middle class American however to all of their society, Thus therefore creates an influx in crime as people fight by any means to achieve their dreams, the collective American dream. http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/merton.htm
Tony Soprano’s America: The Criminal Side of the American Dream, David R. Simon, Perseus Books Group, 2 Mar 2004
In order for people to respond to this disjunction of goals and means, Merton created a typology of adaptations.
The first of these being a conformist. Most individuals in society are conformists, they accept the culturally defined goals and choose these within their means, they then go on to pursue them using legitimate means of achieving them through the socially-acceptable avenues of educational and occupational advancement and work diligently. An example of this being University students wanting a degree and successful job in the workplace, however using their available means to pay for the study and achieve these goals. Although many citizens; majority being working class and lower middle class, are unlikely to attain the desired, unrealistic ends, they obey social rules anyway and “grin and bear it” (Winfree & Abadinsky) without deviation or grievance. When unable to achieve their goals or to achieve “success”, they claim responsibility for such failures themselves (“I didn’t work as hard as I could have at school”), and continue to conform to social expectations.
The second possible reaction to Merton’s anomie is that of innovation. Merton believed that much of criminal behaviour could be categorised as “innovative”. Innovators are people who tend to accept the goals of society for success and social status however lack the means of achieving such goals and therefore turn to immoral, illegal and deviant techniques in order to achieve these. Gomme stated that a good example of an innovator was a drug dealer or a ‘gangster’ who perhaps come from a working class background who wish to attain wealth and success however lack the intelligence and money which is needed to achieve such goals, so therefore they maintain their goals but use socially unacceptable means to accomplish these aspirations. Innovators, however, are not necessarily violent or serious offenders: people who lie about their work experience or educational background on a job application can also fall into this category, These acts are not criminal or illegally wrong however these individuals are trying to achieve success through immoral socially unacceptable means.
Another of Merton’s possible explanations to anomie is called ritualism. The ritualist accepts a lifestyle of hard work and ambition, but rejects the cultural goal of deferred gratification. This individual goes through the avenues of getting an education and working hard, and therefore has the means, yet is not committed to the goal of accumulating wealth or social status. Ritualists ease the strain of anomie by lessening their own aspirations of success to a point where goals are more attainable. They accept their social position, and consistently obey the path they are required to follow. Ritualists tend to avoid taking any risks and are comfortable living within the confines of daily routines, for example a mundane job etc. without complaining or striving for better. Ritualists are fearful of rejection and failure, so therefore do not set themselves up for one in order to not get hurt. As Gomme describes, “for ritualists, the means become ends in themselves”, A tele marketer for example may be comfortable with the knowledge of not attaining wealth or status within their field of work, they are almost fearful of having to base their life on prospects and a dream and therefore almost ‘make do’ with their current situation.
The fourth explanation is retreatism. Retreatists make a more dramatic reaction to the stress of anomie, which is usually a permanent procedure. The stress and anxiety of the forced upon expectations of social ‘success’ through conventional and traditional avenues forces the individual to essentially ‘give up’. They almost withraw from society as the individual rejects both the cultural goals of success and the socially legitimate means of achieving it. . The retreatist removes themselves or retreats from society and may become an alcoholic, drug addict, or vagrant. They have no means and no goal and have no ambition to change this.. As Durkheim observed, suicide can be seen as the “ultimate retreat”.
The fifth type of adaptation to anomie outlined by Merton is rebellion. Rebellion can be seen as the most threatening and dangerous reaction to society. Rebellion occurs when an individual rejects both culturally defined goals and means and substitute’s new goals and means. For example, gang members may make a new goal of gaining power in their gang and using violence and other illegal activities to achieve this. When alienated from society and social structures, rebels propose new goals and means for success. Their view of success differs from the usual law abiding citizen. Rebels may advocate new groups and work together to attain success, perhaps by radical terrorist attacks; suicide bombings. Society however may not be to blame for such radical movement as religion is at the forefront of terrorism.
Siegel, L, Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies, Cengage Learning, 18 Jan 2012
Lauri Taylor however criticises Merton’s typology and compares it to her own theory of a fruit machine what Is rigged.
She stated that Conformists play the fruit machine and delude themselves thinking that it is fair. She stated that we are fooling ourselves having dreams that are more catered to society and not an indivual dream for our own self. Although a criticism of Taylor’s approach is perhaps there needs to be a protocol for quickness of time and economical reasons. Whether this is because we want to be accepted by society or for a consistent easy life without any trauma.
Taylor stated that the second reaction to anomie, innovators, try to ‘rig’ the fruit machine in their advantage. Perhaps this is an alternative approach to gaining success but can still ultimately fail as we are trapped in the confines of society. Although the people who judge what acts are illegal are those in the bourgeoisie, were crime is being committed daily; corporate veil, however it goes unseen. Perhaps the goals and the means are not consistent with one another and this is purposely set out as the upper classes wish to restrain those of a less social position from achieving success and wealth.
The third approach, ritualism, as stated by Taylor is played blindly and obsessively by the ritualist. Ritualists do not like taking risks and therefore play the fruit machine blindly. They therefore never win any prize and do not have any expectation of winning any prize. They are quite content with their life and do not wish to be burdened with any goals or aspirations which they must base their life or work on. There is no end goal, they are ultimately like a hamster in a wheel working and not getting any reward.
Retreatists as stated by Taylor, ignore the existence of the fruit machine. They almost live a day to day life with no sight of a foreseeable future. They have no end goal and wish to not any persue any dreams.
Lastly, rebels. These individuals smash up the fruit machine and re build it in their favour according to Laura Taylor. They have the same goals; receiving a prize from the fruit machine, however lack the means of attaining such success so therefore use an alternative route; re building the machine, in order to gain a prize, there is however, no certainty of a prize at the end of it.
Page 192, Durkheim and Modern Sociology, Steve Fenton, CUP Archive, 19 Jul 1984
Understanding Deviance: A Guide to the Sociology of Crime and Rule-Breaking, David M. Downes, Paul Elliott Rock, Oxford University Press, 2007
This essay has discussed whether Merton’s theory of anomie can give an understanding for the reasons behind crime in a contemporary society. It has established that the goals and aspirations set up by society have a big effect on the individual and also that in a lot of cases the means do not coincide with the goals and therefore people take a different avenue to achieve success, whether this being legal or illegal. Contemporary society has made wealth, education and success achievable for all classes, genders, races and ages. Because these goals are now available to everybody, this has created an influx in crime due to more competition and more people aspiring for the acceptable goals. Furthermore with the new coalition government’s abolishing of the education maintenance allowance and the hiking up of University fees has meant there is more stream lining and again only the wealthy can be perceived as achieving their goals which could result in an increase in ‘anomie’ amongst the individuals who lack the money and are at a disadvantage who are unable to access higher education. Merton”s Anomie Theory however has come under criticism due to the overlook of Richard Quinney’s conflict theory, “crime in the suites”. Crimes by the wealthy and powerful seem to not be discussed. Merton also seems to turn a blind eye to Cloward and Ohlen’s research on illegitimate opportunities and labelling theory and how this perhaps gives an understanding on individuals committing crime. This essay therefore concludes that anomie is a reasonable explanation for crime in contemporary society.
A Critical Look at Merton’s Anomie Theory, Alex Thio, The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 139-158, Published by: University of California Press
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