Reviewing Theories And Why Crime Happens Criminology Essay

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There are many theories that attempt to explain why crime happens. Merton's institutional strain theory attempts to explain why youth turn delinquent. When there is a constant struggle to obtain goals, sometimes ones that are unrealistic, it causes stress. As a result, a person will do anything it takes to accomplish their own idea of success, including turning to criminal behavior. Merton believes a person turns delinquent to reach these goals. These goals that have become so important to society are known as the "American Dream," which mostly consists of monetary rewards. This paper gives the history of the theory as well as research that has proved and disproved the theory. There are also suggestions of policies that can put the institutional strain theory to good use. These policies are believed to help lower the rate of crime as well as decrease delinquent behavior. The institutional anomie theory suggests that modifying the typical American Dream would reduce crime, but there is really no possible way to change a society's beliefs of success. These goals have been passed down from generation to generation through parenting and the media, and society aims to achieve them everyday. Researchers strive to prove the theory correct, but there is no real way to test the institutional strain theory because of the many variables. Experiments done by researchers tend to be different because of different societal differences. In other words, every society has different goals and definitions of success, what some societies deem deviant is acceptable behavior in other societies.


Youths are constantly pressured by society to live a certain lifestyle. There are videos that show music stars living the fast life, they flash their money and cars around to show how much money they have made. There are images in the media that show famous people living the good life and not many of them had to graduate from college to earn their success. Youths see images and television programs like this everyday. There are some children that are taught that to gain this type of success you must earn a degree, or have a legit means of earning this success. Others are not taught any proper way to gain success. Instead they are forced to live around a whole community filled with negative behavior, and morals. It is perceived by most that only those who grow up and in lower class neighborhoods turn to deviant behavior to gain a personal success. However, research shows that youths in middle and upper class are just as likely to turn to deviant behavior as those in lower class communities. Merton, Agnew, Messner, and Rosenfeld attempt to explain why youths turn to criminal behavior despite the risk. When one can not reach certain goals it cause stress and they tend to turn delinquent. Merton describes different modes of adaptation a person uses to deal with the stress of reaching the American Dream. Agnew addresses some of the fallacies that are wrong with the original idea of the institutional strain theory. While Messner and Rosenfled adds the pressures of social institutions, like family, education, polity, and the economy, pushes youths to turn delinquent.

History of Institutional Strain

The concept of anomie was created by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim described anomie as a sense of "normalessness," and when normalessness is broken down or threaten to be removed it causes anomie, or stress. In other words, anomie is the reduction of social norms. As societies become more complex so does the goals they work towards. Not everyone can keep up with the pressure of the changes in a society. When a person is face with anomie, they crack under pressure, and lose control of their own situation. Durkheim believed that anomie caused suicide (Durkheim 1969). Robert Merton built upon this theory of anomie by calculating delinquent behavior as a cause of anomie.

The institutional strain theory, also known as the institutional anomie theory, was derived from Robert Merton's strain theory and Durkheim's theory of anomie. Merton's strain theory attempts to explain why the crime rate is higher in lower classes than the rates of crimes in high class communities. Strain theory suggests that people in lower classes are more susceptible to becoming deviant in order to reach "The American Dream." Society accentuates certain goals, like financial achievement, and when the goals are too hard to reach it causes stress, and anomie. Merton suggested that there were five means to dealing with stress. These means include conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellious. Those who accept cultural goals and have the ample amount of means to attain these goals are known as conformists. They earn their success through societal approved techniques including earning college degrees, and finding jobs that will lead them to great success. Ritualism is when a person does not live according to the "American Dream," but they have the necessary means to achieve these goals if need. The people who decide to go against everything society stands for and create their own ideas of success are known as rebellious. They tend to have the necessary means to achieve societal success, but they do not want to conform.

The two means that are typically found in lower class society are retreatism and innovation. Innovation is when one has very optimistic goals, but little to no means to achieve these goals. Retreatism is when one has little to no goals and they do not have the means to gain any goal (Murphy & Robinson 2008). Merton believes that the strain that is put on the lower class because of frustration and failure to reach these goals is believed to cause deviance.

Robert Agnew revised Merton's original strain theory. He believed that when others prevent, or threaten to prevent a person from achieving their goals causes stress. As well as having personal items taken or threaten to be taken away from a person causes stress. Agnew tried to address many of the criticisms. The theory was widely criticized because it could not explain why many delinquents turn away from criminal behavior in their late teenage years. Furthermore, it fails to explain why delinquents can go without committing crimes for extensive periods of time (Hirschi 1969). The theory argued that delinquent behavior occurred in lower classes because they often lack the appropriate means to reach their goals. However, research showed that delinquent behavior occurred just as often in upper and middle class neighborhoods as well. Agnew also attempted to show that there are more than monetary rewards to gain, there were other goals that were to be attained from delinquent behavior. Becoming delinquent gives one a status in their community; it is also a sense of power and excitement. He argued that the theory was incorrect because it implies that when ambitions are high and expectations are low there should be an increase in delinquent behavior; this has been disproven through many studies. In fact, research has shown that delinquent behavior is highest when goals and expectations are low, and delinquent behavior is lowest when goals and expectations are high (Agnew 1985).

Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld added to the strain theory and called it the institutional strain theory. The institutional strain theory implies that the emphasis societal institutional puts on material success causes strain. Therefore, a person will go to any length to achieve material wealth. When one can not accomplish this success it is seen as a personal failure. The strain these types of goals places on a person causes crime to increase. Messner and Rosenfeld propose that criminal behavior increases when the values of a society are materialistic and focus more on self-interest and monetary rewards (Murphy et al., 2008). The pressure of gaining financial success combined with an increase in anomie weakens the social institutions, such as family, education, and other social groups and crime becomes the outcome.

Research Relating to Institutional Strain Theory

In a national study, John Cullen, K. Parboteeah, and Martin Hoegl, put the institutional anomie theory to the test. They studied how willing managers were to excuse suspect behaviors according to their nation's personal goals. The study included data from 3,450 managers and 28 nations and 3,450 (Cullen, Parboteeah, & Hoegl). There were a total of eight hypotheses that were investigated. It was predicted that the stronger a nation's individualism values, pecuniary materialism values, achievement values, and universalism values the greater the chance of its manager to excuse shady actions. To measure these things there was a survey of questions and the percentage of those who agreed were calculated.

The results for pecuniary materialism values and universalism values supported the institutional anomie theory argument that these values lead to more self-seeking motives, which in turn increases the managers' willingness excuse suspect behaviors. However, individualism and achievement values did not show support of Messner & Rosenfeld's institutional anomie theory. Individualism values and achievement values instead show support of Merton's arguments.

Merton believes that achievement and individualism vales increase deviance because of an increase of pressure to reach goals. Education, family strengths, and industrialization were also measured, and consist with the institutional anomie theory. In nations where the educational was more important managers were more likely to have a more compassionate toward others, excusing suspect behaviors. For the societies with a weakened family values the emotional assistance is also weak. This caused managers in these societies to be more egoistical and to excuse negative behaviors. The same results appeared when industrialization was tested. The more industrialized a society is, the weaker the social norms are, and therefore the managers are eager to excuse suspect behavior. It was concluded that the institutional anomie theory should be modified when applied to managers. The theory must take into consideration the position of the managers and the type of society they live in (Cullen et al., 2004).

In 1976 a national survey of adolescents, ranging from ages 11 to 20, were taken to examine the anomie theory. The adolescents were divided into three age groups; 11 to 14 year olds, 14 to 17 year olds, and the last group were ages 17 to 20 year olds. The ages were split to examine consistency over a period of time. This self-reported surveyed examined expectations and goals of the participants. A self-reported GPA was considered to measure academic success, the most recent GPA was used for dropouts or graduates. Financial success was determined by occupational opportunity. The participants were asked what they think their chances of receiving the job they want after they finished school. There were four types of deviant behaviors that were also used. These acts were considered illegal whether the participant was an adult or a child.

Most expect innovators to have the highest rates of offense, but the results show that the retreatists have the highest rates of these deviant behaviors. The survey reveled that 64%-72% have faith that they will have good occupational success. 48-66% of 11 to 14 year olds reveled that a college education is vital, these results tend to decline with age, and only 21%-35% of 17 to 20 year olds agree that college is important. Individuals with higher GPAs tend believe their chances for success is higher than those with low GPAs. According to the institutional theory, those with low education have higher levels on anomie, or lower expectations. The survey proved this correct in the middle adolescent years, but not the middle or late years. Occupational success, however, does not tend to be lower in middle adolescent years, but in early years. The research proved once again that the institutional anomie theory is consistently inconsistent.

Michelle Inderbitizn speaks on a study done at a maximum-security training school in which the staff was trying to "normalize" the young boys. Living in society has shaped the boys to want "The American Dream." The boys do not have the proper means to accomplish the goals, but they are willing to achieve this at any rate. They turn to crimes like robbery and drugs in order to attain the dream. Most were incarcerated before they had a chance to get a real job, and they spent most of their teenage years locked up. Upon release, the boys have already been stereotyped and they are expected to find a legal job making legit money. These young men are classified as Merton's innovators. They have positive goals, but no necessary means; they are willing to do whatever it takes to attain these goals. Most of the young men lack proper education, they have friends and family that have been in and out of jail, and they use and sell drugs. The boys were interviewed and they each felt like society has turned their backs on them. One of the young men felt that he was created by society, and now he no longer belongs.

Inderbitizin argues that the guards have the tough job of trying to train the boys correctly. They have to be the parent, while also continuing to be the authority figure. The guards are showing them that hard work is very masculine and it is a legit way to achieve goals (Inderbitzin 2007). A lot of the facilities think they are helping young people by trying to normalize them. In reality locking up the young men only gives them a criminal record and therefore they are deemed deviant. Once the boys are released society slams the door in their face; pushing them back into the innovation stage. The boys are in a continuous stage of failure. Even if the young men turn away from deviant behavior, they have already been "marked." Changing their ways means nothing if their criminal record says different. Finding a legitimate job is a challenge because of their past history. Going to college could be hard if they do not have the money, and depending on their criminal past the will not receive funds that will help them pay for college. The young men start to realize that they have no real chance of success in life; therefore the only way to reach their goals is through a life of crime.

Policies that will reduce Institutional Strain

Agnew proposed a couple of policies that could help reduce crime (Cullen, Wright, Blevins 2006). He suggested that there should be a reduction to negative activities and association. In addition, youths should be taught other ways to respond to stress. There should be more family oriented programs to build up a strong family support. Youths have to be taught that there are other ways to gain achievement than turning to criminal behavior. The parents have to be taught how to properly train their child to understand that true success takes hard work. Parents should also learn how to deal with strain differently in order to indirectly teach these habits to their children. Once the parent and child have built their relationship the youth should join school programs. This also helps relieve the strain.

The institutional anomie theory suggests that modifying the typical American Dream would reduce crime. It would reduce the strain that is put on a person, and therefore the goals and expectations change. (Holmes, Vito, & Maahs). Messner and Rosenfeld also suggest that husband and wives work at the same companies, parents be allowed more flexible schedule, and employers provide child care while the parents work. This will help because the children will no longer be left unsupervised during the times their parents work. Schools should try to enhance their programs as well. Youths involved in extracurricular activities are less likely to become deviant. These polices will help change the mindset of youths and parents. They will have things to look forward to and things to work on. Family oriented programs teach hard work will eventually pay off.


Merton explains that stress causes one to be delinquent and criminal; especially those in lower class neighborhoods. Agnew tends to disagree with his theory. Instead, Robert Agnew showed that youths in upper and middle class are just as likely to be become delinquent and they have very little stress or strain. Furthermore, he argues that most delinquents outgrow their criminal behavior, and Merton's theory fails to explain the reason for this. Messner and Rosenfled attempted to add to these theories and stated that the stress from social institutions causes strain and deviant behavior. Each implemented polices that could help the decrease of delinquent behavior. The Institutional Strain Theory is hard to test because there are too many variables in each case. Overall the theory has been proven in certain cases, and disproven in others. In order to be widely accepted the theory must continuously be revised. Agnew, Messner, and Rosenfled attempted to address these fallacies and also implemented polices that could help lower the delinquent behavior.

The chances of the policies being implemented are very unlikely. It is too much of a hassle and too expensive. It is very unlikely that the American Dream will ever change for the better. People will always hungry for more and will be willing to take any chance to get "success." In addition to these problems, there is no true guarantee that the theory is the cause of delinquent behavior. In fact, many researchers have disproved the theory, and have had to revise the theory to explain other reasons youths turn delinquent. The theory has been proven for only certain types of situations and certain societies. The institutional strain theory has been said to be consistently inconsistent.