Criminology: Anomie (Strain Theory) Explained

American sociologist Dr. Robert Merton is considered by many scholars as one of the founding fathers of modern sociology. Dr. Merton is best known for coining the phrases “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy” which has become common terms in American culture.


Dr. Merton expanded on the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim on anomie with his theory on deviance and social strain.

Anomie in the simplest terms is a lack of social or ethical norms in an individual or group.

When Dr. Merton was developing his theory on deviance, he analyzed American culture, structure, and anomie. Dr. Merton believed that all United States citizens believed and strived for the “American Dream”; however, the ways in which citizens obtain the “American Dream” of success are not the same, simply because not all citizens have the same opportunities and advantages.

Dr. Merton believed that this leads to deviance in achieving the “American Dream” by some who turn to illegal activity while still believing in the dream of success but using illegal means to obtain the dream by such activity as illegal drug dealing to achieve financial success. Dr. Melton also suggested that for some they drop out of society becoming drug addicts or drifters realizing the “American Dream” is unattainable for them and this can lead to deviant behavior.

Dr. Merton expanded research on anomie in his deviance theory, is widely used today in criminology when studying Strain Theory.

Robert Agnew on Strain Theory and the American Society for Criminology

Merton’s Deviance Criteria

“A cardinal American virtue, ‘ambition,’ promotes a cardinal American vice, ‘deviant behavior.” ….Robert K. Merton

Dr. Merton believed there are two criteria that promote deviant behavior.

  1. A motivation of the person to adhere to cultural goals.
  2. A person’s belief in how to obtain these cultural goals

Dr. Merton believed that there are five types of deviance based on his criteria:

  1. Conformity: Is when the person or group accepts cultural goals and the means of attaining them.
  2. Innovation: The person or group accepting cultural goals; however, they reject the traditional and/or legitimate means to obtain cultural goals. An example would be organized crime families. They believe in the “American Dream”; however, use illegitimate and illegal means to obtain these goals.
  3. Ritualism: Involves the person or group rejecting cultural goals but accepting the traditional and/or legitimate means to obtain cultural goals.
  4. Retreatism: Is the rejection of both the cultural goals and the traditional and/or legitimate means to obtain cultural goals.
  5. Rebellion: Is when the person or group rejects both the cultural goals and the traditional and/or legitimate means to obtain cultural goals. An example would be Outlaw Motorcycle Club culture in which they reject society cultural goals and the traditional and/or legitimate means to obtain cultural goals by replacing both elements with their own goals and ways to achieve these goals.

The strain that society places on achieving the “American Dream”, leads to deviance according to Dr. Merton theory. There are plenty of examples of Dr. Merton’s theory in today’s news headlines with criminal cases involving banking investors, politicians, organized crime, etc. The need for greed to achieve the “American Dream” has caused many to intentional break laws to achieve financial success.

Merton’s Legacy

Sadly, Dr. Merton passed in 2003, but his legacy lives on through his criminology work that he has left us with anomie and strain theory.

The challenge for today’s criminologist continues through scientific research for a better understanding as to the causes of crime in our society so that policy-makers, mental health professionals, and law enforcement leaders have current information to help make our society safer.

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 30 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with Summa Cum Laude Honors. Mark has a Doctor of Education (Ed.D) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.