Margaret Evans


        One could easily make the statement that Robert K. Merton was destined to become a sociologist.  Almost from the beginning of his academic career Merton was interested in sociology and society’s effect on individuals.  However, it could be argued that Merton’s most influential work was his theory of anomie.  Anomie is a well-known theory within the discipline of criminology.  Merton first published the theory in 1938 in an article titled “Social Structure and Anomie” (Hunt, 1961:59).  It was this work that catapulted Merton into the sociological spotlight in which he has forever remained.  This paper serves as a glimpse into the life of one of the most influential theorists in the 20th century.  It begins with a historical perspective highlighting Merton’s early days and education, it is then followed by a summary of his original theory, its subsequent revisions, expansions, criticisms and popularity at the turn of the century.

        Pfohl (1984:262) suggests that Merton’s childhood played an important role in shaping the direction of his future studies. Robert Merton was born in 1910 in Philadelphia to immigrant parents (Hunt, 1961:54).  He lived in a slum throughout his childhood, however described it with fondness.  Growing up Merton enjoyed learning and is said to have frequented the public library.  He was considered a smart child, earning extra money by performing magic tricks for other neighborhood children.  However, his magic days ended abruptly when he performed a trick involving swallowing needles.  Several parents of the children he performed for were outraged when their children began to try and swallow needles in order to emulate him.  Merton reportedly once told a Harvard colleague that in his younger days in Philadelphia he was a gang member.  He also went on to say that gangs we not as dangerous as they are today, citing that they were more “ceremonial than deadly” (Hunt, 1961:53).  Merton, unlike most teenagers he grew up with, received a scholarship to Temple University.  He excelled in his studies from the very beginning.  His early interests were in philosophy, however after an introductory class is sociology he quickly shifted disciplines.  After receiving his undergraduate degree he was granted a fellowship and in 1931 attended Harvard University for graduate school (Hunt, 1961:55).  Merton was described as a hard worker, who often spent his free time doing extra research and reading. (Hunt, 1961:53-59).

        While at Harvard, Merton read the writings of Emile Durkheim.  Durkheim was an influential French sociologist writing in the late nineteenth century.  He believed that individuals possessed an unlimited appetite of aspirations and it was up to society to regulate such an appetite.  According to Durkheim, appetites were regulated through the “collective conscience” of society; meaning people were bound together by their common morals and beliefs.  However, if this mechanism failed or was weakened significantly anomie would occur.  An anomic state would unleash individuals limitless appetites and could result in a variety of deviant behaviors. (Pfohl, 1994:254-260). It was after reading Durkheim’s work that “Merton assigned himself the task of discovering what produces anomie” (Hunt, 1961:58).

        It is feasible for one to argue that Merton’s childhood experiences in the slums of South Philadelphia coupled with the events occurring in the United States at the time of his writing affected the components of his theory of anomie.  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). It would not be a far stretch for one to accept his theory of anomie at the time it was introduced.  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 of anomie.  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.

In 1949 Merton revised “Social Structure and Anomie” for the first time.  The revision was published in a book edited by Ruth Anshen titled The Family.  Merton (1949:226) states in the first footnote that the paper is a thorough revision and expansion of the 1938 paper of the same name.  He further states that while the framework of analysis remains much as it was, he has elaborated on several undeveloped propositions.  These include further explanations of cultural goals, institutionalized means and the five individual adaptations in situations of strain.

In the 1949 version of “Social Structure and Anomie” Merton changed the definition of cultural aspirations to include those goals held out as legitimate objectives for all or for diversely located members of society.  In his explanation of means he reworded the definition slightly, but the meaning remained relatively the same.  He ended his discussion on goals and means much as he did in the earlier version on the paper, except for the fact that he credited the term anomie to Emile Durkheim.  In a footnote he traced the origin of the word to its first use in the late sixteenth century.

The wording of the paper and the order of ideas remained quite close to the original product until Merton began his discussion of the accumulation of wealth and the American Dream.  It is at this juncture that he expanded the discussion significantly.  He elaborated on the American Dream and Americans’ desire for pecuniary success stating that there is no stopping point within the dream.  The American Dream is cyclical in nature.  An individual wants just a little bit more than what he has and once he achieves the little bit more the process will begin again. Merton (1949:233) declared that the origin of the dream was an individual’s parents, who he deemed to be the “transmission belt for the values and goals of the group of which they are a part, with schools acting as the official agency for passing on prevailing values.”  He also claimed that individuals are bombarded from all sides with culturally accepted goals, citing numerous examples.

A second large expansion of Merton’s original work can be noticed in the typology of individual adaptations in situations of anomie.  Under the Conformity adaptation he added a further explanation of society and its functions in his model.  He stated that unless there is a deposit of shared values by individuals, there exists nothing but social relations, no society.  He alludes to the fact that this may be the case within society (Merton: 1949:236). 

In describing the adaptation of Innovation, Merton further develops the proposition that an individual who has not properly internalized the appropriate means for arriving at the sought after goal may choose such an avenue of relief.  He also draws upon the discipline of Psychology in asserting that a person who has a great deal of emotional investment in the culturally accepted goal may be unusually willing to take risk in the hopes achieving the desired end.  At this point Merton inserts ideas contained at the end of the original work under the section on Innovation.  While the discussion remained relatively the same, it is used to suggest that this type of adaptation is internalized most by the lower classes.  He does however interject the work of Edwin Sutherland and his theory of white-collar criminality under the same heading.  This addition suggested that many of the upper and upper middle class members of society have also internalized the American Dream and would do anything to become successful.

Merton also expounded on the concept of Ritualism more thoroughly in his revised paper.  He began this particular expansion questioning whether those who adapt in situations of strain in the form of Ritualism are really deviants.  He further described the individual who would subscribe to this form of adaptation as lower middle class with strong morals.  Merton claimed it was the strong internalized morals and the realization that the culturally prescribed goals are not equally attainable by all citizens that would keep this individual from choosing innovation and illegitimate means.

In his definition of the Retreatist, Merton remained close to his original definition.  He expanded on the concept only by adding an example.  The example was of Charlie Chaplin’s bum.  Merton (1949:251) said the bum exemplified “a precise characterological portrait of adaptation IV.”  The bum is described as “always the butt of a crazy and bewildering world in which he has no place and from which he constantly runs away into a contented do nothingness” (Merton, 1949:251).  The Retreatist, described by Merton, is the least common of all the adaptations and is the most resented by society for rejecting both society’s goals and means by which to achieve such goals.

The final adaptation in the revised paper discussed by Merton was rebellion.  He felt the need to clarify the difference between the concept of ressentiment, a Nietzsche term used in sociology by Max Scheler, and his concept of rebellion.  Merton stated the concepts were similar with the distinction between them being that ressentiment did not involve a change in values.  Merton further clarified that rebellion was the result of individual frustration with the way things were, and the wish to change not only the current goals, but the current means of achieving them as well (Merton, 1949:252-254).

Merton closed his revised paper with a discussion of the role of the family.  The purpose of this discussion was in part to explain how the role of the family fit into social structure and anomie.  Merton’s point here was mainly to expand on the input of the family in passing on culturally accepted goals and means of achieving the desired end. 

In 1957 Robert Merton published another revised paper under the title of “Social Structure and Anomie” as a chapter in his book Social Theory and Social Structure.  The work is fundamentally the same as the 1949 version, with the exception of the addition of  several more examples in the discussion of the wide spread effects of the American Dream.  The chapter entitled “Continuities in the Theory of Social Structure and Anomie” is a further clarification of the components of his theory and a response to several criticisms it has received.  The main response is directed at Cohen, which will be discussed later in more detail.

It is also important to look at the work of Robert Merton as a whole, especially its subsequent effects in Criminology. It is argued by some that it his theory of anomie that sparked a half century of theories and research.  In viewing his work as a whole, it becomes necessary to elaborate the differences between his work and that of Emile Durkheim.  As previously mentioned, it was Durkheim’s theory of anomie that inspired Merton’s theory of the same name. However, there is a fundamental difference between the theories is the direction in which they work.  Merton, for the most part, accepted Durkheim’s concept of anomie and its meaning of a normless state of society.  However, he took the concept in another direction.  As stated earlier, Merton saw a disjunction between culturally devised goals and accepted means of achieving the desired ends.  On the reverse side, Durkheim theorized that if the human appetite for goals was not regulated and became limitless, anomie would ensue, and from anomie, strain would emerge. Such strain would manifest itself in a variety of forms, one of which could be deviant behavior.  So while both Durkheim and Merton are considered anomie theorists, they differ significantly in their outlooks.

While Merton’s anomie theory is structurally different from that of Durkheim, it can be credited with drawing attention to the anomie theory in America.  Merton’s theory also could be cited for placing emphasis on the need for development of future anomie and strain theories, such as those by Richard Cloward, Lloyd Ohlin and Albert Cohen.  While Pfohl (1994:279) argues that credit should be distributed in the other direction, he does mention that Merton’s paper “Social Structure and Anomie” is one of the most cited works in Sociology.

Pfohl (1994-276-279) also suggests that some of Merton’s ideas resulted in several programs in the United States during the 1960’s.  He claims that programs dealing with strategies such as affirmative action and equal opportunity, along race and gender lines are keeping with the ideas of the anomie perspective.  A particular program that emerged during the Kennedy administration called “Mobilization for Youth” is credited to Merton, together with Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin.  Mobilization for Youth is based on the Mertonian principle of opportunity that was further expanded upon in the work of Cloward and Ohlin.  The goal of the program was to attack social structure obstacles for youths in a lower class Manhattan neighborhood.  Mobilization for Youth had the following objectives 1) to increase the employment ability of youths from low-income families; 2) to improve and make more accessible training and work preparation facilities; 3) to help young people achieve employment goals equal to their capacities; 4) to increase employment opportunities for the area’s youth; and 5) to help minority youngsters overcome discrimination in hiring (Pfohl, 1994:276).  In order to accomplish its goals, .  Mobilization for Youth designed a series of interventions to deliver specialized services and training to youth.  As stated by Pfohl (1994:277), Mobilization for Youth “was a far-reaching program of theoretically based social experimentation, an attempt to systematically blend sociology and social reform.”  However, as explained by Pfohl (1994:278), Mobilization for Youth may have been too radical for its time.  Not only did it not show a marked improvement in delinquency, it taught the lower classes how to bond together and strike out at that which they did not agree with, something that the government and other officials were not ready to support.

Robert Merton’s contributions to Criminology and Sociology may also be measured in the amount of response that he has received with regard to his anomie perspective.  Robert Merton’s theory of anomie has generated massive amounts of attention in the years since it was first published.  It has amassed countless reformulations and modifications, as well as a significant amount of criticism.  According to Clinard (1964:23) four important additions to, or reformulations of, Merton’s theory have been made by Talcott Parsons, Robert Dubin, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, and Albert Cohen.  I would also submit that Richard Rosenfeld, Steven Messner and Robert Agnew could be added to the same list.

        Talcott Parsons is often cited as the first to attempt to reformulate Merton’s theory (Clinard, 1964:23; Pfohl, 1994: 265-266).  Parsons felt that there might me more that just the one type of strain that Merton suggested.  Merton posited that strain was a result from inability to legitimately achieve culturally accepted goals.  He further stated that not all individuals in society have equal access to means by which to achieve the culturally desired ends.  Parsons, in his own model, suggested that there were at least two additional types of strain.  An example of the first type of strain occurs when an individual is unable to make institutionally accepted object attachments, as with the opposite sex (Clinard, 1964:23). He further suggests that a second form of strain may also occur when an individual cannot reconcile their own self-expectations with the expectations of others (Clinard, 1964:23).  While he recognizes the importance of cultural and social structure, Parsons also identifies a need for understanding of individual motivations.  He uses this proposition to expand Merton’s two variables to three, deriving eight possible deviant responses.

        Robert Dubin is also credited with expanding anomie theory.  He challenged Merton, pointing out the ambiguity in attempts to operationalize his theory.  In his opening paragraph Dubin (1959:147) states that “a theory can be tested for its ability to model that portion of reality for which it stands.”  He further states that Merton’s theory alone does not fully capture the reality it seeks to explain, however after his reformulations are added it succeeds in its mission of full explanation.  He also charged Merton with looking at deviance as detrimental to society.  Dubin approached deviance from a functionalist position.  He saw deviance a function of society.  Dubin claimed that the deviant adaptations to situations of anomie are not always harmful to society.  Such adaptations may contribute to society rather than harming it (Clinard, 1964:25). An example of such can be seen in the ritualistic adaptation, the individual is part of society, yet she is deviating from its culturally prescribed goals.  She is still “playing by the rules” and taking part in society.

From his domain assumptions regarding deviance, Dubin went on to make several revisions to Merton’s theory.  In his original essay on anomie and social structure, Merton examined the relationship between society’s emphasized goals and institutionalized means.  Dubin felt that a distinction needed to be made between cultural goals, institutional means and institutional norms.  In order to make such a distinction, he subdivided institutionally prescribed means into institutional norms and institutional means (Dubin, 1959:148-150).  Dubin considered this step necessary because individuals perceive norms subjectively, interpreting them and acting upon them differently than the next individual.  A person through their own specific learning mechanisms may internalize a norm one way, and the next person may internalize it in yet another way.  Both individuals through their behavior might manifest the same norm in different manners (Clinard, 1964:25). 

Dubin also extended Merton’s five typologies to fourteen.  In “Social Structure and Anomie” Merton described five possible adaptations to situations of strain. Dubin was particularly concerned with Innovation and Ritualism.  Merton stated that the innovative response to strain was accepting the goal, but rejecting the institutionally prescribed means of achieving said goal.  Dubin interpreted Merton’s original adaptation to required active rejection, rather than just simple rejection.  He felt that not only did the individual reject the means, he actively searched for illegitimate means as a substitute.  Dubin also thought that a distinction needed to be made between the actual behavior of the actor and the values that drove the behavior.  It is at this juncture that he divided both the Innovative and Ritualistic adaptations into subcategories.  Instead of Innovation, it became Behavioral Innovation and Value Innovation.  Likewise, instead of Ritualism it became Behavioral Ritualism and Value Ritualism (Dubin, 1959: 147-149).  It is these reformulations, together with Merton’s original five that make up Dubin’s extended typology. 

Merton (1959: 177-189) criticized some of Dubin’s revisions claiming that they took the focus off of deviancy.  He does concede that Dubin did make a valid contribution to his theory.  However, Merton claimed that the distinction was made between attitudes about norms and behavior, rather than simply norms and behavior.

        Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin are often considered developers of anomie and strain theory.  Some might even argue that is was their work that solidified strain theory as a major sociological perspective on deviance (Pfohl, 1994:279).  Cloward in his 1959 essay “Illegitimate Means, Anomie and Deviant Behavior” agreed with Merton’s proposition that there was differential legitimate opportunity.  However, he carried it a step further by claiming that there was also differential illegitimate opportunity as well.  Meaning that just as any given individual may not have equal access to legitimate means of achieving goals, the same individual may not have equal access to illegitimate means of achieving the same goals (Cloward, 169-170). 

Cloward also reformulated the Retreatism section of Merton’s typology.  In the original model, Merton had proclaimed that Retreatist included those who could not participate in society as a result of mental disease or defect.  Retreatists were also those individuals who chose to drink or take drugs to escape the fact that they could not function in society by achieving goals through legitimate means.  However, the Retreatist also would not turn to illegitimate means due to an internalized mechanism.  Cloward disagreed with Merton at this juncture, he believed that the Retreatist suffered from a sort of “double failure”.  There was no opportunity for them to succeed through legitimate means and there was no opportunity to succeed through illegitimate means either (Cloward, 1959: 175-176).  Cloward went on to build upon these early propositions with his colleague Lloyd Ohlin, later publishing a work entitled Delinquency and Opportunity (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960).

        Cloward and Ohlin (1960:x-xi) stated that one of their goals in writing Delinquency and Opportunity was to bridge two streams of thought together.  They were referring to the work of Durkheim and Merton on the anomie perspective and that of Edwin Sutherland, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay and their work on social structure.  Furthermore it has been argued by Clinard (1964:29) that their work has succeeded in this endeavor, adding the concept of differential access to opportunity.  Cloward and Ohlin (1960:82-86) discuss Merton’s contributions to strain theory.  They credit his formulation for allowing them to make statements about the distinctions regarding the severity of the pressures toward deviant behavior, which originates at different points in the social structure.  This point is elaborated on in a discussion of examples of differential opportunity between members of the middle class and members of the lower class.  They further discuss opportunities afforded to the middle class individual, such as the possibility of higher education and familial support in starting a business.  Such opportunities are not often available to the lower class.  From this statement they further predict that the greatest pressure to engage in deviant behavior will be amongst those in the lower class.

        Albert Cohen is another of Robert Merton’s critics, as well as an advocate of his ideas (Pfohl, 1994:268).  Cohen (Pfohl, 1994:268) is well known for his 1955 work Delinquent Boys.  In this work, Cohen discussed the relationship between delinquent gangs and class structure in America.  He claims that lower class boys resent the middle class ideals and values that are placed on them.  In turn the boys that suffer from such resentment bond together forming a gang (Clinard, 1964:30-31).  In commenting on the existence of a relationship between his work and Merton’s anomie theory, Cohen (1955:36) states:


This argument is sociologically sophisticated and highly plausible as an explanation for adult professional crime and for the property delinquency of some older and semi-professional juvenile thieves.  Unfortunately, it fails to account for the non-utilitarian quality of the sub-culture, which we have described.  Were the participant in the delinquent sub-culture merely employing illicit means to the end of acquiring economic goods he has thus acquired.  Furthermore the destructiveness, the versatility, the zest and the wholesale negativism which characterizes the delinquent sub-culture are beyond the purview of this theory.


Merton (1957: 177-179) agreed with Cohen’s statement saying that his theory of anomie is designed to account for some, but not all forms of deviant behavior customarily described as delinquent or criminal.  Merton further stated that while his theory may not account for the non-utilitarian quality of the sub-culture, it does not maintain that deviant behavior is rationally calculated or utilitarian.  It appears in his account, Merton (1957: 178) perceived a marked similarity in his ideas and those of Cohen.

Cohen also criticized Merton’s theory for being too individualistic in his description of the adaptations to strain (Pfohl, 1994:269; Clinard, 1964: 32).  Merton took note of Cohen’s criticisms and in future revisions of his theory he added commentary about the importance of reference groups.  Specifically individual interaction within the reference group (Pfohl, 1994:269).

        Richard Rosenfeld and Steven Messner are also noted strain theorists.  Much of their theory is derived from Merton’s work.  Specifically they built on the section of Merton’s theory with regard to emphasized goals.  In their work “Crime and the American Dream” they seek to explain the cause of the United States’ elevated crime rate in terms of the American Dream.  As did Merton, Rosenfeld and Messner (1995:141) have claimed that there is a causal link between the crime rate and the core values circumscribed within the American Dream.  Their work also blames the high crime rate on the institutional imbalance of power.  As discussed in the work of Merton and Cloward and Ohlin, there is differential access to opportunity.  Those individuals with the means and the power can succeed while those individuals without it are left by the wayside.  Rosenfeld and Messner’s work can be viewed as an extension of Merton’s ideas.

        Robert Agnew is another contemporary critic of Robert Merton.  Agnew has sought to expand upon on the different types of strain.  He notes (1992:151) that the original strain theories concentrated on strain that was related to failure to attain positively valued goals. He posited that strain resulting in such a manner is only one type of strain.  He argues that there are least two more.  The first strain is brought on by the loss of positively valued stimuli. Such strain could include divorce, death of a family member or loss of employment.  The second strain is acquired by the actual or anticipated presence of negative stimuli.  This type of strain includes anything from a wide range of abuse, to surgery, or a tax audit.  Agnew also identified different coping mechanisms for dealing with stress or strain.  He discusses conventional coping mechanisms and non-conventional coping mechanisms.  An example of the difference between normal and abnormal could be, if an individual loses his job and is short on money.  He can cope normally by getting another job, filing for unemployment benefits, or asking someone for a loan, or the individual could cope with the situation abnormally by robbing a bank.  Each is way of dealing with strain, one is deviant and the other is not deviant.  Agnew’s main attempt in this work is to provide a broader version of strain that might re-ignite the popularity of strain theory (Agnew, 1992:151-160).

        In addition to the many modifications of Merton’s anomie theory and the criticisms contained within them, there are other broad criticisms. One of the biggest criticisms of Merton is his ambiguity with regard to the meanings behind the terms he employed.  Rosenfeld (1989:459) cites an example in the “double meaning” given to the concept “legitimate means”.  It is not clear if Merton was referring to a need for equal opportunity through legitimate means to actually reach the desired end or just equal opportunity to try to reach the desired ends.  Rosenfeld (1989:459) also criticizes Merton for never fully quantifying his concepts so that his theory might be properly tested.  He claims that with all of the minor reformulations and extended discussions on anomie theory, Merton’s concepts remain unclear.  A final criticism of Rosenfeld (1989:460) is that there is a false logic in basing programs, such as Mobilization for Youth, on Merton’s theory.  He argues that strain theory does not predict that more opportunity would lead to less crime.  So program that were based on Merton’s proposition of “more opportunity” may have been misguided from inception

        A final way to measure Merton’s contribution to the disciplined of Criminology is to examine how popular his theory remains.  In a search of the existing literature for the years 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 approximately twenty publications surfaced on the subject of anomie and strain theory.  In another search for the same years, seven dissertations were found dealing in some way with the components of anomie theory.  To say that the theory is enjoying the popularity that it did in its heyday would be false.  However, it would be fair to say that anomie and strain theory is far from dead.  There still remain several scholars that remain dedicated to keeping Durkheim and Merton’s theory alive.

        Robert Agnew and Nikos Passas (1997:1) claim that there have been several criminologists that have rallied to the defense of anomie theory and because of such efforts, there has been a resurgence of interest in the theory.  It is stated that articles on the subject are becoming more common and the theory is receiving more attention at professional meetings such as those of the American Society of Criminology.  The Future of Anomie Theory, edited by Agnew and Passas (1997: 1-2) attempts to describe the direction that anomie theory is moving toward.  They further suggest that there are three current themes in anomie research, a re-examination of the empirical research on classic anomie theory, more specific tests of classic anomie theory, and efforts to revise and extend classic anomie theory (Agnew and Passas 1997: 1-2).  It appears that the anomie perspective may be once again revitalized.

        No time in the immediate future will the work of the man whose career has spanned almost seven decades be forgotten.  There is not doubt that most scholars would agree that that Robert Merton has left an indelible mark on the field.




Agnew, Robert.  (1992).  “A General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency”  Pp. 151-160 in Criminological Theory:Past to Present (Essential Readings) Los Angeles:Roxbury.

Clinard, Marshall B. (1964).  “The Theoretical Implications of Anomie” in Anomie and Deviant Behavior, edited by Marshall B. Clinard.  New York: Free Press.

Cloward, Richard.  (1959).  “Illegitimate Mean, Anomie, and Deviant Behavior.” American Sociological Review 24: 164-176.

Cohen, Albert (1955). Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. Glencoe: Free Press

Dubin, Robert. (1959)  “Deviant Behavior and Social Structure: Continuities in Social Theory.” American Sociological Review 24:147-163.

Hunt, Morton. (1961). “A Biographical Profile of Robert K. Merton,” The New Yorker 28:39-63.

Merton, Robert K. (1938). “Social Structure and Anomie,” American Sociological Review 3:672-682.

Merton, Robert K. (1949). “Social Structure and Anomie: Revisions and Extensions” Pp. 226-257 in The Family, edited by Ruth Anshen. New York: Harper Brothers.

Merton, Robert K. (1957).  Social Theory and Social Structure rev. ed. Glencoe: Free Press.

Merton, Robert K. (1959).  “Social Conformity, Deviation, and Opportunity-Structures:  A Comment on the Contributions of Dubin and Cloward.” American Sociological Review 24:177-189.

Passas, Nikos and Robert Agnew. (1997).  The Future of Anomie Theory. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Pfohl, Stephen.  (1994).  Images of Deviance and Social Control. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rosenfeld, Richard.  (1989).  “Robert Merton’s Contributions to the Sociology of Deviance.”  Social Inquiry 59:453-466.

Rosenfeld, Richard and Steven Messner. (1995).  “Crime and the American Dream” Pp. 141-150 in Criminological Theory:Past to Present (Essential Readings) Los Angeles:Roxbury.