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Anomie and Social Disorganization Theories: The Turning Point in Criminology

February 2, 2013Cliff Lin

The establishment of the Chicago School changed the face of criminology and sociology forever. Prior to the work of the Chicago School thinkers, the propensity toward criminal behavior was assumed to be passed on genetically. Instead of viewing criminality as inherited, proponents of the Chicago School saw crime as a product of social disharmony (Williams and McShane, 2004, p.56). One of the most well-known theories of the Chicago School, the social disorganization theory, is an expansion of Robert Park’s (1864-1944) and Ernest Burgess’ (1886-1966) concentric ring theory, which states that cities are composed of many zones, the outer of which are more desirable than the inner. The social disorganization theory analyzes each zone and confirms that the inner zone is indeed problematic. Cities are far too complex to enable individuals to establish indestructible bonds. This “weakening of primary social relationships” is the essence of social disorganization. At the same time, the anomie theory, first established by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and later elaborated on by Robert Merton (1910-2003), addresses the chaotic structure of society, which the theorists refer to as a crime-producing factory.

The two theories pinpoint community formation as the root of all evil and agree that the only way to lower the crime rate is to formulate an entirely new social structure. According to the Chicago School theories, members of society generally agree on cultural goals and institutionalized means (Williams and McShane, 2004, p.99). Thus, the theories are regarded as consensus-based. Given the nature of crime and the variety of social circumstances in which individuals are placed, the anomie and social disorganization theories are well grounded, although small flaws exist within both theories.

Both theories are rooted in the extensively researched fact that participants in crime are often relatively deprived. The anomie theory reveals the tension between reality and over-emphasized goals. Those within the lower social class notice that only privileged individuals are able to achieve these goals easily and, therefore, consider themselves relatively deprived(Runciman, 1966, in Renzetti, Curren, and Carr, 2003;100). If the strain of not being able to access legitimate means to success overwhelms an individual, delinquent behavior is bound to occur. Likewise, the social disorganization theory focuses on crime-producing neighborhoods. Social disorganization theorists studied the people living in different zones and the possibility of these environments creating deviance. The zone of transition, filled with the four lethal elements that disrupt family bonds, has a much higher crime rate than do the other zones (Sampson and Groves, 1989, in Williams and McShane, 2004; 60). This relative deprivation motivates the denizens of the inner zones to escape their horrific environment by looking for new jobs. The resulting residential mobility increases the tension within the zones and produces even more restlessness among the residents.

In addition to recognizing the link between relative deprivation and crime, both theories emphasize that the individual is not fully accountable for delinquent behavior. Moreover, the culprit is not any particular government, religion, or belief system, though any of these institutions may participate in the task of creating deviance. While the two theories claim that society in general is the mastermind behind deviant behaviors, they disagree on which facet of society is mainly responsible. The social disorganization theory targets immigration and population growth as the responsible factors, since chaos is a by-product of rapid urban growth (Williams and McShane, 2004, p.60). Conversely, the anomie theory blames delinquency on the concept of success and the idea of the American dream.

The United States has long been associated with the notion of freedom: freedom to speak and act according to one’s will and freedom to pursue one’s own dreams, however outlandish they may seem. Businessmen flocked to the New World once it had been colonized in order to realize their entrepreneurial goals. In the centuries to follow, young people grew up with ideas of overcoming their social imitations and living lives of abundance. Though they may have had different career goals, American Dreamers agreed that wealth is something to be sought after and even expected. Most people, regardless of upbringing, looked forward to a certain number of personal assets and achievements. Thus, there is a historically based consensus among United States citizens about the goals worth seeking in life. For anomie theorists, a deviant is anyone who rejects the culturally reinforced ideas about what kind of lifestyle is most desirable. Retreatists, innovators, ritualists, and, especially, rebels, are abnormal according to these thinkers (Runciman, 1966, in Renzetti, Curren, and Car, 2003; 109). As for the social disorganization theory, it is to be taken for granted that nobody enjoys living in the inner zones and that avoiding these problem areas is of the utmost importance.

The anomie and social disorganization theorists are correct to assume that people in Western culture share important values. Upon examining our society, including the media and popular culture, one must admit that there is a consensus among the people as to what kind of existence is attractive (Toby, 1967, in Renzetti, Curren, and Car, 2003; 102). Furthermore, the theories are astute in their emphasis on relative deprivation and the absence of accountability to be placed on the individual. One can only imagine how difficult it would be to reach a state of economic contentment without having had any boons in life.

Although the two theories give clear explanations of social strife, minor flaws do exist. For example, the social disorganization theory states that immigration is the underlying cause of crime. However, it would be difficult to imagine crime coming to an end in the absence of immigration. The anomie theory is incomplete in that it rejects the American dream yet that positive goals should be enforced by society. It simply fails to tell us how extravagant our dreams should be.

Despite these shortcomings, the anomie and social disorganization theories have made a significant impact on the world of criminology. These intelligent theories have forced criminologists to look beyond individual abnormality and to embrace the reality that our hierarchical society creates deviance.

Cliff Lin

Cliff Lin

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Cliff is an Internet Marketing guru with extensive experience in ecommerce and internet marketing roles. He has solid small business background, successful ecommerce experience, and internet marketing expertise. He is capable of implementing the latest interactive marketing tools for company, as well as backend information systems to maximize efficiency.