Book review: The Future of Anomie Theory

Mathieu Deflem

Published in Social Forces 78(1):364-366 (1999). Also as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. Review of ‘The Future of Anomie Theory,’ edited by Nikos Passas and Robert Agnew. Social Forces 78(1):364-366.

Talcott Parsons once called anomie one of the few truly sociological concepts. That was a long time ago and since then anomie theory has received variable attention. Whereas Durkheim’s writings on anomie have been discussed minimally but continually, it has particularly been Robert Merton’s theory of social structure and anomie that managed to establish a veritable tradition of anomie scholarship. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, anomie like no other concept stimulated debate and theoretical and empirical research. But coinciding with the relative demise of the functionalist paradigm, the concept abruptly lost its appeal to mainstream sociologists. It may come as somewhat of a surprise, then, that in more recent years anomie has witnessed a revival, as can be seen from the many new journal articles on the issue, a new generation of scholars who explicitly position their work in the anomie tradition, and two recent book-length studies, one in a popular series on theoretical criminology (Adler, Freda, and William S. Laufer, eds, Advances in Criminological Theory, Vol. 6: The Legacy of Anomie [Transaction, 1995]) and the volume presently under review.

Edited and introduced by two of the leading representatives of anomie theory, The Future of Anomie Theory contains an amusing preface by Robert Merton that provides further materials on anomie’s historical paths and turning-points. The volume’s chapters are written by some of today’s leading scholars in criminological sociology. Because of its focus on crime and deviance, the book does not deal with the new literature appearing in recent years (especially in eastern Europe) that has re-introduced anomie in the normative context of societies undergoing rapid change. The literature on anomie in relation to other substantive social issues besides crime (especially suicide and religion) is also not discussed in this volume. However, the appropriation of anomie by criminological sociologists in the American context need not necessarily imply any shortcomings. More disturbing in my view is the re-occurring focus in this book to introduce individual next to structural levels of analysis. Several of the chapters usefully draw the distinction between anomie theory and strain theory in Merton’s original formulations. Yet, this distinction is coined in terms of a micro-macro terminology that is less than useful, as it appears based on the assumption that anomie is a characteristic of societies or groupings while crimes would be acts of individuals. Several of the contributions in this volume so seem to fail to adopt a sociological notion of crime, which always conceives of crime as a social reality sui generis.

Briefly reviewing the various chapters, the theoretically oriented contributions are most clear in revealing the tendency to bring the individual back to criminological anomie research. The respective chapters by Robert Agnew, Albert Cohen, and Nikos Passas are explicit in expanding anomie and strain theory with individual-level contexts. Reviewing the contrasts and similarities between Durkheim’s and Merton’s concepts of anomie, Agnew makes the point that both authors are to be seen as advocates of individual-level strain theory. Building on his famous earlier work on extending anomie theory with role and reference-group theory, Cohen suggests to treat collectivities as actors and to research their and individuals’ determinants of choice in turning to deviant behavior. Passas also uses reference-group theory to introduce the categories of experience, feelings of relative deprivation, and anomia. Two other theoretical chapters, by Francis Cullen and John Wright and by Richard Rosenfeld and Steven Messner, attempt to expand anomie theory with insights from other analytical traditions. Cullen and Wright subsume anomie theory under a social-support perspective of crime, while Messner and Rosenfeld discuss the relationship between markets and crime to conclude that economic organization has ambivalent effects on crime levels.

The empirical chapters of this volume offer much of the richness that anomie theory has to offer. Dianne Vaughan applies anomie theory to organizational deviant subcultures in the case of NASA and the Challenger space shuttle disaster. John Hagan and Bill McCarthy build on their valuable work on youth crime and clarify their theoretical stance relative to life-course and social capital theories. Scott Menard, finally, offers a sophisticated empirical test of propositions derived from Richard Cloward’s famous version of anomie theory.

Crime continues to be a delicate subject matter in the sociological discipline. The highly volatile resonance of the crime problem in society at large may be accountable for the resurgence of individual-level analyses in recent criminological work. This book appears to set anomie theory also in that direction. But irrespective of my concerns on theoretical merits and limitations, The Future of Anomie Theory offers new food for thought in the anomie tradition. The volume surely makes good on its intent to offer theoretical extensions in the anomie tradition and materials towards the execution of stronger empirical tests and re-evaluations of prior research. As such this book is a worthwhile contribution for specialists in the anomie tradition and for criminological sociologists with theoretical interests.