Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

A Cross-National Test of Institutional Anomie Theory: Do the Strength of Other Social Institutions Mediate or Moderate the Effects of the Economy on the Rate of Crime?1

Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

A Cross-National Test of Institutional Anomie Theory: Do the Strength of Other Social Institutions Mediate or Moderate the Effects of the Economy on the Rate of Crime?1

Article excerpt

Abstract. This study presents a test of Messner and Rosenfeld's theory of institutional anomie. It employs cross-national data on the rates of homicide and theft, as well as a variety of indicators of the economy and of the ineffectiveness of non-economic social institutions. Finally, it examines the degree to which non-economic social institutions mediate and/or moderate the effects of the economy on these cross-national rates of crime. As previous tests of this theory have also found, the level of support our results provide for the theory is dependent upon both the measures employed and the functional forms of the relationships.

Keywords: institutional anomie; economy; social institutions; cross-national crime rates.


In 1938, Robert K. Merton published his groundbreaking article entitled, "Social Structure and Anomie." In this thesis, Merton proposed that crime rates could be explained by examining the cultural and social structure of society. In particular, Merton developed the theory to explain the relatively high rates of crime present in the United States. He postulated that these rates could be explained by focusing on the cultural goals stressed by American society, especially the disproportionate emphasis placed on the goal of attaining monetary success (the American Dream) relative to that placed upon the legitimate means for attaining it. Merton also made special note of the structural strain built into the social organization of American society in which the opportunities to achieve these goals were unequally distributed; that is, openly available to some, while blocked for others. Subsequently, Merton's theory has been identified as one of the most influential theories of crime to be developed in the last century (Messner and Rosenfeld, 2001: 12). Succeeding its introduction, a number of theorists have both modified and expanded Merton's original ideas.

In 1994, Messner and Rosenfeld, drawing heavily on Merton's theoretical propositions, proposed a compatible theory of institutional anomie (IAT). Their theory was similarly designed to explain crime rates at the aggregate level and again focused on explaining the high crime rates in the United States. In particular, Messner and Rosenfeld (1994) focused on the interrelationships among the various social institutions in society. They hypothesized that an overemphasis on economic goals, coupled with a devaluation of the non-economic institutions in society, results in higher rates of crime.

Messner and Rosenfeld (1994) left us with a very intriguing structural theory of crime, but no way of directly testing it. In fact, some of the biggest challenges have been that many of the main assumptions and primary assertions made by the theory are difficult, at best, to examine empirically, particularly at the aggregate-level, because the requisite data needed to test these assertions have not been systematically collected. Messner and Rosenfeld (2006:130-131) lamented that the "high level of abstraction" of IAT "renders empirical assessments difficult" and that deriving "specific causal propositions and identifying operational measures of key concepts pose daunting challenges." Nevertheless, since its introduction, several researchers have attempted to examine key tenants of this theory and to at least partially test its fundamental propositions (Chamlin and Cochran, 1995; Messner and Rosenfeld, 1997; Hannon and DeFronzo, 1998; Piquero and Piquero, 1998; Savolainen, 2000; Batton and Jensen, 2002; Stucky, 2003; Maume and Lee, 2003; Schoepfer and Piquero, 2006). But data limitations have forced them to rely on indirect or partial tests. In fact, Messner and Rosenfeld (1997) had to settle for an indirect test of their own theory. While the current study follows the model of others by utilizing indirect tests to examine the theory, it enhances the existing research in a number of important ways. First, this research utilizes cross-national data to examine both violent and utilitarian offenses. …

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