Anomie and Modes of Adaptation in Criminality
Robert K. Merton’s article is based on a sociological theory which is in relation to the criminology and also explains a state of behavior different from the norm, otherwise known as deviance. The article shows that he established notable concepts, for example, unintended consequences, role strain, and reference group, which could be perhaps regarded as the terms self-fulfilling prophecy and role model. (Merton, 1936) Merton’s belief is underlined under the fact that this particular behavior is as a result of conditions in social structure. Additionally, the strain between culturally laid down goals and social culture have to be achieved.
Moreover, these culturally laid down goals are the major values that exist in a society and according to Merton, social structured are the norms in a society. Another aspect Merton highlighted in the article is the five different alternative modes of adjustment or adaptation in relation to an anomic society or by individuals living in a culture-bearing group or society, and he also pointed out the first adaptation, called conformity and conversely highlighted that the fourth adaptation, called the rejection of goals and means, in opposition of the first, while simply describing the other modes of adaptation. (Merton, 1936)
Furthermore, deviance is also as a result of imbalance of goals and the means. According to “d.umn.edu,” the concept of anomie or deviance appears in a situation in which there is no fit between the culture’s norms about what the success in life (goals) is constituted and the culture’s norms about the proper ways to accomplish those goals (means). Additionally, the explanation for the high rates of any kind of deviant behavior is from anomie. This is because Merton sees a polar relevance of society where success goals (usually defined basically in financial tiers) are emphasized for people in the culture, and these people are criticized as being ordinary quitters if they balance back their goals. (“d.umn.edu”)
Primarily, the concept of Anomie came from the Greek word “anomia” which means lawlessness or without law. (Garfield, 1987) This is a concept that explains societal instability which results from the breakdown in widely accepted values, and also widespread of personal feelings of alienation and uncertainty. (Garfield, 1987) From Merton’s article, he applied his ideas about anomie and did explore his personal opinion. Nevertheless, Menton did not invent the term, as Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), a French sociologist did invent it. As opposed to Menton’s believe of anomie as a term for strain theory or means end; while other scholars view anomie as the lack of norms or normlessness or even normative. (Willy, 2014) On the other hand, Dohrenwend, a sociologist also categorizes anomie as a deregulation, which is marked by the lack of norms altogether. (Dohrenwend, 1959:475: Willis, 2014) Additionally, other scholars had disagreed with Durkheism’s concept of anomies and establishing their opinions.
However, Durkheim’s concept or view of anomie involves the absence of norms or the presence of the conflict of norms. (Willis, 2014) This was a concept he invented in 1893, during his study of suicide to describe the mismatch of collective guild labor to developing and existential societal needs when the guild was homogenous in its social group. In other word, according to “Britannica,” Dukheim believed that anomie (one type of suicide) was developed from the breakdown of the social standards necessary for the regulation of the human behavior. Durkheim also observed the conflict that exists between the developed organic division of labor and the homogenous mechanical type is in relation to the fact that one of them could not exist while the other is present. (“The Division of Labor in Society, 1964”) Merton’s concept in his paper is apparently different from the inventor, Durkheim’s concept. Thus, the term can be broken down to a condition where the society provides a small amount of moral guidance to people. (Gerber, 2010) In addition to this, it is the breakdown of the social bonds that exist between a person and the community, for example, under unruly scenarios leading to the disintegration of social identity and a rejection of self-regulatory values. (“New York Times, 2010”)
Particularly, the presence of a social system in a state of anomie results into popular values and common meanings being no more understood or required, and new values and meanings will need to be developed. (“Britannica”) According to Durkheim, such related society brings forth, in many of its members, related psychological states portrayed in characteristics by a sense of futility, absence of purpose, and emotional emptiness as well as despair. When striving occurs in this situation, it’s considered useless, because there is no agreed definition of what is exactly desirable. (“Britannica”)
Merton’s argument is also based on the results that anomie brings forth in relation to lack of integration that is present between culturally prescribed goals and the availability of institutionalized means (norms) for the achievement of goals. (Glick, 2005) Indeed, there’s a result from structural positions within a society where some segments of the population, including the lower classes and some selected ethnic and racial groups have restricted opportunities for – and they are usually denied access to the legitimate approach of achieving success, including good education or even a good job. Any member of these disadvantaged groups, therefore experience many frustrations, pressures, and strains, which are usually very severe to make them deviate from their legitimate goals or means (norms) of their immediate society. (Merton, 1957)
Thus, this resulted in Merton presenting five modes of adaptation with the use of means to achieve goals, or to deal with the social strain or anomie, which include conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. (Merton, 1938) Four of these modes of adaptation, which are innovation, ritualism, rebellion, and retreatism occur when the legitimate means to attain goals are blocked. (Glick, 2005) In like manner, the fifth method of adaptation, which is conformity results when a person accepts both the legitimate means and legitimate goals and is in a social position that authorizes an access to both means and goals, just as the charts illustrates. (Glick, 2005)
Therefore, the chart with the five modes of adjustment or adaptation refers to the types of social roles individuals adopt in reaction to cultural and structural pressures. Starting with conformity, it is a non-deviant adaptation in which people proceed to engage in any legitimate occupational or education roles regardless of the environmental pressures toward deviant behavior. (Orcutt, 1983) This implies that the conformist agrees and strives for the cultural goals of only material success (+) ensuring to follow institutionalized means (+). Meanwhile, innovation involves acceptance of the cultural goal (+) but the refusal of legitimate, institutionalized means (-). (Orcutt, 1983) Further, ritualism represents a slightly different kind of departure from cultural standards than innovation. Knowing too well that the Ritualist is an over-conformist, in which the chase for the dominant cultural goal of the success of the economy is rejected or forsaken (-) and compulsive conformity still remains to institutional norms (+). (Orcutt, 1983) Moreover, retreatism relates to the rejection of both the cultural goals (-) and the institutionalized means (-). This involves total escape from the strains, pressures, and demands of the organized society. This was the adaptation Merton applied to the deviant role activities of autists, psychotics, vagabonds, vagrants, chronic drunkards, outcasts, and drug addicts. (Orcutt, 1983) Finally, rebellion is an indication by different notation as opposed to the other adaptations having the ± signs. This sign shows that the rebel does not only refuse the goals and the means of the created society, but progressively tries to substitute new goals and means in their place. This refers to the role attitude of political deviants who tries to modify massively the existing structure of the society. (Orcutt, 1983) Consequently, Merton thinks adaptation IV, which is rejection of goals and means is the least likely to the end in criminality. (Merton, 1938) Meanwhile, he also thinks the most likely adaptation to end in criminality is the Adaptation I, which is the conformity to both culture goals and means. (Merton, 1938) While accounting the possibility of the other three adaptations are only possible where frustration is deduced from the inaccessibility of the effective institutional means for achieving economic or any related highly valued success. (Merton, 1938)
Due to Merton’s theory and concepts of social structure and anomie as well as criminology, other criminological works had emerged as a result of Merton’s theory. According to Pamela Ugwudike, scholars who believe and accept that Merton’s work was only a fundamental critique relating to capitalism and the structural conditions it creates, even if his choice is not to make this explicit, they have described Merton as a cautious rebel. (Taylor et al., 1973: Ugwudike, 2015) Thus, Albert Cohen, a student of Merton came up with his theory in the 1940s and 1950s, which he called the subcultural theory; this is within the sociological positivism – in which the process is a collective one that is operated out in the youth subcultures that the disenfranchised move to. Additionally, Howard Becker’s theory emerged which rejected the claim of the Cohen’s structural disorganization theory; he maintained and opined that social reaction to deviance can cause crime and deviance. (Ugwudike, 2015) Other related theories include the neutralization theory, labeling theory, social learning theory, control theory, conflict theory, Critical theory, integrated theory, Sutherland’s differential association, and primary and secondary deviation. (Agnew, 2002)
Agnew, R. (2002). Crime Causation: Sociological Theories. Retrieved April 04, 2016, from
Anomie. (n.d.). Retrieved April 04, 2016, from
Blog 5: Robert Merton: Social Structure and Anomie. (2012). Retrieved April 04, 2016, from
Garfield, E. (1987). The Anomie-Deviant Behavior Connection: The Theories of Durkheim,
Merton, and Srole. Essay of an Information Scientist,272(3), 1-10. Retrieved April 4, 2016, from http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays/v10p272y1987.pdf
Glick, L. (2005). Criminology. Boston: Person.
Hilbert, R. A. (1986). Anomie and the Moral Regulation of Reality: The Durkheimian Tradition
in Modern Relief. Sociological Theory,4(1), 1. Retrieved April 4, 2016, from http://www.csun.edu/~snk1966/Anomie and the Moral Regulation of Reality Hiilbert.pdf
Macionis, J. J., & Gerber, L. M. (2008). Sociology (7th Canadian edition ed.). Toronto: Pearson
Merton, R. K. (1938). Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review,3(5), 672.
Retrieved April 3, 2016, from http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/jhamlin/4111/Readings/MertonAnomie.pdf
Orcutt, J. D. (1983). Analyzing Deviance. Chicago, United States: Dorsey Press.
The Anomie Tradition. (n.d.). Retrieved April 03, 2016, from
The Division of Labor in Society. (1964). The MacMillan Co., (Free Press edition), 182-183.
Retrieved April 4, 2016.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). Anomie. Retrieved April 03, 2016, from
The Editors. (2010). China’s School Killings and Social Despair. Retrieved April 04, 2016, from
Robert K. Merton. (n.d.). Retrieved April 03, 2016, from
Ugwudike, P. (2015). An introduction to critical criminology (1st ed.). Bristol, United Kingdom:
Policy Press: University of Bristol.
Willis, C. L. (1982). Durkheim’s Concept of Anomie: Some Observations. Sociological Inquiry,
52(2), 106-113. Retrieved April 4, 2016, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230115377_Durkheim’s_Concept_of_Anomie_Some_Observations.