Merton’s work has contributed greatly to criminological theory as he took a different perspective than Durkheim’s concept of anomie and reworked to the American context. The theories and concepts of anomie and strain that Merton argued have influenced the works of Cohen as well as the New Deviancy Theory and the New Penology. Therefore, Strain theory has evolved across time to encompass different situational circumstances of crime. Furthermore, due to the individual’s inability to achieve the appropriate cultural status, the idea of reference groups have also been highly relevant to today’s understanding of crime. Where evaluating oneself against peers constantly occurs as people try to better or compete against others.
Durkheim was raised in France during the second half of the eighteenth century, a time when individuals were regulated through society’s collective conscience which was heavily reliant on religion, enlightenment, and Darwinism. It was also a time of great turmoil generated by the French revolution in 1789 and the industrialisation of society, which created the division of labour and specialisation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (Gold & Bernard, 1986). One of Durkheim’s key themes is centred on social solidarity, where the transition from mechanic solidarity and the collective conscience of the church became punctured leading to the rise of individualisation (organic solidarity). Durkheim theorized that if the desire for goals was boundless, anomie would ensue due to the lack of normative control, followed by the emergence of strain. The strain would manifest into a range of outcomes, one of which could be deviant behavior (Pfohl, 1994). As crime was an inevitable product of the strain produced by the alienation and dissatisfaction concurrent in the deregulation of society, anomie was therefore representative of suicide and the division of labour.
Although Merton came to the similar conclusion of Durkheim’s that deviance was a product of societal structures, he took a different position to the grand theorist (Sztompka, 1986). Anomie did not originate from the collapse of structures beyond a point, but was based on the very design of the social structures. Hence, Durkheim’s anomie was based on the lack of restriction on goals, whereas Merton’s refers to a constraint on the means (Clark, Modgil, & Modgil, 1990). Because Merton was a middle-range functionalist, he questioned and furthered Durkheim’s concept of anomie from a different perspective. He looked at the smaller problems and tied it to greater society, whereas Durkheim focused on society as a whole. Merton therefore wanted to find out what produced anomie in the first place and did this by looking at particular goals that are endemic in American society (Hunt, 1961).
Merton’s upbringing in Philadelphia and the events that occurred during his writing influenced his take on anomie (Evans, 2006-2009). The Great Depression and the influx of immigrants...