Anomie Crime and Public Policy

This semester we have studied many theories of crime causation and delinquency. Of all of the theories presented in the course, anomie presented the most valid theoretical argument as to why people commit crime. Crime and delinquency can occur when anomie is felt by some members of a society. This multi-dimensional occurrence must have three factors at play for anomie to occur. Cultural influences, goal setting and being blocked from achieving those goals. Many cultures with a vibrant economy focus on material wealth and individual monetary success.

This type of success is viewed in high esteem. Attainment of societal goals are achieved through competition. A large percentage of the populous within a free market economy are held back from achieving those goals deemed important by society.

Those who cannot reach these goals may begin to experience anomie. This can occur due to low socioeconomic status, poverty or a sudden change in lifestyle like a loss of a job. This inability to achieve social stratification due to social status or poverty creates anomie within the population leaving people feeling limited.

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The options to successfully meet the goals set out by society in general are not within reach. (Cochran & Bjerregaard, 2012). According to Messner & Rosenfeld (2007), when supply of legitimate opportunities are lacking, the options people have to pursue socially valuable goals like monetary success are few. Many turn to achieving these goals by illegitimate means. In open market societies, people feel pressure to achieve financial success but are not necessarily in the position to do so.

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When a portion of a the population believe there is no way to achieve success without turning to illegitimate means, the social fabric of that society begins to break down. Social norms and values that once were held in esteem now begin disintegrate. The result is normlessness among the individuals in that group. A feeling of disconnection, lack of purpose and a hopelessness can run rampant within communities or it can affect individuals. When people within a population begin to turn to deviance in order to achieve the same successes as others, the community continues to degrade to the point that social strain begins to take hold. Anomie can occur in almost any subculture within a society. For instance, military members upon discharge from the service often feel a sense of anomie. They have been living in a regimented, strict environment. Often, they may be living in life or death situations for months at a time.

To suddenly be discharged and sent home, it is a shock since they do not have any notion on what to do with themselves once they are back on familiar soil. Their job is gone, their environment has changed greatly. Also, their goals now must be reframed to fit into civilian life as everything they are used to must change.Anomie doesn’t always happen in nations that focus on material wealth as a indicator of success. This problem occurs in many societies. In the article Structural Anomie and Crime: A Cross National Test by Cochran & Bjerregaard (2012), researchers studied how rates of theft and homicide vary across 49 countries. The study focused on the level of the cultural emphasis on gaining wealth, the ability for people to pursue those goals and the actual strength of the economies within the study areas. Researchers calculated cultural emphasis on the attainment of wealth using the Economic Freedom Index (O’Driscoll et al, 2003) which refers to the gross national product to measure the strength of the economies. What researchers found was four unique types of structural anomie within the 49 countries.

These varying types of anomie revealed their own unique criminological factors. The first factor considered was property crime. This factor has elements of a strong cultural emphasis on economic success. They found in societies which put a lot of emphasis on financial success, there were many opportunities for most people to reach their goals. However, these opportunities were not available to all members of society. Those who were unable to reach their goals of financial success, found alternate means to reach the same culturally valued goals. This manifested itself in high property crime rates.The second factor manifests itself in societies with is great focus on reaching economic goals. However, there is little support from the economy to support these goals for the majority of the population. Those who are regulated to the socioeconomic sidelines have feelings of frustration and anger. This stems from their inability to gain the economic freedom that is valued in their society.

The anger and frustration manifests itself in violent crime. The authors found in economies that did not stress economic wealth something very interesting. The societies that did not stress wealth attainment and did not have a robust economy also had a low property crime rate. However, the homicide rate was very high when compared to societies that value economic success. In societies with a strong economy but little emphasis on economic success, the rates of crime for both theft and homicide were mid-range. They were not overly high or low. Instead, these countries enjoyed a less than average crime rate for all crimes across the board.An example of anomie within a society where economic success is stressed but with opportunities limited to only part of the population is the American culture. In in the book “On the run: Fugitive life in the American City by Alice Goffman (2015), the author sees first hand the effect of anomie on a neighborhood.

Goffman befriended a young man who lived in an inner-city neighborhood in Philadelphia. Over time, Goffman was introduced to other members of her friends community and gained their trust. She conducted an ethnographic study of the people and the social structure of her friend’s neighborhood. She found families and entire neighborhoods felt anomie due to poverty. She also discovered an overall feeling in the community of hopelessness and anger. Anger towards the government most notably the criminal justice system and the police. These feeling were prevalent throughout the community. Goffman theorized the social breakdown began in this community when there was a sudden departure of manufacturing jobs in the area. With that came a large loss of long term, middle class residents who moved to the suburbs. The rapid shift of the inner city social structure occurred leaving the poor behind with few jobs and little stability within the community.

Those community members who remained, openly participated in deviance with hopes of gaining financial success either through selling drugs or participating in gang activity. Many residents (especially the youth) gave up on trying to achieve economic success in non-deviant ways. The majority of the people in the community felt there is no way out of poverty unless they chose to participate in criminal acts either directly or somehow on the periphery. Parents and neighbors were apt to overlook and defend the youth who became involved with illegal activities often mitigating their role in crimes. Goffman describes how the community worked together to help those actively commiting crime avoid the police. When asked by police, community members would lie to officers giving them incorrect information or lie about an offender’s whereabouts. Often those in the neighborhood would send officers in the wrong direction if they were involved in a foot chase so the offender could escape. If needed, neighbors would also provide a safe place for criminals to hide inside their homes until police left the area. Many in the community felt it was admiradable to assist those who were involved in criminal activity. They began to feel the only way to achieve financial success was to circumvent the system. People in the neighborhood felt a way to even the playing field was through crime and deviance. (Goffman, 2014).

Similar to the youth in Philadelphia, Merton suggests those who pursue illegitimate means of financial gain do so because they are living in circumstances where there is little educational or employment opportunities. People then to turn to a quicker means to gain wealth when they feel extreme financial stress or frustration. This is understandable in communities that have seen a rapid shift in population from middle class to poverty. With few jobs and even fewer opportunities to better their lives, anomie can set in resulting in an increase in crime.Researchers have attempted to find ways to prevent anomie with changes in public policy to focus on prevention. Though revitalization efforts in inner cities as well as shifting away from punishment and focusing on assistance, there is hope that it is possible to reduce the effects of anomie in struggling communities. Recent research has shown that the integration of social support policies and having a better understanding the implications of institutional anomie at the macro-level, can have a direct effect on poor communities crime rates. (Cao, Zhao, Ren & Zaho (2010)

In the study Social Support and Anomie: A Multilevel Analysis of Anomie in Europe and North America, researchers discovered when public policy changes its focus from negative causes of crime to positive public policies, anomie and crime rates go down. (Cao et al, (2010). Through social support programs, the tendency for people to violate social norms is reduced. Providing basics like food, housing, daycare and transportation assistance can reduce the stress of making ends meet which may push individuals to commit crime in order to survive. In this study, researchers surveyed and interviewed 38,000 people in social democratic nations across Europe and the North America to get their finger on the pulse of the level of anomie and its root causes. The study found empirical evidence that social support policies indeed has an effect on anomie. According to the authors, “The available evidence upholds the linkage of social support and anomie: Social support is likely to reduce conditions conducive to anomie.” (Cao, et al., 2010). In fact, public policy should shift their views from “doing something to a person rather [than] for a person.” (Cullen et al 1999) Some policy implications include focusing on the youth, providing increased social services and reducing drug use.

By removing the blocks that have prevented people from blighted areas to be successful are instrumental to reducing anomie in countries where economic achievement is the focus of society. Public policy should steer away from the reduction of spending for health care, education and other social welfare policies as the fallout from the cuts can have a very damaging effect on communities and individuals alike. (Cao, et al., 2010) There are many social support programs with the focus of reducing crime however, there are even fewer programs with the goal of reducing anomie within a population. If anomie is reduced especially among the youth, crime rates will also diminish. The evidence based program, “Say It Straight” has been implemented in many institutions across the country (and the world) with the goal of cognitive restructuring and teambuilding to increase self esteem, communication, self reliance. The program teaches self respect along with respect for others. Participants are given the tools to empower themselves and from this empowerment, resourcefulness.

The result is less drug addiction, deviance, violent acts and anomie to name a few. The program is used with youth and adults in a vast array of settings. Schools, youth detention facilities and treatment programs have participated in the program. “Say It Straight” has been implemented in drug treatment programs, prisons, jails and at probation offices to treat adults. Several studies have been conducted to follow those who participated in the Say It Straight program to determine the program’s long term effectiveness. From 1985-2011 self report measures revealed among both children and adults a reduction in drug or alcohol related problems. Participation in criminal activity and an increase in the overall quality of family and group interactions were noted as well. The participants reported their self esteem and ability to cope with difficult situations also increased. (Golden, Englander-Golden, 2014) A study was conducted with middle-school age children to test effectiveness of the Say It Straight program within schools. The study followed 799 middle school students. Of those, 509 students participated in Say It Straight training. During the first year, 55 students who received substance abuse related suspensions.

This was 240% less than two control middle schools that participated in the study. The following year, there were no new drug or alcohol related school suspensions for participants compared to 1295 suspensions for students who did not participate in the Say It Straight program. In regards to adults and their amenability to the Say It Straight program, a study was conducted in a co-ed treatment facility. Self-report surveys were administered before and after their participation in the program focusing anomie. According to the researchers, “Self-reports of disempowering behaviors and anomie showed highly significant decreases for disempowering behaviors and a significant decrease for anomie following SIS.” (Wood, 2004). The Say It Straight program which focuses on self-reliance, respect of yourself and others is a program that has shown impressive results in both self esteem and the individuals interaction with the world around them.

There is a reduced criminal activity, drug abuse, criminal offenses, and feelings of anomie. This program is only one of many evidence based programs that are helping those in the community become more self reliant, confident and rid himself of the feelings of anomie. This in turn increases their quality of life and those around them. Anomie is a complex social phenomenon. When a society sets expectations that cannot be met by a certain segment of the population, those who cannot meet the expectations of society turn to other means to achieve their goals. When this occurs, crime rates increase as do other delinquent behaviors. Research has shown public policy needs to change from a strong emphasis on reacting to social problems and attempting to stop the problems before they start. Public policy that focuses on assisting the poor and removing the blocks that restrict the poor from achieving the societal goals of economic success will do more for crime rates than a “lock em all up” attitude. Starting with the youth, programs that promote self-esteem, resourcefulness and problem solving is just one way we could all work together to lower the rates of crime and delinquency.

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Anomie Crime and Public Policy. (2021, Dec 14). Retrieved from

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