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Theories on Society’s Role in Crime

In this post, we will look at theories that attempt to explain the role of society in motivation for committing crime. These theories are some of the older foundational theories commonly found in an introductory text to the subject.

Social Disorganization Theory

Social disorganization theory was developed within the Chicago School of criminology in the 1920s. The major contributors were Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay. The main contribution of this theory was identifying the relationship between crime and the neighborhood. More crime will occur in neighborhoods with abandoned buildings, lousy schools, and high unemployment.

When schools are poor and buildings are abandoned, the families with the means will leave. The danger of families leaving the neighborhood is that it weakens social ties within the community, which can limit crime. In other words, when there is a physical decline in the neighborhood, there is a corresponding social decline in the neighborhood.


Social disorganization theory is still influential in policy-making today. For example, gentrification is an attempt to revive rundown neighborhoods. Although this practice is highly controversial, it is an attempt to organize an area considered disorganized by some.

Anomie Theory

Robert Merton developed Anomie theory in 1938. This theory states that there is a difference between what a person wants and what they can achieve. This difference is anomie or a strain on the person. When people fail to achieve what they want by proper means, they will turn to crime to achieve these things instead.

The dilemma, according to Merton, is that society imposes an expectation of material wealth on people. To compound this problem, only certain maneuvers are approved for an individual to make money. For example, we have all heard the story of going to college, getting a good job, working hard for 35 years, and retiring. For some people, this route does not work, and thus they look for shortcuts to achieve what they want.

Examining the life of many criminals proves Merton’s theory. The person who grows up poor has few opportunities to get ahead the traditional way and thus turns to crime. Obviously, the person wasn’t stupid because building a drug cartel is not easy. However, Merton’s theory breaks down when one realizes that despite crime being higher among the poor, the typical poor person does not commit crimes. Therefore, like most theories, Merton’s theory does not explain all criminal behavior.

Anomie theory can also be applied to social classes beyond the poor. For example, many white-collar crimes are committed by people already considered successful financially. The problems these people thought they had was that they needed even more money for an even more lavish lifestyle or perhaps for the challenge of acquiring wealth.

Sometimes strains can be external. For example, parents lose their jobs, pushing them and their children into crime. Drugs and alcohol can also introduce strains into a situation, pushing people into making poor choices. Another application of anomie theory is the role of certain social institutions. For example, religious practice has been found to help people to focus on other things besides wealth. If the local church has lost its influence, it may no longer serve as a conduit to encourage people to think beyond money.


Crime has and will always be a problem. THeories will try to explain crime, but no single theory can explain every motivation for crime. What this means is that there is no single answer for preventing crime. Therefore, a multitude of theories with a multitude of solutions may be a necessary approach to addressing this issue

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