Criminology Institutional Anomie Theory
Jukka Savolainen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0132


As a distinct explanatory framework, institutional anomie theory emerged in criminology in the mid-1990s. The first edition of Messner and Rosenfeld’s book Crime and the American Dream appeared in 1994 which is also when the first empirical application of the theory was presented at the forty-sixth annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology—this study was later published in the journal Social Forces. Institutional anomie theory (IAT, henceforth) is best understood as an elaboration of macrolevel elements in Robert K. Merton’s classic anomie theory. Following Merton, IAT retains the idea of systemic imbalance as a source of aggregate-level differences in criminal offending. The theory derives its name from its focus on “institutional balance of power” as the causally salient macro-level entity. Messner and Rosenfeld argue that an institutional arrangement where the (market) economy is allowed to dominate without sufficient restraints from other institutional spheres, such as the family and the polity, will be particularly criminogenic. They propose that the American society is an example of such a social system, in part because capitalism developed in the United States in a virgin territory as far as preexisting institutional structures. It is notable that, at the level of individual behavior, IAT is independent of strain theoretical assumptions frequently associated with Merton’s anomie theory. Indeed, by focusing on the restraining potential of families and other conventional institutions, IAT is highly compatible with control theoretical explanations of crime. This bibliography is organized into four sections. The first section covers publications focused on theoretical discussions of IAT. This is followed by the literature dedicated to empirical tests of hypotheses derived from the theory. The third section consists of research studies that cannot be characterized as direct “tests” of IAT but are nevertheless informed by the theory. The bibliography concludes with a list of review articles.

General Overviews

Messner and Rosenfeld’s monograph Crime and the American Dream (Messner and Rosenfeld 2007) is the most extended and authoritative statement of institutional anomie theory. This popular textbook is currently in its fourth edition. In addition to their book, Rosenfeld and Messner have produced articles and book chapters (Rosenfeld and Messner 1995, Rosenfeld and Messner 2006, and Rosenfeld and Messner 2010b) describing the intellectual origins and the core assumptions of the theory. Additional overviews discuss IAT from a thematic point of view. Messner and Rosenfeld 2000 and Rosenfeld and Messner 1997 discuss globalization, and Rosenfeld and Messner 2010a discusses criminal policy.

  • Messner, Steven F., and Richard Rosenfeld. 2000. Market dominance, crime, and globalization. In Social dynamics of crime and control: New theories for a world in transition. Edited by Susanne Karstedt, and Kai-D Bussman. Oxford: Hart.

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    Drawing mainly on writings by Karl Polanyi and Fred Block, this chapter offers a discussion of criminogenic tendencies inherent in advanced capitalism. Serves as an informative source to study the intellectual foundations of IAT.

  • Messner, Steven F., and Richard Rosenfeld. 2007. Crime and the American dream, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

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    An accessible and brief textbook that develops the key arguments of IAT through a comparative cross-national examination of the American crime problem. Offers a historical account of the anomie perspective. Concludes with policy prescriptions derived from IAT. Originally published in 1994 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth). Subsequent editions have elaborated on this text’s main themes.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 1995. Crime and the American dream: An institutional analysis. In The Legacy of Anomie Theory. Edited by Freda Adler, and William S. Laufer. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    A nontechnical introduction to the theory. Offers an abbreviated version of the core argument developed in Messner and Rosenfeld’s Crime and the American Dream.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 1997. Markets, morality, and an institutional-anomie theory of crime. In The future of anomie theory. Edited by Nikos Passas and Robert Agnew. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    Contextualizes IAT as an example of sociological theorizing on “markets and morality.” Describes IAT as an integrated cultural anomie theory and structural control theory. Offers IAT as an explanatory framework to study crime in the globalizing market economy.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 2006. The origins, nature, and prospects of institutional-anomie theory. In The essential criminology reader. Edited by Stuart Henry and Mark M. Lanier. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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    IAT research program in a nutshell: a quick summary of the theory, prior research, and future challenges in less than eight pages. Observes that there is more support for the structural than cultural assumptions of IAT.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 2010a. The normal crime rate, the economy, and mass incarceration: An institutional anomie perspective on crime control policy. In Criminology and public policy: Putting theory to work. Edited by Hugh Barlow and Scott Decker. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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    A discussion of IAT from the perspective of public policy and the recent decline in the US crime rate. Argues that strong association between economic cycles and the level of crime is consistent with the theory. Describes mass incarceration as a “stopgap” approach to crime control. Focuses on the issue of prisoner reentry as the most urgent challenge for American criminal justice policy.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 2010b. The intellectual origins of institutional-anomie theory. In The origins of American criminology: Advances in criminological theory. Vol. 16. Edited by Francis T. Cullen, Cheryl Lero Jonson, Andrew J. Myer, and Freda Adler. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    This autobiographical essay reflects on the disciplinary roots of IAT. Rosenfeld and Messner frame their agenda as an effort to craft a sociologically complete theory of crime. The following thinkers are singled out as the main influences: Merton, Durkheim, Parsons, Marx, Polanyi, and Mills. Most of the paper is dedicated to tracing the core ideas of IAT to these sources with reference to each authors’ personal biography in the field.

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