8 Social Structure Theories of Crime I Early Development and Strain Models of
As you read this chapter, consider the following topics:
Distinguish social structure theories from other models or perspectives presented in this book.
Explain what contributions and conceptual development Émile Durkheim added to the evolution of this perspective around the turn of the 19th century. Describe
how his studies showed a significant breakthrough in social science.
Explain why Robert K. Merton’s theory of strain become popular when it did, as well as how his conceptualization of “anomie” differed from Durkheim’s.
Identify some of the revisions or variations of strain theory presented a couple of decades later and how they differ from Merton’s original theory. Specifically,
explain types of elements that these derivative theories emphasized that Merton’s model did not include and what types of categories of individuals or gangs were
labeled in these later models.
Evaluate how Robert Agnew’s proposed model of general strain added more sources of strain to Merton’s original framework.
Identify some ways the various models of strain theory have informed policy making in attempts to reduce criminality.
This chapter will examine explanations of criminal conduct that emphasize the differences among varying groups in societies, particularly in
the United States. Such differences among groups are easy to see in everyday life, and many theoretical models have been developed that place
the blame for crime on observed inequalities and/or cultural differences among groups. In contrast to the theories presented in previous
chapters, social structure theories disregard any biological or psychological variations across individuals. Rather than emphasizing
physiological factors, social structure theories assume that crime is caused by the way societies are structurally organized.
These social structure theories vary in many ways, most notably in what they propose as the primary constructs and processes causing criminal
activity. For example, some structural models place an emphasis on variations in economic or academic success, whereas others focus on
differences in cultural norms and values. Still others concentrate on the actual breakdown of the social structure in certain neighborhoods and
the resulting social disorganization that occurs from this process (which we will examine in the next chapter). Regardless of their differences,
all the theories examined in this chapter emphasize a common theme: Certain groups of individuals are more likely to break the law due to
disadvantages or cultural differences resulting from the way society is structured.
The most important distinction of these social structure theories, as opposed to those discussed in previous chapters, is that they emphasize
group differences instead of individual differences. In other words, structural models tend to focus on the macro level of analysis as opposed to
the micro level (note: these units of analysis were discussed in the first chapters of this text). Therefore, it is not surprising that social structure
theories are commonly used to explain the propensity of certain racial/ethnic groups to commit crime as well as the overrepresentation of the
lower class in criminal activity.
As you will see, these theoretical frameworks were presented as early as the 1800s and reached their prominence in the early to mid-1900s,
when the political, cultural, and economic climate of society was most conducive to such explanations. Although social structural models of
crime have diminished in popularity in recent decades,1 there is much validity to propositions in the theories discussed in this chapter, and
there are numerous applications for social structure theories in contemporary society.
Early Theories of Social Structure: Early to Late 1800s
Early European Theorists: Comte, Guerry, and Quetelet
Most criminological and sociological historians trace the origin of social structure theories to the research done in the early to mid-1800s by a
number of European researchers, the most important including Auguste Comte, Andre-Michel Guerry, and Adolphe Quetelet.2 Although we
will not discuss the various concepts, propositions, and research findings from their work, it is important to note that all their work was largely
inspired by the social dynamics that resulted from the Industrial Revolution (defined by most historians as beginning in the mid-1700s and
ending in the mid-1800s), which was in full swing at the turn of the 18th century and continued throughout most of the 1800s. Societies were
quickly transitioning from primarily agriculture-based economies to more industrial-based economies, and this transition inevitably led to
populations moving from primarily rural farmland to dense urban cities, which seemed to cause an enormous increase in social problems.
These social problems ranged from failure to properly dispose of waste and garbage, to constantly losing children and not being able to find
them, to much higher rates of crime (which continue to grow in urban areas compared with suburban and rural areas).
The Black Binder Bandit
A recent news story reported on a jobless man who was arrested for committing a dozen bank robberies across the Phoenix valley. The man, Cristian Alfredo Urquijo, 39,
told authorities that he did it to survive and that “desperation was a great motivator.” He was accused of robbing at least a dozen banks between 2010 and 2011. The
criminal complaint noted that he had been laid off from work, was unable to find employment, and robbed the Phoenix-area banks to survive. He went on to say, “It’s
pretty simple. It’s black and white. I don’t have a job, I had to work, and I rob to survive.” During his crime spree, authorities called him “The Black Binder Bandit”
because he typically hid a revolver in a black binder and also would usually place the stolen money in this binder.
Urquijo pleaded guilty to nine counts of bank robbery, three counts of armed bank robbery, and one count of use of a firearm in a crime of violence, which carries an
enhanced sentence. He had originally been charged with 16 counts of bank robbery, but as often happens in plea negotiations, the counts were reduced. He did admit that
he had robbed at least 12 banks and also that he had obtained more than $49,000 from these bank robberies.
It is obvious that this man committed these crimes because he wanted to provide for himself in an economic recession. This is just one of many examples of individuals
who are strongly motivated to commit crimes—even the major federal crime of bank robbery—to deal with the economic strain or frustration of not being able to “get
ahead” or achieve the American Dream of success. This chapter discusses the evolution of theories that address this concept of trying to provide for oneself or succeed
while dealing with societal and economic dynamics in American society. Specifically, this chapter reviews the development of anomie/strain theory, starting with its
origins among early social structure theorists, such as Durkheim, and moving to its further development by Merton. The chapter also examines the development of
various strain models of offending as well as the most modern versions of strain theory (e.g., general strain theory). We will also examine the empirical research findings
on this perspective, which reveal that this framework remains one of the dominant theoretical explanations of criminal behavior in modern times. We will finish this
chapter by examining the policy implications suggested by this perspective for explaining criminal behavior, and we will further discuss the case of “The Black Binder
Bandit” toward the end of this chapter.
As surveillance photos show, Urquijo typically carried into the bank a black binder, in which he hid a revolver and the money he acquired from the bank robbery.
It should be noted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) typically assigns nicknames (such as “The Black Binder Bandit”) to serial bank robbers. The FBI does so
for a very important reason: The public is more likely to take note of serial bank robbers when there is a catchy moniker or nickname attached to them. Apparently, this
strategy is useful, because bank robbery actually has a much higher clearance rate than other types of robbery. Other notable nicknames of serial bank robbers in the past
few years are the “Mesh-Mask Bandit” (still at large in Texas; wears a mesh mask), the “Geezer Bandit” (still at large in Southern California; authorities believe that the
offender may be a young person disguising himself as an elderly person), and the “Michael Jackson Bandit” (still at large in Southern California; wears one glove during
robberies). Although all these bank robbery suspects are still “at large,” many others have been caught as a result of making their nicknames notable to the public.
Think About It:
1. Can you articulate why the “Black Binder Bandit” seems to be a good example of Merton’s strain theory?
2. Based on what he said to the police and his behavior, what adaptation of strain would you say best fits him?
3. Outside the nicknames already listed in this discussion, do you know of any other robbers the authorities have nicknamed and the reason(s) the robbers were given
“IT’S PRETTY SIMPLE. IT’S BLACK AND WHITE. I DON’T HAVE A JOB, I HAD TO WORK, AND I ROB TO SURVIVE.”
The problems associated with such fast urbanization, as well as the shift in economics, led to a drastic change in basic social structures in
Europe as well as the United States. In addition to the extraordinary implications of the Industrial Revolution on the Western world, other types
of revolutions were also affecting social structure. One of the first important theorists in the area of social structure theory was Auguste Comte
(1798–1857); in fact, Comte is widely credited with coining the term sociology, because he was the first to be recognized for emphasizing and
researching concepts based on more macro-level factors, such as social institutions (e.g., economic factors).3 Although such conceptualization
is elementary by today’s standards, it had a significant influence on the sociological thinking that followed.
Soon after, the first modern national crime statistics were published in France in the early 1800s, and a French lawyer named André-Michel
Guerry (1802–1866) published a report that examined these statistics and concluded that property crimes were higher in wealthy areas but
violent crime was much higher in poor areas.4 Some experts have claimed that this report likely represents the first study of scientific
criminology,5 and this was later expanded and published as a book. Ultimately, Guerry concluded that opportunity, in the sense that the wealthy
had more to steal, was the primary cause of property crime. Interestingly, this conclusion is supported by recent U.S. Department of Justice
statistics that show that property crime is just as common, if not more so, in middle- to upper-class households but that violent crime is not.6 It
is clear, as Guerry stated centuries ago, that there is more to steal in the wealthier areas and that poor individuals will use opportunities to steal
goods and currency from wealthy households or establishments.
Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874) was a Belgian researcher who, like Guerry, examined French statistics in the mid-1800s. Besides showing
relative stability in the trends of crime rates in France, such as in age distribution and female-to-male ratios of offending, Quetelet also showed
that certain types of individuals were more likely to commit crime.7 Specifically, Quetelet showed that young, male, poor, uneducated, and
unemployed individuals were more likely to commit crime than were their counterparts,8 which has also been supported by modern research.
Similar to Guerry, Quetelet concluded that opportunities, in addition to the demographic characteristics, had a lot to do with where crime
tended to be concentrated.
However, Quetelet added a special component by identifying that greater inequality or gaps between wealth and poverty in the same place tend
to excite temptations and passions. In other words, areas that exhibited large differences in wealth, with many poor and many wealthy in close
proximity, had the biggest problems. This is a concept referred to as relative deprivation and is a quite distinctive condition from that of just a
state of poverty.
relative deprivation: the perception that results when relatively poor people live in close proximity to relatively wealthy people.
For example, a number of deprived areas in the United States do not have high rates of crime, likely because virtually everyone is poor, so
people are generally content with their lives relative to their neighbors. However, in areas of the country where there are very poor people
living in close proximity to very wealthy people, this causes animosity and feelings of deprivation compared with others in the area. Studies
have supported this hypothesis,9 and this is one of the likely explanations for why Washington, DC, which is perhaps the most powerful city in
the world but also has a large portion of severely rundown and poor areas, has such a high crime rate compared with any other jurisdiction in
the country.10 Modern studies have also supported this hypothesis in showing a clear linear association between higher crime rates and
localities with more relative deprivation. For example, in more modern times, David Sang-Yoon Lee found that crime rates were far higher in
cities that had wider gaps in income; specifically, the larger the gap between the 10th and 90th percentiles, the greater the crime levels.11
People window-shopping and passing by a woman begging for money.
Richard Baker/In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
In addition to the concept of relative deprivation, Quetelet showed that areas with the most rapidly changing economic conditions also showed
high crime rates (this will be discussed later in the chapter when we review Durkheim). Quetelet is perhaps best known for this comment: “The
crimes . . . committed seem to be a necessary result of our social organization. . . . Society prepares the crime, and the guilty are only the
instruments by which it is executed.”12 This statement makes it clear that crime is a result of societal structure and not of individual
propensities or personal decision-making. Thus, it is not surprising that Quetelet’s position was controversial at the time when he wrote (when
most theorists were focusing on free will and deterrence) and that he was rigorously attacked by critics for removing all decision-making
capabilities from his model of behavior. In response, Quetelet argued that his model could help lower crime rates by leading to social reforms
that address the inequalities of the social structure (such as those between the wealthy and the poor).13
One of the essential points of Guerry’s and Quetelet’s work is the positivistic nature of their conclusions. Specifically, they both concluded that
the distribution of crime is not random; rather, it is the result of certain types of persons committing certain types of crime in particular places,
largely due to the way society is structured and distributes resources. This perspective of criminality strongly supports the tendency of crime to
be clustered in certain places as well as among certain persons in these places. Such findings support a structural, positivistic perspective of
criminality through which criminality is seen as being deterministic and, thus, caused by factors outside an individual’s control. So in some
ways, the early development of structural theories was in response to the failure of the Classical approach to crime control. We will see that as
the 19th century drew to a close, Classical and deterrence-based perspectives of crime fell out of favor, while social structure theories and other
positivistic theories of crime, such as the structural models developed by Guerry and Quetelet, attracted far more attention.
Durkheim and the Concept of Anomie
Although influenced by earlier theorists (e.g., Comte, Guerry, and Quetelet), Émile Durkheim (1858–1916) was perhaps the most influential
theorist in modern structural perspectives on criminality.14 As discussed above, like most other social theorists of the 19th century, he was
strongly affected by the political (e.g., American and French) revolutions and the Industrial Revolution. In his doctoral dissertation (1893) at
the University of Paris—the first sociological dissertation at that institution—Durkheim developed a general model of societal development
largely based on the economic/labor distribution, in which societies are seen as evolving from a simplistic mechanical society toward a
multilayered organic society (see Figure 8.1).
As outlined in Durkheim’s dissertation, titled The Division of Labor in Society, primitive mechanical societies exist as those in which all
members essentially perform the same functions, such as hunting (typically males) and gathering (typically females). Although there are a few
anomalies (e.g., medicine men), virtually everyone experiences essentially the same daily routine. Such similarities in daily routine and
constant interaction with like members of the society lead to a strong uniformity in values, which Durkheim called the collective conscience.
The collective conscience is the degree to which individuals of a society think alike, or as Durkheim put it, the totality of social likenesses.
Due to very little variation in the distribution of labor in these primitive mechanical societies, or those with “mechanical solidarity,” the
individuals in such societies tend to share similar norms and values, which creates a simple-layered social structure with a strong collective
conscience. Because people have more or less the same jobs and mostly interact with similar individuals, they tend to think and act alike,
which creates a strong solidarity among members. In mechanical societies, law functions to enforce the conformity of the group. However, as
societies progress toward more modern, organic societies in the Industrial Age (most historians mark the Industrial Revolution as beginning in
the 1750s and ending in the 1860s), the distribution of labor becomes more highly specified. There is still a form of solidarity in organic
societies, called “organic solidarity,” because people tend to depend on other groups in the society through the highly specified division of
labor, and law’s primary function is to regulate interactions and maintain solidarity among the groups.
For example, modern researchers at universities in the United States tend to be trained in extremely narrow topics, some as specific as the
antennae of certain species of ants. On the other hand, some individuals are gathering trash from cans on the same streets every single day. The
antennae experts probably have little interaction with or in common with the garbage collectors. According to Durkheim, moving from such
universally shared roles in mechanical societies to such extremely specific roles in organic societies results in huge cultural differences, which
leads to giant contrasts in normative values and attitudes across such groups. Thus, the collective conscience in such societies is weak, largely
because there is little agreement on moral beliefs or opinions. Therefore, the preexisting solidarity among the members breaks down and the
bonds are weakened, which creates a climate for antisocial behavior.
collective conscience: according to Durkheim, the extent to which people in a society share similarities or likeness; the stronger the collective ...
Purchase answer to see full