Youth Violence & the Anomie Theory

Published 24 Oct 2017

Criminal behavior has long baffled psychologists and society in general. While extensive studies have been made in an attempt to explain criminal acts, none thus far has been found to satisfactorily explain all the complex processes and the interplay of factors that pushes an individual over the edge to finally commit to the act of doing something illegal or harmful to someone else. Criminal behavior is complex enough, but crime as perpetrated by the youth is even more complicated and disturbing. As such, the need to come up with theories and models for juvenile crime is very important.

Among these theories, the most widely-accepted is the one forwarded by constitutive criminology. It is a perspective that analyzes crime as a product of the complex interplay between man and the social structures that he interacts with. (Sanders & Ferrell, 1995, 146) This constitutive theory rejects the argument of traditional modernist criminology that crime and offenders can be separated entirely from the social processes that the criminal functions in and interacts with. This theory believes that crime is the end product of the complex interactions that take place among the individual with social structures and society’s control institutions. (Sanders & Ferrell, 1995, 146) According to this theory, crime therefore cannot be analyzed and corrected in isolation from society. As such, the society where the person is a part of as well and the crime committed cannot be divorced from each other.

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A foundation of constitutive criminology perspective is Bandura’s social learning theory which underscores the role of society in the shaping of an individual’s character and reinforcing certain types of behavior. This means that any one person’s behavior is affected or influenced by the behavior of others. The need to be accepted and conform to society is a cornerstone of social learning theory. Social learning theory has found great relevance in the understanding of offensive behaviors (Bandura, 1977) and psychological disorders. Of course because social learning theory is applied in juvenile deviant behavior, it also stands to reason that it can be used for reforming offenders.

Bandura’s social learning theory has been further refined by Merton’s Anomie theory. This theory goes on to explain how the individual and society interact to provoke criminal behavior within the person involved. The deprivations that an individual experiences in a certain area create a social trend that encourages criminal activities. (Hopkins and Burke, 2005, 99) The gap that exists between material goals and the means to acquire it creates pressure or strain which eventually leads to criminal behavior. Merton’s social structure and anomie theory explains why there are differences in criminal activities across various social groups. Merton maintains that the opportunities in society are not equally accessible to all and it further argues that social structures or stratification is the main reason why people commit criminal acts. Pressures within society may drive certain people against the wall and provoke them to commit a crime.

Hopkins and Burke recognize that while Merton’s Anomie Theory has given better insights not just on criminal behavior, but deviance and disorder as well. This theory’s contribution to explaining the social phenomena of crime had been very helpful in the endeavor to explain and understand criminal behavior, especially in cases of juvenile delinquency. Bandura’s social learning and Merton’s Anomie Theory is very evident in gang violence. Young people who grew up in dysfunctional families often look for validation and comfort from somewhere else. (Decker 1996, 88) Whether they find it within a gang or friends, the fact still remains that these people are feeling the economic crunch. These young people, without any reason at all, will usually engage in gang violence in order to be accepted even if the criminal does not believe in the merits of his or her action. The pressure from peers to do what they are doing is tremendous because the person becomes a criminal because of the desire to be accepted.

A good case in point whould be Jeffery Dahmer of the United States who has been found guilty of the murder of at least 17 men and boys in the course of 13 years, from the years 1978 to 1991. Dahmer’s murders were particularly horrible, because his victims were not simply killed, but were also sodomized, tortured, dismembered, and eaten. Dahmer has always been a loner in youth, and engaged in cruel acts to animals at a very young age. Dahmer did not grow up in poverty, but he did grow up exposed to the constant fighting of his parents, who eventually divorced when Dahmer was 18 years old. Their commonality lies in the fact that the constant fighting and eventual divorce may correspond to the Removal of Positively Valued Stimuli in Dahmer’s case. The constant fighting between two of the most important people in Dahmer’s life was the strain that led him to the deviant life.

Regardless of any theory, there is no denying the fact that any crime is a product of a highly complex process. However, while crime may indeed be just the end product of a series of interactions between the perpetrator and the world around him, the question still remains why some people who grow up in harsh conditions grow up to be normal people while others become social deviants. As the criminal makes the choice to commit a crime, how much of this is because of social and physical environment and how much of this is purely the individual’s choice? Indeed, many theories have been forward to explain criminal and deviant behavior, and some criminals meet certain profiles while others simply defy explanation. For criminal psychologists the challenge is to create theories that will help prevent crimes rather than analyze the crime after the fact. Of course this is difficult if not entirely impossible because human beings by nature are mutable and unpredictable.

As previously mentioned, learning does not take place in a vacuum; it does so within a social context. Young children are very impressionable, and they need constant supervision and explicit guidance from their parents. Children should be made to realize what behaviors are acceptable and those that are not. Delinquency is generally regarded as a product of rational thinking. As such, it is also believed that juvenile delinquency can be prevented through punitive action. These forms of punishment or retribution are believed to discourage would-be delinquents because they fear the punishment more than they want to commit delinquent acts.

In the end it might be said that criminals are made. Some individual are more prone or vulnerable to committing deviant or criminal behavior, but their social relationships and interactions determine whether such tendencies are encouraged or suppressed all together. A person, as a social animal, is a complex product of his unique heritage and the environment in which he was given the opportunity to grow. As such, condemnation of the crime should never be taken as condemnation of the person. What we need is a shift in paradigm; rather than punish the criminal, we should provide an environment that will allow him to realize the consequences of his crime, repent of what has been done, and give life another shot. Every person deserves no less.


  • Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Prentice-Hall.
  • Hopkins, R., and Burke. (2005). An Introduction to Criminological Theory. Willan Publishing.
  • Decker, S. D., Van Winkle, Barrik. (1996) Life in the Gang: Family, Friends, and Violence. Cambridge University Press.
  • Sanders, C. and Ferrell, J. (1995). Cultural Criminology. UPNE.
  • Siegel, L. J., Welsh, B. C., Senna, J. J., (2005) Juvenile Delinquency: Theory, Practice and Law. Thomson Wadsworth.
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