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The Durkheim and Merton Page

This page explore the relationship between the theories of Emile Durkheim and Robert King Merton. We started it with an essay by Kevin Davis (2005), this has been developed using other student's work. Sometimes alternative passages have been inserted on a coloured background.


This essay is about how Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Robert Merton (1910-2003)'s theories account for crime within society. It will look at how they believe crime relates to society and if a case can be made, to blame society for crime. I will argue that Durkheim and Merton construct their theories of society from different premises. However, both use the concept of `anomie' (without norms) in their explanation of the faults of society. I will look at what each means by the concept, and how it fits in with their theories of society. I look at how they can agree on this, but differ on its initial causes. I argue that both believe that crime at some stage is a normal part of society, caused by society, but they differ on it value to society. To show this I will layout Durkheim's theories of society, show how his concept of anomie is related to this, then look at what he says about crime, showing that he believes crime in society is normal, and needed. I will compare this with Merton's theories on society and anomie and crime . Showing that he believes crime in society is normal. I will finish with a final comparison of views.

Alternative introduction from an essay by Michaela Jegede:

My essay outlines and compares Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton's theories of society and anomie and discusses to what extent these theorists are blaming society for crime.

I argue that Durkheim views society as a unit that is more than a label for a number of people living amongst one another but something that actually has purpose and affects those that live in it. Durkheim states that social solidarity and the division of labour creates individuals within society and consequently society produces the individual. Durkheim theorizes that anomie is a state of normlessness that may occur in society if solidarity is not properly formed. According to Durkheim, crime is a social construction that benefits society; by certain behaviours being rejected and labelled as crime, society confirms the acceptable norms and values of wider society. In effect, Durkheim states, crime increases social solidarity.

Merton believes that society shapes the cultural norms and values of people and also their aspirations and the approved methods of achieving such aspirations. Merton considers that there is a link between anomie in society and the difference between the levels of emphasis placed on aspirations and those placed on the means of realizing these aspirations in society; the smaller the difference the less likely anomie will occur. Merton also believes that crime is caused by society although he believes it is not useful to society; Merton believes that crime is a representation of the poor organization of society.

Merton's view is similar to Durkheim's in that he also views the individual as a construction of society. However, whilst Durkheim believes that the core norms and values of members of society remain consensual, it is only in the initial stages of the development of society that he believes their aspirations are similar. Merton's theory maintains that all in society are striving towards the same goals only some individuals choose to follow the unacceptable (by society's ruling) methods of achieving them. Whilst Durkheim believes that crime is created by society to improve society and maintain its order, Merton believes that society causes individuals to resort to criminal behaviour because of its dysfunctional structure.

Durkheim's society

Though not real without people, in Durkheim's mind (and theory), society is a separate entity and real "in it own right" (Roberts, A. 1997, p. 107). It is not something you can reach out and touch, like another person, but similar to gravity in that if you go against its norms, or fight against it, it can hurt you. So you are to an extent bound by society's norms.

Durkheim's theory of society starts from the perspective of the whole (society). In The Division of Labour in Society (1893) he says there are two ways in which society is bound together: Mechanical Solidarity and Organic Solidarity.

Mechanical Solidarity is where the individuals primarily have similar jobs, morals and ways of life and are held together through this similarity by the collective conscience. As he shows in Suicide (1897), the collective conscience also acts a regulator of individual desires and passions, thereby governing society (Durkheim, E. 1897, p. 246).

In the second type, Organic Solidarity, individuals are more complex, more diverse in their work, morals and ways of life; therefore more individualistic, as `the division of labour', which is where one job becomes many, where the many are linked to one another, through set relations; has taken place. Society in this form is held together by differences arising from the division of labour; and the strongest sentiments from the collective conscience identified as crime (Durkheim, E. 1984, p. 226) [???] p39).

Durkheim says mechanical solidarity, comes first and that organic solidarity can only evolve from it (Durkheim, E. 1893, p. 226). That this change from, the whole, to the, divided whole, is society making us more individual.

"Collective life did not arise from individual life; on the contrary, it is the latter that emerged from the former" (Durkheim, E. 1893, p.220-p.221).

Durkheim's concept of the collective conscience can be compared to Merton's concept of culture. However, the collective conscience is even more fundamental to society. It is an integral part of the whole.

The collective or common conscience is made-up social facts, where a fact is a way of acting, in a giving situation, which is established by society (Durkheim, E. 1895, p.10).

In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim says that there are fundamental categories, such as time and space, through which we understand and interpret all things. These form our reasoning, knowledge and therefore collective and subsequently individual consciences. "They constitute the common field where all minds meet" (Durkheim, E. 1912, p.9), being the part of society in us all. They are the basic `social facts' used as building blocks to form other social facts, created during the interaction of individuals (Durkheim, E. 1912 pages 9 to 16).

According to Durkheim we have at least two consciences within us as individuals. The first is the collective conscience, which acts through us for society's greater good; is past knowledge shaped by each generation through each generation. The second is our individually, which receives knowledge based on our distinct observations. At a time when society needs to act it acts through us with the collective conscience enveloping and taking over our whole individual conscience. These and other consciences within us are not interchangeable (Durkheim, E. 1893, p.105 and p.129))

Durkheim's anomie

We have seen that, according to Durkheim, two types of solidarity hold society together. There is mechanical solidarity, inherited from the earliest form of society, and organic solidarity, the solidarity of the division of labour.

Anomie was used by Durkheim to describe the `normlessness' state, which he says occurs when these ties holding us together are weakened, broken, non-existent or, not regular enough to allow the norms to be maintained or established.

Weakening of the ties that bind us together is a temporary unhealthy state that can come about because of the speed of change in modern society.

" ... changes have been produced in the structure of our societies in a very short time... the functions which have been disrupted in the courses of the upheaval have not had the time to adjust themselves to one another; (Durkheim, E. 1893, p.408).

Durkheim is not saying (as Giddens 1997, in Sociology pages 9 + 177, may be suggesting ) that anomie is due to a weakening of mechanical solidarity and our becoming more individual. In fact, Durkheim says

"If, in certain cases, organic solidarity is not all it should be, it is certainly not because mechanical solidarity has lost ground, but because all the conditions for the existence of organic solidarity have not been realised" (Durkheim, E. 1893, p.364).

Durkheim said, "_a state of anomie is impossible whenever organs solidly linked to one another are in sufficient contact" (Durkheim, E. 1893, p.304). This state was an extreme condition, only possible if the division of labour was not carried out properly.

The division of labour requires more complex rules than mechanical solidarity. Durkheim argues that bodies of rules enable us to interact smoothly, but they need regular interaction to be efficiently established. Anomie occurs when something makes that interaction ineffective or inefficient. For example, social circumstances may change so quickly that we do not have time to adapt to and feel comfortable in our relations with other people. An example (from Durkheim's book on Suicide) is when someone gets richer quickly and moves suddenly into a new class of society. You might think they would be happier, but Durkheim argues that not being used to the social rules that govern relations in that class can make them feel so miserable that they try to kill themselves.

What Durkheim calls anomic suicide

"results from man's activity's lacking regulation and his consequent sufferings." (Durkheim, E. 1897, p. 258).

To explain this misery, Durkheim argues that the rules set limits on our aspirations. We need them to understand what is possible and what is not possible. (See Durkheim, E. 1897 pages 246 following). Without the security of knowing who we are and what we can reasonably expect from life, our emotions rocket out of control and we can land on the emotional scrap-heap.

" as the conditions of life are changed, the standard according to which needs were regulated can no longer remain the same... The scale is upset; but a new scale cannot be immediately improvised. Time is required for the public conscience to reclassify men and things. So long as the social forces thus freed have not regained equilibrium, their respective values are unknown and so all regulation is lacking for a time. The limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and what is unjust, legitimate claims and hopes and those which are immoderate. Consequently, there is no restraint upon aspirations." (Durkheim, E. 1897, p. 253).

Durkheim on crime

As with anomie, Durkheim's interest in crime is to demonstrate that society is naturally whole, with its parts all tending to solidarity. Even crime and deviance are a natural part of society.

In Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim counts both suicide and crime (Durkheim, E. 1895, p.65) as examples of social facts. Deviant acts help to form the collective conscience of what is right or wrong. The collective response to deviance (including punishment) shapes the society's morality and establishes the social norms. With enough social backing, this response may eventually become criminal law. (Durkheim, E. 1895, p.10).

In The Division of Labour in Society Durkheim defines crime as

"an act which offends strong and defined states of the collective conscience" (Durkheim, E. 1893, Table of Contents, p.xiv)

Durkheim argues that in mechanical solidarity we react to crime by punishing the perpetrator to allow those who are obeying the social norms to feel superior to those who are not, providing reason for them to carry on following social norms. This continues under organic solidarity, but a new form of law develops alongside it. In organic solidarity, reparation of goods to regain the status quo, is all that is needed after unfair transaction.

Durkheim says crime is a normal part of all societies "Crime is present ... in all societies of all types" (Durkheim, E. 1895, p.65). Crime is a societal necessity as it allows the members of a society, through chastising those who go against the law. to reaffirm their social values, and in doing so, develop the collective conscience and strengthen social solidarity. To use a present day example, in the case of gun crime within the UK it has helped to encourage members of society to unite against this crime and re-establish our value of human life and our stance against such violence.

Crime is needed for society to evolve and maintain it self and that there is no society that does not have crime, for a society without crime would be in a state of anomie (Durkheim, E. 1895, p.65-p67). Therefore society is wholly to blame for crime.

Merton's society

Whereas Durkheim's theorised about the whole of society, Merton wants to develop `middle range theories' of society

"intermediate to.. minor working hypotheses... and the all-inclusive speculations comprising a master conceptual scheme..." (Merton, R.K. 1957, p.5).

Merton (a functonla analyst) appears to agree with Durkheim that individual behaviour is a product of society. He says

"the functional analyst ... considers socially deviant behaviour just as much a product of social structure as conformist behaviour..." (Merton, R.K. 1957, p.121)
However, social structure (Merton) may not mean as much as society (Durkheim). Merton says that analysing in structural terms means "locating ... people in their inter-connected social statuses".

Like Weber, Merton attempts to explain the social world from the point of view of the social actor (individual). He says society is not driven by individuals altruistic service to society as in Durkheim's theory, but individual wants and needs, where service to society might be an individual aim but is more likely an `unintended service to society' (Merton, R.K. 1957, pp 61-62). This is what he means by a latent (hidden) function, as distinct from a manifest function. It means that sociologists must study the unintended consequences that flow from what people do as well as the intended ones.

Like his colleague Talcott Parsons, Merton is interested in how society attempts to impose common patterns of behaviour on individuals. This is what Parsons, referring to the 17th century state of nature theorist Thomas Hobbes, calls the Hobbesian problem of order.

"The basis of Hobbes' social thinking lies in his famous concept of the state of nature as the war of all against all... The good is simply that which any man desires ... reason is essentially a servant of the passions - it is the faculty of devising ways and means to secure what one desires. Desires are random, there is 'no common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves'" (Parsons, T. 1937 Part one, chapter 3)

Unlike Durkheim, Parsons and Merton do not believe human beings are naturally social. In fact

" It is... only because behaviour is typically orientated toward the basic values of the society that we may speak of a human aggregate as comprising a society" (Merton, R.K. 1957, p. 121).

This state is not natural, it has to be achieved. Rules have to be "institutionalised"

Merton does not think people necessarily accept the patterns of behaviour which society attempts to impose on them. As we shall see when we discuss Merton's theory of anomie, Merton thinks of people in terms of choices they can make, in relation to the goals and means of their culture, given their position in the social structure.

Unlike Durkheim, Merton's society does not just evolve from mechanical to organic it is one form which is always changing, creating new goals (not necessarily means), inspiring individuals in new ways to achieve one of the hierarchal cultural goals, such an wealth; this emphasis on attaining ones goals, creates a competition amongst society (Merton, R.K. 1957, p. 121).

Merton's anomie

Durkeim and Merton both believe in social norms and cultural values (collective conscious in Durkheim). Merton, however, does not say how they are created.

Merton argues that the cultural goals, such as wealth, do not always match up to the methods (institutional means) of attaining those goals

"No society lacks norms governing conduct. But societies do differ in the degree to which [such] institutional controls are effectively integrated with the goals which stand high in the hierarchy of cultural values." (Merton, R.K. 1957, p.121).

He says that a cultural value is to attain one's goals using the institutional means available, and therefore be a conformist. But this is not the only type of individual behaviour in society. Merton says individuals within society may accept or reject, either or both, the cultural goals or institutional means. This adaptation to society creates five different types of individuals or modes of adaptation (conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion), where the most common is the acceptance of both, know as conformity (Merton, R.K. 1957 p. 136). This conformity to social values is the cohesive of society for Merton and Durkheim.

For Merton, anomie comes about when "the technically most effective procedure" (lawful or unlawful) for achieving goals "becomes typically preferred to institutionally prescribed conduct". As the norms weaken "the society becomes unstable" and a state of anomie (or normlessness) develops. (Merton, R.K. 1957, p. 121)

Durkheim and Merton both use "anomie" to mean a `normlessness' state, but for Merton, a state of anomie is not a state when people are unsure about norms, but one where they tend to ignore them, in pursuit of the socially prescribed goals. He argues that this state is a normal consequence of a society where there is a strain between the society's goals and the means available for their achievement. The goals of American society arouse a limitless ambition to achieve one's ends using the fastest means. When the structure of the society means that significant parts of it have little chance of winning by playing the rules, a strain is created whereby it becomes natural to seek to achieve them by any means `legitimate or not', (Merton, R.K. 1957, p. 121)

Of the five individual adaptations set out by Merton, two ( conformity and ritualism) accept society's rules, whilst three ( innovation, retreatism and rebellion) reject them. (Merton, R.K. 1957, p. 136).

Does Merton blame society for crime?

We saw above that Merton argues that deviant behaviour is a product of social structure. He

"conceives of the social structure as active, as producing fresh motivations which cannot be predicted on the basis of knowledge about man's native drives" (Merton, R.K. 1957, p.121)

"The social and cultural structure generates pressure for socially deviant behaviour upon people variously located in that structure" (Merton, R.K. 1957, p.121)

In his example, the strain between the goals set by American culture and the means available at different points in the social stucture is part of his explanation of crime.

"The social structure... produces a strain toward anomie and deviant behaviour. The pressure of such a social order is upon outdoing one's competitors. So long as the sentiments supporting this competitive system ... are not confined to the final result of "success", the choice of means will remain largely within ... social control. When, however, the cultural emphasis shifts from the satisfaction deriving from competition itself to almost exclusive concern with the outcome, the resultant stress makes for the breakdown of the regulatory structure." (Merton, R.K. 1957, p.157)

Society is, therefore, to blame for crime, because it sets the rules and encourages individuals to pursue goals, which may not be obtainable, but does not always provide the individual with the means to obtain them legally (Merton, R.K. 1957, p. 121); it does not account for individuals' desires to achieve; it could regulate society better; and it produces the competitive environment which crime flourishes (Merton, R.K. 1957, p. 136).


Both Merton and Durkheim believe society is the cause of crime, but differ on it value to society. Merton believes society should have more social control over it. While Durkheim say we should not try to eradicate crime as it is just as important an aspect of society as conformity.

[Dominic Lee 2011]

Both Durkheim and Merton, to a large extent, blame society for the levels of crime. They have different reasons.

Merton feels society misguides people with what is important, which determines division within society. This misguidance creates a competitive society where winning and achieving has high importance to it, that people are willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve wealth. The idea of failure and the inability to be able to live up to the set standards of society, create people with a sense of uncertainty and not belonging to society. Therefore they suffer anomie, and to try and redeem themselves, turn to illegitimate ways of achieving success, by resorting to crime.

Durkheim also emphasises how society is the blame for crime. Crime is needed for society to challenge and evolve it, crime is present in all shapes and forms and society, and without it, anomie would occur. The society relies on crime, as deviant behaviour is a natural factor of society, and an integral part of healthy society. Separation of those who abide the law and those who rebel it provides a positive separation between people, as those who conform, reaffirm their social norms and values, and increase social solidarity. Those who rebel against the norms allow society to form ideas of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.


Dunman, J.L. 2003, Anomie, available at http://www.durkheim.itgo.com/anomie.html, [accessed 16/11/2004]

Durkheim, E. 1893, The Division of Labour in Society. English translation by George Simpson 1933
Extracts at

Durkheim, E. 1893a, The Division of Labour in Society. English translation by W.D. Halls 1984, Macmillan Publishers Ltd, UK

Durkheim, E. 1895 Rules of Sociological Method
Extracts at

Durkheim, E. 1897, Suicide Translated into English 1952.
Extracts at

Durkheim, E. 1912, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Extracts at

Giddens, A. 1972, Emile Durkheim Selected Writings, London: Cambridge University Press

Giddens, A. 1997, Sociology Cambridge. Polity

Merton, R.K. 1957 (Second edition) Social Theory and Social Structure
Extracts at

Parsons, T. 1937 The Structure of Social Action. A study in social theory with special reference to a group of recent European writers
Extracts at

Pickering, W.S.F (Editor), 1994, Debating Durkheim, Routledge, USA and Canada

Roberts, Andrew 1997 Social Science History for Budding Theorists. Middlesex University: London. Available at http://studymore.org.uk/ssh.htm

Essay copyright Kevin Davis, Michaela Jegede, Andrew Roberts and others 2005 onwards

This is a page in the making. Starting with the Kevin Davis essay, we are adding ideas from other students on the Social Science History Course at Middlesex University, and re-drafting the essay in the light of discussions about the problems of interpreting the two authors.

Suggested bibliography entry:

Davis, Kevin (and others) 2005- The Durkheim Merton Page available at http://studymore.org.uk/ydurmer.htm

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Durkheim's society

Durkheim's anomie

Durkheim on crime

Merton's society

Merton's anomie

Does Merton blame society for crime?


index of some of the essays on this site