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Messner and Rosenfeld’s Crime and the American Dream:

Using Limitless Means to Achieve a Limited End

Susie Ancona

Texas Christian University


One may ask why such an abundance of crime occurs in America, a country of privilege, liberty, and individuality, where people enjoy freedoms, both tangible and intangible, that in other countries in the world are simply unattainable. However, this privileged status, according to Stephen F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld, authors of the Crime and the American Dream, in fact contributes to the occurrence of criminal activity in America, as illustrated through their claim that  “crime in America derives, in significant measure, from highly prized cultural and social conditions” (Messner & Rosenfeld, 2007, p. 6). Specifically, these cultural and social conditions that Americans so value encapsulate the very ideal that they all aspire to fulfill throughout the course of their lifetime: “the American Dream.” This paradigm entails an underlying set of values that Americans have adopted as a capitalistic society, which in fact foster an anomic atmosphere, leading to a lack of social control and deviant behavior throughout the population (Bjerregaard & Cochran, 2008, p. 33), especially by those who cannot mobilize upwards on the scale of success (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 7). Additionally, the economy-centered focus in American society deemphasizes and degrades the value inherent in the non-economic social institutions of society, creating an “institutional imbalance of power” (33), worsened by weak social controls and high levels of crime (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p.161). Consequently, this proposed generation of crime is culturally engrained and fundamentally incorporated into core societal structures, inspiring the need for reformation beyond basic policy change.

Defining the “American Dream” and its Effect on Crime

 “The American Dream,” a term introduced by historian James Truslow Adams in 1931, refers to “a broad cultural ethos that entails a commitment to the goal of material success, to be pursued by everyone in society, under conditions of open, individual competition” (Messner et al., 2007, p. 6). Essentially, with this ideal, each American citizen has been led, or rather “socialized” to desire to realize this success, while believing that he can sufficiently achieve it (Messner et al., 2007, p. 6), despite any obstacles, because America is a place of equal opportunity, where each person has the ability to pursue his endeavors, and can feasibly attain his dream of material wealth and stability. However, if the pursuit of this dream is so realistic and accessible, then why are the crime rates in America, specifically in regards to serious crime, comparatively much higher than those of other countries in the world (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 159).  In sum, the American Dream ideal has distorted the values that Americans possess, centralizing on monetary success and thus confusing the pursuit of happiness with the acquisition of materialism. In turn, this has created a culture that prioritizes the material worth of end result over the legitimacy of the methods utilized to reap such success, resulting in an “anomic imbalance” in American society (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 164).

The Anomic Implications of the “Four Distinctive Values” of American Culture

Essentially, the sociological term of anomie refers to the disintegration of social controls and norms, which is proposed to produce a greater likelihood of deviant behavior and a breakdown of morality in society (Messner et al., 2007, p. 61). While America has a set of norms, per se, with the specific set of American values which distinguish its culture from any other, those values are what Messner and Rosenfeld claim to be at the foundation of why “Americans are exceptionally resistant to social control, and therefore exceptionally vulnerable to criminal temptations” (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 177). As a result, the values that should mold the social and cultural strength of American citizens are in fact the motivators of heightened criminal behavior. To explain, these four values include the following: achievement orientation, individualism, universalism, and materialism (Schoepfer, 2004, p. 9). In regards to a strong achievement orientation, American culture calculates ones social worth by what he has accomplished rather than who that person is holistically; because gaining this success is the ultimate objective, the methods one takes to arrive at that point are clouded, or rather, disregarded due to the sole focus on the end goal (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p.164). Secondly, individualism implies that in pursuing this sense of social worth or success, one must achieve this on his own, creating a society of competitors (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 165) rather than collaborators, which only further demotivates the use of legitimate means, especially for those who have limited resources. Thirdly, universalism entails that all Americans should attempt to realize this type of success, and that everyone has an equal opportunity to do so (Schoepfer, 2004, p.9). Lastly, materialism represents the lens through which Americans view success; the American “fetishism” (Schoepfer, 2004, p.9) with monetary rewards distinguishes America as a uniquely materialistic people (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 165). To further contribute to the limitless means that people employ to fulfill this endeavor, Merton defines monetary success to be “open-ended,” implying that in regards to realizing the American Dream, “there is no final stopping point” (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 165). Consequently, these four cultural values mold the American mindset in such a way as to legitimize the various potential harmful means one will use to achieve his monetary end, augment the American “obsession” with crime (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 159), and to provide advocacy and acceptance of the economy as being the center of all institutional power in the United States as a capitalist society.

An “Institutional Imbalance of Power” in a Capitalist Society

While the influence of the four unique American values constitute one of the ways in which the American Dream fosters high crime rates, the capitalist-centered, economically focused nature of American culture and society creates an “institutional imbalance of power” (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 33), which in turn weakens the effectiveness of non-economic social institutions, causing devaluation of social norms and a higher propensity for deviant behavior. Essentially, due to the excessive emphasis on the economy in America, the many complimentary non-economic social institutions, such as education, politics, and family cannot operate as intended, individually and holistically, to balance societal needs, growth, and advancement. In fact, these institutions target economic initiatives rather than their own imperatives (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 170). For instance, with education, learning is no longer attained for its inherent value, but primarily for obtaining employment; in politics, voting is often dictated by economic viewpoints rather than an all-encompassing view of the policy or candidate; and in regards to the family unit, their lives are shaped around schedules and routines as opposed to shaping their schedules around their lives (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 170-173). Even other capitalist societies do not function in such an economically-dictated environment; in Japan, a capitalist society with a low crime rate, the needs of the family are a priority in the business world, rather than the workplace occupying the most imperative position in society (Adler & Laufer, 1995, p. 173). Thus, because the core institutions of society are so economically-focused, the materialistic ideal of the American Dream is only more emphasized and the paths which people take to arrive at such success become even more questionable and deviant. Education, politics, and family all act as pillars of society, and without genuine adherence to their inherent value, which entails instilling social controls, society will continue to be geared primarily towards economic imperatives, resulting in a structural breakdown of American society.

Empirical Validity and Criticism of Institutional Anomie Theory

In regards to empirical testing, very few have been conducted with Messner and Rosenfeld’s theory, but their Institutional Anomie Theory (IAT) stands as a compatible and interrelated theory that integrates the fundamental concepts underlying their theory of “Crime and the American Dream.” To expand, IAT is defined as a macro-level theory that specifically takes into account the four “distinctive” (Schoepfer, 2004, p. 9) which set the precedent for American culture.  In creating IAT, Messner and Rosenfeld modified Robert K. Merton’s theory of anomie in relation to American culture and social structure, centering on the various interrelationships between America’s many social institutions, and ultimately proposing that an excessive focus on economic ends, paired with the “devaluation of non-economic institutions in society,” augments crime rates (Bjerregaard et al. 2008, p. 31). To expand, America’s obsessive emphasis on economic goals in all facets of life degrades the value of the social institutions in society that are vital to progress, such as schools, the family, religion, and politics (i.e. voter participation), which in turn leads to an increase in criminal activity (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 31), for these social institutions are, at their core, what keep society intact. Thus, by measuring the strength of non-economic social institutions in regards to the level of crime as an effect, this relationship can be properly evaluated.

Although challenges are present in conducting research on this theory, particularly due to a lack of systematic data collection in regards to some of the main assumptions of the theory, numerous researchers have empirically evaluated the relationship in regards to crime and the American Dream (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 31). For instance, Chamlin and Cochran (1995) were two of the first to examine the propositions of IAT, assessing state rates of profit-oriented crime, utilizing the percentage of families below the poverty level as a measure of economic conditions, divorce rates as a measure of the ineffectiveness of family, church membership rates as measure of strength of religion, and percentage of voting-age persons who actually voted as measure of strength of polity (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 33). As a result of their testing, they found that the stronger the non-economic social institutions, the lower the impact of poverty on the rate of economic crime, which is aligned with Messner and Rosenfeld’s hypothesis (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 33). Piquero and Piquero (1998) utilized cross-sectional data (from the U.S.), which is a requisite of testing IAT, to test both the strength of non-economic social institutions as well as the interrelational effects of the economy and the strength of these non-economic social institutions (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 34). Consequently, their findings include that the population below poverty level and single-family homes (i.e. family) increased the level of crime, while enrollment in college (i.e. education) and receiving public assistance (i.e. measure of polity) had a negative effect on the level of crime, all of which coincides with IAT (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 34). Stuckey (2003) tested the relationship between the strength of political structures and their effect on economic deprivation on crime; once again, in agreement with IAT, the results showed that in metropolitan areas with strongly responsive political structures, the effects of economic deprivation on crime rates were weakest (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 34).

However, not all findings that have been tested are consistent with IAT, for some studies regarding theft have uncovered that high levels of family disruption are associated with high levels of theft, but a devalued education system is associated with lower theft rates (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 40). Furthermore, since the studies regarding IAT are primarily indirect and partial, their likely consistent support will differ, depending on the measures of crime, the non-economic social institutions, the economy, and the other factors regarding the relationships in IAT (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 42). This lends credence to the fact that these tests are not the most potent, especially since not all tests utilized cross-national data and some studies are limited to only one type of crime in its assessment (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 42). As a result, the support for IAT will most likely be “consistently inconsistent” (Bjerregaard et al., 2008, p. 42) until more systematic measures can be employed to most accurately test the abstract propositions and relationships entailed in this theory.

Policy Implications in regards to the “American Dream”

The American Dream is an ideal that is deeply engrained in American culture, so how would one go about pacifying this fixation on monetary success? According to Messner and Rosenfeld, “…crime reductions would result from policies that strengthen social structure and weaken the criminogenic qualities of American culture” (Messner et al., 2007, p. 112), which definitively incites the tempering of the anomic tendencies of society. Thus, the focus in solving this weakening of society should be on strengthening its institutions through “policy and social changes that vitalize families, schools, and the political system,” which ultimately places an immense emphasis on the cohesion of educational system and family goals, working together to combat the economic demands placed on individuals and families (Messner et al., 2007, p. 112-113). A key component of these proposed changes is familial support of and involvement with children in their educational endeavors, for the strength of parental participation in and advocacy of children’s education represents a segment of America’s “social capital” (Messner et al., 2007, p. 113) as a nation. Additionally, the revision of certain employment opportunities for parents, such as provision of family leave, flexible work schedules, and employer-provided childcare, would ameliorate family economic pressures and create more time for parents to spend time with their children, to eventually cultivate a society with a strong values and family-centered foundation (Messner et al., 2007, p. 112). The family as a social institution is vital to maintaining the balance in society; the family is located at the core of one’s social and cultural environment, and is the center to which one consistently refers to for support, acceptance, and stability. However, when a family is restrained by the economic pressures of the American Dream, working excessive hours and multiple jobs for mediocre pay, or even working long hours and spending much time away from home for an affluent salary, the family as a unit and as an institution suffers, contributing to the breakdown of the effectiveness of the other non-economic social institutions of society.

In order to strengthen the family unit and the educational system, the over-emphasized focus on economic aspects must be diminished; this will create an environment where students thrive and familial support returns to being a staple of American society. Therefore, schools need to revamp their focus on learning for the sake of itself rather than for occupational prospects, while students need to shift this focus themselves, associating their education less with economic endeavors (Messner et al., 2007, p. 114). Moreover, this will require support by the family unit, both inside and outside of the school environment. Additionally, American society makes it difficult for those students who are not as educationally inclined but would like a stable job in the workforce rather than obtaining higher-level degrees to remain engaged and invested in their education with little hope of receiving a “decent” job (Messner et al., 2007, p. 115). Therefore, the educational system needs to offer alternative routes in order to secure a more  “training”-focused educational path rather than one that is solely geared towards higher education; this will allow for further mobilization and greater stability in society by securing more jobs for students who would otherwise be aimless. Apart from education, Messner and Rosenfeld highlight the societal tendency to place economic pressure on marriage and raising a family, viewing such institutions as “burdens” rather than entities that foster cultural and social support and growth (Messner et al., 2007, p. 114). If the family is portrayed as an investment that should only be considered after extensive economic preparation, then the sole focus on economically-based decision making prevails, which is the opposite of what Messner and Rosenfeld propose will solve this breakdown of society and prevalence of crime in America. Consequently, to avoid the dominance of the economy in the American mindset, Americans should of course be mindful of the economic aspects of building a family, but more so focus on an ideal of family and communal values to strengthen these non-economic social institutions.

Although this reformation requires “rethinking of a dream that is the envy of the world” (Adler et al., 1995, p. 177), the crime problem cannot be solved simply in the scope of the Criminal Justice system, but calls for restructuring and strengthening the institutions of American society and furthermore, reshaping the societal and cultural mindset of America. Messner and Rosenfeld’s theory of “Crime and the American Dream” essentially diagnoses culture as the generator of crime in American society, which signifies that the solution to an increasing crime rate is to tame the individualistic and materialistic values upon which Americans guide their pursuit to success, to allay the overemphasis on the economy and monetary ends, to redefine the ideal of success, and revamp American culture and society in such a way that emphasizes communal and family-based principles, integrating those more holistic values into the American education and political systems to make success more attainable for all.


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Bjerregaard, B., Cochran, J.K.. (2008). A cross-national test of institutional anomie theory: do the strength of other social institutions mediate or moderate the effects of the economy on the rate of crime?. Western Criminology Review 9 (1), 31-48.

Messner, S. F., Rosenfeld, R. (2007). Crime and the american dream (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Schoepfer, A. (2004). Exploring white collar crime and the american dream. Retrieved from