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date: 08 March 2021

Social Institutions and Crime

Abstract and Keywords

Over the past several years, criminological theorists have shown renewed interest in the role of social institutions in the onset of crime. This development has been aptly labeled the “new institutionalism” by Susanne Karstedt in 2010 and has been manifested most prominently in recent studies on criminal punishment. Recognition of the central role of institutions in trying to understand the societal response to crime is not new or surprising, given that the criminal justice system is itself an institution (or an institutional subsystem). Social institutions influence how social life is regulated and facilitate the functioning of social systems. There are three interrelated dimensions of social institutions that are particularly relevant to the study of crime: institutional structure, institutional regulation or legitimacy, and institutional performance.

Keywords: crime, social institutions, new institutionalism, criminal punishment, criminal justice system, social life, social systems, institutional structure, institutional regulation, institutional performance

An exciting development in criminological theory over the past few decades has been the renewed attention to the role of social institutions, a development that Karstedt (2010) has aptly labeled the “new institutionalism.” This new institutionalism has been manifested most prominently in the recent research on criminal punishment. In a series of illuminating studies, scholars have described the ways in which the societal response to criminal offending reflects the broader complex of social institutions and also the ways that punishment regimes themselves affect other components of the institutional order (Garland 1990, 2001; Simon 1993; Cavadino and Dignan 2006; Gottschalk 2006; Western 2006; Lacey 2008).

That institutions are central to understanding the societal response to crime is not new or surprising, given that the “criminal justice system” is itself an institution (or an institutional subsystem). However, as Messner and Rosenfeld (2004, p. 83) have observed, “institutional analysis has been seriously underdeveloped in etiological analyses of crime.” The most influential etiological theories in contemporary criminology (such as rational choice, control, self-control, strain and learning theories) focus on properties of individual actors, the interaction of individual actors and their immediate settings, or features of the localized neighborhood context (such as the systemic model of crime or collective efficacy theory).1 We find much merit in these efforts, but to our minds the associated explanations of the causes of crime are fundamentally incomplete. They fail to take into account the profound ways in which individual action and the proximate settings for such action are constrained by, and are reflective of, the prevailing institutional order of a given society at a particular moment in time.

(p. 406) The objective of this chapter is to highlight the insights about levels and changes in crime that can be gained through an application of an institutional perspective. In section I, we present a conceptual framework for institutional analysis, and in section II, we show how this framework can be applied productively to explain a diverse range of criminological phenomena. In section III, we conclude with a few remarks concerning the potential and challenges for the further development of an institutional perspective on crime.

Our analysis reveals the following main insights:

  • Social institutions specify the “rules of the game” that regulate social life and facilitate the functioning of social systems.

  • Crime is a normal property of social systems that reflects the basic features of the institutional order. It follows that differing institutional orders will have correspondingly different levels and forms of crime. The concept of the normal crime rate also implies that crime rates cannot fall to zero, and crime can fall too low for the effective functioning of a society.

  • Three interrelated dimensions of social institutions are particularly relevant to the study of crime: institutional structure, institutional regulation or legitimacy, and institutional performance.

  • Fruitful empirical applications of the three institutional dimensions are found in studies of (1) the relationship between institutional structure and cross-national and long-term historical variation in homicide rates; (2) the impact of changes in institutional legitimacy on crime trends of relatively short duration; and (3) the effects of economic and political institutional performance on year-to-year changes in crime rates.

  • Important directions for future institutional analyses include further explication of the effects of the three dimensions of social institutions on crime; investigations of how changing values and beliefs both reflect and produce institutional change; and analyses of how the distribution of comparative institutional advantages and disadvantages is related to variation in the crime rates of groups and communities.

I. An Analytic Framework for Studying Social Institutions and Crime

Our claim that criminologists have given insufficient attention to the role of social institutions in understanding the causes of crime might seem perplexing at first glance. After all, references to the potential influence of families, schools, and other features of the social context of individual behavior abound in criminological theory and research, and these entities are often characterized as “institutions.” But (p. 407) such usage confuses the concept of social institutions with their organizational manifestations. To avoid such confusion, it is important to define the concept of a social institution clearly and to situate this conceptualization within the context of a broader understanding of the macro-social organization of societal settings, or what Parsons (1951) termed the “social system.”

A. Social Institutions and Social Systems

Our conceptualization of social institutions draws heavily on the classic sociological theorizing of Talcott Parsons (1951, 1990 [1934]) and the influential work of the institutional economist Douglas North (1990). According to Parsons, the concept of a social institution refers to the rules that govern behavior within a social system. Social systems, in turn, consist of more or less distinctive patterns of culture and social structure and their interrelations in society. Culture refers to the values, beliefs, and norms (the “oughts”) that prescribe certain behaviors as obligatory or expected from members of the society and proscribe others. Social structure consists of the organizations, statuses, and roles through which culture is realized and enacted in everyday life.

In any given social system, there are numerous rules or norms that apply to a diverse array of behaviors. It is thus useful to conceptualize the subsystems of norms that pertain to specified tasks that can be differentiated by the contributions these tasks make to the functioning of society and its capacity to endure over time. These subsystems of regulatory norms constitute the major social institutions in a society as commonly understood (e.g., the economy, the polity, the family, religion). Douglas North (1990, p. 3) offers a compatible conceptualization of social institutions, describing them as the “rules of the game” that guide human interaction.

Several aspects of this definition of social institutions should be emphasized. First, the definition is general; it applies to all societies, even the most “simple,” at all times.2 Second, it is highly abstract. Schools, churches, and political parties are not “institutions” by this definition. Rather, they are concrete organizations that carry out specific institutional tasks according to the rules of the institutions of education, religion, and polity, respectively. Third, this definition of institutions is ideal-typical in focus and purpose. It specifies how institutions are supposed to operate in a well-functioning social system (see Messner and Rosenfeld 2004, pp. 71–74). Indeed, it is important to distinguish between the normative rules that are intended to govern behavior and the patterns of behavior that are actually observed in social settings. Examining the extent to which, and the conditions under which, observed patterns of behavior are in accord with institutional dictates is at the core of institutional analysis. Fourth, and following from this distinction, institutions represent the durable and predictable patterns of social order within an ever-changing world, and the fluctuating behavioral responses to these changes (North, Wallis, and Weingast 2009, p. xii). Consequently, the relationship between institutional and macro-social change is characterized by complex patterns of adaptation and interaction until the new rules of the game emerge.

(p. 408) Finally, while it is important to maintain a strict analytic distinction among different social institutions, they should not be viewed in isolation from one another. On the contrary, institutions overlap in their functions and are necessarily interdependent. Each contributes outputs (e.g., economic goods, power, socialization) that are the essential inputs for the operation of the others. The interdependence of institutions constitutes the “guts” of the social system, holding it together as a going concern.

Our conceptualization of social institutions as the normative rules of the game that facilitate the functioning of social systems carries several important implications concerning the phenomenon of crime.3 First, given the salience of social institutions in channeling social behavior in general, the form and frequency of criminal behavior are likely to be linked to the institutional order. As Durkheim (1966 [1895], p. 70) observed, crime is a social fact “bound up with the fundamental conditions of all social life.” Different social systems, and accordingly different institutional orders, should have characteristically distinct patterns and levels of crime. Moreover, patterns and levels of crime for any given social system are likely to vary across different historical periods, following the currents of social change, its impact on institutional settings, and the adaptive processes within the institutional order.

Second, if crime is fundamentally social in origin, level, and type, then crime is “normal” (Durkheim 1966 [1895]). It is normal in the sense of being an expected outcome of the prevailing social organization. Every society thus has a “normal” rate of crime, that is, the crime rate that is generated when institutions operate pretty much as they are supposed to. As societies undergo fundamental social transformations, the normal crime rate should therefore be “reset,” reflecting the newly emerging form of the institutional order.

Third, notwithstanding historical variability in levels and forms of crime in concrete societies, the crime rate can never be driven to zero. This follows from the notion that crime is indeed normal. Even if a particular type of crime is extinguished, another type will take its place. For example, violent crime rates have fallen in most Western societies since the late Middle Ages, but rates of property crime have risen over the same period (Shelley 1981; Eisner 2001). This reflects fundamental social changes (e.g., new modes of transportation, economic organization of production and consumption, and the polity) that altered the rules of the game for violent behavior (North, Wallis, and Weingast 2009) and the ways that modern societies organized social control, thus eliminating or reducing one type of crime and fostering the ascendancy of the other.

Fourth, the social normality of crime implies that crime rates can fall too low for the effective operation of a society. This idea follows directly from the premise that crime is a characteristic feature of a society’s institutional makeup. As Durkheim (1966 [1895], p. 72) wrote: “Crime … must no longer be conceived as an evil that cannot be too much suppressed. There is no occasion for self-congratulation when the crime rate drops below the average level, for we may be certain that this apparent progress is associated with some social disorder.” As an example, consider the low rates of robbery, burglary, and other forms of street crime that prevailed in the former Soviet Union, simultaneously with high rates of corruption (Karstedt 2003). (p. 409) A garrison state can suppress street crime, but at great social cost. We might ask whether the crime suppression brought about by mass incarceration in the United States should be regarded in a similar light (Rosenfeld and Messner 2010).

In short, our overarching analytic framework conceptualizes crime as a normal property of social systems that reflects the core features of the institutional order. Different institutional arrangements are expected to generate distinctive levels and types of crime, which should change along with changes in these institutional arrangements. But how, specifically, should institutional analysis be carried out? What aspects of institutions are most relevant to criminological inquiry? How can they be deployed as analytical tools in empirical studies of crime?

B. Core Dimensions of the Institutional Order

We propose that the following three dimensions of social institutions are particularly important when analyzing the implications of the institutional order of societies for crime: institutional structure, institutional regulation, and institutional performance. Institutional structure encompasses the specific content of the rules and their internal consistency and compatibility. Variation in the content of rules essentially involves qualitative comparisons. Different societies are likely to have different rules, and the nature of the rules in a given society inevitably changes over time. Consider, for example, the differences in the rules governing command and market economies, extended and nuclear family systems, or feudal and democratic societies. Internal consistency and compatibility, in contrast, can be conceptualized quantitatively. The consistency of the rules within a given institutional domain (e.g., the family) is in principle a matter of degree. An equivalent principle applies to the compatibility of the rules across institutional domains (e.g., between the economy and the family). But the rules of the game within one domain should not directly contravene, override, or render obsolete those in other domains, even if they lack compatibility to a certain extent.

A second dimension of social institutions—institutional regulation—refers to the basis of compliance with the rules of the game. Not all action in conformity with institutional norms is “institutionalized” in the formal sense of the term. For example, actors might align their behavior with the rules of the game based on utilitarian considerations of self-interest (Parsons 1990 [1934], pp. 332–33) or in response to coercive pressures exerted by the more powerful. The distinctive feature of institutionalized social action is that it is governed by a sense of mutual obligation; actors align their behavior with the rules of the game because they believe it is the right thing to do. Institutions therefore act as safeguards against purely opportunistic behavior by encouraging attachments among individuals as well as commitment to the institution. These attachments and commitments are the foundation of compliance (North 1990; Karstedt 2010). In other words, when institutional regulation is strong, the rules of the game are awarded considerable moral authority or legitimacy.

The third dimension of social institutions is that of institutional performance. As noted, social institutions can be conceptualized with reference to the basic functions that they perform for society, that is, the socially beneficial outcomes to be realized (p. 410) as a result of the regulation of behavior. Institutional performance refers to the extent to which commitment to and the faithful enactment of institutional roles result in the collectively desired institutional outcomes.

Although the three dimensions of institutions are analytically distinct, they are likely to be intimately interrelated. To illustrate these interconnections and the potential responses of institutions to changing circumstances, consider the institution of the economy in a hypothetical society. At one point in time, the rules governing economic activity coalesce into a governmentally directed command economy (the institutional structure). People align their economic behaviors closely with the economic rules of the game because they believe that such behaviors are proper and appropriate. The institutional regulation of the economy, in other words, is strong, and the economic rules of the game are awarded a high degree of legitimacy. Institutional performance also is strong: the economy succeeds in producing goods and services at levels that are regarded as acceptable by the population at large.

Assume that a significant change in the environment—either natural or social—significantly impedes the capacity of the economy as organized to produce goods and services. Although people might initially continue to perform economic roles faithfully, institutional performance declines. It seems plausible to anticipate that over time such poor institutional performance will tend to undermine the moral authority of the economic norms as the economy, in essence, fails “to deliver the goods.” Institutional regulation will accordingly weaken, as will commitment. Furthermore, as the moral foundations of economic institutions are challenged, people are likely to entertain the possibility of alternative economic arrangements, perhaps those embodied in a market economy, and try to implement such arrangements. Depending on the success of such efforts, the end result could be the transformation of the institutional structure of the economy; qualitatively different rules of the game are instituted. People collectively adapt the rules of the game to accommodate changing environments.

In sum, the institutional order of concrete societies can be usefully described with reference to these three, analytically distinct but empirically interrelated dimensions: institutional structure, institutional regulation (or legitimacy), and institutional performance. We have suggested that levels and patterns of crime can be understood with reference to these basic features of the institutional order. In the section that follows, we draw upon the literature to illustrate fruitful criminological applications of an institutional perspective.

II. Criminological Applications of an Institutional Perspective

Although institutional analysis remains rare in contemporary criminology, a small but growing research literature documents the relationship between crime and each of the three analytically distinct dimensions of social institutions described earlier. (p. 411) In this section, we provide illustrations of institutional analysis “put to work” in the study of crime. We begin by describing a contemporary criminological perspective—institutional-anomie theory (IAT)—that directs explicit attention to the role of institutions in the genesis of crime. We discuss how IAT has been applied in analyses of the relationship between homicide rates and the institutional structures of advanced industrial societies. We then present another illustration of the connection between institutional structure and crime from research on the impact of historical transformations of the institutional order of European societies on trends in lethal violence. To illustrate the connection between institutional regulation and crime, we summarize LaFree’s research on declining institutional legitimacy and rising crime rates in the United States during the latter part of the 20th century, along with related work. Finally, we offer illustrations of the criminogenic effects of institutional performance from recent studies of crime and the performance of the economy in advanced industrial societies, and from studies of the performance of the polity drawing on evidence from transition countries in Eastern and Central Europe.

A. Institutional Structures and Crime I: Institutional-Anomie Theory and Levels of Homicide

Institutional-anomie theory (IAT) was originally developed to explain the comparatively high rates of serious crime in the United States (Messner and Rosenfeld 2004). But the theory may be applied more broadly to explain the cultural and social sources of crime in all advanced, industrial societies. Building on Merton’s (1938) anomie theory, IAT posits that high crime rates are produced by dominant cultural values that extol the virtues of competitive individual achievement and wealth accumulation at the expense of values that emphasize noneconomic forms of achievement, collective solidarity, and the common good. All advanced capitalist societies promote individual economic achievement, but they differ in the extent to which countervailing values and goals are given prominence in the institutional order. In some societies, such as the United States, the free-market economy dominates the institutional order by devaluing the goals of other institutions, forcing accommodations from other institutions when their goals conflict, and penetrating them with a market-oriented logic. The institutional dominance of the economy thereby leads to high levels of crime by weakening the social control and social support functions of noneconomic institutions, in addition to strengthening the hold of “market friendly” values and goals in noneconomic institutions. Ultimately, institutions lose the capacity to act as safeguards against purely opportunistic behavior, including property and violent crime.

In societies where the institutional balance of power does not favor the free-market economy to such an extreme degree, crime rates are likely to be lower because noneconomic institutions and the values that sustain them retain their fervor and force. As an example, consider the condition of the polity in a more balanced institutional order. In all democratic capitalist societies, a chief function of (p. 412) the political system is to promote the general welfare. But in those societies where the economy is less dominant, we should expect to observe stronger, more expansive social welfare policies that protect the population and nonmarket institutions such as the family and education from the vicissitudes of market forces. Esping-Andersen (1990) uses the term “decommodification” with reference to such policies in recognition of their role in insulating citizens from the full onslaught of the market economy. From the vantage point of IAT, we should expect crime rates to be lower in societies where the social-welfare functions of the polity and accompanying decommodification policies are stronger.

Messner and Rosenfeld (1997) tested this expectation with data on the homicide rates and social welfare policies for a sample of industrial and postindustrial nations. Controlling for other influences on homicide, they found a significant relationship between national homicide rates and social welfare policies. Nations with more extensive and generous policies have lower homicide rates than those with more limited policies. This result held regardless of whether the United States—the clear leader in homicide—was included in the sample.

In subsequent cross-national research, Savolainen (2000) replicated the results of Messner and Rosenfeld’s (1997) study for a larger sample of nations and extended their analysis by considering whether social welfare policies condition the effect of income inequality on homicide. Cross-national research has consistently revealed a robust, positive relationship between homicide and income inequality (Messner, Raffalovich, and Shrock 2002; Messner, Raffalovich, and Sutton 2010). Drawing from IAT, Savolainen (2000) reasoned that the impact of income inequality on homicide should be weaker in nations where the institution of the economy is less dominant over the polity and, accordingly, their citizens are afforded greater protection from market forces. This expectation was supported in the analysis. Applying similar reasoning, Rosenfeld and Messner (2007) found that the relationship between unemployment and homicide rates is weaker in nations with more extensive social welfare policies than in those with narrower and less generous policies.

These research findings, along with those of prior research on homicide and the welfare state (e.g., Gartner 1991; Pampel and Gartner 1995), lend support to the prediction of IAT that strong welfare states—an indicator of greater balance between the institutions of the economy and polity—limit criminal homicide in advanced, industrial nations, both directly and indirectly by reducing the impact of other homicide determinants such as inequality and unemployment. Whether the same effects exist for crimes other than homicide remains an open and important empirical question for future cross-national research.

More broadly, the research to date underscores the significance of the structure of social institutions for explaining the variation in crime rates across differing institutional orders. The relative balance of the economy and political system is not a matter of institutional regulation or performance but of the “rules of the game” that shape social action under differing institutional circumstances. When the free-market economy dominates the institutional order, its rules and the values they reflect tend to prevail over those that would counterbalance market-oriented values (p. 413) and alleviate the impact of market conditions and outcomes on families and individuals. These theoretical considerations and the accompanying research apply to the institutional structures of contemporary advanced capitalist societies. We now broaden the historical lens and consider how major transformations in social institutions over several centuries have affected the crime rates of European societies.

B. Institutional Structures and Crime II: The Historical Decline of Lethal Violence in Europe

The decline of lethal violence in Europe since the dawn of the modern era is one of the most striking secular trends in the history of human societies. It has been corroborated with data from the United States (Gurr 1989; Roth 2009), starting in the colonial era. Eisner (2001, 2003) collected the most comprehensive homicide data for the British Isles and Europe, starting in the late Middle Ages with records from cities and regions. Recently he has complemented these homicide data with data on regicides, which indicate that the secular trend of decreasing interpersonal violence was preceded by a steep decline in regicides in Europe (Eisner 2011). Notwithstanding that the secular trend is punctuated and interspersed by peaks of violence that are mostly related to major social crises and civil strife and unrest, the overall picture is one of a continuous and at times steep decline of interpersonal violence until a historically low level was reached in the years after World War II. The “normal rate” of violence that societies and citizens experienced was thus continuously “reset” across this historical period during which the institutional order of European societies underwent major transformations.

As North, Wallis, and Weingast (2009, pp. 13, 15) note, in line with Durkheim’s argument regarding the normal crime rate, at best violence can be “contained and managed” by societies. “Ways of dealing with violence are embedded in institutions and organizations,” with the prevailing institutional order of the time setting the normal level of violence. The major accounts of the institutional transformations that enhanced the capacity of European societies to constrain and manage violence coincide regarding the common characteristics (e.g., Tilly 1984, 1990; Elias 2000 [1994]; North et al. 2009). In the process of state building, central powers established a monopoly of violence, competition between feuding elites was restricted, and a range of new institutions emerged that regulated conflicts in more orderly and less violent ways, including the rule of law.

Eisner (2001, 2003) based his interpretation on Elias’s theory of the “civilizing process” (2000). Starting in early modern times the civilizing process has been driven by basic changes in the “inter-relatedness” of society—the relationships and interactions that form the fabric of everyday life. As individuals engaged in more complex and long-term interactions, more sophisticated institutions emerged to support these interactions. Violence is inimical to and counterproductive in maintaining such interrelatedness, and individuals had to restrain their violent behavior. This initiated a change of cultural patterns and “mentalities,” which (p. 414) substituted mechanisms of individual self-control for external disciplining forces traditionally exerted by kin, village, and other close-knit groups. Elias’s account of the institutional transformation that reduced the normal level of violence in European societies thus focuses on the links between institutional order and cultural values, and the ways in which new ‘rules of the game’ foster new forms of behavior and vice versa. Consequently, Eisner (2001) interpreted the recent increase of homicide rates in Western societies since the mid-1960s as indicative of a decrease of individual self-control that gives way to more expressive modes of behavior, and a transformation of those institutions (e.g., the family and the economy) that previously had fostered self-control in individuals.

North, Wallis, and Weingast (2009) developed a conceptual framework in which institutions are instrumental for the control of violence and function as solutions to the ubiquitous threat of violence that societies face. They argued that institutions “limit the use of violence by shaping incentives faced by individuals and groups who have access to violence” (2009, p. xi). Institutional orders differ in terms of the extent to which violence can be constrained. Basically two institutional orders, and the transitions between them, have shaped human history. “Limited access” orders or “natural states” regulate competition through the creation of economic rents that establish cooperation and mutual obligations, thus restraining violence. Open access societies ensure open entry and competition in all institutional domains, and establish impersonal and impartial institutional mechanisms that function as guarantors of equal access. Open access orders are based on shared beliefs that emphasize inclusion and equality, and such beliefs are implemented through the provision of public goods and services that in turn provide opportunities for access. Although natural states are capable of restraining violence and ensuring peaceful competition to some extent, because their institutions guarantee and deliver impartiality, inclusion, and equality, open access societies are capable of achieving and sustaining considerably lower levels of violence.

Both transformations, within natural states and the transition from natural states to open access orders, which North, Wallis, and Weingast (2009) date at the beginning of the 19th century, were decisive in the secular trend of decreasing lethal violence in Europe. During the 19th and 20th centuries, violence declined most visibly in those Western and Northern European societies that had transformed into open access societies. When comparing trajectories of different countries, the trend of decreasing violence took hold in countries that were the first to transform their institutional orders (see Eisner 2003). Although institutional crises and adaptations may disturb the new equilibrium and periodically halt the decline in violence, they rarely restore previous levels of violence characteristic of a different and bygone institutional order.

C. Institutional Regulation and Trends in Crime

Whereas Eisner, Elias, and North and colleagues considered changes in levels of violence over broad historical periods spanning centuries and across broadly defined types of societies, Gary LaFree’s work (1998) provides an insightful illustration of the (p. 415) application of an institutional perspective to understand changes in crime rates over the course of several decades—the second half of the 20th century in the United States. LaFree documented the striking climb in rates of “street crimes” such as homicide, assault, robbery, and burglary in the United States beginning around 1960 and extending to the 1990s, at which point crime rates leveled off and started to show signs of decline. Although the exact pattern varied somewhat for different offenses, the trends were highly correlated. The similarity in trends across diverse types of offending is theoretically quite significant because it suggests that “whatever caused crime to increase in the postwar United States probably had very broad-gauged effects” (1998, p. 27). LaFree proposed that the most plausible explanation of the U.S. crime wave during this period was a precipitous decline in the legitimacy—the regulatory capacity—of three of society’s principal institutions: the polity, the economy, and the family.

With respect to the polity, LaFree reported that the acceleration in crime rates coincided with increases for a range of indicators of political distrust. These indicators include attitudinal responses in surveys on trust and corruption in government, as well as behavioral indicators such as civil litigation, protests, and falling voting rates. With respect to the economy, the claim for declining institutional legitimacy during this period is somewhat counterintuitive, given that most “absolute” indicators of economic performance, such as average income and unemployment, were generally improving. However, LaFree showed that relative measures of economic stress, such as income inequality and inflation, were increasing along with crime rates, consistent with his general thesis.

Finally, with respect to the family, a key institution with responsibility for socialization, LaFree proposed that the traditional family was subject to challenges on two major fronts over the course of the postwar period, one reflecting ideological developments and the other transformations in the economy. At the ideological level, the traditional two-parent family came under attack from feminists and other critics of the conventional order as the “bastion of male dominance” (1998, p. 84). Greater acceptance of sexual freedom and sexual experimentation also stimulated alternative intimate relationships outside of marriage. In the domain of the economy, the emergence of an information society placed greater emphasis on knowledge and skills related to the service sector, thereby facilitating and accelerating trends toward increased female labor force participation and the “depopulation” of American homes (see also Fukuyama 1999; Putnam 2000; Cherlin 2004).

The end result of these developments, LaFree reasoned, was that “the legitimacy of the traditional family declined enormously” (1998, p. 85). Moreover, newly emerging family and nonfamily arrangements were insufficiently developed to assume the functions previously associated with the traditional family. Accordingly, as familial institutional controls eroded, levels of crime climbed. LaFree (1998, pp. 143–44) found a striking correspondence between trends in divorce rates and those observed for rates of street crime in support of his hypothesis about the criminogenic impact of the delegitimation of the traditional family. LaFree also discovered that divorce rates began to stabilize and drop off in the 1990s, around the time that (p. 416) crime rates began to decline. These patterns suggest that, over time, as alternatives to traditional family arrangements became institutionalized, their capacity to perform socialization functions, including crime prevention, was enhanced. This adaptive capacity illustrates “the genius of institutionalization” (1998, p. 151).

A subsequent study by Messner et al. (2010) indicates that LaFree’s thesis that the declining legitimacy of the family contributes to rising crime rates can be applied beyond the boundaries of the United States. Messner et al. examined homicide rates for a maximum sample of 43 nations over the period extending from 1950 to 2005. Following LaFree’s lead, they employed the divorce rate as a crude but useful indicator of challenges to the legitimacy of the traditional family, and they estimated multivariate pooled, cross-sectional time-series models of the impact of changing divorce rates on changing homicide rates. They found a reasonably robust positive effect for the divorce measure, apart from controls introduced for other conditions, suggesting that delegitimation of the traditional family contributed to increasing homicide rates for their cross-national sample. Moreover, in analyses of distinctive national profiles of homicide trends, they found that the Scandinavian nations were in the vanguard for rising homicide rates during this period (despite their comparatively low levels of homicide overall). The Scandinavian nations were also among the first to manifest significant challenges to, and transformations of, traditional family arrangements, consistent with the thesis of institutional delegitimation and adaptation.

In short, LaFree’s research and related supporting evidence lend credibility to the claim that criminological phenomena such as crime waves can be productively understood with reference to institutional regulation or legitimacy. Trends in crime at the national level are likely to reflect to an appreciable degree the operation of the basic institutions of a society. When institutions lose legitimacy, crime rates tend to increase; when new institutional arrangements take root and are awarded legitimacy, crime rates are likely to fall.

D. Institutional Performance and Crime

Our illustrations of the impact of changes in the dimensions of the institutional order on changes in crime have thus far considered time scales extending from centuries (historical transformations in the fundamental institutional structure of societies and the “resetting” of the level of lethal violence) to decades (declining institutional legitimacy and “crime waves”). We can illustrate the importance of institutional processes for understanding more immediate, short-run changes in crime with reference to the remaining dimension of institutions—performance. Recall that institutional performance refers to the degree to which adherence to institutional rules actually yields the “output” expected in a given institutional domain.

Perhaps the best example of the link between weak or ineffective institutional performance and crime is to be found in the economy. Crime increases are typically associated with poor economic performance during periods of rising unemployment, low or negative economic growth, or high inflation rates. An indicator that captures the manifold effects of the economy on crime is consumer sentiment (see (p. 417) also Casti 2010). Respondents drawn from representative samples of the adult population in the United States and most other developed nations are regularly asked by researchers about their current economic situation, how it compares with the year before, and how they think it will change in the next year. They also are asked about general economic conditions and whether they are likely to make significant purchases in the near future. The responses constitute the Index of Consumer Sentiment (ICS), a closely watched indicator of economic performance in the United States ( A similar indicator is compiled for European nations.4

Consumer sentiment has two important advantages over other economic indicators in analyses of crime. First, it is a leading indicator of economic performance and a robust predictor of changes in economic growth, employment, and prices (Curtin 2002). Second, because it measures collective perceptions of economic performance, it is a subjectively meaningful indicator of economic conditions. As such, it tends to outperform the unemployment rate and GDP in studies of crime rates, both in the United States (Rosenfeld and Fornango 2007) and in European nations (Rosenfeld and Messner 2009). These studies found weak or inconsistent effects of unemployment and economic growth on yearly changes in property crime rates, but stronger and more consistent effects of consumer sentiment. The latter effects withstand controls for other influences and are in the expected direction: increases in collective optimism regarding economic performance are associated with decreases in property crime, and rising property crime rates are linked to consumer pessimism.

Prior research on the impact of economic conditions on crime rates either has focused exclusively on property crime or found little connection between economic performance and violent crime rates. A recent study concludes, however, that consumer sentiment is indirectly associated with changes in homicide rates through its effect on property crime (Rosenfeld 2009). Homicide rates increase as a result of increases in property crime rates, which in turn are driven up when collective perceptions of economic performance become more pessimistic. The hypothesized mechanism linking property crime and homicide is the underground market, specifically, the market for cheap, stolen goods. Robbers, burglars, and thieves must sell the goods they do not consume, and buyers and sellers of stolen merchandise cannot turn to the police, courts, or regulatory agencies when disputes arise over price, quantity, quality, and other conditions of exchange, or when they are preyed on by other offenders. Violence is a potent and at times unavoidable means of enforcement and protection in such “stateless” social locations. As underground markets expand and property crime rates increase during economic downturns, therefore, homicide rates rise as well (Rosenfeld 2009).

Additional research is needed to replicate and build on these initial findings on the relationship between economic performance and property crime, and the effect of property crime on violent crime. But the research to date offers promising leads for future investigations of the direct and indirect effects of economic performance on crime rates. Those effects tend to be relatively short-lived and cyclical, reflecting the periodic booms and busts of dynamic market economies. Whether (p. 418) the performance of other institutions has similarly short-run effects on crime remains an open and significant empirical question. But it is likely that the sustained underperformance of the economy or other social institutions will eventually call into question the legitimacy of the affected institutions, as discussed, and thereby result in crime increases of longer duration.

Non- and underperformance of the polity offers additional insights into the relationship between institutional performance and violent crime. Perhaps the best contemporary examples of the link between ineffective performance of the political institutional order and violent crime are found in the transition countries in Europe and Latin America. These countries experienced a sweeping transformation of their polity from an autocratic to a democratic institutional order, which in post-communist countries was accompanied by the transformation from a command to a free market economy.

Karstedt (2008) used data on “booms and busts” of homicide rates collected by LaFree and Drass (2002) to explore the link between transitions and violent crime. Two-thirds of the transition countries in the cross-national sample (including Latin American countries) experienced booms of violence during the extended transition period. The four Eastern and Central European post-communist transition countries (Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia) all experienced a steep increase in violence before and during the transition period. This consistent pattern seems to be indicative of the criminogenic impact of ineffective institutional performance of both the political system and the economy. It is a particular characteristic of (communist) command economies that economic and political institutions are intricately linked to each other, with considerably less separation between institutional domains than in market economies. Weak performance of the economy reflects inefficient performance of political institutions and vice versa. Citizens withdraw commitment and allegiance from an institutional order that fails them in vital realms of life and more than one institutional domain, and proves incapable of delivering what it promises. The trend of rising homicide rates across more than two decades before the transition can be seen as a telling sign of the long-term erosion of the performance of the political economy in these countries, and a continuous loss of commitment and legitimacy across different institutional domains. The swift and thorough demise of the institutional order during the transition indeed signifies that it had not been functional for a long time.

III. Conclusion: Where Next In Institutional Theorizing?

As criminology joins the “institutional turn” that has taken hold in economics, sociology, and political science, it can build upon and enhance its own theoretical traditions. Institutional theory and frameworks share core concepts and perspectives (p. 419) with other recent developments of etiological analyses of crime. For example, Situational Action Theory (Wikström 2010) is based on the notion that individuals make fundamentally moral choices when engaging in crime and deviant behavior, and it is the complement of institutions that provides the “moral and cognitive templates for interpretation and action” (Hall and Taylor 1996, p. 939). In a similar vein, research by Tyler (2006) and his colleagues on the importance of procedural fairness for compliance and cooperation with criminal justice agencies implicitly is based on the seminal role of institutions in ensuring cooperation and soliciting commitment to norms and rules in societies. Institutional theorizing offers a foundation for building integrated theories that contextualize individual action and proximate settings in the etiological analysis of crime.

Our account of institutional theorizing and research suggests three directions for developing its full potential for etiological analyses of crime. First, it is important to explore further the ways in which the normal crime rate, and long- and short-term trends in crime, are related to the three dimensions of the institutional order: institutional structure, institutional regulation, and institutional performance. Institutional transformations involve the overall institutional structure of societies and impact all institutional domains; they are embedded in the “big structures (and) large processes” of social change (Tilly 1984) in which the existing institutional order is dissolved and a new one emerges. Institutional transformations thus set and reset the normal crime rate of societies and account for long-term secular trends of crime. If institutions lose legitimacy to provide moral templates for action, institutional regulation and the moral authority and legitimacy of institutions are affected. Loss of legitimacy might be the result of changes in other institutional domains, or initiated by unpredictable and dynamic forces in the environment in which institutions operate. In the course of adapting to these forces and regaining institutional equilibrium and stability, these forces create crime waves and medium-term change that oscillate around the normal level of crime without resetting it in the long run. Both institutional transformation and changes in institutional regulation involve more than one institutional domain. In contrast, deterioration of institutional performance seems to be more localized within one institutional domain, notwithstanding that it might emanate into and erode the legitimacy of other institutional domains. Under- and nonperformance of institutions seems to account for the more short-term “booms and busts” of crime rates. The exact nature of these institutional processes and their impacts on crime, however, has yet to be explicated fully.

Second, institutional theory needs to explore in-depth exactly how institutions generate behavior. This is of vital importance if researchers are to explain the normal crime rate as an essential feature of the institutional equilibrium and deviations as initiated by institutional change. The arguments and research presented in this chapter strongly suggest a major role for beliefs in institutional theorizing, both as more durable “mentalities” embedded in larger cultural organizations and as more fluctuating and short-term “sentiments.” As institutions create incentives for behavior, they lead to beliefs consistent with this behavior and with the values that institutions are built upon and which they foster (Greif 2006). Beliefs and expectations about the (p. 420) commitment of others and what institutions deliver are vital for the moral authority that is ascribed to institutions; this applies equally to the particular subset of interactions related to one institutional domain and to more general values patterns and beliefs. Changes in values and beliefs therefore are signals of and might precede institutional transformations, and might serve as sensitive indicators of deteriorating legitimacy and performance of institutions that have repercussions on the crime rate in societies.

Finally, institutional theorizing paves the way toward identifying comparative institutional advantages and disadvantages (Hall and Soskice 2001; see also Karstedt 2006, 2010) across time and different settings, from the more proximate settings of individual behavior to larger entities like societies. This framework might be particularly helpful in explaining how institutions connect in delivering outcomes in terms of compliance with rules and norms. As we noted earlier, one institutional approach in criminology—institutional anomie theory—draws attention to the institutional regime that relates market and nonmarket institutions in societies and assigns a particular weight to the economy, in relation to other institutional domains like education, welfare, and the family. Comparative institutional advantages in terms of normative compliance evidently accrue where markets are supported by nonmarket institutions, and where the overall institutional order is more adaptive to and protective against economic cycles and downturns. However, as social settings and communities differ in many important respects (e.g., economic deprivation, social disorganization), the prevailing institutional regime might produce particular advantages and disadvantages for some groups and thus lead to unequal distributions of institutional gains and losses across the population. Comparing institutional advantages and disadvantages provides powerful tools for analyzing the crime rates of different groups.

Institutional theorizing is a recent development in criminology, and it still has to prove its value not only for helping to explain the causes of crime but also for crime prevention. At this stage, it opens up innovative perspectives that reconnect with older traditions in a number of fruitful ways: it directs attention toward institutions beyond the narrower domain of criminal justice and toward new conceptual tools for reshaping and improving the institutions of education, welfare, and families. We are hopeful that institutional perspectives will assume an even more prominent role in criminology in the years ahead.


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(1) . See the respective chapters in Cullen et al. (2006) for reviews of theoretical perspectives that focus on properties of individuals and neighborhoods. Immediate “settings” play a prominent role in Wikström’s (2010) situational action theory.

(2) . The degree of differentiation among institutions varies across societies, with the most complex societies exhibiting the greatest institutional differentiation. But all societies share the basic functional prerequisites Parsons outlined.

(3) . Portions of this discussion are adapted from Rosenfeld (2011) and Rosenfeld and Messner (2010).