Social structure theory is a prominent criminological perspective that seeks to explain criminal behavior by examining the underlying social structures and institutions that influence individuals and groups. It looks at how these structures create unequal opportunities, leading to crime and deviance in society.

The Origins of Social Structure Theory

The concept of social structure theory can be traced back to the works of several influential sociologists and criminologists. One of the key figures in the development of this theory is Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist who is often considered one of the founding fathers of sociology.

Durkheim’s groundbreaking book, The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893, laid the foundation for understanding how social structures shape individual behavior. He argued that society is held together by a collective conscience, which is a set of shared beliefs, values, norms, and social rules.

Robert K. Merton, an American sociologist, further expanded on Durkheim’s ideas in his influential work Social Theory and Social Structure, published in 1949. Merton introduced the concept of “anomie” to explain how societal norms and goals can create strain and lead individuals to engage in deviant behavior.

Contemporary Contributors

In addition to Durkheim and Merton, there have been several other notable contributors to the development of social structure theory.

Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin:

In their book Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs, published in 1960, Cloward and Ohlin expanded on Merton’s ideas by focusing on the role of opportunity structures in shaping criminal behavior. They argued that individuals turn to crime when they lack legitimate opportunities to achieve success.

Albert Cohen:

Cohen’s book Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang, published in 1955, explored how lower-class youth develop subcultures and values that differ from mainstream society. Cohen argued that these subcultures provide alternative status hierarchies for individuals who are unable to achieve success through conventional means.

William Julius Wilson:

Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, published in 1987, focused on the impact of urban poverty and racial segregation on crime rates. He highlighted how the lack of employment opportunities and social disorganization in disadvantaged neighborhoods contribute to criminal behavior.

Incorporating Social Structure Theory

Social structure theory has been widely used in criminological research and policy development. It provides insights into the root causes of crime and suggests strategies for prevention and intervention.

Policy implications:

Criminal justice system implications:


Social structure theory provides a valuable framework for understanding the complex relationship between social structures and criminal behavior. By examining the underlying social factors that contribute to crime, policymakers and researchers can develop more effective strategies to prevent and reduce crime in society.