Institutional Anomie Theory and Cybercrime—Cybercrime and the American Dream, Now Available Online

AuthorKatalin Parti,James Hawdon,Thomas E. Dearden
Published date01 August 2021
Date01 August 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2021, Vol. 37(3) 311 –332
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862211001590
Institutional Anomie Theory
and Cybercrime—Cybercrime
and the American Dream,
Now Available Online
Thomas E. Dearden1, Katalin Parti1,
and James Hawdon1
As the world becomes increasingly connected and interdependent upon technology,
crimes are moving online. Research on cybercrime is beginning to test the applicability
of traditional criminological theories for understanding crime in this new medium.
Using a national sample of 215 self-admitted cybercriminals, we examine Messner and
Rosenfeld’s institutional anomie theory. Negative binomial regressions reveal that
expressed levels of institutional anomie correlate with increased cybercrime activity.
A curvilinear relationship was found, such that low and high levels of institutional
anomie lead to higher levels of cybercrime. Our findings reveal how the dark side of
the American Dream can lead to online criminality. Specifically, the penetration of,
and accommodation to economic values dictated by American capitalism can lead
individuals to adopt values such as the fetishism of money that, in turn, affects their
online behavior and criminality.
strain, institutional anomie, noneconomic institutions, cybercrime, cybercriminology
Our world is becoming increasingly connected through technology. From social
media to online shopping, we live in the age of the internet. Cisco estimates that cur-
rently there are more than eight networked devices per person in the United States,
and this number is expected to climb to more than 13 devices per person by 2022
1Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Katalin Parti, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Virginia Tech, 560 McBryde Hall (0137),
225 Stanger Street, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.
1001590CCJXXX10.1177/10439862211001590Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeDearden et al.
312 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 37(3)
(Cisco, 2020). We use computers to socialize, communicate, work, and play. Yet,
these technological connections also increase opportunities for new types of commit-
ting crimes that are facilitated by computers and the internet. Some of these crimes
include hacking, online fraud, identity theft, spamming, and cyberbullying (Ngo &
Jaishankar, 2017). Not surprisingly, as the world becomes more dependent on cyber-
connections, cybercrime is increasing (Jardine, 2015). According to Gallup, 23% of
households in America were victims of hacking to personal, credit card, or financial
information, and an additional 16% of households were victims of identity theft.
These rates of victimization surpass those reported for street crimes, where only 11%
were victims of vandalism, 3% of houses were broken into, and 4% of individuals
were physically assaulted, robbed, or sexually assaulted (Reinhart, 2018).
Given the widespread nature of cybercrime and the costs it can entail, there is an
obvious need to better understand its causes and consequences. Although an impres-
sive body of literature has now investigated patterns of cybercrime victimization, far
fewer studies have been able to study the perpetrators of cybercrimes. The relatively
limited number of studies that have examined cybercriminals often test the applicabil-
ity of a traditional criminological theory as a potential explanation for the cybercrime
in question. We provide another such examination by offering what we believe is the
first application of Messner and Rosenfeld’s (1994/2003) institutional anomie theory
(IAT) to a variety of cybercrimes. The goal of the study is to examine whether the
overemphasis on economic goals results in higher rates of cybercriminal behavior. In
other words, whether those who display any one of the four values—achievement,
individualism, universalism, and the fetishism of money—of Messner and Rosenfeld’s
theory, are more likely to engage in any cybercriminal activity
Strain Theory and Cybercrimes
Various criminological theories have been used to explain different types of cyber-
crimes. The most frequently used crime theories to explain cybercrime besides routine
activities (Bossler & Holt, 2009; Holt & Bossler, 2009; Reyns, 2013) are self-control
(Donner et al., 2014; Reyns et al., 2019), social learning theory (Hawdon et al., 2019;
Holt et al., 2010), and general strain theory (GST; Patchin & Hinduja, 2011).
Strain theory has been applied to acts of hacking, piracy, online scams, cyber-
stalking/harassment, and online hate speech (Chism & Steinmetz, 2018). Merton’s
influential theory on social structure and anomie (1938) described crime as the result
of the differential access to legitimate, institutionally defined means to achieve cul-
turally defined goals, especially monetary success. American culture emphasizes the
pursuit of the American Dream. This dream involves the pursuit of money to access
the all-encompassed desire for material objects such as car, house, and an overall
well-being. However, despite this culturally defined goal, the institutionally deter-
mined means fail to provide equal opportunities for all members of society to achieve
it. Deviant adaptations occur when an individual abandons the desired goal, the
legitimate means to achieve the goal, or both. Merton’s strain theory, although criti-
cized, has been extremely influential and gone through numerous revisions (e.g.,

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