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Keywords:

  • Anomie;
  • institutional anomie theory;
  • social institutions;
  • violence;
  • instrumental homicide

Messner and Rosenfeld's institutional anomie theory is grounded in the assumption that relatively higher crime rates in the United States are due to (1) the overwhelming influence of economic motives and institutions in society, and (2) the subjugation of all other social institutions to cultural economic interests (e.g., the American Dream). Our analysis is designed to extend the limited body of empirical research on this theory in several ways. First, we seek to test the utility of institutional anomie theory for predicting crime rates across aggregate units within the United States (counties). Second, we draw out the theory's emphasis on instrumental crime and suggest that measures of noneconomic social, political, familial, religious, and educational institutions will be particularly relevant for explaining instrumental as opposed to expressive violence. Third, in contrast to prior research, we develop conceptual reasons to expect that these factors will primarily mediate (as opposed to moderate) the relationship between economically motivating pressures and instrumental violence. Our negative binomial regression analyses of data from the Supplementary Homicide Reports and various censuses indicate that the measures of noneconomic institutions perform well in explaining both instrumental and expressive homicides, but that these measures mediate the impact of economic pressures (as measured by the Gini coefficient of family income inequality) to commit instrumental violence most strongly. Further, we find only very limited support for the more popular moderation hypothesis.