Anomie is the social condition that occurs when societal standards and regular interaction disintegrate or break down. Anomie typically makes people unable to interact in society. They might also think they’re cut off from their social groups and circles.
This circumstance might give rise to “deviant behavior“. In other words, individuals may turn to crime, other forms of antisocial behavior, or self-harm, including suicide.
The French sociologist Émile Durkheim first developed the theory in the late 1800s. A French word, anomie, can be translated as “normlessness,” “deregulation,” “lawlessness,” or “lack of shared values.”
Definition of Anomie
Anomie in individuals and society is a condition of instability and disintegration. It stems from the breakdown of previously shared norms and values that regulated social (inter)actions.
The theory of anomie has its origins in the school of functionalist sociology. It was one of the earliest sociological explanations for the origins of abnormal, anti-social behavior.
Anomie is linked with the work of prominent sociologists, Emile Durkheim (functionalism) and Robert Merton (strain theory). They looked at how social structures can affect behavior and lead to deviance and even retreatism.
Anomie can be expressed through two primary forms of social breakdown:
1. Loss of one’s sense of social belonging
People who experience periods of anomie tend to feel disconnected from society. For them, society no longer represents the values and norms they hold dear.
This leads people to lose their sense of purpose or ideals. They feel they no longer belong to a community whose rules they should respect. They feel like outsiders or hopeless.
2. Breakdown of social norms that keep people united
Anomie also points to a condition of social derangement. It is linked with the disintegration of the social ties that unite people into functional groups and communities.
Periods of anomie tend to be unstable and chaotic. Social disintegration encourages conflict.
This is because the shared norms and ideals that would ordinarily offer stability are weaker or absent.
As a result, people might be more inclined to commit crimes or other forms of social disruption. But violence and crime are not necessarily characteristics of anomie.
Some Simple Examples
- People living in high-rise residencies feel disconnected from one another and struggle with loneliness.
- People engage in organized theft because they do not have other ways of accumulating wealth.
- Individuals resorting to criminal activities (e.g., looting) during times of war or military occupation.
- Self-righteousness. Self-righteous think they have the right to impose their moral standards on others because they are superior to them.
- People from disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer chances to fulfil society’s expectations (e.g., the ‘American Dream’). Thus, they might feel disconnected from other members of the community and engage in violent activities.
- People living in big cities are more likely to engage in deviant behavior than people living in small villages. That’s because they’re more alienated from other people and they don’t necessarily share the same values.
- Unrestrained materialism makes people—even those who have everything they could possibly want—feel empty, unhappy, and purposeless.
- Societies have increased suicide rates during a financial crisis and their members feel bewildered or hopeless.
1. Durkheim’s anomic division of labor
Durkheim first wrote about anomie in his seminal 1893 book, titled The Division of Labor in Society.
He used the term “anomic division of labor” to describe a disorganized division of labor, in which some groups are excluded even though they used to fit in.
Durkheim observed that this happened as industrialization took place in European countries. This changed the nature of employment and giving rise to a more intricate division of labor.
According to Durkheim, social control was maintained in pre-industrialized cultures by the family, village, and tradition.
In post-industrial and modern societies, a growing division of labor and alienation, weakens individual restraints erode. This situation gives rise to a range of anti-social behaviors: e.g., egocentrism, norm violation, delegitimization, and mistrust of authority.
For example, when workers have no input in the production process and can hardly see the impact of their work, they might feel their work is meaningless and that they have no real purpose as professionals.
2. Durkheim’s Anomic Suicide
In Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897), Durkheim expanded on his idea of anomie. He wrote about “anomic suicide”, a type of suicide that is driven by the feeling of social disorganization.
Durkheim discovered that Protestants had a higher suicide rate through research on the suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics in nineteenth-century Europe.
He assumed this happened due to Protestant culture placing higher importance on individualism. This marked, for Durkheim, the critical difference in values between the two types of Christianity.
Their “individualist ethos” rendered Protestants more prone to suicide since they were less likely to form strong social bonds that could support them in times of emotional hardship. Accordingly, Durkheim claimed that adhering to the Catholic faith increased social cohesion and control.
See also: Social Bond Theory
3. Merton’s Anomic Theory
The American sociologist Robert K. Merton expanded on Durkheim’s anomie theory in the twentieth century and established the sociology of deviance. To Merton, anome occurs when people’s norms and values no longer align with those of society.
According to Merton, people may engage in deviant behavior to further their aims in society when there is a mismatch between those goals and the methods at their disposal.
For instance, imagine someone who wants to become a prominent lawyer but cannot afford to do it by attending Law School.
They may resort to illegal conduct, such as fabricating credentials, to make their dream come true.
According to Merton, anomie, a state of social disorder, is a significant cause of social deviance and criminality.
Like Durkheim, Merton also stated that people can feel lost and alienated if there aren’t any shared ideals and conventions in society. They might engage in criminal activity to give themselves a sense of purpose or belonging.
For example, a person might join a violent far-right online subculture that has its own standards and norms if they don’t feel like they fit in with the dominant culture of political correctness.
4. Anomie in times of social crises
Anomie can also emerge during periods of social turmoil, such as armed conflicts, natural disasters, or economic crises.
People may feel lost and confused when outdated institutions and values no longer hold sway.
When this happens, they could act in ways that go against social mores and law by resorting to activities like armed robbery, doing property damage, or harming other people.
5. Anomie and unrestrained materialism
Unrestrained materialism is an apt example of anomie. As Durkheim put it ( 1951, 248), “the more one has, the more one wants since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs”.
Research has shown that in materialist capitalism, people can lose sight of what is important and meaningful in life because they become obsessed with accumulating wealth and non-necessary material belongings.
Even when they purchase everything they could want, they might still experience feelings of despair, emptiness, and discontent.
Criticisms of Anomie
Anomie Theory, especially Merton’s theory, has come under critical scrutiny for a range of reasons:
- It does not broach and justify the crimes committed by the wealthy and powerful (Thio, 1975). For example, a wealthy entrepreneur who attended an Ivy League university may embezzle funds despite having already achieved financial success. Other types of crimes carried out by the rich—not mentioned by Merton—are financial corruption, tax evasion, intellectual theft, trafficking etc.
- It doesn’t take into consideration the “social reality of crime” (Quinney, 2017). This means that our understanding of crime comprises behaviors that “conflict with the interests of the dominant class, which has the power to translate its interests into public policy”.
- It assumes a homogenous society in the United States. People from different demographic groups (women vs. men, white vs. of color) might engaging in criminal activities for very different reasons.
- Because someone is unable to obtain wealth through hard work and education, it does not follow that they will easily find a criminal path to wealth and success. Merton did not consider that some people live in areas where there is already a criminal subculture, while others do not. Furthermore, the available subcultures differ vastly. This helps to explain why not everyone who finds legitimate opportunity structures blocked resorts to crime, as Merton assumed (Cloward and Ohlin, 1970).
In short, anomie marks a condition of social deregulation, breakdown of standards, and regular interaction in society. People who experience anomie feel lost, isolated, purposeless, and even worthless.
This occurs because they no longer see their personal ideals and moral standards mirrored in their society. As a result, they are more likely to question and reject shared values and behavioral norms.
Anomie is a crucial theory that attempts to explain deviant or criminal behavior as a result of the lack of social norms and regulations. However, it has been severely criticized for its formalism and disregard for crimes committed by the wealthy and other types of institutional violence.
Anomie’s key sociological implication is that individuals and groups can thrive in times of social upheaval only when they are bound by strong social bonds which maintain social stability.
Cloward, R., & Ohlin, L. (1970). Delinquency & opportunity: A theory of delinquent gangs. Glencoe, Ill : Free Press of Glencoe
Durkheim, E. (1893). The Division of Labor in Society. The Free Press, New York.
Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. The Free Press, New York.
Quinney, R. (2017). The social reality of crime Richard Quinney. With a new introduction by A. Javier Treviño. London: Routlege.
Merton, R. K. (1938) Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Oct., 1938), pp. 672-682.
Merton, R.K. (1949). Social structure and anomie: revisions and extensions. In: Anshen, R.N. (Ed.), The Family: Its Functions and Destiny. Harper, New York, pp. 226–257.
Thio, A. (1975). A Critical Look at Merton’s Anomie Theory. The Pacific Sociological Review, 18(2), 139–158. https://doi.org/10.2307/1388629
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]