Anomie is a sociological term used to describe a state of normlessness and societal instability. It is marked by breakdown of standards and values, often leading to lack of purpose or alienation (LeVine, 2017).
During anomie, there is a rise in “deviant behavior”, where individuals within the fractured society may turn to crime, antisocial behavior, or even self-harm.
The term anomie originates with French sociologist Émile Durkheim who developed the theory of anomie in the late 1800s. Anomie is a french word, which can be roughly translated as “normlessness,” “deregulation,” “lawlessness,” or “lack of shared values.”
Definition Of Anomie in Sociology
Anomie refers to a state of normlessness or lack of social cohesion, where individuals feel disconnected from the broader societal values and norms, leading to feelings of alienation and uncertainty in their behaviors and actions.
This term was one of the earliest sociological explanations for how abnormal and anti-social behavior emerge in societies.
Durkheim’s Anomie Theory
Durkheim, a pioneering sociologist, defined anomie as a state of normlessness, which occurs when the societal regulation of individual aspirations is ineffective (Durkheim, 1893).
His argument is grounded on two key elements.
- Regulations are important: Regulations refer to the societal norms, laws, customs, and traditions that govern individual behavior (Durkheim, 1897). These social regulations facilitate societal cohesion by prescribing acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
- Existence of anomie: Anomie arises when these societal regulations break down, resulting in lack of guidance for individuals, thus promoting deviant or antisocial behavior (Marks, 1974).
Durkheim proposed anomie as a macro-level phenomenon, manifesting most often during times of rapid societal change or upheaval, when established norms are challenged and questioned (Durkheim, 1897).
For instance, during the industrial revolution (a period of societal turbulence as economies were rapidly changed), there was an increase in inequality, and therefore deviation from the normative societal behaviors – a classic illustration of Durkheim’s concept of anomie (Besnard, Smelser & Baltes, 2015).
So, for Durkheim, the concept of anomie represents the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community. This occurs when guidance provided by societal norms becomes insufficient, leading to the detachment of individual aspirations from collective orientation and fostering deviant behaviors as an attempt to adapt (Durkheim, 1893; 1897).
Merton’s Contribution (Strain Theory)
Robert K. Merton, an American sociologist, expanded on Durkheim’s concept of anomie in his strain theory (Merton, 1938).
Anomie arises, according to Merton, when there’s a disconnect between individuals’ goals and the means to achieve them (Merton, 1949; 1957).
This disconnect between societal goals and means, in Merton’s view, creates strain, leading individuals to resort to different coping strategies (Merton, 1957).
In other words, when people can no longer see a legitimate path to happiness or success in a society, they revolt and turn to illegitimate means for achieving their happiness and success.
Here, we can see the functionalist argument of Durkheim still – that social structures are necessary for maintaining order (e.g. functional capitalism that serves the masses will allow all to access opportunity, thus preventing widespread anomie). But for Merton, when those social structures and institutions fail (e.g. when there is no social mobility in a capitalist society), we head down the path of deviance or conformity.
For instance, in American society, the ‘American Dream’ is a broadly accepted cultural goal (Messner & Rosenfeld, 2012). However, not everyone is provided with equal opportunities (institutional means) to achieve this goal, creating a strain that, according to Merton, could trigger anomie and result in deviant behavior (Merton, 1938).
It’s the role, therefore, of the government to ensure that the American Dream is within reach for everyone, so they don’t turn to illegitimate behaviors.
Adapting to Strain
According to Merton, individuals adapt to strain in five ways – conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion (Merton, 1957).
Each adaptation reflects different variations of means and ends, with retreatism and rebellion pushing the boundaries of normlessness or anomie (Inderbitzin, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).
Overall, Merton’s take on anomie has its roots in the structural imbalances between cultural goals and the methods of achieving these goals.
This disjunction generates a social strain that can culminate in a state of normlessness, prominently leading toward behavior that deviates from societal norms (Merton, 1938; 1949; 1957).
Durkheim vs Merton
|Aspect||Durkheim’s Concept of Anomie||Merton’s Concept of Anomie|
|Origins||Rapid social change, especially during the industrial revolution.||Disjunction between cultural aspirations and societal means.|
|Role of Society||Societal norms are not clear, leading to a lack of regulation.||Society emphasizes goals, but doesn’t provide legitimate avenues for everyone to achieve them.|
|Consequences||Individuals face a lack of guidance, which can lead to increased suicide rates and social instability.||Strain leads to varying responses including conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.|
|Case of Study||Suicide rates in different societies and communities. For instance, Durkheim found that suicide rates were higher in Protestant communities than in Catholic ones due to a greater degree of individualism, aka lack of shared norms.||Social behaviors and crime rates in the U.S. For instance, Merton analyzed the American Dream, noting that when individuals couldn’t achieve success through legitimate means, they might resort to illegitimate ones.|
|Solution/Remedy||Create a balanced society with clear norms and occupational groups.||Adjust societal structure to reduce strain by giving equal opportunity to all.|
|Key Works||“Suicide” (1897) – A sociological study on the causes and types of suicide.||“Social Structure and Anomie” (1938) – A work introducing the Strain Theory and the various responses to anomie.|
|Focus||Emphasized the importance of societal integration and moral regulation.||Highlighted the discrepancy between societal goals and means, leading to different individual adaptations.|
Causes of Anomie
Durkheim argued that anomie was caused by eroding social structures, social institutions, and social norms. Merton, on the other hand, argued that it was caused by social inequality and people’s inability to achieve success through legitimate means.
Ovearall, here are five potential causes:
- Rapid social change: In periods of sudden and extensive societal transformations—such as industrialization, globalization, or technological advancements—old norms and standards may become outdated and ineffective (Boudon & Bourricaud, 1989). Consequently, society may fall into a state of confusion and alienation, leading to anomic conditions (as evidenced in the era of the Industrial Revolution mentioned earlier).
- Social inequality: Disparities in wealth and resources can create a dichotomy between cultural goals (what society expects people to strive for) and the societally-accepted methods for achieving these goals, especially for those with limited access (Bernburg, 2002). This gap, as Merton noted, can result in anomie and subsequent deviant behavior, as individuals strive “by any means necessary” to attain cultural expectations.
- Loss or disruption of societal norms: Norms guide societal behaviors. When they are disputed or dismissed—potentially due to ideological shifts, cultural clashes, or generational discrepancies—anomie may occur as individuals are left rudderless without the guiding compass of societal expectations.
- Ineffective societal regulation: When societal institutions, such as the legal system and the education system, fail to function optimally or fail to meet the needs of its members, this could lead to a state of anomie.
- Individual ambition unchecked by societal regulation: In situations where ambition is highly encouraged without adequate societal checks and balances (for instance, an overemphasis on success without equally stressing ethical and moral considerations), individuals might resort to unregulated and potentially deviant means of achieving their goals—a situation that can breed anomie.
Each cause underscores the importance of societal norms and regulations in maintaining societal structure and mitigating states of normative confusion. A healthy societal structure fosters an environment where growth and change can exist cooperatively, thereby reducing the likelihood of anomie.
Effects of Anomie
Durkheim and Merton both argued that anomie causes deviance, increased crime, and increased social disorder.
Here are five consequences of anomie:
- Increased deviance and crime: As norms and regulations break down, people may resort to unconventional or illegal means to achieve societal goals, leading to an increase in criminal activity.
- Social instability: Anomie can undermine the fabric of society, leading to unrest, a breakdown of social cohesion, and general societal instability (Boudon and Bourricaud, 2002).
- Psychological distress: Individuals may experience stress, anxiety, depression, feelings of disillusionment, or dissatisfaction because of the societal lack of clear norms, expectations, or moral guidance (Inderbitzen-Nolan, Anderson, & Johnson, 2007).
- Erosion of societal values and norms: Continued states of anomie can lead to further degradation of societal norms and values, encouraging individuals to deviate from what was once considered normative behavior. Here, eroded norms that caused anomie can lead to a spiral, eroding norms even more.
- Change in societal structure: Anomie can trigger a change in the societal structure as new norms and values emerge in response to the state of normlessness. This can be both destructive and constructive, bringing chaos in the short-run, but potentially paving the way for societal reform in the long-run (Kubrin, Stucky, & Krohn, 2009).
Each of these effects underscores the critical role that clear norms play in societal order and individual well-being. When these norms are absent or unclear—anomic conditions—society and its members may face negative psychological and social consequences.
I have a whole article on examples of anomie that I suggest you read, but here are some summarized examples:
- Collapse of Financial Markets: Economic downturns or recessions, particularly those sudden and severe, can disrupt societal norms and expectations about economic security and individual prosperity (Bernburg, 2002). This uncertainty and destabilization can lead to anomie as people react to their disrupted financial expectations and livelihoods.
- Radical Polarization in Politics: In situations where political discourse becomes extremely polarized, commonly agreed-upon norms of civic behavior and respect can break down (Kurtz & Turpin, 1999). This state of norm dissolution—where opposing factions no longer agree on basic societal rules—can be seen as a manifestation of anomie.
- Looting in the Streets: Following a societal upheaval or natural disaster, established norms become temporarily suspended, often giving rise to looting and unchecked vandalism (Durkheim, 1893). This form of deviant behavior exemplifies a state of anomie, where normal regulations fail to guide individual and group behaviors.
- Excessive Materialism: In societies where material success is heavily emphasized without equally concurrent moral and ethical standards, such as in the consumer-driven culture of developed nations, individuals might resort to questionable practices to achieve such success (Merton, 1949). This could reflect a state of anomie, where norms are unclear or misaligned with societal goals.
- Rampant Corruption: Governments or institutions faced with ineffective regulations or unchecked power can create conditions prone to widespread corruption (Merton, 1938). When the norms fail to control these behaviors, these situations can reflect anomie at an institutional level.
Sociological Criticisms Of Anomie Theory
Anomie Theory, especially in Merton’s approach, has come under critical scrutiny for a range of reasons:
- Some criminologists argue that it does not sufficiently explain the crimes committed by the wealthy and powerful (Thio, 1975). For example, a wealthy entrepreneur who attended an Ivy League university and ends up committing embezzlement, despite having already achieved financial success, doesn’t seem to have lacked a legitimate means for achieving his goals.
- Merton assumes everyone has the same shared goals, or aspires toward common things. For example, he assumes people aspire to legitimate wealth and power, and only turn to illegitimate means if they cannot get it legitimately. However, some people may set chaos as their goal from the start (Messner & Rosenfeld, 2007)
- 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 and examines a cultural context in the USA that no longer exists. People from different demographic groups (women vs. men, white vs. of color) might engaging in deviant activities for very different reasons, and a cross-cultural exploration is necessary.
- Just because someone is unable to obtain wealth through hard work and education, it does not follow that they will easily find an illegitimate 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 criticism comes from the differential opportunity theory of crime.
Bernburg, J. G. (2002). Anomie, Social Change and Crime. A Theoretical Examination of Institutional‐Anomie Theory. The British Journal of Criminology, 42 (4), 729-742.
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Boudon, R., & Bourricaud, F. (1989). A critical dictionary of sociology : University of Chicago Press.
Boudon, R., & Bourricaud, F. (2002). Anomie. In A critical dictionary of sociology (pp. 48-51): Routledge.
Durkheim, E. (1893). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press.
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Durkheim, E. (1924). Sociologie et philosophie. France: F. Alcan.
Hirschi, T. (2017). Causes of delinquency. London: Routledge.
Inderbitzin, M., Bates, K. A., & Gainey, R. R. (2016). Deviance and social control: A sociological perspective : Sage Publications.
Kubrin, C. E., Stucky, T. D., & Krohn, M. D. (2009). Researching theories of crime and deviance : Oxford University Press, USA.
Kurtz, L. R., & Turpin, J. (1999). Encyclopedia of violence, peace, and conflict (Vol. 1) : Academic Press.
Marks, S. R. (1974). Durkheim”s theory of anomie. American Journal of Sociology, 80(2), 329-363.
Merton, R.K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review 3, 672–682.
Merton, R.K. (1949). Social structure and anomie: revisions and extensions. In: Anshen, R.N. (Ed.), The Family: Its Functions and Destiny. New York: Harper.
Merton, R.K. (1957). Social structure and anomie. In: Merton, R.K. (Ed.), Social Theory and Social Structure. The Free Press, New York, pp. 185–214.
Messner, S. F., & Rosenfeld, R. (2012). Crime and the American dream. Los Angeles: Cengage Learning.
Quinney, R. (2017). The social reality of crime Richard Quinney. With a new introduction by A. Javier Treviño. London: Routledge.
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]