Retreatism refers to rejecting both societal goals and means, usually involving a form of withdrawal.
Consider a hermit who lives a secluded life or somebody who has abandoned their professional career. These are people who are not concerned with the conventional pursuits of “success” and have in some way withdrawn from society.
The concept originally comes from Robert Merton’s work on anomie, which was also discussed by Émile Durkheim. We will talk about both these thinkers and then look at some examples of retreatism. Finally, we will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of retreatism.
Retreatism is the concept where people remove themselves from social participation, self-secluding oneself, and choosing not to participate in social interactions.
Erich Goode defines retreatism as:
“the failure to achieve society’s success goals in the conventional manner and giving up on those goals as well as giving up on any and all manner of achieving them.”(Goode, 2007).
Retreatism and Anomie
Retreatism emerged from Durkheim and Metron’s ideas around anomie. In Greek writings, the term anomia meant “without law”, and in contemporary times also, “anomie” refers to breakdown and catastrophe (Scott).
The first to study this term in depth was Durkheim, followed by Merton, as explored below.
1. Durkheim’s Contribution
In sociology, anomie is most frequently associated with the work of Émile Durkheim and Robert Merton. For Durkheim, anomie was something that arose when a society transitioned from mechanical to organic solidarity.
Normally, increasing the division of labor leads to social integration through organic solidarity. But if the economic change occurs too quickly, then moral regulation cannot keep up with it, leading to the anomic division of labor (Scott, 2014).
2. Merton’s Contribution
Merton refashioned the concept of “anomie” in his own way. For him, anomie was caused by the disjunction between societal goals and means. Take the American dream for example. It suggests that anybody can go from a “log cabin” to the “White House”.
Their society put tremendous value on “success”, especially economic success, and specifies certain approved ways of achieving this (education, hard work, etc.). However, in reality, only some privileged groups can succeed through these means.
This causes other individuals to feel a sense of deprivation, and they may resort to deviant “modes of adaptation”. In other words, when individuals cannot achieve the goals that they have been taught to value, they may resort to any of the four responses:
- Innovation: In such cases, people continue to believe in societal goals but are willing to use any means to achieve them. For example, they may steal or sell contraband to become rich.
- Ritualism: People are no longer concerned with societal goals. However, they continue to obsessively pursue the legitimate “means”; for example, a slavish bureaucrat who adheres to all regulations, despite ignoring the purpose of those regulations.
- Retreatism: These are individuals who reject both societal goals and means. They completely withdraw from society’s rat race. Examples include addicts or hermits.
- Rebellion: These people wish to completely transform the structure of society, thereby redefining its goals and means. A revolutionary would be an example of this.
Examples of Retreatism
- Sports Context: The five modes of societal responses discussed by Robert Merton apply to the world of sports too. A retreat rejects both the means and the goals of society, and in the context of sports, this would be an athlete who gives up on winning and retreats from the entire sports scene. T.J. Curry also discusses other societal responses by athletes: an innovator might use performance-enhancing substances (for example, the infamous doping case of Lance Armstrong); a ritualist may compete but abandon the goal of winning in the Olympics; finally, a rebel might go for other games that allow for greater success. (2007).
- Cultural trauma: Cultural trauma refers to collective distress experienced by a group of people, and Merton’s typology can be adapted to this. Wars, genocides, or pandemics (like the recent Covid-19) are some examples of cultural traumas, and they deeply impact the culture’s identity & values. According to Sztompka, retreatism in this case would mean “ignoring trauma, repressing it, and acting as if it did not exist” (2007). He adds that this can allow people to gain a kind of “subjective insulation” from the traumatic condition. There can be other societal responses too; for example, rebellion would involve a total transformation of the culture to deal with the traumatic condition.
- Skid Row Drinkers: Skid row drinkers are individuals who are heavily dependent on ‘adult beverages’ and are homeless. Studying a downtown area in Vancouver, Canada, R.L. Cameron discussed how a skid-row-like minority in Vancouver exhibited extreme deterioration and constituted a form of retreatism. He discovered that there was a negative community attitude toward this problem; both government and private agencies saw these people as “hopeless”. Cameron argued that we need greater public education to make people understand that this is the result of cultural inadequacies (not individual “moral weakness”) and we also need coordinated programs to help them.
- Suicide: Suicide is the most extreme form of retreatism, and it was first discussed extensively by Émile Durkheim. Durkheim saw anomie (as per his conception) as one of the four causes of suicide: anomie suicide occurs when economic depression or boom causes normative regulations to lessen (Scott, 2014). Without clear norms, an individual’s desires may become limitless or confused leading to a psychological state of meaninglessness, and ultimately suicide. So, even something as ‘personal’ as suicide is steeped in ‘social’ factors.
- Escapism: Escaping reality through fiction or newer modes of technology can be another form of retreatism. We are living through the revolution of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. While these technologies are often used to perform social functions (say work or personal communication), they may also be used to escape society itself. Against the innumerable difficulties of life, people may find solace in the digital world, which might even seem more real than the real world.
- Vagabond: A vagabond is also a retreat since he does not follow either the societal means or goals. These are individuals who wander from place to place, without having a proper job or home.
- Abandoning Professional Career: Somebody who abandons their professional career is also a retreat. This can be in a specific field (like the earlier discussed athlete who quits sports) or somebody who completely rejects the idea of a profession, relying on other means to live.
- Homeless: Homeless individuals can also be retreats. Not all homeless people are retreats though, as some may still believe in the goal of having a home. However, there are some (say those having a criminal record or those who reject social housing), who reject that goal itself and live on the streets.
- Substance use: Substance users are individuals who retreat from the world through substance abuse. As you might have seen in the famous TV show Breaking Bad, addicts often face extreme hardship in real life and then become dependent on chemicals to escape that reality.
- Hermits: A hermit is an individual who lives in seclusion, mostly due to religious reasons. For these people, the societal ideas of “success” are irrelevant; instead, they wish to pursue their religious goals with the appropriate means.
Retreatism Pros and Cons
While retreatism may offer a chance for self-discovery, it can also lead to feelings of isolation and may be ineffective in the long run.
Since retreatism involves rejecting societal means and goals, it can offer us a kind of “blank slate”. This may allow us to explore our own values, without the influence of societal pressure. The non-conformity of retreats can also help us look at society more critically.
If a lot of people are retreating (say resorting to illicit substances), it might mean that there are some deep-rooted issues in the society that is making them do so. This should encourage authorities and citizens to take measures to address these issues.
Earlier, we talked about how an athlete quitting sports is also a form of retreatism. This may be a good thing, and it’s certainly better than pursuing the sport with unfair means like doping. We also saw how retreatism can provide “subjective insulation” in case of cultural trauma.
However, retreatism also has many weaknesses. When individuals retreat from societal goals & means, they also effectively withdraw from social networks. This can make them feel isolated and lose all social support systems.
Retreatism is often linked to self-harming behavior, such as substance abuse. Besides being harmful in itself, it also turns people completely unproductive, who cannot contribute to society in any positive way.
Finally, retreatism may not exactly be a long-term solution. It may temporarily allow us to “escape” from the social reality around us, but it does nothing to address underlying social issues. It cannot bring about any actual social change.
Retreatism involves rejecting societal means and goals—a complete withdrawal from society’s rat race.
It is one of the four societal responses that arise out of anomie (the disjunction between what society teaches us to value and the means it offers). Examples of retreatism include abandoning one’s profession, resorting to dangerous substances, or in extreme cases, committing suicide.
Cameron, R.L. (1964). Social Characteristics of the Skid Row. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia.
Curry, T. (2007). Sport and Deviance. In G. Ritzer (Ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Durkheim, E. (1952/1857). Suicide. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Goode, E. (2007). Explanatory Theories of Deviance. In G. Ritzer (Ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Merton, R. (1957). Social Structure and Anomie. In R. Metron (Ed.). Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sztompka, P. (2007). Collective Trauma. In G. Ritzer (Ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.