Definition of Anomie in Sociology

The Theories of Émile Durkehim and Robert K. Merton

A man holding a sing that reads "out of work" symbolizes the social problem of anomie that plagues a society with high unemployment.
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Anomie is a social condition in which there is a disintegration or disappearance of the norms and values that were previously common to the society. The concept, thought of as “normlessness,” was developed by founding sociologist, Émile Durkheim. He discovered, through research, that anomie occurs during and follows periods of drastic and rapid changes to the social, economic, or political structures of society.

It is, per Durkheim's view, a transition phase wherein the values and norms common during one period of time are no longer valid, but new ones have not yet evolved to take their place.

People who live during periods of anomie typically feel disconnected from their society because they no longer see the norms and values that they hold dear reflected in society itself. This leads to the feeling that one does not belong and is not meaningfully connected to others. For some, this may mean that the role they play (or played) and/or their identity is no longer valued by society. Because of this, anomie can foster the feeling that one lacks purpose, engender hopelessness, and encourage deviance and crime.

Anomie According to Émile Durkheim

Though the concept of anomie is most closely associated with Durkheim's study of suicide, in fact, he first wrote about it in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society. In this book, Durkheim wrote about an anomic division of labor, a phrase he used to describe a disordered division of labor in which some groups no longer fit in, though they did in the past.

Durkheim saw that this occurred as European societies industrialized and the nature of work changed along with the development of a more complex division of labor.

He framed this as a clash between the mechanical solidarity of homogeneous, traditional societies and the organic solidarity that keeps more complex societies together.

According to Durkheim, anomie could not occur in the context of organic solidarity because this heterogeneous form of solidarity allows for the division of labor to evolve as needed, such that none are left out and all play a meaningful role.

A few years later, Durkheim further elaborated his concept of anomie in his 1897 book, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. He identified anomic suicide as a form of taking one's life that is motivated by the experience of anomie.  Durkheim found, through a study of suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics in nineteenth-century Europe, that the suicide rate was higher among Protestants. Understanding the different values of the two forms of Christianity, Durkheim theorized that this occurred because Protestant culture placed a higher value on individualism. This made Protestants less likely to develop close communal ties that might sustain them during times of emotional distress, which in turn made them more susceptible to suicide. Conversely, he reasoned that belonging to the Catholic faith provided greater social control and cohesion to a community, which would decrease the risk of anomie and of anomic suicide. The sociological implication is that strong social ties help people and groups survive periods of change and tumult in society.

Considering the whole of Durkheim's writing on anomie, one can see that he saw it as a breakdown of the ties that bind people together to make a functional society -- a state of social derangement. Periods of anomie are unstable, chaotic, and often rife with conflict because the social force of the norms and values that otherwise provide stability is weakened or missing.

Merton's Theory of Anomie and Deviance

Durkheim's theory of anomie proved influential to American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who is pioneered the sociology of deviance and is considered one of the U.S.'s most influential sociologists. Building on Durkheim's theory that anomie is a social condition in which people's norms and values no longer sync with those of society, Merton created structural strain theory, which explains how anomie lead to deviance and crime.

The theory states that when society does not provide the necessary legitimate and legal means that allow people to achieve culturally valued goals, people seek out alternative means that may simply break from the norm, or may violate norms and laws. For example, if society does not provide enough jobs that pay a living wage so that people can work to survive, many will turn to criminal methods of earning a living. So for Merton, deviance, and crime are, in large part, a result of anomie -- a state of social disorder.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of Anomie in Sociology." ThoughtCo, Jan. 17, 2018, thoughtco.com/anomie-definition-3026052. Crossman, Ashley. (2018, January 17). Definition of Anomie in Sociology. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/anomie-definition-3026052 Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of Anomie in Sociology." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/anomie-definition-3026052 (accessed May 23, 2018).