Anomie Essay

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Anomie refers to the improper operation or relative absence of normative regulation in an aggregate entity or environment, ranging from groups and communities to entire societies and the globe. Most conceptualizations of anomie stress normative breakdown, making this aspect critical to understanding any form of anomie. Its importance lies in the impacts and effects of inadequate regulation on individual, group, and societal pathologies. For these and other reasons, anomie has been an integral part of philosophical and social science debates about the nature of modern individuals and societies. Anomie-related research is thus prominent in multiple disciplines, including psychology, sociology, criminology, criminal justice, and political science.

Anomie varies by duration, intensity, source, and location. Some of its main types and typologies incorporating space and time elements include chronic, acute, simple, political, economic, institutional, cultural, social, and psychological anomie. Anomic conditions create unstable and uncertain environments where individuals face difficulties in coordination and cooperation and in determining whether or which formal and informal norms to follow. Generally, all types of anomie are consequential for the viability and predictability of social relationships, in the functioning of societal institutions and groups, and in producing crime and other pathological and deviant behavior. Although sometimes viewed in absolutist terms, anomie is a relative phenomenon with particular spatial and temporal referents.

The origin of anomie traces back to the notions in classical Greece of anomia and anomus, defined respectively as lawlessness and “without law.” The use of anomie in Renaissance England debates about human nature, religion, and the law rested on these earlier Greek roots. The view of anomie in these debates was as a condition of society with a lack of, or a lack of compliance with, laws and as representing a situation that might emerge without a rational foundation of law.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) presented the most widely known historical use of anomie, borrowing the term from French philosopher Jean Marie Guyau (1854-88). Guyau advocated an individual-based notion of anomie, viewing it as a positive condition countering the dominance of religious dogma and morality. Although Durkheim’s interpretation offered some positive features and a few similarities to Guyau’s individual-level anomie, Durkheim’s work is largely negative and emphasized social institutions and societal changes as responsible for anomie. Durkheim’s activist side emphasized restoration and repair of society’s normative systems using social institutions to counter any negative aspects of anomic conditions. Academically, Durkheim’s applications of anomie exemplify early positivistic sociological methodologies.

Anomie, for Durkheim, is a moral judgment on the condition of society and the basis for normative prescriptions on needed changes, rather than a moral or psychological state of an individual. Sociological and social science conceptualizations of anomie differ specifically on this point with their psychological and philosophical counterparts. Most macro-sociological conceptions of anomie build upon the work of Durkheim in viewing societal conditions as having a reality independent and distinct from the mental and emotional characteristics and actions of individuals. Further, these conditions including anomie were external to individuals and constrained individual behavior. Durkheim saw modern individuals with natural egoistical desires but with inherently social attributes that required cultivation and regulation.

Some sociologists unduly emphasize the individualistic side of Durkheim’s view of human nature to develop social control, bonding, and disorganization theories to examine individual-centered and institutionally mediated deviance. These interpretations of anomie are incompatible with Durkheim’s societal and functional focus on the necessity of extra-individual organs to counter anomic tendencies accompanying modernization. High levels of controls and regulation were also problematic for Durkheim. Micro conceptualizations of anomie exclusively focus on the individual manifestations, origins, and effects of anomie as well as on its subjective aspects.

U.S. sociologist Robert K. Merton developed his conceptualization of anomie through extension of the macro-sociological tradition built by Durkheim. For Merton, anomie was a cultural imbalance between cultural goals and norms, with emphasis of promoted goals over approved means. A poorly integrated culture was one of the critical ingredients producing a nonrandom, but patterned, distribution of deviant behavior. Unlike Talcott Parsons and other functionalists bent on advocating social engineering of institutions to achieve regulation of individual goals to meet predetermined societal ends, Merton examined these ends and accompanying regulatory norms as empirical and contingent outcomes dependent on individual decisions and societal structures. When institutionalized expectations do not guide behavior and individuals do not use the prescribed norms, some individuals choose to use nonprescribed means attenuating the already imbalanced culture. For Merton, anomie becomes a more permanent fixture in society for these reasons.

In Merton’s analysis, the organization of society and normal operation of societal institutions created the conditions of deviant behavior. Merton promoted the notion that nonconformity is rooted in society rather than in human nature and is a result of normal (not abnormal) conditions. Unlike Durkheim, Merton emphasized the distributional consequences of anomie in a stratified society, stressed the magnification and intensification of anomie through individual adaptations, and recognized the plurality of social controls and individual normative commitments that inhibited single-cause, general explanations of anomie and deviant behavior. Extensive debates about the broader application and testing of both Merton’s and Durkheim’s concepts of anomie and the labeling of both theorists as functionalists are responsible for the distortion of their theories and for misapplications and empirical testing of anomie at individual levels of analyses.

Anomie is not a unitary concept; it is subject to varying interpretations depending on the theories and partialities of the academic disciplines. The most prominent current application of anomie is in developmental contexts of societies undergoing dramatic transformations and adaptations to a globalizing world. While this is consistent with the macro-sociological tradition of anomie, anomie has emerged as a psychological concept requiring individualistic responses rather than as a social problem with societal implications and effects. Anomie as a cultural/societal phenomenon has little visibility to many segments of a society’s population. Further, defining anomie as a truly societal problem is unlikely because those greatly impacted by anomie may not be aware of its sources and effects. Moreover, anomic arrangements are not necessarily incompatible with the structures of society.


  1. Adler, Freda and William S. Laufer. 1995. The Legacy of Anomie Theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  2. Western, John, Bettina Gransow, and Peter M. Atteslander, eds. 1999. Comparative Anomie Research: Hidden Barriers, Hidden Potential for Social Development. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

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