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Anomie, in contemporary English, means a condition or malaise in individuals or societies, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values. When applied to a government or society, anomie implies a social unrest or chaos.
The word comes from Greek, namely the prefix a- “without”, and nomos “law”. The Greeks distinguished between nomos (νόμος, “law”), and arché (αρχή, “starting rule, axiom, principle”). For example, a monarch is a single ruler but he or she might still be subject to, and not exempt from, the prevailing laws, i.e. nomos.
In the original city state democracy, the majority rule was an aspect of arché because it was a rule-based, customary system which might or might not make laws, i.e. nomos. Thus, the original meaning of anomie defined anything or anyone against or outside the law, or a condition where the current laws were not applied resulting in a state of illegitimacy or lawlessness.
The contemporary English understanding of the word anomie can accept greater flexibility in the word “norm”, and some have used the idea of normlessness to reflect a similar situation to the idea of anarchy. But, as used by Émile Durkheim and later theorists, anomie is a reaction against or a retreat from the regulatory social controls of society, and is a completely separate concept from anarchy which is an absence of effective rulers or leaders.
Anomie as individual disorderEdit
The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim borrowed the word from the French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau and used it in his book Suicide (1897), outlining the causes of suicide to describe a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values (referred to as normlessness), and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life. This is contrary to previous theories on suicide which generally maintained that suicide was precipitated by negative events in a person's life and their subsequent depression.
In Durkheim’s view, traditional religions often provided the basis for the shared values which the anomic individual lacks. Furthermore, he argued that the division of labor that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community.
Robert King Merton also adopted the idea of anomie to develop Strain Theory, defining it as the discrepancy between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals. In other words, an individual suffering from anomie would strive to attain the common goals of a specific society yet would not be able to reach these goals legitimately because of the structural limitations in society. As a result the individual would exhibit deviant behavior. Friedrich Hayek notably uses the word anomie with this meaning.
Anomie as a social disorder is not to be confused with anarchy. Anarchy denotes lack of rulers, hierarchy, and command, whereas anomie denotes lack of rules, structure, and organization. Many proponents of anarchism claim that anarchy does not necessarily lead to anomie and that hierarchical command actually increases lawlessness (see e.g. the Law of Eristic Escalation).
As an older variant, the Webster 1913 dictionary reports use of the word anomie as meaning “disregard or violation of the law”.
- Marco Orru, The Ethics of Anomie: Jean Marie Guyau and Emile Durkheim, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 1983), pp. 499-518
- Jordi Riba, La morale anomique de Jean-Marie Guyau, Paris [etc.] : L'Harmattan, 1999
- "Anomie" discussed at the Émile Durkheim Archive.
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