"The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Émile Durkheim borrowed the word anomie from French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau and used it in his influential book Suicide (1897), outlining the social (and not individual) causes of suicide, characterised by a rapid change of the standards or values of societies (often erroneously 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 better 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 was 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."
Over 120 years later, the above bears an uncanny, even disturbing, resemblance to modern society:
- suicide (rates increasing particularly among youth and middle-aged males)
- rapid change of the standards or values of societies (social media, fake news, political celebrity)
- alienation and purposelessness (social disconnectedness)
- society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes (GFC, unstable stock market)
- significant discrepancies between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what is actually achievable in everyday life (increased inequality)
- discrepancies between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals (rising house prices, changing employment landscapes due to technology)
- individuals striving to attain the common goals of society yet unable to reach these goals legitimately because of the structural limitations in society (racism, sexism, and all other -isms).
Durkheim also used the concept of anomie "to speak of the ways in which an individual's actions are matched, or integrated, with a system of social norms and practices… anomie is a mismatch, not simply the absence of norms. Thus, a society with too much rigidity and little individual discretion could also produce a kind of anomie..." (Wikipedia)
Generally speaking, it doesn't require much of a leap in thinking to liken this mismatch between individual and social norms, and the rigidity of social values, to what we would today call prejudice, discrimination, or the more recently preferred euphemism "unconscious bias" (see my recent commentary here).
What really stands out for me though, when looking through the lens of anomie and its focus on a mismatch in individual and societal norms, values and practices, is the ongoing psychological toll it takes on any marginalised person. While we easily focus on individual incidences of unfairness, discrimination, hardship and violence, we seldom address the impacts of a lifetime of the inability to live up to common norms and achieve common goals.
Perhaps standing back to see this wider picture would increase efficacy in finding solutions to social issues.