Anomie is a term coined by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, in his book Suicide (1897). According to Durkheim, one of the four types of suicides that he identifies is anomic suicide, which results from anomie. Anomie itself is defined as a breakdown of norms and values that happens in a society due to lack of regulation and structure, and leads to social unrest, deviance and instability. The extreme consequences of anomie are deviance and egoistic or anomic suicide.

Individuals experiencing anomie are marked by despair and hopelessness; the lack of stability and accepted norms disturbs their psychological well-being, provoking them to deviant behaviour. This is why, according to Durkheim, widowers are more prone to suicide, because their wife, who was the regulating factor of their life, dies and they can no longer respond rationally to the vacuum of companionship, values and norms left by her death.

Durkheim says that this freedom in the absence of social regulation can lead to social fragmentation and existential anxiety because of limitless possibilities. To him, anomie represents the disturbing side of increasing individualism and egoism in modern societies, because a modern society decreases organic solidarity and pushes individuals to attain their aspirations through any deviant means. Robert K. Merton, the American sociologist, builds on this concept and outlines a series of responses that individuals experiencing anomie might demonstrate: innovation (deviance), retreatism (denunciation of acceptable societal goals and means to achieve them), rebellion (creating new goals and means, that are not socially approved), and ritualism (where one necessarily does not agree with the societally valued goals, but nevertheless follows the socially accepted means rather than deviance).

According to Merton, the feeling of strain that is created due to societal glorification of material goods as and end, which cannot be achieved through institutionalized or accepted means, enhances the effects of anomie in the society. This strain leads to deviance, the most common form of which is white collar crime, which belies the ambition of a middle class man to secure the goods offered by consumerist capitalism for his family (Scott, 2006).

Because individualism focuses on meritocracy, not taking into account institutional barriers that people from marginalized communities face on the basis of their gender, class or race, individuals are more strained to achieve culturally prized goals through their own resentful, transgressive means. This leads to class conflict as well, which is why Marx’s concept of alienation is relevant to anomie. Alienation is the isolating despair and anxiety caused in working class individuals caught in a capitalist-industrialist world, where they produce commodities that have a separate, and greater worth than the labour itself. Georg Simmel also resented the “tumult of the metropolis” that was decreasing the sociability of individuals, and so did Max Weber, by pointing out the problematic individualism of industrialization shackling people in bureaucratic confinements (Scott, 2006).

Thus, these concepts can be traced back to the problematic division of labour brought on by industrialization. These phenomena lead an individual away from the integrating fabric of the society, causing deviance and class conflict, and are important lens for social critique.

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