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anomie, a social condition characterized by instability, the breakdown of social norms, institutional disorganization, and a divorce between socially valid goals and available means for achieving them. Introduced into sociology by Emile Durkheim in his study Suicide (1897), anomie also refers to the psychological condition—of rootlessness, futility, anxiety, and amorality—afflicting individuals who live under such conditions. The importance of anomie as a cause of deviant behavior received further elaboration by Robert K. Merton.
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Fig. 1 Anomie. Merton's typology.




  1. (literally ‘without norms’ – a concept introduced into sociology by DURKHEIM) a condition of society or of personal relation to society in which there exists little consensus, a lack of certainty on values or goals, and a loss of effectiveness in the normative and moral framework which regulates collective and individual life.
  2. (a specification by Robert MERTON (1949) of Durkheim's concept) social situations and individual orientations in which a mismatch exists between culturally defined goals and the availability of institutionalized means of achieving these goals (e.g. the social conditions in which organized crime flourished in the US during the Depression).
The view of human nature held by Durkheim stands in the tradition of Thomas HOBBES, namely that there is no ‘natural’or inbuilt limit to the desires, ambitions or needs of individuals. For Durkheim, the required limits must be socially produced. Anomie exists, and unhappiness and social disorders result, when society fails to provide a limiting framework of social norms. As Durkheim sees it, anomie is an ‘abnormal’ social form, resulting from the failure of modern societies to move fully from the MECHANICAL SOLIDARITY characteristic of premodern societies to the ORGANIC SOLIDARITY which would come to typify modern societies. Durkheim saw anomie as pervasive in modern societies. For example, an anomic division of labour existed because occupations were not allocated according to talents. In more general terms, economic activity in these societies remained essentially unregulated.

In Suicide (1897), Durkheim claims to demonstrate a correlation between rates of suicide and anomic social situations, for instance, a correlation between suicide rates and divorce rates. It should be noted that anomie can arise from an upward spiralling of social expectations (e.g. from new wealth or opportunities) as well as from more obviously adverse conditions.

As reformulated by Merton, anomie becomes a concept used in the analysis of DEVIANCE. What Merton suggests is that whenever there exists any disjuncture between culturally defined goals and the socially approved means available to individuals or groups, four logically possible responses are available (see Fig. 1):

  1. ‘innovation’, i.e. crime or other socially disapproved means to achieve approved goals;
  2. ‘ritualism’, i.e. going through the motions of pursuing approved means with no prospect or expectation of success;
  3. ‘retreatism’, i.e. simply opting out;
  4. ‘rebellion’, i.e. seeking to change the system.

If Durkheim's focus on anomie can be seen as arising from a moral conservatism mixed with a social radicalism. Merton's approach reveals how anomie may be a source of social innovation as well as a locus of social problems.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


Apathy, alienation, and personal distress resulting from a lack of purpose or ideals.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
But more than this, the relatively institution-free, anomic transition-phase has now prevailed for a few generations.
Their consideration of anomie in Southeast Queensland enhances understanding of the role globalisation, urbanisation and mass migration play in creating the conditions for the development of anomic social structures.
Although the classical political economists put forth a sophisticated notion of social structure--Smith and Ricardo, as well as Marx, regarded class as a key factor--Sadowski's probings of social structure delve into ethnicity, religion, and gender, which are pivotal for explaining anomic violence, and barely touch on class forces.
Existing somewhere between the repressive, but stable, austerity of the old Communist system and the prospective, but highly uncertain, prosperity of the new capitalism, citizens of the NDB countries find themselves in classic anomic circumstances.
Further, culturally anomic males were found almost uniformly to be failing in school and to detest school.
Probably the most essential element in the formulation was that Merton situated deviant behavior within the anomic tendencies occurring through a dislocation between culture and social structure.
Adolescence is a critical period in which significant changes occur both within the individual (e.g., physiologically, cognitively, psychologically) and externally (e.g., peer pressure, or moving from a small, neighborhood-based school to a large, more anomic one).
James Wallace and Jim Erickson's book Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992) tells of an employee who bragged to Gates that he had just completed a 12-hour day, only to receive the half-joking response, "Working half-days again?" The one work of fiction actually set on the Microsoft campus, Douglas Coupland's Microserfs (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), depicts a chilly, anomic organization in which quietly desperate technicians chase stock options while their devotion to the company fills all those corners of the day where a personal life should be.
Following Merton's analysis, Seeman (1976) assumed that the anomic situation may lead to low predictability in behavior (meaninglessness) as well as the belief in luck (powerlessness).
For example, there is evidence email communication may produce and ameliorate anomic communication partnerships; email contributes to and helps overcome users' feelings of isolation; email is sometimes impersonal and sometimes not; and email may increase and decrease sociability in communication.
A further point: the Pentecostal faith is disseminated in the midst of indigenous peoples in anomic situations: in situations with an absence of references.
Moreover, if an equation is drawn (whether explicity in political discourse, or implicitly in fiction) between the anomic condition of the world and the subversion of the masculine order and its ideals, then the stage is set for an especially vigorous reassertion of heroic potency and virility (cf.