Anomie Theory in Sociology

By Charlotte Nickerson, published August 31, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Key Points

  • Anomie theory is a theory that attempts to explain deviant or criminal behavior as a result of the lack of social norms and regulation.
  • The term "anomie" was first popularised by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his 1897 book Suicide, where he used it to refer to the lack of integration or social cohesion within a society.
  • Without a sense of social solidarity society can fall into anomie, a normlessness where a person doesn’t know what it means to be normal within society.
  • Durkheim suggested that modern industrial societies were consequently characterized by moral confusion or ‘anomie’. This means that some members of society were more likely to challenge and reject shared values and norms of behavior and this ‘normlessness’ often resulted in crime and deviance.
  • Anomie theory has since been further developed by other theorists, such as Robert Merton, who used it to explain deviance in his strain theory.
  • The main tenets of modern anomie theories are that: (i) People conform to societal norms in order to gain rewards or avoid punishment; (ii) When there is a discrepancy between the goals people want to achieve and the means available to them to achieve those goals, anomie results, motivating deviance.

What is Durkheim’s Anomie Theory?

Anomie, sometimes spelled anomy, is a sense of alienation and hopelessness in a society or group that is often a response to social upheaval. This causes the breakdown of an individual's usual social or ethical standards.

Although the term anomie was first reinvented by the french philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim popularized the notion in his books, Suicide, and The Division of Labor.

  • In his original works, Durkheim considered anomie to be itself the widespread lack of commitment to shared values, standards, and rules needed to regulate the behaviors and aspirations of individuals.
  • When this commitment is not enforced and social disorganization results, Durkheim argued, individuals become distressed and more likely to commit deviant behavior. Anomie is a catalyst in this way.

Durkheim's anomie theory stems from his observations of 19th century Europe. He argued that anomie resulted from rapid social change and the weakening of traditional institutions, particularly changes in the principles underlying social inequality, as well as a weakening of such authorities' power over economic life.

In Durkheim's view, when social institutions such as the family, education, and work lose control over people, they deprive these people of socialization. A state of normlessness called anomie results, which can lead to criminal and deviant behavior.

When he first wrote The Division of Labor in Society in 1893, Durkheim called anomie an abnormal form of the division of labor. He considered it to be the absence or insufficiency of the regulation necessary to ensure cooperation between different specialized social functions,

This happens during, for example, economic crises, in the antagonism between capitalists and workers, and in science's loss of unity due to its increasing specialization

The similarities between these cases involve individuals performing different social roles without perceiving that they were participating in a common undertaking.

In Durkheim's original work, this theory of anomie culminated in his writing about the alienation of workers performing overspecialized tasks; for example, a tailor on a clothing manufacturing line only being responsible for sewing a single pocket onto a blouse. Durkheim and his contemporaries considered the dehumanizing nature of industrial revolution-era work to be a principal cause of anomie in society.

In his later work, Suicide (1897), Durkheim devised the concept of anomic suicide, which he believed resulted from insufficient social regulation of individuals; aspirations.

The pattern of rising suicides in Europe, Durkheim believed, could be explained by economic anomie (periods of economic expansion leading to the false hope that someone can become economically prosperous themselves), and sexual anomie, arising due to the introduction and spread of divorce leading to false beliefs, what Durkheim called the "morbid desire for the infinite" that one can be perfectly fulfilled in their romantic life.

Examples Of Anomie In Society

  • Self-righteousness is an example of anomie. Self-righteous individuals are those who believe they are morally superior to others and have the right to force their beliefs on others.

    Self-righteousness can be both a response to and cause of anomie in that it can lead to both self-righteous individuals and their targets feeling alienated from society as a whole, as well as as a way for an individual to respond to the deterioration of their norms within society (Cohen, 1965).

  • Another example of anomie is unchecked materialism. When people become too focused on acquiring wealth and possessions, they can lose sight of what is truly important in life. This can lead to feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction, even if they have everything they could ever want.

  • Anomie can also arise in situations of social upheaval, such as during wars or natural disasters. When traditional institutions and values are no longer relevant, people can feel lost and confused. This can lead to them acting in ways that are outside the norms of society, such as looting or vandalizing.

How Does Anomie Theory Explain Deviance?

Anomie is an abnormal form of the division of labor where there is too little regulation to encourage cooperation between people who have different social functions. In this condition, a society's previously common norms and values disappear or disintegrate.

This results in a society in which some groups no longer fit in, despite doing so in the past. This typically causes people to feel a lack of belonging and a sense of disconnection from society (Marks, 1974).

Strain Theory

Merton, an American sociologist, expanded on Durkheim's anomie theory. He devised strain theory, which argues that, when there is a disconnect between the goals and means available to achieve those goals, individuals may turn to deviant behavior in order to achieve their goals.

For example, if someone has the goal of obtaining a prestigious job as a doctor, but does not have the means to do so through attending medical school, they may turn to criminal activity, like forging credentials, in order to achieve their goal.

Merton also argued that a lack of shared values and norms in society can lead to individuals feeling lost and alienated. They may turn to deviant behavior in order to feel a sense of belonging or purpose.

For example, if someone does not feel like they fit in with the mainstream culture, they may join a subculture that has its own set of values and norms.

Types of Strain

Merton believed that crime is a response to the strain placed on people to achieve the goals and values of society.

Merton identified 5 different types of adaptation that individuals may use in order to respond to strain. These adaptions, composing Merton's typology, run on two axes: whether they accept institutionalized means and whether they accept cultural goals.

  1. Conformity: accepting societal goals and pursuing them through legitimate means. For example, someone who wants to be wealthy may become a doctor or lawyer after working hard to earn good grades at school.
  2. Innovation: accepting societal goals but pursuing them through illegitimate means. For example, someone may accept the American goal of pursuing wealth, but may attempt to achieve it by trading illegal drugs.
  3. Ritualism: rejecting societal goals but pursuing them through legitimate means. For instance, a middle-manager may give up on his vision of becoming wealthy, but nonetheless carries out his job in the way that his box expects him to.
  4. Retreatism: rejecting both societal goals and the means to pursue them. Disenchanted with a corporate job, a former financial trader may retreat to the wilderness and live off the grid in a shed.

  5. Rebellion: rejecting societal goals and replacing them with new ones. This response exists largely outside of institutionalized means and cultural goals.

    For instance, a political revolutionary may seek to overturn a government's current political structure and societal goals to reflect the revolutionary's personal convictions.

Critical Evaluation

Anomie theory has been criticized for ignoring the role of individual agency. Many sociologists argue that individuals are not passive victims of their social environment, but actively shape it through their actions and choices.

For example, someone who wants to be wealthy may become a doctor or lawyer after working hard to earn good grades at school. This shows that individuals have the ability to overcome structural anomie and achieve their goals through legitimate means (Thio, 1975).

Anomie theory has also been criticized for oversimplifying. It does not take into account the many different factors that can contribute to deviant behavior. For example, Merton’s typology does not take into account the fact that some people may engage in deviant behavior for reasons other than achieving their goals.

Some people may engage in deviant behavior for reasons entirely unrelated to societal goals, and the available means to achieving them. For example, someone may commit crimes because they enjoy the thrill of escaping law enforcement or as a consequence of an untreated mental illness (Thio, 1975).

Are alienation and anomie the same thing?

No, alienation and anomie are not the same thing. Alienation occurs when an individual feels disconnected from their work or surroundings. Anomie occurs when there is a lack of shared values and norms in society.

While this can lead to individuals feeling lost and alienated, alienation, in Marx's sence, is caused by the overlying structure of capitalism, while anomie is a social fact pertaining to individuals.

How does anomie affect society?

People who experience anomie are more likely to feel isolated from their society. This happens because they no longer see their personal values and norms reflected in the world around them.

Durkheim believed that this can result in frustration and ultimately, extreme responses, such as a rise in "anomic" suicides. Later sociologists, such as Robert K. Merton, considered anomie to be a root cause of deviant behavior.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Aug 31). Anomie Theory in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/anomie-theory-sociology.html

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