The concept anomie was used by early sociologists to describe changes in society produced by the Industrial Revolution. The demise of traditional communities and the disruption of norms, values, and a familiar way of life were major concerns of nineteenth-century philosophers and sociologists. For sociologists, anomie is most frequently associated with Emile Durkheim, although others used it differently even during his lifetime (Wolff 1988).

Durkheim ([1893] 1956) used the French word anomie, meaning ”without norms,” to describe the disruption that societies experienced in the shift from agrarian, village economies to those based on industry. Anomie is used to describe a state of society, referring to characteristics of the social system, not of individuals, although individuals were affected by this force. Increasingly, this term has taken on a more social psychological meaning. This is not to say that it no longer has uses consistent with the initial definition, but its meaning has been broadened considerably, at times consistent with Durkheim’s usage, at times at substantial variance with it.

There are, no doubt, sociologists who cringe at any expanded usage of this and other concepts, but the fact of the matter is that we have no more control over its usage than Thomas Kuhn (1970) has over abominable uses of the concept ”paradigm,” or than computer engineers have over those who say ”interface” when they mean ”meet with.” Although we cannot completely stop the misappropriation of such terms as anomie we can be careful that sociological extensions of anomie are logically derived from their early uses.


According to Durkheim, village life based on agriculture had consistent, well-established norms that governed the day-to-day lives of individuals. Norms prescribed patterns of behavior, obligation, and expectations. Durkheim called this pattern of social life mechanical solidarity. Communities characterized by ”mechanical solidarity” were self-contained units in which the family and the village provided for all of the needs of their members. With the emergence of industrial capitalism and the beginnings of population shifts from the hinterland to cities, mechanical solidarity could not successfully structure social life. Durkheim believed that a new, ”organic solidarity” based on a division of labor would emerge, with a regulating normative structure that would be as functional as mechanical solidarity. The emergence of organic solidarity would take time, however. The transitional period, characterized by normative disorganization, Durkheim described as anomic. By this he did not mean to imply literal normlessness but, rather, a state of relative normative disorder (Coser 1977). Compared with communities characterized by mechanical solidarity, developing larger towns and cities would have a less regulated, less structured, less ordered pattern of social life.

Release from the restraining influence of norms was not a liberating circumstance, according to Durkheim. In this state, without adequate normative direction, people did not know what to expect or how to behave. Many of the social problems that Durkheim witnessed in rapidly changing industrializing Europe, he blamed on inadequate normative regulation. In his classic Suicide, Durkheim ([1897] 1951) identifies ”anomic suicide” as occurring when the values and norms of the group cease to have meaning or serve as anchors for the individual, leading to feelings of isolation, confusion, and personal disorganization.


Anomie continues to be used as defined by Durkheim, but it has also been extended during the twentieth century. In addition to extensions similar to past uses of this concept, social psychological conceptions of anomie have become widespread. Robert Merton’s use of ”anomie” is very similar to that described by Durkheim. His application (1949) has been the core theoretical statement in one of the twentieth century’s major criminological traditions. ”Anomia” is a social psychological derivative used to represent a state of disaffection or disconnectedness.

Merton on Anomie. Merton (1949) used the concept anomie to describe how social structure produced individual deviance. According to Merton, when there existed within a society a disjuncture between the legitimate goals that members of a society were aspiring to and the legitimate means of achieving these goals, then that society was in a state of anomie. For both Durkheim and Merton, frustrated aspirations were an important cause of norm violations, or deviance. They differed in what they saw as the source of aspirations. For Durkheim, it was human nature to have limitless desires, growing from a natural ”wellspring” within. Merton argued that desires did not come from within us, but were advanced by a widely held conception of what constitutes ”the good life.”

Durkheim believed that when a society was characterized by anomie, there were inadequate normative constraints on the desires and expectations of people. Peasants could come to believe, even expect, that they could rise to live like the aristocracy, or become captains of newly developing industry. Part of mechanical solidarity was the norms that constrained these expectations, that ordered the intercourse between social classes, that checked the natural wellsprings of desires and encouraged peasants to be happy with their lot in life. Without these checks, desires exceeded reasonable hope of attainment, producing frustration and potentially deviance.

Merton’s conception of anomie placed the society itself in the position of determining both the legitimate goals that people should aspire to and the legitimate means of pursuing these goals. While this goal has often been expressed by researchers as wealth attainment, Merton (1997) believed that wealth attainment was only one example of many societal goals. Unfortunately, society frequently caused people to have grandiose expectations without providing all of its members with reasonable opportunities to pursue them legitimately. This circumstance, where the goals and the means were not both universally available to the members of a society, Merton called anomie.

When individuals were faced with anomie, they had to choose whether to forgo the socially advanced goals, their society’s shared vision of the good life, or to seek these objectives by means not defined as legitimate. Merton described five choices available to these individuals. With ”conformity,” the individual uses the socially prescribed means to obtain the goals advanced by that society. ”Innovation” is the choice to use illegitimate means to achieve the legitimate goals; much criminal behavior is an example of innovation. When a person goes through the motions of using the legitimate means, fully aware that the socially advanced goals are beyond his reach, this is ”ritualism.” ”Retreatism” is the choice neither to use the legitimate means nor to strive for the legitimate goals of a society. Finally, ”rebellion” is rejecting the society’s means and goals and replacing them with ones defined by the individual as superior.

A common mistake is interpreting Merton as arguing that an individual chooses to live his or her life as a conformist, or innovator, or retreatist. To the contrary, Merton’s position is that we all are constantly making choices when faced with behavioral alternatives. At one point during the day one might choose to act as a conformist, but later, when confronted with another choice, one may choose to innovate. For example, a person who engages in robbery, innovation, is not always an innovator; he or she may also have a job, which indicates conformity. While one of these choices may predominate with some people, they should be seen as alternatives that people choose from in deciding how to act in a particular instance, not identities that they assume.

In applying Merton’s perspective to Western nations, sociologists have argued that most of these societies are characterized by some degree of anomie, which manifests itself as a lack of equal opportunity. The extent of anomie, the degree of disjuncture between goals and means in a society, can be used to predict the level of crime and deviance that society will experience. The high crime rates of the United States can be linked to great inequalities in income, education, and job opportunities (Loftin and Hill 1974). To explain individual propensity to deviate from norms, one must consider the extent to which individuals have accepted the society’s conception of ”the good life,” and the legitimate means individuals can use to attain it (Cloward and Ohlin 1960). As an explanation of crime, this theory has given way to different approaches, but anomie has been absorbed into larger perspectives to explain the relationship between poverty and crime (Messner 1983).

New Approaches to Anomie. Anomie saw a theoretical resurgence in the late 1980s and 1990s (Agnew and Passas 1997), especially in criminological research. This resurgence first occurred with Agnew’s (1985) general strain theory and later, with macro-variations such as institutional anomie (Messner and Rosenfeld 1994).

Strain Theory. While many have been critical of anomie and strain theories of the past (Hirschi 1969; Kornhauser 1978), Agnew (1985, 1992) argues that research in the areas of medical sociology, social psychology, and psychology can help create new directions for this theory. Agnew (1992) has proposed a micro-level theory; that ”Adolescents are pressured into delinquency by the negative affective states—most notably anger and related emotions—that often result from negative relationships” (p. 48). His extension of traditional strain theories focuses on more than one form of strain or anomie. Agnew (1992) suggests there are three major types of strain that can be experienced by individuals: strain (1) ”as the failure to achieve positively valued goals,” (2) ”as the removal of positively valued stimuli,” and (3) ”as the presentation of negative stimuli.” This extension of anomie or strain theories allows our understanding of the creation of anomie to move even farther away from that first misconception that it must be connected to wealth attainment.

Institutional Anomie Theory. Most research on anomie has been at the micro-level (Agnew and Passas 1997). For example, variations such as Agnew’s general strain theory have ignored the theoretical implications at the macro-level (Agnew and Passas 1997; see also Bernard 1987; Messner 1988; Messner and Rosenfeld 1994; Rosenfeld 1989). Institutional anomie theory posits that in order to understand any social phenomena we must understand the basics of social organization. These basics are culture and social structure and are best understood by their linking mechanism, social institutions (Messner and Rosenfeld 1994; Rosenfeld and Messner 1997). Rosenfeld and Messner (1994, 1997) suggest that social institutions are both interdependent and in conflict with one another, which leads to a constant, necessary balancing of institutional demands. According to Rosenfeld and Messner (1997) the economy is at the center of this balancing act. Institutional ano-mie theory helps explain the effect of the domination of the economy over other institutions by suggesting that ”economic dominance stimulates the emergence of anomie at the cultural level, and. . . erodes the structural restraints against crime associated with the performance of institutional roles” (Rosenfeld and Messner 1997, p. 213). Institutional anomie theory which, up until this stage, has been used to explain trends in crime, could successfully be extended to other social phenomena.

Social Psychological Conceptions of Anomia.

Items designed to measure individual feelings of anomia are now frequently included in surveys such as the General Social Survey, an annual national survey conducted by the National Opinion

Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. Examples of these items illustrate the current uses of the concept, as in the following anomia items from the 1988 NORC survey (respondents were instructed to indicate the extent of their agreement with each statement): ”Most public officials (people in public office) are not really interested in the problems of the average man,” and ”It’s hardly fair to bring a child into the world with the way things look for the future” (NORC 1988, pp. 215-216). (Nearly 40 percent of the respondents to the second question agreed, and 68 percent agreed with the first.)


Anomie has been and will continue to be a mainstay concept in sociology. Papers discussing the meanings and uses of this concept continue to be written (see, for example, Adler and Laufer 1995; Bjarnason 1998; Deflem 1989; de Man and Labreche-Gauthier 1993; Hackett 1994; Hilbert 1989; Menard 1995; Passas and Agnew 1997; Wolff 1988). The basic meaning of the term anomie, though—both in its initial usage as a description of society and in its modern extensions—is well established and widely understood within the discipline. Students new to sociology should take care to understand that the definitions of the word may not be as broad for sociologists as for the general public. The utility of the concept for the study of society is best maintained by extending it in ways that are consistent with its original definition.

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