anomie, anomy
An absence, breakdown, confusion, or conflict in the norms of a society. The term anomia is scattered throughout classical Greek writings, where it may be linked to the adjective anomos, meaning ‘without law’. It has since assumed a wider and often negative connotation of breakdown and catastrophe. In sociology the term is most frequently identified with the work of Émile Durkheim and Robert Merton.
In Durkheim's writings the concept appears prominently in The Division of Labour in Society and Suicide. In the former, anomie emerges through society's transition from mechanical to organic solidarity. Normally, increasing division of labour brings about social integration by organic solidarity, but where economic change is too fast for the growth of moral regulation to keep pace with increasing differentiation and specialization then an abnormal or anomic pathological division of labour occurs. The argument is further developed in his discussion of suicide -where anomie is one of the four causes of suicide identified in Durkheim's classic study. Anomic suicide occurs increasingly in organic societies, notably at times of economic depression or boom, when there is a lessening of economic (and possibly normative) regulation. In such periods, people are less closely locked into the order of society, so their basic desires may become limitless and confused. At this point, anomie becomes almost a psychological state of disorder and meaninglessness, rather than the structural characteristic of society and social order that Durkheim originally intended. (Arguably, however, since Durkheim's underlying model of human desire as differing from animal instinct is that the former contains no mechanism of self-limitation, and hence can only be limited by social regulation, this is consistent with saying that the psychological state is a correlate of the structural characteristic, and conceptually distinct from it.) The concept is often contrasted with Marx's idea of alienation .
Robert Merton's work shifts the meaning somewhat. Merton wanted to produce a sociological account of deviance : of how social structures and cultural values exert definite pressures to conform, yet create disjunctions and contradictions which make deviance a necessary outcome. In his classic essay on’Social Structure and Anomie’ (in Social Theory and Social Structure, 1957), he discusses the American Dream of ‘log cabin to White House’, the truly open society where enormous upward social mobility and financial rewards are possible, and distinguishes these cultural goals of economic success from the legitimate structural means (educational attainment and hard work) by which they might be achieved. According to Merton, the American value-system creates almost universal striving for success, and specifies a range of normatively approved means of securing this goal, but the structure of economic resources in that society enables only certain privileged groups and classes to succeed. This creates feelings of relative deprivation among many disprivileged individuals, who then turn to various forms of individual deviance, where these seem to offer alternative means to the same desired ends. In other words anomie occurs as the disjunction of means and goals. The true conformist will be the person who has access to both the legitimate means and the approved goals. However, in a celebrated typology of modes of individual adaptations to anomie, Merton also discusses innovation (keeping goals, but rejecting legitimate means, as in theft); retreatism (rejecting or withdrawing from goals and means, as in drug use); ritualism (keeping to legitimate means becomes a goal in itself, as in the case of a slavish bureaucrat); and, finally, rebellion (rejecting both means and goals, and substituting new ones, as in political radicalism)
Merton's theory has been much criticized for assuming too much conformity and consensus, an overly-integrated view of society, and an over-socialized view of people. Nevertheless, it has been very influential, especially in subsequent theories of delinquency. For example, in Albert Cohen's theory of status frustration (Delinquent Boys, 1956) and R. Cloward and L. Ohlin's theory of differential opportunity structures (Delinquency and Opportunity, 1961), delinquency is seen as the outcome of a situation of strain or anomie in the social structure. The concept of anomie has also been applied to a range of other areas, discussed critically in the volume edited by, Anomie and Deviant Behaviour (1964), and more recently in, Anomie: History and Meanings (1987). See also subculture.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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