Word of the Week: Anomie

ANOMIE: social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; also :  personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals (merriam-webster.com)

I read this word for the first time in a French article this week responding to the recent tragedy in Paris, and it is not only my word of the week, but my word of the month, the year, perhaps the era. I read it in French but it exists just the same in English. The writer referred to ‘anomie’ as being a possible route to civil war, so I looked it up and here’s what I found.

Anomie is a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals”. It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community e.g. if under unruly scenarios resulting in fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values. Originally a philosophical concept, it was popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book ‘Suicide’ (1897). Durkheim never uses the term normlessness; rather, he describes anomie as “derangement”, and “an insatiable will”.’

‘Deranged’ and ‘insatiable will’ are certainly two terms that are easily applied to the lunatics who, under the premise of acting on some divine will, commit atrocities and terrorise society. Durkheim may have developed his theory in the aftermath of the industrial revolution and in relation to the new position of man in a rapidly-changing, mechanised society, but its implication is wider.

He describes the social context of ‘anomie’ as one characterised by a rapid change of the standards or values of societies (resulting from an economic shift, whether positive or negative) and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. For Durkheim, anomie arises from a divergence between the expectations imposed on individuals by society, and the reality of their position within it. This then would result in a lack of moral grounding and an absence of legitimate aspirations.

A big concept for such a small word.

Change of economic fortune, feelings of alienation from society, an inability to find one’s place and form conceivable aspirations, a discrepancy between institutional ideology and the reality of everyday life for the majority – sound familiar? Durkheim may have been writing in the 19th century but he could have been describing 2015.

Anomie is a state which Durkheim links to suicide. The ultimate loss of hope, the ultimate act of desperation. He blames society for these ‘anomic suicides’. The idea was further developed into a concept called ‘strain theory’ which posited that individuals suffering from anomie would seek to attain the ideals advanced by their society, yet would be unable to attain them legitimately because of structural limitations within that same society. This would result in the exhibition of ‘deviant behaviour’.

‘Anomie’ is a powerful word, a big concept, one everyone should be aware of in this age of billionaires and bin-scroungers, of Wall Street banks and food banks, of suicide-bombers and school-shooters, in an era which has unbelievably at times been named ‘post-racial’ but in which the colour of your skin still largely predicts your income. In our general state of anomie, nothing that has happened this week should come as a surprise.


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