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Anomie, in contemporary English, means a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values.

The word comes from Greek, namely the prefix a-: "without", and nomos: "law". The Greeks distinguished between "nomos" (νόμος) (law), and "arché" (Αρχή) (starting rule, axiom, principle). For example, a "monarch" is a single ruler but he or she might still be subject to, and not exempt from, the prevailing laws, i.e. nomos; in the original city state "democracy", the majority rule was an aspect of "arché" because it was a rule-based, customary system which might, or might not, make laws, i.e. "nomos". Thus, the original meaning of anomie defined anything or anyone against or outside the "law", or a condition where the current laws were not applied resulting in a state of illegitimacy or lawlessness. The contemporary English understanding of the word anomie can accept greater flexibility in the word "norm", and some have used the idea of normlessness to reflect a similar situation to the idea of anarchy. But, as used by Émile Durkheim and later theorists, anomie is a reaction against, or a retreat from, the regulatory social controls of society, and is a completely separate concept from a situation of anarchy which is an absence of effective rulers or leaders.

Anomie as individual disorder[edit]

The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Durkheim used this word in his book Suicide (1897), outlining the causes of suicide to describe a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values (referred to as normlessness), and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life.

In Durkheim's view, traditional religions often provided the basis for the shared values which the anomic individual lacks. Furthermore, he argued that the division of labor that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community.

Robert King Merton also adopted the idea of anomie to develop Strain Theory, defining it as the discrepancy between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals. In other words, an individual suffering from anomie would strive to attain the common goals of a specific society yet would not be able to reach these goals legitimately because of the structural limitations in society. As a result the individual would exhibit deviant behavior.

Friedrich Hayek notably uses the word anomy with this meaning.

Anomy as a social disorder is not to be confused with anarchy. The word "anarchy" denotes lack of rulers, hierarchy, and command, whereas "anomy" denotes lack of rules, structure, and organization. Many proponents of anarchism claim that anarchy does not necessarily lead to anomy; however, some anarchists will argue that hierarchical command actually increases lawlessness, rather than maintains lawful behavior (e.g., see the Law of Eristic Escalation).

As an older variant, the Webster 1913 dictionary reports use of the word anomy as meaning "disregard or violation of the law".

Anomie in literature and film[edit]

In Albert Camus's existentialist novel The Stranger, the protagonist Meursault struggles to construct an individual system of values as he responds to the disappearance of the old. He exists largely in a state of anomie, as seen from the apathy evinced in the opening lines: "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas" ("Today Mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.") Dostoevsky, whose work is often considered a philosophical precursor to existentialism, often expressed a similar concern in his novels. In The Brothers Karamazov, the character Dimitri Karamazov asks his atheist friend Rakitin, "'...without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?'" Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, puts this philosophy into action when he kills an elderly pawnbroker and her sister, later rationalizing this act to himself with the words, " wasn't a human being I killed, it was a principle!"

More recently, the protagonist of Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver and the protagonist of the novel Fight Club, written by Chuck Palahniuk (and later made into a film), could be said to suffer from anomie.

External links[edit]


  • "Anomie" discussed at the Émile Durkheim Archive.
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