Anomie (/ˈænəˌmi/) is "the condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals".[1] Anomie may evolve from conflict of belief systems[2] and causes breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community (both economic and primary socialization).[3] In a person this can progress into a dysfunction in ability to integrate within normative situations of their social world - e.g., an unruly personal scenario that results in fragmentation of social identity and rejection of values.[4]

The term, commonly understood to mean normlessness, is believed to have been popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book Suicide (1897). However, Durkheim first introduced the concept of anomie in his 1893 work The Division of Labour in Society. Durkheim never used the term normlessness;[5] rather, he described anomie as "derangement", and "an insatiable will".[6] Durkheim used the term "the malady of the infinite" because desire without limit can never be fulfilled; it only becomes more intense.[7]

For Durkheim, anomie arises more generally from a mismatch between personal or group standards and wider social standards, or from the lack of a social ethic, which produces moral deregulation and an absence of legitimate aspirations. This is a nurtured condition:

Most sociologists associate the term with Durkheim, who used the concept to speak of the ways in which an individual's actions are matched, or integrated, with a system of social norms and practices … anomie is a mismatch, not simply the absence of norms. Thus, a society with too much rigidity and little individual discretion could also produce a kind of anomie ...[8]


In 1893 Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie to describe the mismatch of collective guild labour to evolving societal needs when the guild was homogeneous in its constituency. He equated homogeneous (redundant) skills to mechanical solidarity whose inertia retarded adaptation. He contrasted this with the self-regulating behaviour of a division of labour based on differences in constituency, equated to organic solidarity, whose lack of inertia made it sensitive to needed changes.

Durkheim observed that the conflict between the evolved organic division of labour and the homogeneous mechanical type was such that one could not exist in the presence of the other.[9]

When solidarity is organic, anomie is impossible.[10] Sensitivity to mutual needs promotes evolution in the division of labour. "Producers, being near consumers, can easily reckon the extent of the needs to be satisfied. Equilibrium is established without any trouble and production regulates itself."[10] Durkheim contrasted the condition of anomie as being the result of a malfunction of organic solidarity after the transition to mechanical solidarity:

But on the contrary, if some opaque environment is interposed ... relations [are] rare, are not repeated enough ... are too intermittent. Contact is no longer sufficient. The producer can no longer embrace the market at a glance, nor even in thought. He can no longer see its limits, since it is, so to speak limitless. Accordingly, production becomes unbridled and unregulated.[10]

Durkheim's use of the term anomie was about the phenomenon of industrialization—mass-regimentation that could not adapt due to its own inertia—its resistance to change, which causes disruptive cycles of collective behavior e.g. economics, due to the necessity of a prolonged buildup of sufficient force or momentum to overcome the inertia.

Later in 1897, in his studies of suicide, Durkheim associated anomie to the influence of a lack of norms or norms that were too rigid. But such normlessness or norm-rigidity was a symptom of anomie, caused by the lack of differential adaptation that would enable norms to evolve naturally due to self-regulation, either to develop norms where none existed or to change norms that had become rigid and obsolete.

In 1938 Robert K. Merton linked anomie with deviance and argued that the discontinuity between culture and structure have the dysfunctional consequence of leading to deviance within society. He described 5 types of deviance in terms of the acceptance or rejection of social goals and the institutionalized means of achieving them.[11]


The word, "a reborrowing with French spelling of anomy",[12] comes from Greek ἀνομία "lawlessness",[13][14] namely the privative alpha prefix (a- "without"), and nomos "law". The Greeks distinguished between nomos (νόμος, "law"), and arché (ἀρχή, "starting rule, axiom, principle"). For example, a monarch is a single ruler but he may 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 anarchy, which consists of the absence of the roles of rulers and submitted.

Social disorder

The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Émile Durkheim borrowed the word from French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau and used it in his influential book Suicide (1897), outlining the social (and not individual) causes of suicide, characterized by a rapid change of the standards or values of societies (often erroneously 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 better 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. This was contrary to previous theories on suicide which generally maintained that suicide was precipitated by negative events in a person's life and their subsequent depression.

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 anomie with this meaning.

According to one academic survey, psychometric testing confirmed a link between anomie and academic dishonesty among university students, suggesting that universities needed to foster codes of ethics among students in order to curb it.[15] In another study, anomie was seen as a "push factor" in tourism.[16]

As an older variant, the 1913 Webster's Dictionary reports use of the word anomie as meaning "disregard or violation of the law"[17] but anomie as a social disorder is not to be confused with anarchy. Proponents of anarchism claim that anarchy does not necessarily lead to anomie and that hierarchical command actually increases lawlessness. Some anarcho-primitivists argue that complex societies, particularly industrial and post-industrial societies, directly cause conditions such as anomie by depriving the individual of self-determination and a relatively small reference group to relate to, such as the band, clan, or tribe.

In literature, film, and theatre

In Albert Camus's existentialist novel The Stranger, the bored, alienated 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,[18] 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").

Fyodor Dostoyevsky expressed a similar concern about anomie in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor remarks that in the absence of God and immortal life, everything would be lawful.[19] In other words, that any act becomes thinkable, that there is no moral compass, which leads to apathy and detachment.

See also


  1. Gerber, John J. Macionis, Linda M. (2010). Sociology (7th Canadian ed.). Toronto: Pearson Canada. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-13-700161-3.
  2. Nickell Knutson, Jeanne (1972). The Human Basis of the Polity: A Psychological Study of Political Men. Aldine treatises in social psychology. Aldine-Atherton. p. 146. ISBN 9780202240404. Retrieved 27 October 2019. To de Grazia and Merton, such anomie as this stems not from a lack of rules, but rather, from conflict between the directives of two belief systems.
  3. Terry Long; Terry Robertson (24 January 2019). "Youth Development and Therapeutic Recreation". Foundations of Therapeutic Recreation: Perceptions, Philosophies, and Practices. Human Kinetics. ISBN 978-1-4925-4367-1. Retrieved 6 December 2019.
  4. NYtimes blogs
  5. Meštrović, Stjepan Gabriel (1993) [1988]. Emile Durkheim and the Reformation of Sociology. G - Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 60. ISBN 9780847678679. Retrieved 27 October 2019. The contemporary understanding of Durkheim's concept of anomie as 'normlesness' was begun by Parsons (1937) and Merton (1957). But [...] Durkheim never used the term 'normlesness.'
  6. Mestrovic, Stjepan. Emile Durkheim and The Reformation of Sociology.
  7. M.),, Cotterrell, Roger (Roger B. (1999). Emile Durkheim : law in a moral domain. p. 19. ISBN 0804738238. OCLC 43421884.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  8. Susan Leigh Star, Geoffrey C. Bowker, and Laura J. Neumann, "Transparency At Different Levels of Scale: Convergence between Information Artifacts and Social Worlds", Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, August 1997
  9. The Division of Labor in Society, The MacMillan Co. 1933, Free Press edition, 1964, pp. 182-183
  10. The Division of Labor in Society, The MacMillan Co. 1933, Free Press edition, 1964, pp. 368-369
  11. Merton, Robert K. (1938). "Social Structure and Anomie". American Sociological Review. 3 (5): 672–682. doi:10.2307/2084686. JSTOR 2084686.
  12. Harper, Douglas. "anomie". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  13. Harper, Douglas. "anomy". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  14. ἀνομία. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  15. "The effect of anomie on academic dishonesty among university students" by Albert Caruana, B. Ramaseshan, Michael T. Ewing. International Journal of Educational Management (2000). Volume 14, issue 1. pp. 23–30.
  16. Graham M. S. Dann (March–April 1977). "Anomie, ego-enhancement and tourism". Annals of Tourism Research. 4 (4): 184–194. doi:10.1016/0160-7383(77)90037-8. travel has the advantage of permitting the traveller to behave in a manner normally circumvented by the dictates of convention. When on holiday the tourist can overstep the bounds of fashion, tell a few stories normally deemed improper or inappropriate, wear flashy clothes, eat exotic food, get drunk, become more sexually permissive, alter his timetable, stay up half the night, listen to loud local music, etc., in short, indulge in those kinds of behavior generally frowned upon in his home environment.
  17. "Anomie, authoritarianism, and prejudice: A replication" by A. H. Roberts, M. Rokeach, American Journal of Sociology, 1956
  18. Robert N. Wilson (1963). "15, Albert Camus: Personality as Creative Struggle". In Robert W. White (ed.). The Study of Lives: Essays on Personality in Honor of Henry A. Murray (First ed.). Atherton Prentice-Hall. pp. 352–359.
  19. Michael Cromartie; Christopher Hitchens; Peter Hitchens (12 October 2010). "Can Civilization Survive Without God? A Conversation with Christopher and Peter Hitchens" (transcript). Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew Research Center. Retrieved 7 July 2013. The Brothers Karamazov... says, if there’s no God, then surely everything is possible — thinkable... Unfortunately, these are problems of human society and the human psyche — you might say, soul — whatever attitude we take to the humanness or the transcendent.


  • Durkheim, Émile (1893). The Division of Labour in Society.
  • Realino Marra, Suicidio, diritto e anomia. Immagini della morte volontaria nella civiltà occidentale, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, Napoli, 1987.
  • Realino Marra, "Geschichte und aktuelle Problematik des Anomiebegriffs", Zeitschrift für Rechtssoziologie, XI, 1, 1989, 67–80.
  • Marco Orru. "The Ethics of Anomie: Jean Marie Guyau and Émile Durkheim", British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 34, No. 4 (December 1983), pp. 499–518.
  • Riba, Jordi (1999). La Morale Anomique de Jean-Marie Guyau. L'Harmattan. ISBN 978-2-7384-7772-9.
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