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  Anomie (Greek, ‘lawlessness’) is a concept that was initially brought into common usage by Émile Durkheim (1858 - 1917). It refers to a situation where the social norms that usually guide human behaviour no longer order individual actions. As with alienation, anomie is a concept which attempts to explain individual behaviour in terms of the wider social structure. It is assumed that human behaviour is constrained by the existence of explicit and implicit rules for social conduct, rules shared by all members of a given society. The existence of such rules enables individuals to carry on with their everyday life knowing how to behave in certain situations, and, equally, knowing what to expect of others\' behaviour. Left to themselves it is believed that human desires are boundless, that there are no ‘natural’ or in-built limitations to the ambitions, desires or needs of individuals. Anomie exists when there are no clear standards to guide behaviour in a given area of social life. Durkheim asserted that in such a situation individuals would feel threatened, anxious and disoriented.

Durkheim believed anomie to be pervasive in modern societies. He believed an anomic division of labour to exist in those societies which failed to allocate jobs fairly according to talents. Durkheim also believed that anomie was one of the social factors causing suicide. Suicide, a quintessentially individual act, could, Durkheim maintained, be explained by reference to factors outside of the individual. He had noticed that suicide rates increased both at times of economic collapse and in times of economic boom. Durkheim attributed these variations in the rate to a single factor: anomie. He suggested that both economic boom and economic collapse are times of rapid social change, disrupting the lives of many individuals. Changing circumstances render irrelevant the rules and standards by which individuals guide their lives. It is argued that individuals can ultimately adjust to changes, but this takes time. In the interim there is a loss of meaning and purposefulness to life.

More recently the concept has been developed and used to illuminate other areas of social life. Merton has applied the idea of anomie to crime. He modifies the concept to refer to the strain caused when accepted standards of behaviour conflict with social reality. For example, in many Western societies it is claimed that anyone who works hard can be successful regardless of where they start from. The reality is that the majority of the disadvantaged have very restricted opportunities for advancement. In such a situation there may be pressure to get on by any means possible and this may lead to criminal acts. Merton argues that there are four possible responses to anomie used in this sense: innovation—the use of methods of which society disapproves to achieve one\'s desired goals; ritualism—going through the motions of pursuing goals by the socially approved means with little or no chance of succeeding; retreatism—opting out; and rebellion—efforts to change the system. DA

See also consensus theory; functionalism; internalization; norm; positivism; role; social integration; social order; structuralism; structure-agency debate; values.Further reading É. Durkheim, Suicide: a Study in Sociology; , S. Lukes, ‘Alienation and anomie’, in , P. Laslett and , W. G. Runciman (eds.), Philosophy, Politics and Society.



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