In the Oxford English Dictionary, anomie is defined as a “lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group” (Soanes, 2008). The English word comes from the Greek anomos, meaning “without law.”

In more (relatively) modern times, the concept of anomie is most closely associated with French sociologist Emile DurkheimOpens in new window. In 1893, in his book The Division of Labor in SocietyOpens in new window, Durkheim spoke of anomie as a state of society.

When anomie occurs, society has eroded into normlessness. Individuals no longer know what the norms or rules are that govern their behavior. They therefore do not know how to act, nor do they know what to expect from others.

Anomie occurs more often in modern society than it occurred in earlier ones. In preindustrial societies, people worked together for the good of the group, and the connections between one’s work, others’ work, and the common good, including survival, were clear.

In modern societies, which are more complex, more division of labor occurs and people do not necessarily have a sense of working together for the survival of the group. Instead, division of labor tends to lead to people pursuing self-interested goals rather than goals that benefit the group.

Anomie is particularly likely to occur if circumstances in a society change quickly such as during a major financial change. During periods of transition, old norms and rules may not seem appropriate, yet new ones have not yet arisen.

The lack of rules and norms may leave individuals uncertain even about the difference between right and wrong. A sense of purposelessness and alienationOpens in new window may ensue. Anomie creates a downward spiral for the society, a further disintegration of the structure and stability of the society itself.

Soon after discussing this type of anomie, Durkheim, in his 1897 book Suicide, spoke of a personal, internal experience. The individual becomes valueless, no longer knows the difference between right and wrong, and begins to feel purposelessness and alienation from other people and from his own society.

Durkheim’s discussion differed from other examinations of suicide that tended to focus on individual causes; he focused on social causes. This individual experience of anomie may occur because the individual does not perceive that he has a role or place in society. Along with purposelessness and alienation, he may suffer extreme anxiety or depression, or both. These feelings may become intense enough that the individual commits suicide.

Anomie and alienation are themes in some examples of famous literature. For instance, in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a human being has turned into a cockroach; his resultant alienation from the world is portrayed in his interactions with his family, who do not recognize him.

Dostoevsky’s novels also commonly involved mortifs of alienation and anomie. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov rebels from the norms and morality of society, planning and committing a murder of a “useless” (but basically innocent) person.

While anomie has not received a great deal of theoretical or research attention since Durkheim, some famous theories do utilize the concept.

For instance, American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1949), in strain theory, said that anomie could occur when an individual tried to achieve goals consistent with the norms of society but was unable to attain these goals. The individual could feel normlessness and alienation because of her failure. This lack of success and the resultant anomie may lead to deviant, even criminal behavior.