Anomie Theory with Elaborate Examples


According to Durkheim’s definition, Anomie is a state of mind in which the realities of the situation contradict the generally accepted standard. In other words, a problem arises when there is a misalignment between a society’s cultural objectives and the tools to reach that aim.

The accompanying emotional frustration and personal misunderstanding may impair individuals’ ability to achieve their objectives and lead to deviant behavior. Another factor for the rise in suicide rates is this pressure.

Anomie is also characterized as a loss of social restraint, which causes human conduct to be redirected toward social purposes. A disparity between a society’s cultural aim and its standardized ways of achieving that goal causes a situation of normlessness and ensuing disorientation. This term is closer to Durkheim’s explanation of anomie due to the breakdown of social controls (Durkheim, 1951).

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Anomie Theory

Brief History

Originating in the tradition of classical sociology (Durkheim, Merton), anomie, or normlessness, is the breakdown and blurring of societal norms which regulate individual conduct.

Durkheim (1897) believed that this could happen when a society undergoes rapid social change (e.g., revolutions) when people become unsure of society’s norms and values.

This normlessness is also a characteristic of societies in which individualism predominates, with no counter-values of social solidarity to tone down the emphasis on individual satisfaction at the expense of others.

Anomie was among the first sociological explanations for the causes of deviant behavior. Sociologists seek to understand deviance by focusing on how the structure of society can constrain behavior and cause deviance.

In earlier societies, Durkheim argues, the family, village, and tradition (keepers of what Durkheim calls “mechanical solidarity”) maintain social control, while in modern societies (with “organic solidarity”), individual constraints weaken.

Anomie belongs to a class of theories about deviance called strain theories. Strain theories assume that social order is a product of a cohesive set of norms,  that community members share these norms. Lastly, deviance and the community’s reaction to it are essential to maintaining order.

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Types of Anomie

Emile Durkheim (1897) felt that all cultures go through a period of anomie during their evolution. He argued that mechanical Anomie, Organic Anomie, and Cultural Anomie were the three varieties of anomie.

Anomie Mechanic

Mechanical anomie is a state of normlessness or the absence of previously guiding rules and laws that govern people’s behavior. When there is a social change, such as industrialization, this form of anomie might emerge. New rules must be formed as existing traditions and norms based on long-held values, habits, and beliefs are shattered by the rapid advancement of technology.

Adapting to and complying with the new laws is tough for people from all areas of life. As a result, societal control is weakening. People who lack social constraints are more likely to engage in deviant behavior due to their perplexity and frustration.

In the film The Matrix, an excellent illustration of mechanical anomie may be discovered. Everyone on the planet is blissfully unaware that they are sleeping in pods. Their bodies are employed as a source of energy as they are given a virtual reality. The Matrix was constructed to retain power in the hands of a small group of people.

According to Durkheim, anomie is linked to suicide because when people feel out of control, they lose self-control and are more vulnerable to suicide.

Organic Anomie

When societal patterns that prevent particular activities break down, this sort of anomie develops. People’s conduct results from social disorganization when they are allowed to breach these social patterns with little or no consequences.

The concept of organic solidarity, according to Durkheim, is what ties society together and “makes individuals feel involved in and related to a bigger entity.” This sense of belonging is critical for self-control development, particularly during adolescence.”

The film American Beauty is an excellent example of organic anomie. The main character, Lester Burnham, breaks his societal pattern by committing suicide. Lester was no longer under his wife’s control, which caused this form of anomie to break down.

Cultural Anomie

Cultural anomie develops when society’s cultural aims, such as giving equal opportunity to all citizens, are not met. It is the product of societal inequity.

According to Durkheim’s anomie theory, social disorder is caused by a division of labor marked by mechanical solidarity.

Organic solidarity is the outcome of a well-ordered society. Because they are of the same social rank, people are drawn together. However, the division of labor causes this process to be disrupted, causing people to come together in diverse ways. People involved in labor division are frequently alienated and do not feel they belong anywhere.

When the financial gap between rich and poor becomes too wide, it becomes an issue since individuals are no longer treated equally. The rich in this situation encourages mechanical unity while showing little or no care in the poor. The breakdown of social constraints caused by the division of labor leads to crime, violence, and suicide.

Anomie According to Émile Durkheim

Jean Marie Guyau, a French philosopher, was the first to coin the term anomie. Guyau maintained that morality in the future would be defined by no universal laws – what he called anomic morality.

However, it was not until Emile Durkheim’s book The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893, that we began to grasp anomie in the way we do today.

Durkheim (1897) argued that there was agreement or consensus about society’s rules and ideals in modern societies, resulting in social order and stability. This, according to Durkheim, occurred because society’s institutions (such as education and religion) were successful in implementing social control.

People become puzzled about how to behave, according to Durkheim, when society’s rules and ideals are unclear. The social order would be jeopardized, and people would no longer feel restricted by rules and values, leading to a sense of anomie or normlessness.

Anomie, according to Durkheim, is an aberrant kind of division of labor in which there is insufficient regulation to foster cooperation among different social functions.

For example, there is little communication between the capitalists and the workers in the conflict between capitalists and workers. As a result, these individuals are unaware that they strive for a common purpose, resulting in anomie (Durkheim 1893; Lester & Turpin, 1999).

Anomic Suicide

Emile Durkheim, the 19th-century “father of sociology,” expanded on his notion of anomie in his book Suicide: A Study in Sociology, published in 1897.

Even though suicide is often regarded as a fundamentally individualistic act, Durkheim observed that some countries continually had greater suicide rates than others. He noted, in particular, that Catholics had considerably lower suicide rates than Protestants. He claimed that cultures with high suicide rates were in a state of anomie.

Durkheim proposed four varieties of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic, paying little attention to Catholicism’s strict moral prohibition on suicide.

Particularly, Durkheim believed that anomic suicide occurred because Catholicism reflects “strongly integrated social groups” (Durkheim, 1951, Stark, Doyle & Rushing, 1983) and that Protestants had the power to question the church and overthrow the social order created by its beliefs in a way that Catholics did not.

Protestants had a higher level of normlessness than Catholics because they could criticize the church. In a nutshell, Durkheim claimed that civilizations with high suicide rates suffer from anomie (Stark, Doyle & Rushing, 1983).

The role of society, according to Durkheim, is to regulate the members’ desires and expectations. As culture evolves, rules become hazy, and anomie develops.

Individuals’ dreams become infinite when society does not govern their aims and deviation results. Individuals stop striving for more, “aspiring only what is realistically possible for them to achieve” (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960, p. 78), and a systemic collapse in achievement norms leads to deviance in the form of suicide.

Traditional cultures with collective standards have a greater influence on individual conduct than rapidly evolving late-nineteenth-century western societies, which placed an increasing focus on individual values at the expense of common cultural norms (Boudon & Bourricaud, 1989).

Applications of the Anomie Theory in Criminology

The most prevalent application of anomie theory is in criminology. When a society’s goals are tied to a specific attribute, those who fail to meet that aim are considered outsiders. They cannot integrate with “regular” members of society, and everyone in the community views them as deviants. Because these “deviant” individuals are labeled as social outcasts, they will undoubtedly become involved in criminal activity.

Today, the anomie argument is commonly employed to explain why rising crime rates. The number of crimes committed in a given time period is used to calculate crime rates.

According to Emile Durkheim, the criminal justice system must generate a sense of social solidarity because of anomie. Society becomes combative and fractured without this shared objective. This idea is still used today to explain why strengthening the criminal justice system will not work to lower rising crime rates.

Anomie affects everyone in our modern environment. It’s what drives the vast majority of people who are suicidal or hopeless to take their own lives. Anomie may be one of the factors contributing to the current increase in crime rates. It’s also one of the main reasons why those who commit crimes aren’t punished.

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Merton’s Strain Theory of Anomie and Deviance

Robert Merton (1938, 1957) extended the theory of anomie to the United States, arguing that anomie is a broken link between cultural aspirations and legitimate ways of obtaining them, rather than simply unregulated goals.

Merton claims that everyone in the United States has been taught to feel that their capabilities are infinite, regardless of their circumstances, and that they should aspire to large-scale success. However, for a significant portion of the population, society restricts or completely bans access to acceptable techniques of attaining these symbols.

The link between the United States’ cultural goals and the means of achieving them is broken because there are barriers to large-scale success for significant segments of the population (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Those in the lower classes may share the cultural objective of achievement, but their chances for education and employment are limited. Anomie and deviance result from the misalignment of goals and the reality of opportunities for the lower classes.

Five Responses to Strain

Merton’s strain theory proposes five responses to anomie, of which three are deviant. These responses either accept or reject cultural goals and accept or reject institutionalized means (the legitimate means to achieve a society’s cultural goals).

  1. Conformity, Merton argues, is the only non-deviant response to anomie. When someone conforms, they accept the cultural goals of the society and try to use the institutionalized means of achieving it (Merton, 1957). For example, a college student in the United States who is getting an education to achieve economic success is conforming to Merton’s model because he is pursuing the cultural goal of monetary success through legitimate means of education (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).
  2. Innovation, in contrast, accepts the cultural goal of a society but rejects the institutional means of obtaining it. A thief may be pursuing the same cultural goal of economic success as the college student but is using illegitimate, illegal means to achieve it (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016). Alternatively, someone can reject the cultural goal of their society. In Merton’s model, this can take the form of ritualism or retreatism.
  3. Ritualism is shared by those who have abandoned the cultural goals of their society (e.g., materialism) but continue to use legitimate means to make their way. A dedicated janitor who has accepted that they will never advance through the ranks of their workplace is a ritualist (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).
  4. Retreatism, meanwhile, is the adaptation of those who have both rejected the cultural goals of society (materialism) and the legitimate means of achieving them. These people are “in the society but not of it” (Merton, 1957). An individual can also exist completely outside the system of a society’s goals and means of achieving them.
  5. In Merton’s theory, Rebellion refers to those who attempt to change a societal system to their own liking. Rebels replace the dominant cultural goal — such as wealth attainment — with another goal and create their own means of doing so. For example, a terrorist group could use violence to achieve a political goal (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Messner and Rosenfeld Main Critiques of Merton’s Anomie Theory

  • Firstly, it may be wrong to assume that all Americans, for example, share the same cultural goals. For many, other goals may be just as or more important than wealth acquisition (Muftic, 2006).
  • Secondly, Merton’s theory has difficulty explaining deviance among the privileged classes. For example, a wealthy entrepreneur who went to an ivy-league college may embezzle funds even though he has already met the cultural value of monetary success.
  • Thirdly, Merton suggests that equal opportunity is a realistic solution to crime, which Messner and Rosenfeld disagree with.
  • And lastly, Merton never defines anomie precisely (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016, Messner & Rosenfeld 2007).

Institutionalized Anomie Theory

Messner and Rosenfield (2008) developed the theory of institutionalized anomie as a response to the criticisms of Merton’s Anomie theory.

The levels and motivations of crime in American society, according to this view, are a direct outcome of the contradiction between America’s cultural aim of success through wealth acquisition and the fact that such prosperity is unattainable for many.

Individuals who cannot achieve their goals through legal means resort to criminal activity. This institutional anomie theory focuses on social institutions’ culture and social structure manifestations.

As a result, the assumption is that a society’s normal levels and types of crime reflect the fundamental aspects of social order (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008).

Institutions guide individual activities under institutionalized anomie theory. The people who are impacted by these institutions choose their own goals and methods for achieving them.

Any individual has various goals and ways that are unique to them, but for social order to exist, there must be a sufficient number of people who share a common set of values (Parsons 1990).

Institutions are also a part of societies. Although social institutions are interdependent, they may have opposing demands. For example, doing a job at a corporation may necessitate working overtime, which may conflict with another institution’s function (such as driving a daughter to soccer practice) (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008).

According to the institutionalized anomie idea, societies with high levels of crime are those in which the economic institution is given top priority.

People are under pressure to give up other roles to fulfill economic ones, such as ceasing shared mealtimes at the family table to fit work schedules, while the market intrudes into other aspects of social life, such as compensating students based on their academic achievements (Messner & Rosenfeld 2007).

Because economics — and the attainment of wealth — takes precedence over every other institution, people will resort to any means necessary to meet the cultural goal of obtaining wealth, even if this causes harm to other institutions by going against norms.

Non-economic institutions become weaker when the economy dominates, and individuals feel less restricted by its norms, particularly those established as laws. As a result, there is an increase in crime and anomie (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008).

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Examples of the Anomy Theory in Today’s World

The cultural purpose of culture in today’s society is to be affluent. Pursuing higher education has become an institutionalized means of achieving this goal.

When someone following institutionalized means is unable to meet society’s cultural aim, a dilemma arises. They believe they are unable to live up to the expectations set by the media and society and that their lives are not as successful as others. This culminates in anomie, which is characterized by feelings of meaninglessness and unhappiness with life.

Social isolation as a result of divorce and financial difficulties are the most prominent causes of high suicide rates. Depression and other forms of mental suffering might result from this solitude.

The anomie theory has been shown to be efficient in describing how violent crimes are perpetrated. It aids criminal justice experts in comprehending why a person might commit murder rather than merely labeling the person as evil or insane.

Criminals are persons who are in a state of anomie and don’t know how to deal with it. Nonviolent crimes, such as property crimes, can also be analyzed using this method.

The film Fight Club is an excellent example of this. Members of a “fight club” are presented to the main character, an unidentified insomniac. These persons have social problems as well. Fighting is used to resolve the condition, but it turns into a very violent crime, and the fights are outlawed.


Emile Durkheim first proposed the anomie theory in his 1897 work “Suicide,” a sociological concept that claims that social institutions, or their absence thereof, can contribute to emotions of ambiguity and confusion. This emotion can be exacerbated when people are unable to find significance in their work, leading to a sense of alienation from society.

Although the anomy theory is best known for its application to suicide rates and criminal conduct, it can also be applied to other areas such as organizational culture. Understanding how this theoretical framework influences people on numerous levels may help you understand those around you better.