Anomie Theory in Sociology: Definition & Examples

Key Takeaways

  • 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 what society’s norms and values are.
  • 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 (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016).
  • 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 these norms are shared by community members, and lastly that deviance and the community’s reaction to it are essential to maintaining order (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Anomie According to Émile Durkheim

The first person to use the term anomie was the French philosopher Jean Marie Guyau. Guyau argued that in the future, morality would be determined by no universal laws — what he called anomic morality (Lester & Turpin, 1999).

However, it was not until Emile Durkheim’s book, 1893, The Division of Labor in Society, that we see anomie in a way similar to how we understand it today.

Durkheim (1897) believed that in modern societies there was agreement or consensus over society’s norms and values, which resulted in social order and stable societies.
Durkheim believed this occurred because society’s institutions (e.g. education, religion) successfully implemented social control.

For Durkheim, in periods where the norms and values of society were unclear, people became confused about how to behave. Social order would be threatened and people would not feel that their behavior is constrained by norms and values – a feeling of anomie, or normlessness.

Durkheim considered anomie to be an abnormal form of the division of labor where there was too little regulation to encourage cooperation between different social functions.

For example, in the antagonism between capitalists and workers, there is little contact between the capitalists themselves and the workers. Thus, these individuals do not realize they are working toward a shared goal and anomie results (Durkheim 1893; Lester & Turpin, 1999).

Anomic Suicide

A few years later, Emile Durkheim, the 19th-century “father of sociology,” elaborated his concept of anomie in his 1897 book, Suicide: A Study in Sociology.

Although suicide is usually viewed as a highly individualistic act, Durkheim noticed that some countries consistently had higher suicide rates than others. In particular, he observed that Catholics experienced much lower rates of suicide than Protestants. He argued that societies with high suicide rates experienced anomie.

Paying little attention to the very high moral foreboding of suicide in Catholicism, Durkheim defined four types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic.

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

Because Protestants could question the church, they experienced a higher degree of normlessness than Catholics. In short, Durkheim argued that societies with high suicide rates experienced anomie (Stark, Doyle & Rushing, 1983).

Durkheim saw the role of society as regulating the passions and expectations of its members. As society changes rapidly, norms become unclear, and anomie results.

With their goals unregulated by society, individuals’ aspirations become limitless, and deviance results. Individuals stop “aspir[ing] to achieve only what is realistically possible for them to achieve” (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960, p. 78), and a societal breakdown in norms around achievement leads to deviance in the form of suicide.

Traditional societies with collective norms have more of a role in influencing individuals’ behavior than the rapidly evolving western societies of the late 19th century, which placed increasing emphasis on the values of individuals at the rejection of shared cultural norms (Boudon & Bourricaud, 1989).

Merton’s Strain Theory of Anomie and Deviance

Robert Merton (1938, 1957) extended the theory of anomie to the United States and argued that anomie is not simply about unregulated goals, but a broken relationship between cultural goals and legitimate means of accessing them.

Everyone in the United States, Merton argues, is socialized to believe that their possibilities, regardless of their circumstances, are limitless and that they should desire success on a large scale. However, society restricts or completely eliminates access to approved modes of acquiring these symbols for a considerable part of the same population” (Merton, 1938).

The relationship between the cultural goals of the United States and the means of accessing them is dysfunctional because there exist obstacles for large amounts of the population to achieve success on a large scale (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Those in the lower classes may share the cultural goal of success but are limited by lack of education and job opportunities. This mismatch between goals and the reality of opportunity for the lower classes creates anomie and deviance.

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 through which one can 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 in order to achieve economic success is conforming to Merton’s model because he is pursuing the cultural goal of monetary success through the 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. This can take the form of, in Merton’s model, 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 of the system of a society’s goals and means of achieving them.
  5. Rebellion, in Merton’s theory, 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).

Development of Merton’s Theory

Richard Cloward, a student of Merton, extended Merton’s theory of anomie further by adding the dimension of illegitimate means. Just as not everyone has access to legitimate means, not everyone has access to illegitimate means (Cloward, 1959).

For some people, becoming, say, wealthy through being a successful drug dealer is just as unrealistic — or more so — than becoming wealthy through becoming a successful businessman.

Those who wish to obtain success through illegitimate means do not necessarily have the skills and connections to do so (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

To understand deviance, Cloward and Ohlin argued, we need to not only understand the motivations of individuals to commit deviant acts but the accessibility they have to participate in them (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960).

Anomie Theory Criminology

Sociologists see anomie as a primary driver of crime (Bernburg, 2002), and this has been so for several decades. Merton’s strain theory of adaptation to anomie and illegitimate means dominated sociological research in crime during the 1950s and 60s, but many sociologists came to criticize this theory (Hirschi, 1969).

In short, it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure how whole societies focus on goals and means (Kubrin, Stucky, & Krohn 2009).
Messner and Rosenfeld (2007) outline four 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 despite the fact that 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) responded to these critiques by developing a theory of institutionalized anomie

This theory argues that the levels and drivers of crime in American society are a direct result of the tension between America’s cultural goal of success through wealth obtainment and the reality that such wealth is unrealistic for many to obtain.

Unable to obtain this goal through legitimate means, individuals innovate through crime (2007). This institutional anomie theory focuses on culture and social structure as manifested by social institutions.

This results in the premise that the normal levels and forms of crime in a society are a reflection of the fundamental features of social organization (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008).

In institutionalized anomie theory, institutions guide the actions that individuals take. The people affected by these institutions chose goals (ends) and ways of obtaining these goals (means).

Any individual has many ends and many means specific to them, but for social order to exist, there needs to be a meaningful number of individuals who share a value system (Parsons 1990).

Societies are also made up of institutions. Social institutions are interdependent, but these institutions may have competing demands. For example, performing a role at a company may require working overtime and contradict with the role of another institution (like taking a daughter to soccer practice) (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008).

Institutionalized anomie theory claims that societies that have high levels of crime are ones where the institution of economy has the highest priority.

People feel pressured to sacrifice other roles to fill economic ones — like stopping shared meal times at a family table to accommodate work schedules — and the market intrudes into other facets of social life — like paying students based on their educational accomplishments (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.

When the economy dominates, non-economic institutions become weaker and people feel less constrained by their norms — especially those written as laws. This results in anomie and high levels of crime (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008).

Anomie Examples

Beauty Standards in the United States

In the past few decades, the majority of fashion models have been tall and thin, occasionally dangerously so. These models are groomed for hours and then airbrushed and photoshopped to appear perfect.

Reality television has glorified seeking these standards through plastic surgery, and young women and men have been exposed to unrealistic expectations of how they should look.

Because society has failed to regulate the expectations of its members in physical attractiveness, deviance results in the form of eating disorders and extensive plastic surgery (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

As the people in these groups are interdependent, the unethical behavior of an individual can be the downfall of all.

Anomie and the American Dream

Messner and Rosenfeld (2007) argue that “the distinctive patterns and levels of crime in the United States are produced by the cultural and social organization of American society.”

That is to say, the United States has strong pressures — cultural goals — to obtain success through wealth (the American Dream) and weak restraints on how one can obtain this wealth.

Because the United States has blurry norms as to how one can obtain the cultural goal of wealth, this creates anomie and an “anything goes” ” mentality in pursuing goals (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016).

Thus, Messner and Rosenfeld argue, the American Dream contributes to crime by encouraging people to seek out all means — illegal or not — to achieve America’s cultural goal of monetary success (Messner & Rosenfeld, 2007).

The anomic fabric of American society encourages deviance (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Inderbitzin (2007) confirmed this theory by focusing on boys in a juvenile prison who believed deeply in the American Dream but had few legitimate means of achieving it due to the barriers of class, lack of education, and racism (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Because these young men had been virtually shut out from legitimate means of success by an array of societal barriers, illegitimate means — committing crimes — provided a viable way for young, poorly educated minorities to meet their financial needs.

These young men called “getting paid” (M.L. Sullivan, 1989) the main motivator in committing crimes.

The juvenile prison itself took the place of Durheim’s social regulator, as the staff encouraged the young men to shift their values and conform to less glamorous goals (Inderbitzin, 2007).

Anomie and Academia

Anomie measures real societies alongside how individuals within a society would ideally behave. Anomie can result when institutions try to achieve objectives that are incompatible.

For example, since the 1960s, universities have undergone a rapid change toward an emphasis on professional education. The capabilities of the university’s faculty — to produce knowledge — is different from those required to achieve the new cultural goal of cultural education.

Because what a university can realistically teach its students departs from the expectations or ideals of what a university can teach, and there are no or blurry norms around what a university is expected to achieve, universities can have anomie.

As a result, individuals in the “society,” of a university can conform, innovate, ritualize, retreat, or rebel (Boudon & Bourricaud, 1989).


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

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Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

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Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.