10 julio, 2024

Anomie: theories, social deviation and examples

What is anomie?

The anomie It is a concept from the social sciences that refers to the absence of norms in society, or to a social disorder that prevents some individuals from achieving socially imposed goals. In populations with anomie, society hardly gives moral guidelines to its citizens.

In this type of human society, the relationships between each individual and the community deteriorate to the point that social identity disappears. In these cases, the main motivator of individuals is their own pleasure, so traditional values ​​are rejected.

The term is frequently associated with Durkheim, who first used it in his book The division of labor in society. This sociologist said that the main cause of anomie was the lack of alignment between the interests of the individual and those of society, whatever they were.

The term comes from ancient Greek, being formed by the prefix «a-» (without), and the root «nomos» (norms). Therefore, anomie literally means “without rules”. However, Durkheim never spoke of the lack of regulations as an essential condition for this phenomenon to emerge.

Durkheim’s theory of anomie

Durkheim was the first sociologist to introduce the term «anomie» into the social sciences. in his book The division of labor in society The sociologist affirms that social life comes from the division of tasks among the different members of a community.

In general, this division causes solidarity between social groups, but on some occasions it can lead to contrary results.

According to Durkheim, when the division of labor does not naturally cause solidarity, it is because the necessary conditions for it to occur have not been met. It is in these cases that the state of anomie would be generated.

Therefore, anomie would be typical of societies in which work is so specialized that the participants in a process have no sense of belonging.

At these times, workers do not understand the rules of the production process and conflicts between workers and their superiors can occur.

various causes

However, for Durkheim the division of labor is not the only cause of anomie. This state would generally occur due to a very abrupt social change, such as an economic or political crisis, or a loss of traditional values.

In these cases, society would try to adjust to the new conditions, but it might not succeed and, therefore, a lack of moral regulation might appear.

In these moments of social crisis, individuals do not have values ​​to guide them, so they would give themselves to the pursuit of their own pleasures.

This would cause a lack of discipline among the population, and the appearance of new appetites and desires that in other times would be considered unhealthy.

anomie and suicide

Durkheim was especially concerned with what he called «anomic suicide»; that is, the one caused by this loss of values ​​and limits to human passions.

The sociologist believed that unrestrained desires are by definition insatiable, leading to great life dissatisfaction in people.

On the other hand, by losing the moral compass of society in times of anomie, people would feel that their life has no meaning. This, together with the economic crisis situations that are taking place at the moment, would lead a significant part of the population to commit suicide.

So important was this problem to Durkheim that he dedicated an entire book to it, which he simply titled Suicide.

Merton’s theory of anomie

Robert Merton wrote one of the most famous articles in all of sociology in the 1940s. In it, he examines the concept of «deviations» and why they occur in different societies.

The way he uses the concept, a deviation is a breach of social norms by an individual; this break can be about something good or bad.

According to Merton, the fact that different numbers of deviations occur in different cultures means that society is in charge of moderating them.

Taking the concept of anomie from Durkheim’s studies, this sociologist stated that during the moments in which it occurs, a greater number of deviations will also occur.

However, Merton slightly changes the concept of anomie in his writings. For him this situation is about a difference between what success means for a particular culture (the ends) and the norms of that same culture about what are considered the appropriate ways to achieve those goals (the means).

Merton uses his concept of anomie to explain why more deviant behaviors occur in Western societies than others, and also to examine differences in the amount of deviance based on race, ethnicity, or class.

The case of the United States

Merton points to the United States of his time as an example of a culture in which more deviations from the norms occur due to a situation of anomie.

In this society, great emphasis is placed on achieving material success, but there are not very clear moral standards on how to achieve it.

For example, Merton says that in the same way that some great investors or businessmen are admired, American culture also admires outlaws who break the law and make their fortune by stealing or looting. According to him, for the United States of his time, success was much more important than virtue.

On the other hand, not all people in that society had it equally easy to achieve material success.

For example, someone who was born into a humble family would not have access to the necessary resources to become a great businessman. Therefore, he would suffer the consequences of a difference between the socially imposed goals and his daily reality.

To face this reality, people could use a series of strategies, ranging from conformity to rebellion.

Social deviance and anomie

Social deviance, a term used especially by Merton, is defined as behavior that breaks the norms or expectations of a society, in such a way that it reacts to the break using a means of control. It is a serious social problem, since it would cause a social marginalization in the person who carries it out.

Merton described three main types of social deviance:

aberrant deviation

It consists of accepting the goals imposed by society, but trying to achieve them by breaking the rules (the means).

rebel deviation

Norms are broken and social goals are not assumed, but an alternative to these is not sought either.

non-conformist deviation

Both goals and social norms are rejected, but an alternative is proposed. Sometimes it is about reforming the entire system.

According to Merton, the three types of deviations occur when it is impossible to achieve social goals with the means that are considered valid by society. This would occur in situations of anomie, so this situation would be the direct cause of social deviations.


In today’s society, although we have not reached a state of complete anomie, we can see some examples of situations caused by a difference between social expectations and reality. Some of them are the following:

– Increase in crime and suicides after the Great Recession, an economic crisis that affected almost the entire world starting in 2008. At that time, a large number of people lost their jobs (something they thought was guaranteed) and, unable to find another, they decided to break social norms through criminality and suicide.

– Divorce rates close to or above 50% in most Western countries. This increase in the breakdown of marriages occurs in part due to a lack of family values ​​and the importance given in developed societies to individuality, something difficult to reconcile with long-term relationships.

– Increase in youth dissatisfaction for not getting a stable job with a salary that allows them to be independent. The current generation is the most educated in history, but it is not guaranteed a good job; For this reason, many take measures that could be considered deviations: emigrate, live at home with their parents for years, among others.

– Predominance of conformity, the first coping strategy that Merton described for anomie. According to his theory, despite the impossibility of achieving social goals by traditional means, most would keep trying despite failure. This can be seen today in areas such as employment or marital relations.

– In response to the social changes of the last decades, a large amount of innovative behavior has also been produced; Merton described these behaviors as another way of coping with anomie. Some of the most striking in recent times are entrepreneurship, minimalism and open relationships.


“Robert Merton: Anomie Theory”in: University of Minnesota. Retrieved on: March 14, 2018 from the University of Minnesota: d.umn.edu.
“An overview of Durkheim and Merton’s social anomie” in: Journal of Human Sciences. Retrieved on: March 14, 2018 from Journal of Human Sciences: j-humansciences.com.
«Anomie» in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: March 14, 2018 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.
“Robert Merton’s personal adaptations to anomie ”in: Musings. Retrieved on: March 14, 2018 from Musings: alexandrakp.com.
«Social deviation» in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: March 14, 2018 from Wikipedia: es.wikipedia.org.

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