Durkheim’s Concept of Anomie

Against the Broader Backdrop of His Theory of Good Society




  1. Research Topic

Emile Durkheim was the first French academic sociologist. He had a profound influence on the development of sociology. An important contribution he made is his theory on anomie. In this article, I want to discuss Durkheim’s concept of anomie against the broader backdrop of his theory of good society.

To Durkheim, men were creatures whose desires were unlimited. Unlike other animals, they are not satiated when their biological needs are fulfilled. "The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs." It follows from this natural insatiability of the human animal that his desires can only be held in check by external controls, that is, by societal control. When social regulations break down, the controlling influence of society on individual propensities is no longer effective and individuals are left to their own devices. Such a state of affairs Durkheim calls anomie, a term that refers to a condition of relative normlessness in a whole society or in some of its component groups. Anomie does not refer to a state of mind, but to a property of the social structure. It characterizes a condition in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms and where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals.

Although complete anomie, or total normlessness, is empirically impossible, societies may be characterized by greater or lesser degrees of normative regulations. Moreover, within any particular society, groups may differ in the degree of anomie that besets them. Social change may create anomie either in the whole society or in some parts of it. Business crises, for example, may have a far greater impact on those on the higher reaches of the social pyramid than on the underlying population. When depression leads to a sudden downward mobility, the men affected experience a de-regulation in their lives--a loss of moral certainty and customary expectations that are no longer sustained by the group to which these men once belonged. Similarly, the rapid onset of prosperity may lead some people to a quick upward mobility and hence deprive them of the social support needed in their new styles of life. Any rapid movement in the social structure that upsets previous networks in which life styles are embedded carries with it a chance of anomie.

Durkheim argued that economic affluence, by stimulating human desires, carries with it dangers of anomic conditions because it "deceives us into believing that we depend on ourselves only," while "poverty protects against suicide because it is a restraint in itself." Since the realization of human desires depends upon the resources at hand, the poor are restrained, and hence less prone to suffer from anomie by virtue of the fact that they possess but limited resources. "The less one has the less he is tempted to extend the range of his needs indefinitely."

By accounting for the different susceptibility to anomie in terms of the social process--that is, the relations between individuals rather than the biological propensities of individuals-- Durkheim in effect proposed a specifically sociological theory of deviant behavior even though he failed to point to the general implications of this crucial insight. In the words of Robert K. Merton, who was the first to ferret out in this respect the overall implications of Durkheim's thought and to develop them methodically, "Social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in nonconforming rather than conforming conduct."

Durkheim talked about anomic division of labor and anomic suicide, which are abnormal , or pathological, situations. In order to fully understand Durkheim’s concept of anomie, we need to look at his theory on a good society.

At the most general and all-inclusive level, Durkheim was a sociologist of morality (Mestrovic, 1988; Turner, 1993). Ernest Wallwork (1972:182) argued that Durkheim’s sociology is merely a by-product of his concern with moral issues. Durkheim’s interest in the moral problems of his day led him as a sociologist to devote himself to the moral elements of social life. At its most basic level, Durkheim’s great concern was with the declining strength of the common morality in the modern world. According to Durkheim, people were in a danger of a "pathological" loosening of moral bonds. These moral bonds were important to Durkheim, for without them the individual would be enslaved by ever-increasing and insatiable passions. People would be impelled by their passions into a mad search for gratification, but each new gratification would lead only to more and more needs. Durkheim held the seemingly paradoxical view that the individual needs morality and external control in order to be free.

II Durkheim's Theory on Anomie

Durkheim mentioned the concept of anomie in The Division of Labor and Suicide (Durkheim, 1897). He introduced this concept in The Division of Labor when he first compared the moral order of traditional and modern societies and refined it in Suicide.

Anomie is defined as a state of "normlessness." Typically, it is a state of moral deregulation resulting from a period of social change, when existing rules, habits, and beliefs no longer hold and alternatives have yet to arise. There is great potential for anomie of this sort in contemporary U.S. science, caused by specialization, technical innovation and the attendant obsolescence of skills, the changing organizational culture of academic science, new goals and bases for legitimating scientific research, and a changing relationship between performance and reward. Under anomic circumstances, behavior is only vaguely guided by shared rules and values.

Many of the problems that occupied Durkheim stem from his concern with the decline of the common morality. In the concept of anomie, Durkheim best manifested his concern with the problems of a weakened morality (Hilbert, 1986). Individuals are said to be confronted with anomie when they are not faced with sufficient moral constraint, that is, when they do not have a clear concept of what is and what is not proper and acceptable behavior.

It is the anomic state that is the cause of the incessantly recurrent conflicts, and the multifarious disorders of which the economic world exhibits so sad a spectacle. For, as nothing restrains the active forces and assigns them limits they are bound to respect, they tend t o develop haphazardly, and come into collision with one another, battling and weakening themselves. To be sure, the strongest succeed in completely demolishing the weakest, or in subordinating them. But if the conquered, for a time, must suffer subordination under compulsion, they do not consent to it, and consequently this cannot constitute a stable equilibrium. Truces that arrived at after violence are never anything but provisional, and satisfy no one. Human passions stop only before a moral power they respect. If all authority of this kind is wanting, the law of the strongest prevails, and latent or active, the state of war is necessarily chronic.

Anarchy is an unhealthy phenomenon because it runs counter to the aim of society which is to suppress, or at least to moderate, war among men, subordinating the law of the strongest to a higher law.

The central pathology in modern society was, in Durkheim’s view, the anomic division of labor.

Anomic Division of Labor

Durkheim based his analysis in The Division of Labor in Society on his conception of two ideal types of society. The more primitive type, characterized by mechanical solidarity, has a relatively undifferentiated social structure, with little or no division of labor. The more modern type, characterized by organic solidarity, has a much greater and more refined division of labor. People in primitive societies tend to occupy very general positions in which they perform a wide variety of tasks and handle a large number of responsibilities. In contrast, those who live in more modern societies occupy more specialized positions and have a much narrower range of tasks and responsibilities. Looking back to the earlier time of human history, we can find that in the past, people can grasp knowledge in some different fields. But in modern society knowledge becomes so specialized that it is almost impossible for an individual to cover knowledge in different fields. There are so much information in each of the different fields of knowledge that people usually have no idea about the fields of knowledge which are not in their specializaitons.

The changes of division of labor have had enormous implications for the structure of society, and some of the more important implications are reflected in the differences between the two types of solidarity - mechanical and organic. In addressing the issue of solidarity, Durkheim was interested in what holds society together. A society characterized by mechanical solidarity is unified because all people are generalists. In societies where this type of solidarity is highly developed, the individual does not appear. Individuality is something which the society possesses. In contrast, a society characterized by organic solidarity is held together by the differences among people, by the fact that they have different tasks and responsibilities. Because people in modern society have a relatively narrow range of tasks, they need many people to cooperate with them. The primitive family can be self-sufficient by making food and clothes themselves. But the modern family will rely on grocer, hair dresser, auto mechanic, teacher, police officer, lawyer, and so forth. Those people in turn needs the kinds of services that others provide in order to survive in the modern world. Modern society is thus held together by the specialization of people and their need for the services of many others.

One final difference between mechanical and organic solidarity is worth mentioning: because people in societies characterized by mechanical solidarity are more likely to be similar in terms of what they do, there is a greater likelihood of competition among them. In contrast, in societies with organic solidarity, differentiation allows people to cooperate more and to all be supported by the same resource base. Thus a society characterized by organic solidarity leads to both more solidarity and more individuality than one characterized by mechanical solidarity (Rueschemeyer, 1994). In other words, Durkheim held that social order and individual autonomy are compatible (Muller, 1994).

The central "pathology" of modern society was, in Durkheim's view, the anomic division of labor. The normal function of the division of labor is to produce a form of social solidarity. Durkheim believed that the structural division of labor in modern society is a source of cohesion that compensates for the declining strength of the collective morality. However, like all social facts, the division of labor may present "pathological" forms which produce different and even contrary results.

Durkheim focused on three types of such pathological forms, not because they exhausted the range of deviant cases, but because they seemed the most general and most serious.

The first type, already identified by Comte, is found where individuals, increasingly isolated by their more specialized tasks, lose any sense of being integral parts of some larger whole. This reflects a lack of mutual adjustment among the parts of the social organism which Durkheim called the anomic division of labor, citing certain commercial and industrial crises, the conflict between capital and labor, and the "scholastic" specialization of scientific investigation among its examples. And what was particularly alarming, again, was that this form of social disintegration increased with the growth of the division of labor, and thus appeared to be its natural rather than pathological consequence.

How was such a consequence to be avoided? Comte's solution was that an independent, governmental organ (i.e., the state, as informed by the positive philosophy) was necessary to realize and maintain social unity. Durkheim, by contrast, was extremely skeptical of the efficacy of government regulation of the economy; for the problems afflicting economic institutions arose from a multiplicity of particular circumstances of which only those closest to those problems have any knowledge.

To overcome the anomic division of labor, therefore, we must first determine the conditions essential to the normal state of organic solidarity. These conditions include not only a system of organs necessary to one another, but also the predetermination of the way in which these mutually necessary organs and their functions are to be related. This predetermination is the critical role of rules of conduct, which are themselves the product of habit and tradition. Very briefly, certain groups of people (organs) engage in definite forms of action (functions) which are repeated because they cling to the constant conditions of social life; when the division of labor brings these different organs and their functions together, the relations thus formed partake of the same degree of fixity and regularity; and these relations, being repeated, become habitual, and, when collective force is added, are transformed into rules of conduct.

The difficulty with the anomic division of labor, of course, is that such rules either do not exist or are not in accord with the degree of development of the division of labor. How can such a situation arise? Typically, something is interposed between otherwise contiguous organs so that the mutual stimulation created by their functions becomes less frequent, less intense, and less determined; the organs lose the sense of mutual dependence that mutual stimulation would normally create, and, as a consequence, the rules reflecting those relations remain vague, ill-defined, and fail to perform their proper integrative function. In commercial and industrial crises, for example, the growth and separation of producers and their markets has proceeded to the extent that the former cannot rationally predict the behavior of the latter; in the conflict between labor and capital, the development of large-scale industry and the factory system has separated the worker both from his family and from his employer; and in the specialization of scientific investigation, the moral and social sciences in particular have not yet understood their relationship to one another and to the older sciences, and have thus ignored the collaborative nature of the work in which they are engaged. But in each case, anomie is the consequence not of the division of labor itself, but of those exceptional and abnormal circumstances under which otherwise contiguous organs become separated, thus preventing the adequate development of rules of conduct.

However, the thrust of his argument is that the division of labor cannot entirely make up for the loosening of the common morality, with the result that anomie is a pathology associated with the rise of organic solidarity. Individuals can become more isolated and be cut adrift in their highly specialized activities. They can more easily cease to feel a common bond with those who work and live around them. But this is viewed by Durkheim as an abnormal situation, because only in unusual situation does the modern division of labor reduce people to isolated and meaningless tasks and positions.

Anomic Suicide

In Suicide, Durkheim studied the specific phenomenon of suicide. As a sociologist, he was not concerned with studying why any specific individual commit suicide. What concerned him was why one group had a higher rate of suicide than another. He insisted that there is a relation between a society's suicide rate and the way it performs this important regulative function.

Durkheim discussed four types of suicide - egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic (Bearman, 1991). He linked each of the four types of suicide to the degree to which collective sentiments are shared. Whitney Pope (1976:12-13) offered a very convenient summary of the four types of suicide discussed by Durkheim. He did this by interrelating high and low degrees of integration and regulation in the following way:



Low Ô Egoistic suicide

High Ô Altruistic suicide


Low Ô Anomic suicide

High Ô Fatalistic suicide

Durkheim argued that no human being can be happy unless their needs are sufficiently proportionate to its means. However, human needs are unlimited which are, by definition, insatiable. For human beings to be happy, therefore, their individual needs and aspirations must be constrained. This regulatory function must be performed by an external, moral agency superior to the individual -- in other words, by society. When society is disrupted by some crisis, its "scale" is altered and its members are "reclassified" accordingly; in the ensuing period of dis-equilibrium, society is temporarily incapable of exercising its regulative function, and the lack of constraints imposed on human aspirations makes happiness impossible. This disruption may be positive (for example, an economic boom) or negative (an economic depression). Such changes put people in new situations where the old norms no longer apply but new ones have yet to come.

Durkheim used the term anomie to describe the temporary condition of social deregulation, and anomic suicide to describe the resulting type of self-inflicted death. Durkheim argued that anomie is not a temporary disruption but rather a chrome state. This is the state of trade and industry, where the traditional sources of societal regulation -- religion, government, and occupational groups -- have all failed to exercise moral constraints on an increasingly unregulated capitalist economy. Durkheim concluded, "In trade and industry, the state of crisis and anomie is constant and, so to speak, normal. From top to bottom of the ladder greed is aroused without knowing where to find ultimate foothold. Nothing can calm it, since its goal is far beyond all it can attain." And thus industrial and commercial occupations are among those which furnish the greatest numbers of suicides. This partly explained why the more developed western countries have a higher rate of suicide than the less developed countries do.

Reform of Society

Durkheim was a social reformer who saw problems in modern society as temporary aberrations and not as inherent difficulties (Fenton, 1984:45). He believed the problems of modern world can be cured. In this sense, he is different from both the conservatives and the radicals of his day. Conservatives like Louis de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre saw no hope in modern society and sought instead a return to a more primitive type of existence. Radicals like the Marxist of Durkheim's time agreed that the world could not be reformed, but they hoped that a revolution would bring into existence socialism and communism.

Occupational Associations

The major reform that Durkheim suggested for curing social pathology was the development of occupational associations. Durkheim did not think there was a basic conflict of interest among the various types of people found within them-owners, managers, and workers. Instead, he believed that the conflict of interest occurred because various people involved lacked a common morality and that the lack of common morality was traceable to the lack of an integrative structure. He suggested that the structure that was needed to provide this integrative morality was the occupational association, which would encompass "all the agents of the same industry united and organized into a single group" ( Durkheim, 1893/1964:5). Such an organization was deemed to be different from and superior to such organizations as labor unions and employer association, which in Durkheim's view only intensified the differences between owners, managers and workers. Involved in a common organization, people would recognize their common interests as well as their common need for an integrative moral system. That moral system, with its derived rules and laws, would serve to counteract the tendency toward atomization in modern society as well as help stop the decline in significance of collective morality.

Cult of the Individual

Durkheim believed that the essential problems of modern society were moral in nature and that the only real solution lay in reinforcing the strength of the collective morality. Although he recognized that there was no returning to the powerful collective conscience of societies characterized by mechanical solidarity, he felt that a modern, although more weakened, version of it was emerging. He labeled the modern form of the collective conscience the cult of the individual (Chriss, 1993a: Tole, 1993). Embedded in this concept is the idea that individualism is becoming the moral system of modern society.

Durkheim accepted individualism as the moral system of modern world, but he continued to oppose egoism, because this is individualism without a collective base. Durkheim believed that by following a morality of individualism, the actor would be able to keep his or her passions in control.

Socialization and Moral Education

Durkheim was very interested in the internalization of social morals through education and, more generally, through socialization. Social morality exists primarily at the cultural level, but it is also internalized by the individual. In Durkheim’s view, common morality "penetrates us" and "forms part of us" (Luke, 1972:131).

Education and socialization were defined by Durkheim as the process by which the individual learns the ways of a given group or society – acquires the physical, intellectual, and moral tools needed to function in society (Durkheim, 1922/1956:71). Moral education has three important aspects: First, its goal is to provide individuals with the discipline they need to restrain the passions and the threaten to engulf them. Second, individuals are provided with a sense of autonomy, but it is a characteristically atypical kind of autonomy in which the child understands why he or she should willing accept the rules prescribing certain forms of behavior. Finally, the process of socialization aims at developing a sense of devotion to society and to its moral system. These aspects of moral education are efforts to combat the pathological loosening of the grip of collective morality on the individual in modern society.

III Discussion and Conclusion

Durkheim’s theory on anomie has a very far-reaching influence on the development of sociology. Currently, much of the world is in a state of anomie. Take China as an example, there is a rise of anomie in China as a result of China’s reform toward the market economy.

Traditionally, China was an agricultural country composed of self-sufficient families with farming husband and weaving wife. The division of labor was very simple. The predominant ideology is Confucianism which emphasized virtue and loyalty. After the communist took into power, this traditional ideology was replaced by so-called socialist ideology. Since 1978, Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping began a reform and open up to outside world. The target of this reform is to establish a socialist market economy. Great changes have taken place as a result of this reform. First, there is a surprisingly fast step in China’s economic increase. Second, the ideology is experiencing a great change. The old Confucianism had been abandoned by the communist government which tried to establish a new socialist ideology to take its place. The socialist ideology existed for only a short period and then broke down little by little. With the reform furthering, it completely collapsed. At this time, the situation is just like what Durkheim called as anomie: normlessness. Sudden social changes put people in new situations in which the old norms no longer apply but new ones have yet to come. Therefore, there is a lack of clear-cut, well-established laws and limitations on behavior. People no longer have a clear concept of what is appropriate and what is not. In today’s China, both traditional Confucianism and socialist ideology no longer apply to the new economic reform. But the western democratic ideology associated with the market economy has not been established yet and was unacceptable by the communist authority. Because of existence of anomie, many people are confused about the common morality and feel lost in the rapidly changing world. Without a restraint of the morality, people’s passion increased without any limitation. But of course, the unlimited desire is insatiable too. Some people use crime to realize their desire. This lead to the rising crime rate in modern China which has no sign of stopping.