Anomie  

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"Émile Durkheim described anomie which is a state of relative normlessness or a state in which norms have been eroded. A norm is an expectation of how people will behave, and it takes the form of a rule that is socially rather than formally enforced. Thus, in structural functionalist theory, the effect of normlessness whether at a personal or societal level, is to introduce alienation, isolation, and desocialisation, i.e. as norms become less binding for individuals. Individuals thus lose the sense of what is right and wrong." --Sholem Stein


" In Durkheim's view, traditional religions often provided the basis for the shared values which the anomic individual lacks. Furthermore, he argued that the division of labor that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community. Robert King Merton also adopted the idea of anomie to develop strain theory, defining it as the discrepancy between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals. In other words, an individual suffering from anomie would strive to attain the common goals of a specific society yet would not be able to reach these goals legitimately because of the structural limitations in society. As a result, the individual would exhibit deviant behavior. Friedrich Hayek notably uses the word anomie with this meaning." --Sholem Stein

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Anomie, in contemporary English, means a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values. When applied to a government or society, anomie implies a social unrest or chaos.

Literature, film, and theatre

In Albert Camus's existentialist novel The Stranger, the bored, alienated protagonist Meursault struggles to construct an individual system of values as he responds to the disappearance of the old. He exists largely in a state of anomie, as seen from the apathy evinced in the opening lines: "Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas" ("Today mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know"). When Meursault is prosecuted for shooting an Arab man during a fight, the prosecuting attorneys seem more interested in the inability or unwillingness of Meursault to cry at his mother's funeral than the murder of the Arab, because they find his lack of remorse offensive. The novel ends with Meursault recognizing the universe's indifference toward humankind. In the first half of the novel Meursault is clearly an unreflecting, unapologetic individual. Ultimately, Camus presents the world as essentially meaningless and therefore, the only way to arrive at any meaning or purpose is to make it oneself.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose work is often considered a philosophical precursor to existentialism, often expressed a similar concern in his novels. In The Brothers Karamazov, it is expressed more than once by different characters that in the absence of God and immortal life, everything would be lawful. That one can do as one likes, but this one cannot. The novel explores the existence of God, the nature of truth, and the importance of forgiveness through the actions of its characters. Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, puts this philosophy into action when he kills an elderly pawnbroker and her sister, later rationalizing this act to himself with the words, "...it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!" Raskolnikov's inner conflict in the opening section of the novel results in a utilitarian-altruistic justification for the proposed crime: why not kill a wretched and "useless" old moneylender to alleviate the human misery?

The Swiss Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1956 tragicomic play The Visit is another striking example of anomie. The town of Guellen eagerly surrenders to the temptation of modern-day fiscal freedom promised by billionairess Claire Zachanassian in exchange for the dead body of the Alfred Ill. Now the recently elected mayor-to-be, he was also the man who jilted Zachanassian (and their unborn child) several decades ago leaving her destitute. Initially reluctant, the townsfolk quickly forgo the established societal norms and basic human values, disrupting and disregarding the victim's ties to his family and community. Inevitably, the people of Guellen fall in the trap of gaudy materialism, justifying themselves as they increasingly allow themselves to become selfish; they promote normlessness. Eventually they succeed in alienating and hypocritically passing judgment on the man, to the extent where they carry out his public execution - he is lynched by his townsmen. They then abandon his body as they are too distracted in celebration of their 'rightful' blood-money - signifying that anomie continues even after they are gone.

Hermann Hesse's Der Steppenwolf also expresses a picture of anomie. The novel tells the story of a middle-aged man named Harry Haller who is beset with reflections on his being ill-suited for the world of "everybody", the regular people. In his aimless wanderings about the city he is given a book which describes the two natures of man: one "high", spiritual and "human"; while the other is "low" and animal-like. Thus, man is entangled in an irresolvable struggle, never content with either nature because he cannot see beyond this self-made construct. While Haller longs to live free from social convention, he continually lives as a bourgeois bachelor. Haller argues that the men of the Dark Ages did not suffer more than those of Classical Antiquity, and vice-versa. It is rather those who live between two times, those who do not know what to follow, that suffer the most. In this token, a man from the Dark Ages living in Classical Antiquity, or the opposite, would undergo a gulping sadness and agony.

The characters Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Waiting For Godot express a sense of anomie. The play follows two consecutive days in the lives of a pair of men who divert themselves while they wait expectantly and unsuccessfully for someone named Godot to arrive. Frustrated at the long wait, they think of what to do to pass the time. Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, but since they are concerned that they might not both die, they decide to do nothing: "It's safer", explains Estragon. Another character, Lucky, describes an impersonal and callous God. Lucky next asserts that man 'wastes and pines', mourns an inhospitable earth, and claims that he [man] diminishes in a world that does not nurture him". The play illustrates an attitude toward man's experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be reconciled in the mind and art of the absurdist.

The Yugoslav film When I Am Dead and Gone (1967) is a relentless portrayal of anomie throughout the contemporary Yugoslav society, experiencing rapid industrialization and urbanization. The main character seeks to settle down in an environment where all norms are habitually broken.

See also




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