The idea of anomie theory refers to the absence of a normal ethical or social standard. This concept was first introduced in 1893 when French sociologist Emile Durkheim published his book entitled, The Division of Labor in Society. In his book, Durkheim suggests that the rules governing how individuals conduct themselves with one another were dissolving and, as a consequence, people were unable to determine how to interact with one another. As a result, Durkheim argues that anomie is the state of being where the expectations of behavior are unclear and the system in place has broken down.

The phenomenon is known as normlessness. According to Durkheim, this normlessness was responsible for deviant behavior and later, as he estimated in his 1897 work, Suicide, depression, and suicide as a result of this normlessness. In order explain Durkheim’s theory, it was based on the notion that a lack of rules and uncertainty resulted in a psychological state of worthlessness, frustration, lack of purpose, and despair. As well as that, since it is difficult to define what is desirable, striving for anything would be a waste of time.

Crime is characterized by anomie, which means that the person chooses criminal activity because they believe that there is no reason not to do so. This means that the person feels alienated like they are worthless and that any efforts they make to achieve something else will not succeed. As a result, with no other option, the person is forced to engage in criminal activity without any choice.

Anomie Theory
Anomie Theory

What Is The Definition Of Anomie Theory?

  • According to the traditions of classical sociology (Durkheim, Merton), anomie, or normlessness, can be defined as the breakdown and blurring of social norms that regulate individual behavior.
  • In 1897 Durkheim (1897) considered that this could happen when a society undergoes rapid social change (such as revolutions) when people become unsure of what society’s values and norms are.
  • This normlessness is also a characteristic of societies that are dominated by an individualistic culture and do not have the counter-values of social solidarity to temper the insistence on individual satisfaction at the expense of others.
  • The anomie hypothesis was among the first sociological explanations for the causes of deviant behavior. As sociologists, we seek to understand deviance by looking at how the structure of society influences behavior and can lead to deviance (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016).
  • It is Durkheim’s contention that in earlier societies, the family, village, and tradition (keepers of what Durkheim calls “mechanical solidarity”) maintained social control, while in modern societies (with “organic solidarity”), individual constraints have weakened.
  • The concept of anomia is part of a class of theories about deviance called strain theories. The strain theories postulate that social order is the result of a coherent set of norms, that these norms are shared by community members, and, finally, that deviance and the community’s reaction to it are essential to maintaining order (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

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The Theories of Emile Durkheim

It was French philosopher Jean Marie Guyau who coined the term anomie for the very first time. The philosopher Guyau proposed that in the future, morality will not be determined by universal laws, which he termed anomic morality (Lester & Turpin, 1999).

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

During the 19th century, Durkheim (1897) believed that, in modern societies, there was an agreement or consensus regarding society’s norms and values, resulting in social order and stability. Durkheim believed that this occurred as a result of the successful implementation of social control by society’s institutions (such as education and religion).

According to Durkheim, when a society’s norms and values are unclear during certain periods, people become unsure of the appropriate behavior to adopt. The social order would be threatened and there would be a sense of anomie, or a feeling of normlessness, which occurs when people do not feel constrained by norms or values.

The anomie of Durkheim is an abnormal type of division of labor, in which there is too little regulation to provide incentives for cooperation between different social functions.

An example of this is the antagonism between the capitalists and the workers, where there is little contact between the capitalists themselves and the workers. The result is that these individuals do not realize that they are cooperating toward a common goal, and anomie is the result (Durkheim, 1893; Lester & Turpin, 1999).

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It is well-known that Emile Durkheim was a well-known sociologist who was famous for his theories about the structure of society. The main purpose of his work was to identify how traditional and modern societies develop and function. According to Durkheim, his theories were founded on the concept of social facts, also known as norms, values, and structures of society.

It can be claimed that Durkheim’s perspective of society differs from that of other sociologists of the time since his theories are based on things that are external in nature, rather than internal, such as the motivations and desires of individuals. A functional society depends on a collective consciousness, a set of values, and rules, all of which are dictated by Durkheim. During this lesson, we are going to examine Durkheim’s theories of functionalism, anomie, and division of labor.

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An important feature of functionalism is its emphasis on societal equilibrium. In the event that something happens to disrupt the order and the flow of the system, society will need to adjust in order to achieve a stable state again. According to Durkheim, society should be analyzed and described in terms of the functions it performs. It is said that society is a system of interconnected parts that cannot function as a whole without the interactions between each of them. It is these parts that makeup society as a whole. When one part of a system is changed, it has an impact on the system as a whole.

As an example, the state provides children with free public education. In order to fund public education, the state collects taxes from the families of the children. Public education makes children law-abiding, hard-working citizens, who pay taxes in order to support the state, and who go on to become law-abiding and law-abiding citizens later in life.

Let’s take a look at this example once again. Public education is provided by the state to all children in the country. It seems that there is a disruption or disequilibrium in the system – perhaps the education is not up to standard, and the children drop out and become criminals. As a result, the system adjusts to improve the education of the underprivileged and tries to rehabilitate (through jail or other means) the criminals to become law-abiding and taxpaying citizens.

As a matter of fact, Durkheim actually viewed crime and delinquent behavior as normal and necessary manifestations of the social system. His hypothesis was that crime leads to reactions from society in relation to the crime. As a result of these reactions, people were able to reach a consensus about what they believed were moral and ethical norms that should be followed. These shared norms and values led to the establishment of social boundaries and rules for society.

Division of Labor

Durkheim’s theory of division of labor discussed the shift in societies from simple societies to a more complex ones in the process of industrialization. In his argument, he argued that traditional societies were made up of homogenous groups of individuals who had more or less the same values, beliefs, and backgrounds. Compared to basic societies of the past, modern societies are comprised of complex divisions of labor, beliefs, and backgrounds.

Traditional societies were known for their collective consciousness, strong social norms, and well-regulated behavior. Historically, common consciousness was less evident in modern societies, and social regulation tended to be less punitive and more reparative, with the intention of restoring society to normality.

Solidarity between mechanical and organic systems

A structural unit is considered to be mechanically solid when its members are the same and self-sufficient. People in traditional societies grew their own food, made their own clothes, and had little need for extensive social contact because they did not depend on anyone else for their daily needs.

A large population is stratified into smaller structural units when it forms organic solidarity. Individuals and structures are highly interdependent, but there is still a division of labor or type among the people.

Durkheim recognized that increased communication, transportation, and interaction with others resulted in a shift from mechanical to organic solidarity. In societies that evolve too quickly from traditional to modern, norms and collective consciousness break down. As a result, community and social constraints weaken, resulting in disorder, crisis, and anomie.

Anomic Suicide

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

Durkheim noticed that some countries consistently had higher suicide rates than others, even though suicide is usually considered to be an individualistic act. Particularly, he observed that Catholics experienced much lower suicide rates than Protestants. According to him, societies with a high suicide rate often suffer from anomie.

Despite the very high moral forbidding of suicide in Catholicism, Durkheim outlined four types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic.

Anomic suicide, Durkheim believed, occurred because Catholicism represented “strongly integrated social groups” (Durkheim, 1951, Stark, Doyle & Rushing, 1983), and Protestants were able to question the church and overthrow the social order it created in a way that Catholics could not.

Protestants experienced a higher degree of normlessness than Catholics since they could question the church. Anomie is a characteristic of societies with high suicide rates, according to Durkheim (Stark, Doyle, & Rushing, 1983).

According to Durkheim, society’s role is to regulate the passions and expectations of its members. When a society changes rapidly, norms become unclear, and anomie occurs.

Individuals’ aspirations become limitless without society’s regulation, resulting in deviance. Individuals stop striving for more than is realistically possible for them to achieve (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960, p. 78), and the result is a breakdown in society’s norms that leads to deviance in the form of suicide.

Traditional societies with shared cultural norms have more influence over individual behavior than rapidly evolving western societies of the late 19th century, which placed an increasing emphasis on individual values by rejecting shared cultural norms (Boudon & Bourricaud, 1989).

Strain Theory of Anomie and Deviance by Merton

Robert Merton (1938, 1957) extended the theory of anomie to the United States, arguing that anomie does not simply refer to unregulated goals, but a broken relationship between cultural goals and legitimate means of achieving them.

Throughout the United States, Merton argues, everyone has been socialized to believe that their possibilities, regardless of their circumstances, are limitless and that they ought to strive for success on a large scale. Despite this, society restricts or completely eliminates access to approved modes of acquiring these symbols for a substantial part of the same population” (Merton, 1938).

There is a dysfunctional relationship between the cultural goals of the United States and the means for achieving those goals, as there are obstacles for a large portion of the population to attain success on a large scale (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

The lower classes may share the same cultural goal of success, but their educational opportunities and job opportunities may be limited due to a lack of education and employment. In this case, the mismatch between the goals of the lower classes and the reality of the opportunities that are available to them creates anomie and deviance.

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The five responses to a situation of stress

In Merton’s strain theory, there are five responses to anomie, of which three are deviant responses. According to these responses, one either accepts or rejects cultural goals and one either accepts or rejects institutionalized means (the legitimate means by which one can achieve a society’s cultural goals).

Assurance of conformity

This is the only non-deviant response to anomie, according to Merton. In order for a person to conform, they must accept the cultural goals of society and use the institutionalized means of achieving them (Merton, 1957).

As an example, a student in the United States who is getting an education in order to achieve financial success is conforming to Merton’s model because he is going to school in order to pursue the cultural goal of monetary success through legitimate means of education (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).


On the other hand, innovation accepts the cultural goal of a society but rejects the institutional means by which it has been achieved. There is evidence that a thief is pursuing the same cultural goal of economic success as a college student, but using illegitimate, illegal means to achieve it (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016). A person can also reject the cultural goal of their society as an alternative. According to Merton’s model, ritualism or retreatism can be used to accomplish this.


The idea of 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 up the ladder. It has been described that the dedicated janitor who has accepted they will never advance through the ranks of their workplace is a ritualist (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).


Retreatism, meanwhile, refers to the adaptation of those who reject both the cultural goals of society (materialism) as well as the legitimate methods of achieving them. It has been argued that these people are “in the society but not of it” (Merton, 1957). It is also possible for an individual to exist completely outside of a society’s goals and the means by which it achieves these goals.


In Merton’s theory, the concept of rebellion relates to those individuals who attempt to change a social system in order to meet their needs. As a result, rebels change the dominant culture’s goal of attaining wealth – such as the attainment of wealth – to a new goal and create their own ways to achieve this goal. An instance of this could be the use of violence by a terrorist group to achieve a political objective (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Development of Merton’s Theory

As a student of Merton, Richard Cloward developed Merton’s anomie theory further by adding the concept of illegitimate means to the theory. There are some people who have access to legitimate means, and there are some people who have access to illegitimate means (Cloward, 1959).

The idea of becoming wealthy through, let’s say, being a successful drug dealer is just as unrealistic – or even more so – as becoming wealthy through becoming a successful businessman.

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

For Cloward and Ohlin, understanding deviance requires understanding not only the motivations of individuals who commit deviant acts but also the means by which they are able to engage in these acts (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960).

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The Anomie Theory of Criminology

In sociology, anomie is seen as the primary driver of crime (Bernburg, 2002), and this has been the case for several decades now. During the 1950s and 1960s, Merton’s strain theory of adaptation to anomie and illegitimate means of acquiring goods and services dominated sociological research on crime, but many sociologists came to criticize this theory (Hirschi, 1969).

There is no denying the fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure how whole societies are focused on goals and means (Kubrin, Stucky, and Krohn, 2009). According to Messner and Rosenfeld (2007), there are four main critiques of Merton’s anomie theory.

First off, it may not be correct to assume that all Americans, for example, share the same cultural goals. Some people believe that wealth acquisition is not the most important goal or even the least important goal in their lives (Muftic, 2006).

Secondly, Merton’s theory has a difficult time explaining why deviance occurs among the privileged classes. A wealthy entrepreneur who has attended a prestigious college, such as the Ivy League, may embezzle funds in spite of the fact that he has already reached the cultural value of financial success.

Thirdly, Merton suggests that equal opportunity is a realistic solution to preventing crime, a point Messner and Rosenfeld disagree on.

Lastly, Merton’s conception of anomie has never been defined precisely (Inderbitzen, Bates, and Gainey 2016, Messner & Rosenfeld 2007).

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Institutionalized Anomie Theory

Messner and Rosenfield (2008) have developed a theory of institutionalized anomie as a response to these critiques

Based on this theory, one would argue that the rates and drivers of crime in American society are directly related to the tension between the cultural goal of success through wealth accumulation, and the reality that such wealth is unattainable for many citizens.

Individuals often resort to crime as a method of innovation when they are unable to obtain this through legitimate means (2007). Institutional anomie emphasizes the importance of culture and social structure and how they manifest themselves through social institutions.

It follows from this conclusion that the normal levels and forms of crime in a society reflect the fundamental features of social organization (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008).

The institutionalized anomie theory holds that institutions determine the actions that individuals take. There is no doubt that the people affected by these institutions chose their own ends (ends) and methods (methods) to reach their goals.

Individuals have many goals and many means specific to themselves, but for a social order to exist, there must be a significant number of individuals who share a value structure (Parsons 1990).

Society as a whole is also made up of institutions. The social institutions are interdependent, but these institutions may have demands that compete with one another. For example, the role of a company may require overtime and conflict with the role of another institution (such as taking the daughter to soccer practice) (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008).

According to the institutionalized anomie theory, societies with high levels of crime have the highest priority for the economic institution.

The market interferes with other aspects of social life – like paying students based on their academic accomplishments – and many people sacrifice other roles to fill economic ones (Messner & Rosenfeld 2007).

Because economics – and the attainment of wealth – takes precedence over every other institution, people will resort to any means necessary to achieve the cultural goal of gaining wealth, even when going against norms that harm other institutions.

When the economy dominates, non-economic institutions are weaker, and people feel less constrained by their norms, especially those written as laws. (Messner & Rosenfeld 2008) As a result, there is anomie and a high level of crime.

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Anomie Examples

Beauty Standards in the United States

For the past few decades, the majority of fashion models have been tall and thin, sometimes dangerously so. Models are airbrushed and shopped to appear perfect after being groomed for hours.

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

Due to society’s failure to regulate its members’ expectations regarding physical appearance, deviance results in eating disorders and extensive plastic surgery (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

People in these groups are interdependent, so the unethical behavior of one person can bring down the entire group.

Anomie and the American Dream

According to Messner and Rosenfeld (2007), “the distinctive patterns and levels of crime in the United States are caused by the cultural and social organization of American society.”

This means the United States has strong pressures — cultural goals — to achieve success through wealth (the American Dream) and weak restraints on how this wealth can be acquired.

Since the United States has blurry norms as to how to achieve wealth, it creates anomie and an “anything goes” mentality in pursuing goals (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Messner and Rosenfeld argue that the American Dream contributes to crime by encouraging people to exploit all means, legal or illegal, to achieve America’s cultural goal of financial success (Messner & Rosenfeld, 2007).

Deviance is encouraged by the anomic fabric of American society (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016). Taking the example of boys in a juvenile prison who believed deeply in the American Dream, but had few legitimate means to realize it because of class barriers, lack of education, and racism (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016), Inderbitzen (2007) supported this theory.

Because these young men were virtually shut out from legitimate means of success by a variety of social barriers, committing crimes offered a viable means for young minorities to meet their financial needs.

In the study, young men said that “getting paid” (M.L. Sullivan, 1989) was the primary motivation for committing crimes.

As the staff at the juvenile prison encouraged the young men to shift their values and conform to less glamorous goals, it replaced Durheim’s social regulator (Inderbitzin, 2007).

Anomie and Academia

Societies are measured by anomia alongside individuals’ ideal behavior within those societies. Anomie can result when institutions try to pursue objectives that are incompatible.

Since the 1960s, universities have changed rapidly in their emphasis on professional education. To achieve the new cultural goal of cultural education, the capabilities of the university’s faculty are different from those required to create knowledge.

The reality of what a university can realistically teach differs from the ideals or expectations of what a university can provide, and there are no clear norms for what a university should accomplish, so universities can be anomie.

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

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What are anomie theory and examples?

Anomie is Durkheim’s term for an abnormal form of division of labor with too little regulation to encourage cooperation between different social functions. In the antagonism between capitalists and workers, there is little contact between capitalists themselves and workers.

What does anomie theory claim?

According to Robert K. Merton’s anomie theory, most people strive to achieve culturally recognized goals. When groups or individuals are prevented from achieving these goals, anomie develops.

What is anomie according to Durkheim?

Society or individuals may experience anomie, also spelled anomia, as a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals.

Are we living in an anomic society?

Thus, while we live in an anomic state, we must continue to work together to solve our problems. Durkheim would be just as concerned for our society as we are – our interdependence and solidarity make our society stable.

What are examples of anomie in modern society?

The high divorce rate in modern times is an example of this. Divorce creates an anomic state in which people question societal norms and form their values, resulting in deviant behavior.

How does anomie theory explain crime?

In this article, the focus is on the relationship between crime and society’s social structure. Anomie theory holds that crime arises particularly due to the pressure exerted by the unequal distribution of socio-economic resources in society.

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