anomic adj : socially disoriented; "anomic loners musing over their fate"; "we live in an age of rootless alienated people" [syn: alienated, disoriented]
Anomie, in contemporary English, means a condition of 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.
The word comes from Greek, namely the prefix a- “without”, and nomos “law”. The Greeks distinguished between nomos (νόμος, “law”), and arché (αρχή, “starting rule, axiom, principle”). For example, a monarch is a single ruler but he or she might still be subject to, and not exempt from, the prevailing laws, i.e. nomos.
In the original city state democracy, the majority rule was an aspect of arché because it was a rule-based, customary system which might or might not make laws, i.e. nomos. Thus, the original meaning of anomie defined anything or anyone against or outside the law, or a condition where the current laws were not applied resulting in a state of illegitimacy or lawlessness.
The contemporary English understanding of the word anomie can accept greater flexibility in the word “norm”, and some have used the idea of normlessness to reflect a similar situation to the idea of anarchy. But, as used by Émile Durkheim and later theorists, anomie is a reaction against or a retreat from the regulatory social controls of society, and is a completely separate concept from anarchy which is an absence of effective rulers or leaders.
Anomie as social disorder
The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim borrowed the word from French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau and used it in his influential book Suicide (1897), outlining the social (and not individual) causes of suicide, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values (referred to as normlessness), and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life. This is contrary to previous theories on suicide which generally maintained that suicide was precipitated by negative events in a person's life and their subsequent depression.
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.
Anomie as a social disorder is not to be confused with anarchy. Anarchy denotes lack of rulers, hierarchy, and command, whereas anomie denotes lack of rules, structure, and organization. Many proponents of anarchism claim that anarchy does not necessarily lead to anomie and that hierarchical command actually increases lawlessness (see e.g. the Law of Eristic Escalation).
As an older variant, the Webster 1913 dictionary reports use of the word anomie as meaning “disregard or violation of the law”.
Anomie in literature and film and theatre
In Albert Camus’s existentialist novel The Stranger, the 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: (“Today mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.”)
Dostoevsky, whose work is often considered a philosophical precursor to existentialism, often expressed a similar concern in his novels. In The Brothers Karamazov, the character Dmitri Karamazov asks his atheist friend Rakitin, ”...without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?” Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoevsky’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!”
Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf also expresses a very clear picture of anomie. The protagonist affirms that the men of the Dark Ages did not suffer more than those of the 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 the Classical Antiquity, or the opposite, would undergo a gulping sadness and agony.
The characters Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's play Waiting For Godot have been seen to express anomie.
- Marco Orru, The Ethics of Anomie: Jean Marie Guyau and Emile Durkheim, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 1983), pp. 499-518
- Jordi Riba, La morale anomique de Jean-Marie Guyau, Paris [etc.] : L'Harmattan, 1999
anomic in Bosnian: Anomija
anomic in Czech: Anomie
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anomic in Simple English: Anomie
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