What is Anomie?

Anomie, originally coined by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century and further developed by Robert Merton in the 20th century, is a concept that holds significant relevance in criminology. The term is often shorthand for a state of 'normlessness' within a society.

Anomie refers to a condition where the social and moral norms that guide individuals' behavior become unclear, weakened, or altogether absent. In such a state, individuals may feel a sense of disorientation, leading to a breakdown in the normal regulation of social life.

Emile Durkheim initially introduced anomie to explain the societal changes and disruptions associated with the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the late 19th century. Durkheim observed that as traditional social structures weaken, individuals might experience a sense of normlessness, wherein the guiding norms and values lose their influence, and individuals struggle to find a sense of purpose and direction.

Robert Merton expanded on Durkheim's concept of anomie within the context of criminology. Merton's strain theory posits that anomie arises when there is a disjunction between culturally prescribed goals and the legitimate means available to achieve those goals. In societies that prioritize certain universally desirable objectives, such as wealth, success, and fame, individuals may experience strain when they perceive limited access to these goals through socially approved avenues.

Merton identified five possible responses to this strain, categorizing individuals based on their adherence to societal goals and means. Conformists accept both the goals and the means prescribed by society, while innovators seek alternative, often unconventional means to achieve approved goals.

Ritualists abandon the pursuit of societal goals but rigidly adhere to the prescribed means. Retreatists reject both societal goals and means, often withdrawing from conventional society. Finally, rebels reject both the goals and means while actively seeking to replace existing norms and structures with their own.

In criminology, the concept of anomie draws attention to the potential consequences of societal structures that limit access to approved goals. It suggests that individuals facing blocked opportunities may turn to illegitimate means, such as criminal activities, as an alternative way to achieve culturally endorsed objectives.

Understanding anomie provides insights into the social conditions that may contribute to criminal behavior and highlights the importance of addressing structural issues and providing legitimate pathways for individuals to pursue societal goals.