Mathieu Deflem
University of South Carolina

This is a copy of a paper in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Online Edition, 2015.
Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2015. “Anomie.” In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Online Edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. Online edition, October 26, 2015.


The concept of anomie has been used by scholars working in multiple theoretical frameworks in sociology. Most famous are the concepts of anomie introduced by Émile Durkheim and Robert Merton, who used to term to refer to a deregulation of the social order and a demoralization of legitimate norms, respectively. Research in the anomie traditions has since been conducted, in varying degrees of popularity, in the areas of crime and deviant behavior as well as on the conditions of social disorder.

The sociological concept of anomie can generally be defined as the lack or ineffectiveness of normative regulation in society. The term traces its roots as far back as Greek antiquity, religious traditions associated with the Christian Bible, and late-nineteenth-century French philosophy (Orrù, 1987). In ancient Greek, the term ‘anomia’ was used to denote a lack or deregulation of norms and law. Discussed at a time generally marked by societal disturbances, the term was applied to both a social state of affairs and to people who exhibited a lack of a proper regard for norms. Biblical writings adopted this Greek term in translating multiple Hebrew words that referred to various forms of evil, transgression, depravity, and sin. Gradually, this religious use of “anomia” became more narrowly understood to refer to an undesirable state of society, rather than shortcomings on the part of the person. During the Middle Ages, the concept of anomia declined in usage, but a revival took place in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England where the Anglicized expression “anomy” was used to refer to a state of lawlessness as opposed to a state of religious and social order based on natural law.

The French term “anomie,” which sociologists still use today, was originally coined by the French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau in the late nineteenth century (Besnard, 1987). In direct reference to the Greek traditions, Guyau changed the meaning of “anomie” to refer to a decline of religious morality in favor of a rise of a new system of norms based on individual responsibility. It is from Guyau’s work that Émile Durkheim adopted the term, albeit it in a different and distinctly sociological meaning. Rejecting Guyau’s individualistic morality, Durkheim once again defined “anomie” in terms of certain problematic conditions of social (dis)order at the societal level.

Durkheim first used this new, sociological concept of anomie in his study on the social causes and consequences of the division of labor (Durkheim 1933 [1893]). Contrary to the materialist philosophy of Karl Marx, Durkheim’s sociological study suggested that the division of labor in diverse or organic societies is not problematic as long as it is accompanied by appropriate levels of regulation. However, under special or exceptional circumstances, Durkheim maintained, the division of labor will take on an anomic form, either because there is a lack of regulation or because the level of regulation needed to provide adequate social integration does not match the degree of development of the division of labor. Durkheim saw such anomic forms present during periods of industrial crises, in the conflict between labor and capital, and in the lack of unity and excessive degree of specialization in the sciences. Durkheim claimed a special role for the state in maintaining order by means of appropriate policies and legislation.

In his famous sociological study of suicide as a social fact, Durkheim (1952 [1897]) extended his perspective on anomie by identifying – alongside altruistic and egoistic suicide – anomic suicide. Durkheim argued that anomic suicide takes place when normative regulations are almost completely absent, such as in the world of trade and industry (chronic anomie), or when both positive and negative but always abrupt transitions in society lead to a loss in the effectiveness of norms to regulate behavior (acute anomie). The latter type explains the high suicide rate among divorced men (rather than divorced women, whom Durkheim considered to be more constrained by rather than restrained by marriage) as well as during periods of fiscal crisis and the rise of political might in the wake of military victory.

Durkheim’s conception of anomie was not widely influential in sociological theory and research until it was adopted and expanded in the context of Robert K. Merton’s theory of deviant behavior and opportunity structures (1938; 1968). Differentiating between society’s culturally accepted goals and its institutionalized means to reach those goals, Merton argues that a state of anomie occurs as a result of the unusually strong emphasis in US society on the cultural goals (individual success expressed in monetary terms) without a corresponding emphasis upon the legitimate norms (education, work) to reach those goals. Anomie thus refers to a resulting social state of a demoralization or deinstitutionalization of society’s legitimate means. Under these anomic conditions, which Merton argues to apply to the United States as a whole, some members of society will be more likely to adopt illegitimate and often illegal means to reach culturally approved goals because their socioeconomic conditions prevent access to the legitimate opportunity structures of success.

In line with the enormous influence of Merton’s work, anomie became among the most discussed and applied concepts in US sociology during the 1950s and 1960s. Working broadly within the structural-functionalist framework, various theoretical extensions and reformulations were introduced and applied in empirical research. Theoretically, anomie was among non-Marxists perceived as a useful alternative to alienation. In matters of empirical research, an important development was the introduction of the concept of anomia (not to be confused with the orthographically identical Greek word). Originally introduced by Leo Srole (1956), anomia refers to the social-psychological mental states of individuals who are confronted with social conditions of anomie.

Throughout the 1960s the concept of anomia was widely adopted in empirical research, in part because it was easily measurable on the basis of the anomia scale introduced by Srole. While the relation between (individual) anomia and (societal) anomie was not satisfactorily addressed at a conceptual level, applications of Merton’s anomie theory were popular in empirical research, especially in the area of crime and deviance. Theoretically, this criminological interest even reached the work of Talcott Parsons who, in his seminal book The Social System, discusses the concept of anomie to denote a state of disjunction between expectations and reality that brings about a lack of social control, leading to an increase in suicide and deviant behavior (Parsons, 1951).

The popularity of structural-functionalism waned during the 1970s and early 1980s, and consequently the concept of anomie began to be much less discussed and applied. Since the late 1980s, however, there has been a revival of the sociological use of the concept of anomie in at least two areas of inquiry. First, Merton’s perspective of anomie and social structure is now widely recognized as one of the most influential contributions in criminological sociology (Adler and Laufer, 1995; Passas and Agnew, 1997). Along with Merton’s theoretical reformulations since 1938 and its extensions by others, the theoretical approach has now been broadened as comprising an anomie theory and a distinct strain theory (Featherstone and Deflem, 2003). Whereas Merton initially presented the two theoretical components as seemingly inextricably linked, this perspective is generally no longer accepted today. Anomie refers to a state of social organization, whereas strain is a mechanism that induces deviant behavior. Strain can, by theoretical necessity, only occur under conditions of anomie; but the social condition of anomie can be accompanied by a variety of mechanisms that lead to deviance. In contemporary criminological sociology, strain theory is much more influential than anomie theory.

Second, less widespread but no less significant is the recent adoption of the concept of anomie in discussions and research on societies undergoing rapid social and economic change. This perspective grew particularly out of sociological efforts to account for the drastic political and economic changes that have been taking place in Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism, and in China since its economic modernization. This renewed interest in anomie relies largely on the work of Durkheim, who introduced the concept to denote formally similar events of transition and upheaval. It remains to be seen if and how this contemporary attention to anomie will integrate with the related literature on globalization and inequality. A true revival of interest in anomie cannot yet be predicted.

Keywords: crime; deviance and social control; Durkheim, Émile; Merton, Robert; Parsons, Talcott

See also: Deflem, Mathieu. 2015. “Anomie: History of the Concept.” In International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition, Volume 1, edited by James D. Wright, 718-721. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.


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This paper is revised from: “Anomie.” Pp. 144-146 in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

See other writings on sociological theory.