Mathieu Deflem
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Published in Core Concepts in Sociology, edited by J. Michael Ryan. Wiley-Blackwell, 2019.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2019. “Anomie.” Pp. 8-9 in Core Concepts in Sociology, edited by J. Michael Ryan. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Abstract: The concept of anomie was popularized in sociology by Emile Durkheim and Robert K. Merton and applied to various forms of social problems, including suicide and deviant behavior. The term has remained a mainstay in modern sociology, especially in work on deviance and as an alternative to alienation.

Anomie refers to a society’s relative degree of normlessness or an ineffectiveness of norms to regulate behavior (Deflem 2015). Derived from the Greek terms ‘anomia’, the concept was first introduced in sociology by Emile Durkheim, who had adopted the term from French moral philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau, to develop it sociologically in his study on the social division of labor (Durkheim 1893). Durkheim’s concept of anomie refers to the exceptional social circumstances under which the division of labor is not, or not sufficiently, regulated. In his seminal study on suicide, Durkheim (1897) similarly employs anomie to differentiate that social type of suicide which results from a sudden or chronic lack of regulation.

In modern sociology, anomie was popularized in Robert K. Merton’s work on deviance where he argues that various types of deviant behavior result from the strain that is exerted under conditions of a lack of opportunities to legitimate means of advancement (Merton 1957a, 1957b). Anomie results from the great emphasis that is placed in American society on attaining the cultural dominant goal of individual success irrespective of the means which those goals are to be attained. Merton argues this de-institutionalization of means to be characteristic of American society as a whole.

In contemporary sociology, the anomie concept has lost the centrality it enjoyed in post-World War II sociology when structural-functionalism was the dominant paradigm. Yet, a resurgence of anomie has since also taken place. Merton’s anomie concept has continued to be of intellectual interest via the popularity of the related strain theory of deviance. Moreover the Durkheimian concept of anomie as societal deregulation has also remained of significance, both theoretically in view of the continued centrality of Durkheimian thought as well as empirically to describe the impact of dramatic societal changes such as the fall of Communism and the globalization of capitalism.

See also: Alienation; Class; Deviance 

See also this somewhat longer paper on anomie.


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.

Durkheim, Emile. (1893) 1984. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. (1897) 1951. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: The Free Press.

Merton, Robert K. 1957a. “Social Structure and Anomie.” In his Social Theory and Social Structure. Revised and Enlarged Edition, 131-160. New York: The Free Press.

Merton, Robert K. 1957b. “Continuities in the Theory of Social Structure and Anomie.” In his Social Theory and Social Structure. Revised and Enlarged Edition, 161-194. New York: The Free Press.

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