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Emile Durkheim described anomie which is state of relative normlessness or a state in which norms have been eroded. A norm is an expectation of how people will behave, and it takes the form of a rule that is socially rather than formally enforced. Thus, in structural functionalist theory, the effect of normlessness whether at a personal or societal level, is to introduce alienation, isolation, and desocialisation, i.e. as norms become less binding for individuals. individuals lose the sense of what is right and wrong.

Normlessness (or what Durkheim referred to as anomie) “denotes the situation in which the social norms regulating individual conduct have broken down or are no longer effective as rules for behaviour”.[1] This aspect refers to the inability to identify with the dominant values of society or rather, with what are perceived to be the dominant values of society. Seeman (1959: 788) adds that this aspect can manifest in a particularly negative manner, “The anomic situation [...] may be defined as one in which there is a high expectancy that socially unapproved behaviours are required to achieve given goals”. This negative manifestation is dealt with in detail by Catherine Ross and John Mirowski in a series of publications on mistrust, powerlessness, normlessness and crime.


Durkheim (1893) introduced the concept of anomie to describe an emerging state of social deregulation, i.e. the norms or rules that regulated people's expectations as to how they ought to behave with each other were eroding and people no longer knew what to expect from one another. In early, nonspecialised societies, people pooled their labour for the production of the necessities for survival. They tended to behave and think alike as they worked to achieve group-oriented goals. When societies became more complex, work became more specialised, and social bonds grew more impersonal as the culture shifted from altruism to economic where labour was exchanged for money. Individuals found it difficult to establish their status and role in society without clear norms to guide them. If conditions changed quickly, say during great prosperity or a great depression, the social system came under pressure and the erosion of existing norms without clear alternatives led to dissatisfaction, conflict, and deviance. Thus, the original meaning of anomie did not refer to a state of mind, but to a property of the social structure in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms and where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals.

Durkheim (1897) expanded the connotation to refer to a morally deregulated personal condition leading to suicide, i.e. this normlessness has psychological effects. There is both personal anxiety and a disruption in the rhythm of social life as economic status and family anomie grows in the face of normlessness and powerlessness. Durkheim postulated, and more modern research confirms, that social anomie could be translated into behavioural (attempted suicide), and attitudinal (normlessness and powerlessness) determinants when viewed with regard to its impact upon the family. Particularly among the young, there are significant differences in the degree of normlessness and powerlessness for suicidal and nonsuicidal adolescents and their families.

Neal & Collas (2000: 122) write, “Normlessness derives partly from conditions of complexity and conflict in which individuals become unclear about the composition and enforcement of social norms. Sudden and abrupt changes occur in life conditions, and the norms that usually operate may no longer seem adequate as guidelines for conduct”. This is a particular issue after the fall of the Soviet Union, mass migrations from developing to developed countries, and the general sense of disillusionment that characterized the 1990s (Senekal, 2011). Traditional values that had already been questioned (especially during the 1960s) were met with further scepticism in the 1990s, resulting in a situation where individuals rely more often on their own judgement than on institutions of authority: "The individual not only has become more independent of the churches, but from other social institutions as well. The individual can make more personal choices in far more life situations than before” (Halman, 1998: 100). These choices are not necessarily "negative": Halman's study found that Europeans remain relatively conservative morally, even though the authority of the Church and other institutions has eroded.

See also[]



Further reading[]

  • Durkheim, Emile. (1893). The Division of Labour in Society
  • Durkheim, Emile. (1897). Suicide
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  1. (Seeman, 1959: 787)