Sociology Anomie and Strain Theory
Seth B. Abrutyn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0157


Few concepts truly belong to the sociological lexicon like anomie does. First appearing in French theorist Émile Durkheim’s earliest work as an abnormal form of the division of labor, the concept has become a cornerstone to thinking about some of the effects of large, urban, heterogeneous societies such as the United States. For Durkheim human nature was defined by self-interest, insatiable desires, and limitless aspirations. Moral regulation, in the form of collective conscience or a sense of shared norms and known sanctions, was essential to placing constraints on our desires in ways that were healthy. That is, regulation fostered a sense of purpose and meaning by anchoring our individual nature in a collective nature that offered security, warmth, and clarity. Paris during the 19th century (and much of continental Europe as he extrapolated) exhibited the good and bad consequences of capitalism. On the one hand, and in his estimation, humans had far greater freedoms of expression and individuality. On the other hand, these denizens of modernity were faced with (1) chronic anomie in the form of never-ending goals, endless material pursuits, and heterogeneity that rendered the collective conscience feeble and (2) abrupt, acute forms of anomie as economies rapidly grew or collapsed, increasingly massive wars were won or lost, and old social moorings—e.g., (real or imagined) life-long happy marriages—were torn asunder by liberalism and the tolerance of phenomena like divorce. Anomie, for Durkheim, meant the breakdown of a sense of shared moral order and the collective or individual loss of social anchorage or moorings. And, as his famous argument in Suicide noted, it was both a pathological consequence of this breakdown and a cause of other serious pathologies like suicide. Ultimately, the sociological use of anomie is (and has been) plagued by the fuzziness with which Durkheim defined and operationalized it, the total reconceptualization of it for American audiences by Robert Merton, and broader sociological conventions regarding classical texts and concepts. Future research will have to continue to contend with these ambiguities until sociology generates a final definition for anomie.

Durkheim’s Anomie

According to Deflem 2015, the word anomie is of Greek origin and means lack of (“a”) law (“nom”). However, as Besnard 1987 demonstrates, its meaning has taken many forms from the conventional normlessness or lawlessness to other closely related uses like meaninglessness, as well as to a sense of “derangement.” For the interested reader, Orrù 1987 presents a more expanded history of the concept and its evolution. Durkheim himself first used the concept anomie in Book 3 of The Division of Labor in Society to capture the pathological form of the division of labor in which overspecialization leads classes of people to become isolated from each other. Later, in Suicide, Durkheim presented the more well-known description of anomie as one of his three social forms of suicide. As Olsen 1965 argues, the former captures a more collective form of anomie, found in the structural composition of the economic order. This chain of thought is exemplified in Powell 1962, a study of urbanization, or, more recently, Zhao and Cao 2010, a cross-national study of economic upheaval. Whereas the latter, despite Suicide’s macro-level orientation, has been treated more so as a social psychological or individual-level phenomenon predicated on other macro-level causes. For instance, TenHouten 2016 (cited under Defining Anomie) and Gunderson 2016 both examine different emotional dynamics that are at the heart of experiencing anomie. In any case, Durkheim’s intended meaning has been of much debate, as the following sections will show, but as Orrù 1989 points out, it is conventionally presumed to be related to the breakdown of moral regulation at the structural level.

  • Besnard, Philippe. 1987. L’anomie: Ses Usages Et Ses Fonctions Dans La Discipline Sociologique Depuis Durkheim. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    Besnard provides the reader with a sociological analysis of knowledge. He reviews the evolution of the term anomie, examining the effects historical and social context has on its meaning.

  • Deflem, Mathieu. 2015. Anomie: History of the concept. In International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences. Edited by James D. Wright, 718–721. Amsterdam and Boston: Elsevier.

    Deflem provides a brief overview of the history of the term, pushing further back historically than most reviews. He begins with its slightly different meaning in ancient Greece and works his way up toward the various sociological versions.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1997. The division of labor in society. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

    Durkheim first used anomie to describe a type of division of labor characterized by overspecialization and, subsequently, disconnect between occupations. Originally published 1893.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1951. Suicide: A study in sociology. Translated by J. A. Spaulding and G. Simpson. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

    The most cited source on anomie in which Durkheim presents anomic suicide as one social type predicated on a lack of normative regulation. Originally published 1897.

  • Gunderson, Ryan. 2016. Anomie’s eastern origins: The Buddha’s indirect influence on Durkheim’s understanding of desire and suffering. European Journal of Social Theory 19.3: 355–373.

    DOI: 10.1177/1368431015599627

    Gunderson attempts to trace the roots of Durkheim’s concept using a social psychology of religion approach.

  • Olsen, Marvin. 1965. Durkheim’s two concepts of anomie. The Sociological Quarterly 6.1: 37–44.

    Compares the Division of Labor and Suicide versions of anomie, highlighting the differences between the two.

  • Orrù, Marco. 1987. Anomie: History and meanings. Boston: Allen & Unwin.

    Orrù, too, provides the reader with an extensive historical look at the term anomie.

  • Orrù, Marco. 1989. Weber on anomie. Sociological Forum 4.2: 263–270.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01112425

    Traces the role anomie played in Weber’s work on non-Western religious doctrines. Weber’s use of the term is literal in that some religious doctrines emerge out of the absence of ultimate values.

  • Powell, Elwin H. 1962. The evolution of the American city and the emergence of anomie: A culture case study of Buffalo, New York 1810–1910. British Journal of Sociology 13.2: 156–168.

    DOI: 10.2307/587892

    By examining massive urban changes in Buffalo over a century, Powell highlights how anomie has less to do with urban ecology and everything to do with economic change and disruption.

  • Zhao, Ruohui, and Liqun Cao. 2010. Social change and anomie: A cross-national study. Social Forces 88.3: 1209–1229.

    DOI: 10.1353/sof.0.0312

    Using sophisticated modeling techniques, Zhao and Cao show that rapid sociopolitical change, measured at the macro-level, generates higher rates of anomie. Particularly, this occurs where highly authoritative societies transition rapidly to democratic forms, undermining the strong regulative aspect of the former in favor of individual freedoms in the latter.

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