August 28, 2017

What is Anomie?

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

A neighbor and I were talking as he was on his daily dog-walk past my home. He was expressing concern about how badly people drive, how rude they are, how no one seems to have any manners anymore, how people are more likely to walk looking down into their phones, even when crossing the street, rather than with their head held high and noticing what’s around them. He continued our conversation discussing events in the news, as it had been a particularly wacky and disturbing week, to put it lightly.

While I don’t usually “talk shop” with my neighbors and acquaintances as they walk their dogs, it seemed that he truly was seeking some solace or at least understanding about the state of things.

I saw my sociological opening and took it.

“Sociology has a concept that can help explain what you’re seeing and feeling,” I began. I then talked about anomie, Émile Durkheim's very relevant concept. Anomie, translated from French means normlessness, when things happen in society, change occurs so fast and we do not know what the norms are. Do we go back to the old norms? Create new ones? What happened to the current norms, why do they no longer apply?

In a society that is anomic, it is frustrating, confusing, and even disturbing, to move through everyday life, especially if we’re paying attention to what is going on.

If we try to unplug, we may distract ourselves for a time but society comes into play in every area of life. Thus, going off the grid or ignoring what’s happening will not result in comfort or relief for long.

Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s classic work The Social Construction of Reality reminds us that we build society, but we then forget that as societal structures then build us. Thus in anomic times, we feel powerless yet, sociologically speaking, we really do have some type of input into how things are.

The marches and protests that are happening both virtually in and in the streets are one way that social change can be affected. If we are upset at things that continue to happen, organizing and building coalitions are part of the solution. The social movements that we have seen throughout our young history as a country demonstrate that if the people get frustrated enough to act, things can change.

The ownership of people, slavery, was abolished after a long hard fight, yet that did not solve all problems relating to having a racially defined slave caste freed of their bonds. The civil rights movement took us further towards having more equality and freedom for all, yet that legislation did not solve all problems relating to having a racially defined underclass have better access to education, on the basis of law.

Social problems and public issues are never completely solved, yet the more we understand them and work together, the more we might do better living up to our ideals.

Thus, while we are certainly living in an anomic state of being, we must continue to work together toward solutions to our problems. Durkheim would certainly be as concerned for our society as we are – our social stability depends on our interdependence and solidarity. That doesn’t just happen - it comes through active participation.

As my neighbor continued his walk, we agreed that we should at least acknowledge that talking to one another, as we do in the neighborhood, is something positive. It is just one step towards building solidarity, but we need to take so many more.


Hi Sally:

Doug MacNeill here.

Call me curious, but what terms would a sociologist use to describe the social processes aimed at preventing or reducing _anomie_? Sometimes I slip into the term _nomos-building_ myself, but that is solely my own attempt to coin such an expression....

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