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Emile Durkheim [1858-1917]
Emile Durkheim on Anomie
By Frank W. Elwell
According to Durkheim, social facts are the subject matter of sociology. Social facts are “sui generis” (meaning of its own kind; unique) and must be studied distinct from biological and psychological phenomenon. Social facts can be defined as patterns of behavior that are capable of exercising some coercive power upon individuals. They are guides and controls of conduct and are external to the individual in the form of norms, mores, and folkways. “A social fact is identifiable through the power of external coercion which it exerts or is capable of exerting upon individuals” (Durkheim,  1982, p. 56). Through socialization and education these rules become internalized in the consciousness of the individual. These constraints and guides become moral obligations to obey social rules.
“There are in each of us…two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other, on the contrary, represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual” (Durkheim  1933, 129).
“Because society surpasses us, it obliges us to surpass ourselves, and to surpass itself, a being must, to some degree, depart from its nature—a departure that does not take place without causing more or less painful tensions” (Durkheim  1973, 163).
“It is not without reason, therefore, that man feels himself to be double: he actually is double….In brief, this duality corresponds to the double existence that we lead concurrently; the one purely individual and rooted in our organisms, the other social and nothing but an extension of society” (Durkheim  1973, 162).
Our purely individual side seeks satisfaction of all wants and desires. It knows no boundaries. This side of human beings quickly leads to a condition that Durkheim labels as “anomie.” “It is this anomic state that is the cause, as we shall show, of the incessantly recurrent conflicts, and the multifarious disorders of which the economic world exhibits so sad a spectacle”(Durkheim  1933, 5).
Durkheim characterized the modern individual as insufficiently integrated into society. Because of these weakening bonds, social regulation breaks down and the controlling influence of society on the desires and interests of the individual is rendered ineffective; individuals are left to their own devices. Because of the dual nature of human beings this breakdown of moral guidance results in rising rates of deviance, social unrest, unhappiness, and stress.
"The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs" (Durkheim  1951, 248).
“When there is no other aim but to outstrip constantly the point arrived at, how painful to be thrown back!...Since imagination is hungry for novelty, and ungoverned, it gropes at random” (257).
“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture" (247).
“To the extent that the individual is left to his own devices and freed from all social constraint, he is unfettered too by all moral constraint” (Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, Durkheim (7).
Durkheim identifies two major causes of anomie: the division of labor, and rapid social change. Both of these are, of course, associated with modernity. An increasing division of labor weakens the sense of identification with the wider community and thereby weakens constraints on human behavior. These conditions lead to social “disintegration”—high rates of egocentric behavior, norm violation, and consequent de-legitimation and distrust of authority. According to Durkheim, the desires and self-interests of human beings can only be held in check by forces that originate outside of the individual. Durkheim characterizes this external force as a collective conscience, a common social bond that is expressed by the ideas, values, norms, beliefs, and ideologies of a culture. “As there is nothing within an individual which constrains these appetites, they must surely be contained by some force exterior to him, or else they would become insatiable—that is morbid”  1978, p. 213).
As the collective conscience originates with society, Durkheim elaborated the cause and effects of weakening group ties (and thus a weakening of the collective conscience) on the individual in his two works, The Division of Labor in Society (1893) and Suicide (1897). In The Division of Labor, Durkheim identifies two forms or types of solidarity, which are based on different sources, the first is Mechanical solidarity. Mechanical solidarity is “solidarity which comes from likeness and is at its maximum when the collective conscience completely envelops our whole conscience and coincides in all points with it.” Mechanical solidarity occurs in early societies in which there is not much division of labor. Such societies are relatively homogenous, men and women engage in similar tasks and daily activities, people have similar experiences. In such societies the few distinct institutions express similar values and norms and tend to reinforce one another. The norms, values, and beliefs of the society (or the collective conscience) are so homogenous and confront the individual with such overwhelming and consistent force, that there is little opportunity in such societies for individuality or deviance from this collective conscience. According to Durkheim, traditional cultures experience a high level of social and moral integration, there was little individuation, and most behaviors were governed by social norms which were usually embodied in religion. By engaging in the same activities and rituals, people in traditional societies shared common moral values, which Durkheim called a collective conscience. In these societies, people tend to regard themselves as members of a group; the collective conscience embraces individual awareness, and there is little sense of personal options.
The second type Durkheim termed “Organic solidarity “which develops as a by-product of the division of labor. As society becomes more complex, individuals play more specialized roles and become ever more dissimilar in their social experiences, material interests, values, and beliefs. Individuals in such a sociocultural system have less in common; however, they must become more dependent upon each other for their survival. The growth of individualism is an inevitable result of the increasing division of labor, and this individualism can only develop at the expense of the common values, morality, beliefs, and normative rules of society—the sentiments and beliefs that are held by all. With the loosening of these common rules and values we also lose our sense of community, or identity with the group. The social bond is thereby weakened and social values and beliefs no longer provide us with coherent or insistent moral guidance. And this loosening lends itself to anomie.
Again, according to Durkheim, if an individual lacks any sense of social restraint her self-interest will be unleashed; she will seek to satisfy her own appetites with little thought on the possible affect her action will have on others. Instead of asking “is this moral?” or “does my family approve?” the individual is more likely to ask “does this action meet my needs?” The individual is left to find her own way in the world—a world in which personal options for behavior have multiplied as strong and insistent norms and moral guidelines have weakened.
For a more extensive discussion of Durkheim’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.
Durkheim, E. (1956). Education and Sociology. (S. Fox, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1925/1961). Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. (E. Wilson, & H. Schnurer, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1953). Sociology and Philosophy. New York: The Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1897/1951). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. (J. Spaulding, & G. Simpson, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1893/1960). The Division of Labor in Society. (G. Simpson, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1912/1954). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. (J. Swain, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.
Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Mestrovic, S. G. (1988/1993). Emile Durkheim and the Reformation of Sociology. Boston: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Mestrovic, S. G. (1997). Postemotional Society. London: Sage Publications.
Mestrovic, S. G. (1994). The Balkanization of the West: The Confluence of Postmodernism and Postcommunism. New York: Routledge.
Mestrovic, S. G. (1993). The Barbarian Temperment: Toward a Postmodern Critical Theory. New York: Routledge.
To reference Emile Durkheim on Anomie, you should use the following format:
Elwell, Frank W., 2003, Emile Durkheim on Anomie, Retrieved August 31, 2003, [use actual date] http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Essays/Durkheim1.htm
©2013 Frank Elwell, Send comments to felwell at rsu.edu