Anomie

March 24, 2022

When I pulled up my NY Times feed yesterday it reported the rising number of mass shootings in the US.  Crime experts define a mass shooting as an event where four or more people are shot.  Last weekend, there were at least nine mass shootings across the US, including one in my home state at a car show.  Ironically, the annual car show is held against gun violence.  The burst of weekend crime violence continues a trend that began in the outset of the pandemic and shows no sign of easing.  Reporter David Leonhardt wrote there is no good answer for the crime wave, and it appears to be a distinctly American response to the pandemic.  Historians point out crime waves often occur when people feel frustrated with society, the government, and their fellow citizens.  This frustration can feed a breakdown in societal norms and a rise in what sociologist Émile Durkheim (1893) called “anomie.”

When I went online, I found Anomie is a social condition defined by a breakdown of moral values, standards, or guidance for individuals to follow.  Anomie was thought to evolve from a conflict of belief systems and causes a breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community.  Personal alienation can progress into an inability to integrate with normal situations of the social world, like finding a job or a successful relationship.  Durkheim used anomie to refer to the effects of industrialization in Europe.  The contemporary understanding of anomie accepts greater flexibility in the “norm”, and some have used the idea of normlessness to reflect a situation like the idea of anarchy.  However, for Durkheim and later theorists’ anomie is a reaction against the social controls of society, while anarchy is a state of disorder due to absence or rejection of authority or other controlling systems.

In the 1950’s Robert Merton extended the theory of anomie to the US and argued anomie is not simply about unregulated goals, but a broken relationship between cultural goals and legitimate means of accessing them.  Merton argued everyone in the US is socialized to believe that their possibilities, regardless of their circumstances, are limitless and that they should desire success on a large scale.  However, society restricts or eliminates access to approved ways of acquiring these symbols of success for a considerable part of the population.  Those in lower economic classes may share the goal of success but are limited by lack of education and job opportunities. The mismatch between goals and opportunity creates anomie and can result in increased crime.

THOUGHTS:  According to Gallup, nearly 80 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the country’s direction and feel frustrated with the government, the economy, and fellow citizens.  Many consider people with opposing political ideas are so wrong they do not deserve to express their views.  Polls show an alarming degree of skepticism about democracy and an openness to political violence.  Along with alienation, a wide range of behavior has deteriorated.  Alcohol abuse and drug overdoses have increased, blood pressure is up, measures of mental health are down, and vehicle crashes have surged.  The anomie created by the shift to industrialization has been replaced by the anomie brought on by globalization.  This turmoil will continue to rise until society (and individuals) decide to make opportunity available for all.  Do the work.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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