Anomie and the homeless mind

Monday, February 23, 2009

Broadly speaking, the task I've set out to undertake is to provide an explanation for what I hypothesize is a penetrating sense of meaninglessness and a loss of significance in the modern world. This crisis of significance is for me self-evident, but I seek to outline the evidence for it as my research deepens (two early sources: Mediated and Generation Me).

Anomie is helpful concept to analyze the crisis of meaninglessness because when psychologically internalized by an individual, anomie can be described as a sense of meaninglessness. Taken etymologically, anomie means "the absence of ultimate guiding values." (Orru) Elsewhere, it translates to "rulelessness" or "normlessness". Historically, the word was first used in sociological and psychological contexts by Max Weber, but it was made popular by Emile Durkheim, and years later by RK Merton. The connection between the absence of norms and a sense of meaninglessness is not intuitive, however, Berger et al. have a response that connects the two concepts in their notion of The Homeless Mind.

As Lawrence et al. explain, Berger et al.

identified different forms of discontent that all can be classed as feelings of being homeless. This alienated feeling arises in the contradictory contexts in which inhabitants of economically changing societies find themselves. Not only are more people being uprooted from their original social milieu, but, succeeding social contexts do not easily function as their cultural"homes" (p. 184). People alternate between highly discrepant and often contradictory social worlds, and as they inhabit succeeding environments, they are prevented by the economic, technological and bureaucratic interests of burgeoning institutions from developing frames of reference that give them a sense of knowing where they are going, what is expected of them, and how to develop and maintain relationships that transcend anonymity.
This is a description of a pervasive feeling of homelessness created by the technological and bureaucratic structures we live in. The individual struggles to make sense of all the institutions he interacts with and roles he plays and especially struggles with both relating anonymously and functioning in anonymous roles. The introduction of these anonymous relations causes the individual to become, "capable of experiencing himself in a double way: as a unique individual rich in concrete qualities and as an anonymous functionary." (Berger et al.)

This experience of his own identity extends beyond and the individual can start to treat other people and parts of his own identity just like modern technology treats material objects, as mere components. (Berger et al.) In turn, this componentiality leads both to an absence of meaning in social relations and to a lack of human norms for guiding those social relations. Instead, the human norms and rules disappear and are replaced by functional and componential norms and rules, those which ensure the continuation and proliferation of technological production. As Robert J. Marx puts it, "[a]s cities become more crowded, as anonymity becomes more characteristic of American life, the moral and social rules under which men live become increasingly depersonalized and devitalized."

But, this rather dire modernist critique of technology and bureaucracy is not an exhaustive account of the contemporary world. In fact, Lawrence et al. suggest that the homelessness in the mind is much more fluid:
Feeling not at home expresses one of a range of possible personal cultures that can be constructed within any social environment. By following the sociogenetic principles of bi-directional transmission of culture, and co-construction of personal culture, feeling not at home, together with feeling at home, can be seen as normal, internally constructed, and transformed responses to Berger et al.'s (1973, p. 17) cultural packages.

Some go so far as to suggest that the present postmodern world is much more capable and autonomous than The Homeless Mind makes us out to be. Indeed, one potential problem with using macro societal structures to explain changes in individual consciousness is that they tend to make the individual out to be an automaton, forced to think and behave a certain way. In a more contemporary article entitled "Brand Community", Albert M. Muniz, Jr. and Thomas C. O'Guinn outline an argument for a widening notion of community that paints our collective "homelessness" in a different light:
We theorize that late twentieth-century consumers are very aware of the commercial milieu in which they live, and are more comfortable in their level of grounding than modernist tradition has been willing to grant. The postmodern consumer is in fact quite self-aware and self-reflexive about issues of authenticity and identity.
So, if one potential backlash of the anonymization of social relations is an increase in individualism and a tendency to revere celebrity and even micro-celebrity, what are the ramifications if, as Muniz and O'Guinn suggest, we are "self-aware and self-reflexive" about our individualism? What are the ramifications if instead of feeling homeless, we are actually finding a home in the very products of the technological and bureaucratic structures that potentially created the alienation in the first place? And, if any of this is true, what role is the advance in technology and media playing to enable said "rediscovery" of "homeness"?


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