Anomie in the postmodern world

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Anomie and the concept of the homeless mind (Berger et al. 1973) are useful constructs to help explain what has been termed a "crisis of significance" (Wesch 2009) in the contemporary world. Both of these concepts originated in sociological discourse and help to explain how technological and bureaucratic structures brought about by the rise of modernity have affected the individual. In the contemporary, postmodern, world the individual is more self-centered and self-conscious than ever before (Twenge 2007). Anomie and the homeless mind offer a framework to bridge the gap between the modern and postmodern worlds by providing reasons that the contemporary individual is both self-centered and suffering from a crisis of significance.

Originating in academic discourse with Max Weber (Orru 1989), but not made popular until its use by Emile Durkheim and later Robert K. Merton (Deflem 1989), anomie has been predominantly used in sociology to mean rulelessness or normlessness. In this context, a situation of anomie occurs when there is a combination of ineffectiveness of society's regulative power and a lack of rules to regulate an individual's behavior. While Merton used anomie to develop a theory of deviant behavior in individuals, others extended anomie to the psychological and psychiatric domains. (Deflem 1989)

In psychology, anomie describes a situation in which an individual "withdraws from society and loses interest in what is happening around him." (Marx 1966) This withdrawal is caused by the individual perceiving the social order as "lacking meaningfulness or usefulness" or by "his perception of constant conflict in the basic goals of life." (Davol and Reimanis 1959) Merton founds the causes of this conflict in the social structure, harkening back to Durkheim's analysis that anomie occurs when social (organic) solidarity has not been realized (Deflem 1989).

By looking at the macro level technological and bureaucratic structures of modernity, anomie can be described as a sense of homelessness in which the individual's identity bifurcates when faced with performing in anonymous technological or bureaucratic roles. The very nature of technological production necessitates the proliferation of anonymous functionaries and this anonymization becomes internalized in the individual, causing him to begin to engineer, just like technological production, his own identity. This bifurcation of identity can cause the individual to experience meaninglessness about his social roles, anomie. (Berger et al. 1973)

While the causes of psychological and sociological anomie have been detailed in the context of the modern world and the shift to modern technological structures, the investigation has not continued forward into the contemporary postmodern world. Anomie has not come out of the vast theoretical changes that occured in many fields in the 1960s and 1970s. A postmodern perspective opens the opportunity to see the homeless mind as just "one of a range of possible personal cultures that can be constructed within any social environment." (Lawrence et al. 1992) Taken a step further, it is now possible to view the individual at home in the commercial and technological milieu in which he lives (Muniz et al. 2001).

To explain why the current hyper-networked and technologized world is inhabited by more narcissitic, individualized, and unhappy individuals than ever, an updated view of anomie and the homeless mind is needed. This will involve contextualizing the extant research and theory to its timeframe and theoretical period. Importantly, this will allow us to go beyond, and include, modernist critiques in an integrated and evolutionary analysis of the "crisis of significance."

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