What is anomie?

Monday, February 23, 2009

One of the things I'm doing is exploring anomie in the modern world, its causes and effects. But, this has been based on my understanding of anomie as a sense of meaninglessness experienced in an individual. This, as it turns out, may be a little off the primary meaning of the word. Instead of meaninglessness, it is more commonly understood as normlessness. For instance, Oxford English Dictionary says:

1. Disregard of law, lawlessness; esp. (in 17th c. theology) disregard of divine law. Obs.

2. Also commonly in French form anomie. [F. (Durkheim Suicide, 1897).] Absence of accepted social standards or values; the state or condition of an individual or society lacking such standards.
Wikipedia corroborates:
Anomie, in contemporary English language is a sociological term that signifies in individuals an erosion, diminution or absence of personal norms, standards or values, and increased states of psychological normlessness. It is a social condition in which norms are weak, conflicting, or absent.[1] When applied to a government or society, anomie implies a social unrest.
Whereas Dictionary.com provides the following:
a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people.

The confusion for me comes when I think of normlessness, I think on the societal level, as in the society is without norms, rules, laws... However, there seems to be a usage of anomie that historically has attempted to describe the normlessness of the individual, the subjective individual experience of normlessness. This internal individual experience is much closer to how I've been conceptualizing the word as a sense of meaninglessness or an absence of significance.

This is confusing to me though because it would then follow that meaning and significance come from norms? For some reason this is not an intuitive connection or conclusion for me. Maybe it's because I'm young, or a member of Generation Me, or simply idealistic, but I don't see how norms lead to significance and meaning. Instead, I tend to think of them as being oppressive and undermining.

Any help? Does this make sense to you?

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