“The state of anomie is impossible wherever organs solidly linked to one another are in sufficient contact, and in sufficiently lengthy contact. Indeed, being adjacent to one another, they are easily alerted in every situation to the need for one another and consequently they experience a keen, continuous feeling of their mutual dependence.”
(Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, 304)
Emile Durkheim theorized the concept of anomie in his studies, The Division of Labor in Society and Suicide. Durkheim defined the term anomie as a condition where social and/or moral norms are confused, unclear, or simply not present. Durkheim felt that this lack of norms led to deviant behavior. Durkheim argued that sudden changes in society make formerly satisfactory norms obsolete. Under the strain of rapid change, social rules fail to keep pace with attitudes and expectations. Inappropriate rules result in contempt for all rules. Intense frustration and equally intense anxiety develop as men seek fulfillment. Dissatisfaction spreads through society and produces a general state of anomie: lack of clarity, ruthlessness, and personal disorientation.
Robert K. Merton extended Durkheim’s ideas by showing that individuals intensify their anomie when they abandon their norms to satisfy their unleashed desires. Merton theorizes that anomie (normative breakdown) and some forms of deviant behavior derive largely from a disjunction between “culturally prescribed aspirations” of a society and “socially structured avenues for realizing those aspirations.” For example, a once law-abiding businessman who resorts to arson to eliminate a more efficient competitor has begun to sever his connections with other members of society, thus increasing his anxiety and isolation.
Karl Marx, writing in the 1840s, described social alienation while developing the philosophy of communism. He believed that the evils of wage labor separated men from other men and eventually from themselves. Cash exchange causes this dehumanization, he argued, because it reduces men to the level of interchangeable objects. As Marx describes, “The possessing class and the proletarian class represent one and the same human self-alienation. But the former feels satisfied and affirmed in this self-alienation, experiences the alienation as a sign of its own power, and possesses in it the appearance of a human existence. The latter, however, feels destroyed in this alienation, seeing in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence. Ultimately, this transformation leads to viewing man and nature as nothing more than things to manipulate. The result of this outlook is the psychological pain of total isolation from others and the natural self.
As we can see, the interpretation of Durkheim’s anomie is similar to both Merton’s interpretation of anomie and Marx’s interpretation of alienation. We find similarities in aspects of isolation and disorientation between Durkheim and Marx. Although dissimilarly Marx’s alienation deals with money and its role in a proletariat’s lifestyle and how it keeps the ruling class up, and everyone else down. Durkheim’s anomie more deals with the attitudes and expectations of the society, people resisting healthy and normal lifestyles, rather than being forced into that situation like in alienation.