Émile Durkheim: Anomie in a Time of Crisis. Unhappy Hour by Martin Godwin
Categories Essays

Durkheim’s Anomie in a Time of Crisis

Durkheim formulated his concept of anomie in his doctoral dissertation, The Division of Labour in Society, published in 1893. The word ‘anomie’ comes from the Greek “anomia”, translated as ‘lawlessness’, but anomie in sociology has come to be used more commonly as ‘normlessness’. Beyond sociology the concept of ‘anomie’ is less well-known than Marx’s notion of alienation but carries a similar sense that something is not quite right with how things are. Durkheim’s notion gains additional relevance during the crisis of COVID-19, particularly in relation to social distancing and lockdown. The crisis harbours within it both the conditions for anomie and also the conditions for Durkheim’s antidote to anomie – ‘moral education’, the latter taken from his 1902-3 lectures at the Sorbonne.

Anomie and moral education together express inherent tensions within organic solidarity, an ambiguity whose sociological significance accompanies a position of both action and structure. This ambiguity reflects Durkheim’s own observation that ‘the division of labour unites at the same time as it sets at odds; it causes the activities that it differentiates to converge; it brings close those that which it separates’.

To understand Durkheim’s concept of anomie, it is important to recognise it as an abnormal form of the social division of labour. Durkheim was concerned with conceptualising the glue, or the social fact, that holds society together. For him, what creates social cohesion and solidarity is the most powerful force for integrating society; ‘something given prior to their birth that will survive each member’s death’. This is encapsulated in the idea of the ‘collective conscience’, where a ‘totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own’. For Durkheim, the collective conscience is a much more powerful force for society which is ‘distinct from and superior to that of its individual members’.

In The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim set out his work on the different types of solidarity. He studied “simple”, traditional societies, where he argued for the existence of ‘mechanical solidarity’ — the idea that society had a very strong collective conscience, containing ‘beliefs and sentiments common to all the members of the group’. For Durkheim, this type of solidarity can only have strength ‘to the extent that the ideas and tendencies common to all members of society exceed in number and intensity those that appertain personally to each one of those members’. In other words, the individual must feel a stronger moral connection to the society and the collective as a whole than to his own ‘personality’. In this way, the influence of the individual is very little. Therefore, ‘individuality cannot arise until the community fills us less completely’.

Durkheim explored the change in solidarity as society progressed to a more complex, modern system characterised by the increasing social division of labour. In Coser’s (1984) introduction to The Division of Labour in Society he argues that whilst some form of specialisation of tasks and roles had been present in early/pre-industrial society, the change in the form of division of labour ‘from relative simplicity to rapidly advancing complexity’ occurred with the onset of the industrial revolution in the late 1700s. Products and markets were greatly expanded, and instead of individual efforts to create whole products, it introduced ‘collaboration of a large number of persons who had been assigned specialised tasks’.

Durkheim argues the social division of labour present in modern industrial society brings about a new form of solidarity, in which ‘the society to which we are solidly joined is a system of different and special functions united by definite relationships’. His analogy of specialisation in an organism spurred him to label this ‘organic solidarity’. Just as in an organism, there are many different systems which work together to ensure the proper functioning of the whole, so, in society, the division of labour into differentiated roles and tasks ensures that the operation of collective life is efficient and proper, insofar as ‘the individuality of the whole grows at the same time as that of the parts’. In organic solidarity, the collective consciousness does not envelop us, but ‘leaves uncovered a part of the individual consciousness, so that there may be established in it those special functions that it cannot regulate’. Durkheim maintained that the division of labour offered more opportunities for social interaction and the development of social relationships, termed ‘moral density’. A higher level of moral density then creates more organic solidarity, and consequently cohesion and integration in society.

Durkheim’s arguments don’t come without tensions. His work asks an important question: ‘How does it come about that the individual, whilst becoming more autonomous, depends ever more closely upon society’. Durkheim acknowledges this question with his analysis of the abnormal forms of the division of labour as ‘blemishes of the social scene’. For him, the most important abnormal form of the division of labour, where solidarity does not develop and the specialised parts of the whole are not regulated, is anomie.

At the end of The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim explores pathologies of modern solidarity, and anomie is the most significant of these. Anomie, a dysfunctional form of the modern division of labour, develops when increasingly complex societies include a ‘separation of social functions’, such as during industrialisation. While Durkheim maintains that in general, a specialised society creates bonds of mutual dependency that enforce positive solidarity and social cohesion, he also acknowledges that modern industrial societies, increasingly differentiated, are characterised by ‘hostility and struggle between labour and capital, by commercial crises and the attending bankruptcies, by normlessness (anomie), lack of regulation, [and] unrestricted play of individual or collective self-interest’. Here the division of labour becomes pathological , and instead of solidarity, anomie is the result.

Durkheim emphasises that such pathologies are not necessarily inherent to the division of labour, but rather that they arise in ‘exceptional and abnormal circumstances’. For example, during the industrial revolution, machines replaced people and relationships between employers and workers were transformed. While in Durkheim’s “simple societies” there was a close and meaningful relationship between employers and employees, with a solid attachment between the worker and their role in the collective, during the transition to modern labour ‘the worker is regimented, removed for the whole day from his family … lives ever more apart from the person who employs him’. This is part of the normal division of labour of modern society. However, ‘because these transformations have been accomplished with extreme rapidity the conflicting interests have not had time to strike an equilibrium’. Collective consciousness is weakened and social bonds are frayed. Excessive specialisation produces a ‘threat to social cohesion’. Unless he has clear understandings and bonds to the other specialised parts of society, ‘Every day he repeats the same movements with monotonous regularity, but without having any interest or understanding of them. He is no longer the living cell of a living organism … He is more a lifeless cog’. This is precisely the state of anomie.

Where the division of labour is pathological it ‘hinders the formation of cohesive social relationships by increasing the social distance across the different segments of society’, making it impossible to create a moral density which fosters solidarity in society.

Society cannot function effectively when in a state of anomie, as each of its parts are no longer bound by their meaningful relationship to the collective, but only know each specialised part. It is clear to Durkheim that,

‘if the aim of morality is individual perfection, it cannot allow the individual to be so utterly ruined, and if it has society as its end, it cannot let the very source of social life dry up’.

Durkheim returns to his concept of anomie in Suicide. He takes a different approach to anomie than when looking at the division of labour, but the two approaches remain related to each other. Olsen (1965) maintains that where “anomic division of labour … refers to inadequate functional relationships, anomic suicide is the result of an inadequate normative order in society’. Durkheim examined the trends of suicide in societies experiencing economic crises. He noticed that suicide levels did not just rise when there was an economic disaster, but also when there occurred a ‘fortunate crisis, the effect of which is to abruptly enhance a country’s prosperity’. How is this the case? Durkheim argued that man differs from other organisms because, where the organism only requires supplies ‘periodically renewed by equivalent quantities’ to survive, for man, most of our needs are not dependent on our biological form. Instead, we have an ‘insatiable and bottomless abyss’ of feelings and desires to fulfil. Because there is nothing in our biological constitution to limit these desires, there is a need for a regulative force which plays the same role ‘for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs’. For Durkheim, this force is collective society – as it is ‘the only moral power superior to the individual’. Social hierarchies exert pressure so that everyone understands the limit of their ambitions based on their place in society.

As in The Division of Labour in Society, this kind of moral regulation is needed to enforce the effective running of society. Olsen asserts that the collective conscience often successfully defines and orders social relationships, however ‘as societies become more complex…social controls weaken …[and] men are led to aspire to goals which are extremely difficult’, fostering a state of anomie which causes a form of suicide Durkheim termed ‘anomic suicide’.

Both of Durkheim’s contexts for anomie stress the catalyst of how ‘social change delays or disrupts the development of the social order’. Anomie in the context of Suicide develops when these abrupt transitions in society can no longer regulate the desires of the individual. For example, in an economic disaster, people are shifted to a different social status than before, changing the limits on their goals. In an abrupt growth of power, the scale of the social order is upset and ‘so long as the social force thus freed have not regained equilibrium, their respective values are unknown and so all regulation is lacking for a time’. As the anomic division of labour cannot regulate social relationships between individuals, and their attachment to society, anomic suicide occurs when their individual desires can no longer be regulated by the collective conscience.

Hodwitz and Frey (2016) provide a large-scale account of trends of anomic suicide after the 2008 financial crisis, in a response to previous work which focused only on ‘region- and nation-specific periods of economic disturbance’. They argued that the result of the crisis, as argued in Durkheim, was that ‘the norms of success were upended, creating a vacuous state… [and the] collective conscience was suspended temporarily’. Another study which analysed the effects of the 2008 economic crisis in the framework of anomie focused on emigration out of Spain after this time. They argued that the emigration was not directly linked to economic reasons relating to the crisis, but instead due to the crisis leaving the country in a state of anomie, many citing a ‘lack of communal spirit’. Both of these studies argued that anomie created a society with a low level of moral density, with weakened collective bonds. The same kind of arguments can now be formed in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost 70 years after Durkheim published The Division of Labour in Society, Willis (1962) used the term ‘social distance’ as a condition for the creation of anomie. Almost 60 years later, this term takes on a resonance that Willis could not have imagined. Social distance in the current climate becomes a criterion by which to measure the continuing importance of anomie in contemporary society.

COVID-19 has created unique conditions in society, changing our social situation almost overnight. People’s attachment to meaning in life immediately changed. Suddenly, people were unable to do the things which enhance social solidarity as members of the collective. Durkheim maintained that anomie was more likely in societies experiencing abrupt transitions or crises. For some this is the essence of what is being experienced at the moment. Willis suggests that the ‘procedural rules of conduct develop naturally from interactions among individuals in social functions’. During a time of ‘social distance’, this becomes much harder. Therefore, individuals are no longer ‘bound to the mores and demands of the group’. The abrupt conditions of social distance threatened normlessness almost overnight. From Durkheim’s point of view, if the ‘norms’ of social distancing are not the result of a consensus but put in by force, then these moral norms do not hold the same collective strength, causing a ‘relaxation of the bonds attaching the individual to the collective’, and , in turn, form a state of ‘moral isolation’. In the current crisis, this ‘distance’ was suddenly characterised as a way of life, as the ‘new normal’ – as ‘law’.

At the height of the UK lockdown restrictions – between the end of March and the end of May – there had never been more distance between workers and employers, with most of the workforce working from home or furloughed, or not working at all as a result of losing their jobs. Similarly, the distance between producers and consumers also increased to unprecedented levels. With the exception of supermarkets and other key sectors, people were restricted from physical shopping by law. The only way to buy anything was online, where the only contact was through a screen with both the producer and consumer as nameless, faceless others. Durkheim maintains that ‘a state of anomie is impossible wherever organs solidly linked to one another are in sufficiently lengthy contact…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’. During lockdown, a question arises as to where feelings of mutual dependency and moral density might arise if social distance is now not just an abnormal reaction to a crisis, but a way of life.

As the panic of the pandemic grew the ‘collective conscience was suspended temporarily’. In this moment ‘the prototype of the selfish drives [was] the instinct of preservation’. Panic buying swept the country. People urged each other to think of each other, while shelves were left almost empty. Out of a state of anomie individualism overpowered any collective sense of moral duty. Individuals pursued ‘their own needs and desires without regard to their fellow members’.

When people don’t feel these bonds of attachment to society, individual interests can overpower the collective conscience. The result is that people put themselves and their individual interests before those of everyone else. Durkheim maintained that ‘although the collective consciousness in the world of modernity can no longer define the specific norms that pertain to the exercise of differentiated tasks, it is still needed so as to assure the overall coordination and integration of society as a whole’. When this is threatened in favour of personal interests (Dominic Cummings being a high profile example), this in itself can be a cause of anomie.

At the time of writing it remains to be seen whether second and third spikes will occur. Our collective conscience seems too weak to sustain the social distance, mask wearing, and collective personal hygiene necessary. If future spikes hit, the effect on the economy is likely to be worse than anything seen so far. It may well be that in such a time, anomie will again be a serious threat to the glue that precariously holds the social contract together. And it might also just be the case that certain kinds of governments will see opportunities here to exploit the weakening of social bonds in order to reshape them in more totalitarian ways.

To experience the pleasure of saying ‘we’, it is important not to enjoy saying ‘I’ too much.

The effects of the pandemic have also acted as an unexpected catalyst for a moral education which, for Durkheim, can heal the extremes of anomie. Moral education for Durkheim was something that first happened in school classrooms, where discipline in schools recreates the conditions of a ‘small society’, encouraging the collective consciousness as ‘anyone in a position to say ‘we’ feels behind him a support, a force on which he can count, a force that is much more intense than upon which isolated individuals can rely’. There are examples of how this situation has encouraged a ‘coming together’ of society, where moral density is actually increasing, creating not anomie, but rather a collective conscience, exactly what Durkheim understood to be the significance of moral education. For him, social distancing and keeping to these rules requires significant discipline, ‘essentially an instrument …of moral education’. In this way, social distancing is not a result of coercive conditions that have been imposed, therefore weakening moral bonds, but a form of self-disciplined solidarity as a result of a moral education, where the very act of social distance, in this case, is an autonomous decision based on a collective sentiment. By this reading people’s moral duty has never been stronger, uniting to help the country get through a time of crisis, feeling more of a belonging to the collective than has perhaps been felt since the second World War.

Durkheim’s analysis of totems and public emblems as a cohesive force in “simple” societies also plays a part in the current crisis. Durkheim maintained that ‘expressing social or national unity in material form, made it more obvious to all’. Wearing masks, clapping for the NHS, honouring key workers, and volunteering to help those in need all signal this cohesion. However such acts of collectivism also carry the threat of being co opted by governments as nationalistic rallying cries.

Where some are flouting the rules, the majority of people are staying at home. In this way, it could be argued that anomie is not present, as feelings of ‘mutual dependency and the recognition of one’s duties and obligations regarding other societal members’ are very strong. Similarly, those who work in the NHS, undoubtedly scared for their health, are still commited in their duty to care and help those who are sick. Many are facilitating this collective sentiment by helping those who are struggling, volunteering to help the vulnerable and doing things like helping their neighbours with the shopping. This is clear evidence of individuals finding collective meaning in making the moral choice to put the ‘We’ above the ‘I’.

In such a difficult time, the collective consciousness fosters hope. Where anomie is often seen as ‘hopelessness’, Durkheim also maintains that ‘pessimisms must acknowledge that this ‘past’ is also filled with … moments of fortune, moments that are remembered in the education of the collective sentiment, hope’. In this current moment we are bound together by such a hope; that if everyone does their duty and stays at home, “we will defeat this”.

The pandemic just like Durkheim’s theory of solidarity carries what looks like a contradiction. How can there be both a development in feelings of anomie and a development of collective conscience?

One sociological approach to making sense of such a contradiction is suggested by Alan Dawe. He argues that these tensions – this ambiguity – is a critical experience in sociology, and one we should not shy away from:

‘It is the very nature of ambiguity that it contains alternative conceptions of the social world and manifests alternative versions of human agency’.

Dawe argues that to see social phenomena without ambiguity is to ‘postulate a one-dimensional man and society, and can thus … hear no voices speaking in the actual of the possibilities of the idea’. For Dawe, as perhaps for Durkheim, our experience of social life is both ‘individualistic and communal, both locked within privatization and reaching beyond it, both living within their little shells of rooms’ and seeing each other ‘through the surfaces of their lighted windows’, both ‘wondrous and pitiful’. Durkheim’s notion of anomie sustains its relevance in our time, not least in the tension between the disastrous effects of an abrupt transition in the social order and a simultaneous strengthening of the collective sentiment. Perhaps ‘only by virtue of [such] ambiguity is it possible to envision a community of moral caring being created out of a community where ‘none can care’’.

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  2. Bygnes, S. (2015) ‘Are They Leaving Because of the Crisis? The Sociological Significance of Anomie as a Motivation for Migration’ in Sociology, 51(2), pp. 258-273.
  3. Coser, Lewis. (1984) ‘Introduction’ in Durkheim, E. The Division of Labour in Society. Hampshire: The Macmillan Press LTD, pp. ix-xxv.
  4. Dawe, A. (1978) ‘Theories of Social Action’ in Bottomore, T.B. and Nisbet, R. (eds) A History of Sociological Analysis. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
  5. Durkheim, E. (1961) Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.
  6. Durkheim, Emile. (1984) The Division of Labour in Society. Hampshire: The Macmillan Press LTD.
  7. Durkheim, Emile. (2002) Suicide: A Study in Sociology. London: Routledge Classics.
  8. Hilbert, R. (1986) ‘Anomie and the Moral Regulation of Reality: The Durkheimian Tradition in Modern Relief’ in Sociological Theory, 4(1), pp. 1-19.
  9. Hodwitz, O. and Frey, K (2016) ‘Anomic Suicide: A Durkheimian analysis of European normlessness’ in Sociological Spectrum, 36(4), pp. 236-254.
  10. Merton, R. (1938) ‘Social Structure and Anomie’ in American Sociological Review, 3(1), pp. 672-682.
  11. Mitchell, M. (1931) ‘Emile Durkheim and the Philosophy of Nationalism’ in Political Science Quarterly, 46(1), pp. 87-106.
  12. Neves, C. (2003) ‘Optimism, Pessimism and Hope in Durkheim’ in Journal of Happiness Studies, 4, pp. 169-183.
  13. Olsen, M. (1965) ‘Durkheim’s Two Concepts of Anomie’ in The Sociological Quarterly, 6(1), pp. 37-44.
  14. Tiryakian, E. (1994) ‘Revisiting Sociology’s First Classic: The Division of Labour in Society and Its Actuality’ in Sociological Forum, 9(1), pp. 1-16.
  15. Willis, C. (1962) ‘Durkheim’s Concept of Anomie: Some Observations’ in Sociological Inquiry, 52(2), pp. 106-113

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