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Durkheim's Theory of Anomie

We discussed previously how crime serves a function in providing the basis upon which moral standards can both be maintained and developed in society. Crime, it was suggested, is normal; its absence means that society is unable to develop and progress. We are yet to consider the alternative situation, namely what are the portents of there being high levels of crime, or more generally high levels of social problems? Before we answer this question it is useful to be reminded of the social context in which Durkheim lived, since this influenced his thinking. Durkheim's studies coincided with a period when

European society was attempting to come to terms with modernity. Industrialisation and urbanisation had profoundly altered the nature of European societies. Rapid and sometimes abrupt social upheavals had occurred, especially in his own country, France. (Tierney, 1996: 82)

Mechanical society referred to pre-industrial societies based on traditional forms of order and social organisation. Such societies are characterised by homogeneity of interests, values and morals. In such societies one would find a stable collective conscience to which people conform. Individual endeavour is mutually supportive. In contrast, organic society is characterised by a diversity and speciality of functions between individuals within society. With the ascendancy of capitalism and industrialisation people became engaged in activities that, whilst being different and separate, made them reliant upon one another. Here society is structured around a particular kind of 'division in labour' with specific types of work tasks and roles. Let us look at it like this: whereas we might have been engaged in farming to produce food to feed ourselves and our families, and therefore be relatively self-sufficient in a mechanical society, in an organic society we most likely have lost the knowledge and skills to grow our own food. Instead we may work in a factory for a wage, this wage is used to buy food from a grocer who in turn is reliant upon the supplier, the supplier is reliant on the producer, and so on. Each person has their particular area of specialism and individual activity, which inserts them into a complex web of mutually dependent activities.

Consider what jobs you are reliant on others doing so that you can enjoy a comfortable life. Are you, for example, able to repair your motor car or any other mechanical device if it breaks down? Furthermore, what area of expertise or specialist knowledge do you have that others are reliant upon?

Returning to the question asked earlier, what can be understood by high levels of crime and social problems? Durkheim suggested that all societies can be located somewhere between being based upon 'mechanical solidarity' and 'organic solidarity' as they are subject to a Darwinian-like process of 'social evolution'. Taking on board the ruptures that were occurring in France, he contended that rapid shifts from one form of social organisation to another led to what he referred to as 'anomie'. Anomie arises where there is rapid change and the forces of social regulation cannot keep apace with the forces of change. In such a situation two distinct social elements necessary for social stability are loosened: integration and regulation. Integration refers to the way in which collective beliefs and practices sustain social cohesion, where strong social bonds mean that the self becomes subordinated to the common good. Regulation is the sum of constraining forces that bind individuals to the norm. Durkheim suggested that anomie was a constant feature of industrial society and the extent of its salience depended upon the extent to which individuals within that society were integrated within it and regulated by it. Thus high rates of crime and other social problems would indicate the lapse of social integration and regulation.

How applicable do you think Durkheim's theory of anomie is to countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq or former Communist countries?

Can you relate the theory to any other situation, for example Britain's possible adoption of the Euro or the increasing membership of the European Union?

Consider if there have been times in your life where you have possibly gone through some personal upheaval or rapid change. During this period you may have found yourself feeling insecure, unsettled, anxious. This may be related to a rapid change in your habits and routine.

Durkheim was critical of the sort of liberal philosophy that we have seen underpin classical criminology. He regarded principles such as fairness, equality and freedom of choice to be ideals that were aspirational rather than real. They described society as it ought to be, whereas Durkheim's concern was to understand society as it is. Thus the conditions that he observed affecting France's population were ones at odds with utilitarian principles. Rather than dwell on moral and philosophical questions, Durkheim was concerned with investigating 'social facts'. These, as we have already seen, are facts that can be deduced from making observations and examining the social world. In mechanical societies the 'collective conscience', which although external to the individual, acted as a constraining moral force. Durkheim suggested that the collective conscience was one such social fact since it provided a unifying and stabilising force upon societies.

Durkheim was therefore concerned with understanding the effects of a weak or absent collective conscience upon social order and the reasons for its attenuation. The reason advanced was attributed to the 'cult of the individual' that accompanied the division in labour and which was motivated by capitalism. A tension emerges between the interests of the collective conscience and those that stem through the pursuit of individual interest. As Taylor, Walton and Young (1973: 77) explain:

The situation under conditions of organic solidarity is one in which 'individualism' is actually strengthened by the collective conscience, whereas under conditions of mechanical solidary [sic] collectivism is institutionalised under the collective conscience. In other terms, under mechanical solidarity - where roles are less specialized and differentiated - there is a close proximity between inherited faculties and social activity, where in an organic society, with a specialized division of labour, it is necessary that the inherited faculties are socially developed, and thence the importance of norms which actually encourage individuation.

Thus whereas in mechanical society the tasks people perform are congruent with their natural abilities, in organic society people must turn their talents towards activities that individualise them. The collective conscience then encourages individualism rather than collectivism. This individualism begins to manifest itself in ways that increasingly lead individuals towards dissociating themselves from the collective conscience. Anomie, then, refers to a situation whereby the norms that once provided stability and cohesion are undermined. Durkheim contended that anomic conditions were related to the transition from mechanical to organic societies. Let us now turn to consider the effects of anomie.