Emile Durkheim described anomie as a state of relative normlessness or a state in which norms have been eroded. A norm is an expectation of how people will behave, and it takes the form of a rule that is socially rather than formally enforced. Thus, in structural functionalist theory, the effect of normlessness whether at a personal or societal level, is to introduce alienation, isolation, and desocialisation, i.e. as norms become less binding for individuals. Individuals thus lose the sense of what is right and wrong.
Individuals found it difficult to establish their status and role in society without clear norms to guide them. If conditions changed quickly, say during great prosperity or a great depression, the social system came under pressure and the erosion of existing norms without clear alternatives led to dissatisfaction, conflict, and deviance. Thus, the original meaning of anomie did not refer to a state of mind, but to a property of the social structure in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms and where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals.
In 1897 Durkheim expanded the connotation to refer to a morally deregulated personal condition leading to suicide, i.e. this normlessness has psychological effects. There is both personal anxiety and a disruption in the rhythm of social life as economic status and family anomie grows in the face of normlessness and powerlessness. Durkheim postulated, and more modern research confirms, that social anomie could be translated into behavioural (attempted suicide), and attitudinal (normlessness and powerlessness) determinants when viewed with regard to its impact upon the family. Particularly among the young, there are significant differences in the degree of normlessness and powerlessness for suicidal and nonsuicidal adolescents and their families.
The word comes from Greek, namely the prefix a- “without”, and nomos “law”. The Greeks distinguished between nomos (νόμος, “law”), and arché (αρχή, “starting rule, axiom, principle”). For example, a monarch is a single ruler but he or she might still be subject to, and not exempt from, the prevailing laws, i.e. nomos. In the original city state democracy, the majority rule was an aspect of arché because it was a rule-based, customary system which might or might not make laws, i.e. nomos. Thus, the original meaning of anomie defined anything or anyone against or outside the law, or a condition where the current laws were not applied resulting in a state of illegitimacy or lawlessness.
The contemporary English understanding of the word anomie can accept greater flexibility in the word “norm”, and some have used the idea of normlessness to reflect a similar situation to the idea of anarchy. But, as used by Émile Durkheim and later theorists, anomie is a reaction against or a retreat from the regulatory social controls of society, and is a completely separate concept from anarchy which is an absence of effective rulers or leaders.
The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Émile Durkheim borrowed the word from French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau and used it in his influential book Suicide (1897), outlining the social (and not individual) causes of suicide, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values (referred to as normlessness), and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life. This is contrary to previous theories on suicide which generally maintained that suicide was precipitated by negative events in a person's life and their subsequent depression.
In Durkheim’s view, traditional religions often provided the basis for the shared values which the anomic individual lacks. Furthermore, he argued that the division of labor that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community. Robert King Merton also adopted the idea of anomie to develop Strain Theory, defining it as the discrepancy between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals. In other words, an individual suffering from anomie would strive to attain the common goals of a specific society yet would not be able to reach these goals legitimately because of the structural limitations in society. As a result the individual would exhibit deviant behavior. Friedrich Hayek notably uses the word anomie with this meaning.
Anomie as a social disorder is not to be confused with anarchy. Anarchy denotes lack of rulers, hierarchy, and command, whereas anomie denotes lack of rules, structure, and organization. Many proponents of anarchism claim that anarchy does not necessarily lead to anomie and that hierarchical command actually increases lawlessness (see e.g. the Law of Eristic Escalation). As an older variant, the Webster 1913 dictionary reports use of the word anomie as meaning “disregard or violation of the law”.
In Albert Camus’s existentialist novel The Stranger, the bored, alienated protagonist Meursault struggles to construct an individual system of values as he responds to the disappearance of the old. He exists largely in a state of anomie, as seen from the apathy evinced in the opening lines: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas” (“Today mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.”). When Mersault is prosecuted for shooting an Arab man during a fight, the prosecuting attorneys seem more interested in the inability or unwillingness of Meursault to cry at his mother's funeral than the murder of the Arab, because they find his lack of remorse offensive. The novel ends with Meursault recognizing the universe's indifference toward humankind. In the first half of the novel Meursault is clearly an unreflecting, unapologetic individual. Ultimately, Camus presents the world as essentially meaningless and therefore, the only way to arrive at any meaning or purpose is to make it oneself.
Dostoevsky, whose work is often considered a philosophical precursor to existentialism, often expressed a similar concern in his novels. In The Brothers Karamazov, the character Dmitri Karamazov asks his atheist friend Rakitin, ”...without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”. The novel explores the existence of God, the nature of truth, and the importance of forgiveness through the actions of its characters. Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, puts this philosophy into action when he kills an elderly pawnbroker and her sister, later rationalizing this act to himself with the words, “...it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!” Raskolnikov's inner conflict in the opening section of the novel results in a utilitarian-altruistic justification for the proposed crime: why not kill a wretched and "useless" old moneylender to alleviate the human misery?
Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf also expresses a picture of anomie. The novel tells the story of a middle-aged man named Harry Haller who beset with reflections on his being ill-suited for the world of "everybody", the regular people. In his aimless wanderings about the city he is given a book which describes the two natures of man: one "high", spiritual and "human"; while the other is "low" and animal-like. Thus, man is entangled in an irresolvable struggle, never content with either nature because he cannot see beyond this self-made construct. While Laller longs to live free from social convention, he continually lives as a bourgeois bachelor. Haller argues that the men of the Dark Ages did not suffer more than those of the Classical Antiquity, and vice-versa. It is rather those who live between two times, those who do not know what to follow, that suffer the most. In this token, a man from the Dark Ages living in the Classical Antiquity, or the opposite, would undergo a gulping sadness and agony.
The characters Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Waiting For Godot express a sense of anomie. The play follows two consecutive days in the lives of a pair of men who divert themselves while they wait expectantly and unsuccessfully for someone named Godot to arrive. Frustrated at the long wait, they think of what to do to pass the time. Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, but since they are concerned that they might not both die, they decide to do nothing: "It's safer," explains Estragon. Another character, Lucky, describes an impersonal and callous God, asserts that man 'wastes and pines', mourns an inhospitable earth, and claims that man diminishes in a world that does not nurture him. The play illustrates an attitude toward man's experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be reconciled in mind and art of the absurdist.