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Anomie: Durkheim and Merton

The classical theorists Marx, Weber, Durkheim reflect on the dark side of modern life. Modernity had profoundly changed the way people lived and the way society was organized. Modernity sees the emergence of the middle class, it is a time when fewer and fewer of the privileged could relax as more and more of the disadvantaged could speak (Lemert, p.15.) In the name of progress, modernity, promising a better world (tomorrow) brings destruction destruction of the old family and small town values (Lemert, p.27.) So there is an ambiguity: the benefits of modern life are not real yet while the familiar traditional life is destroyed.

While some others (like Spencer) saw modernity as a beneficent necessity , a one way street to a better world, Durkheim told the story of the 2 sides of modernity: the official story of progress and the good society and the repressed story of destruction, loss, terror of life without meaningful traditions (Lemert, p.28.)

In Anomie and the Modern Division of Labor, Durkheim introduces the concept of anomie that comes with the rise of modern society. Modernization is marked by an increasing division of labor, a specialized economic activity. By becoming different from each other through their work, individuals become more different in their lives, hence a diminution of the collective conscience and the collective constraint. Individualism replaces the collective conscience. The result is that all this sphere of collective life is, in large part, freed from the moderating action of regulation (p.78.) He argues that with the division of labor, the economic function becomes preponderant and that the administrative, military and religious functions become less important (p.79.) Because the economic world is characterized by an absence of moral laws, and because individuals tend to spend the greatest part of their existence within that sphere, Durkheim argues that the absence of all economic discipline cannot fail to extend its effect beyond the economic world, and consequently weaken public morality (p.79.) This is the description of juridical and moral anomie in which modern society found itself.

In Suicide and Modernity Durkheim expands on the concept of anomie. Whereas he previously described a modern society in a state of anomie, he describes here anomie at the individual level. He portrays a human being with unlimited desires and unattainable goals. The more we have, the more we want (p.83.) Therefore, by pursuing an unattainable goal, we condemn ourselves to perpetual unhappiness.

The remedy is to limit our passions and desires. Durkheim states that society alone can play this moderating role (p.84), because it is the only moral power superior to the individual. He contends that members of a social class, by consensus, know their upper and lower limits; they know what is appropriate for their class. Society fixes with relative precision the maximum degree of ease of living to which each social class may legitimately aspire (p.84.) Of course, these limits are not static, they vary through time and space. Therefore, if (wo)man is docile and respects regulations, an end and goal are set to her passions, and (s)he can be happy. Each person is in harmony with her condition (p.85.) However, this social classification has to be perceived as just by members of society. In normal conditions, the collective order is regarded as just by the great majority of persons (p.86.)

This idyllic state of affairs is upset in times of crisis, whether it is an economic upturn or a downturn. During such times, society cannot fulfill its restraint function and the limits become blurred. In periods of economic downturn, people are cast to a lower class and thus suffer, since society cannot adjust them instantly (p.86.) In periods of abrupt growth, the classifications are disturbed and cannot be reclassified immediately, since time is needed for the public conscience to adjust. So long as the social forces thus freed have not regained equilibrium, their respective values are unknown and so all regulation is lacking for a time (p.87.) This state of incertitude, of deregulation is the state of anomie as formulated by Durkheim, which could lead to suicide. He also notes the immunity of poor country to anomic suicide. Poverty, being a restraint in itself, protects against suicide (p.87.)

The argument of Durkheim is that in our modern societies, anomie can be found in a chronic state, because the regulating and controlling role of religion or of closely-knit communities has disappeared. Nothing has replaced it. Governments (socialist or not) do not want to interfere with the unlimited growth of the markets. The producer has the entire world as his customer (p. 89.)

For Durkheim, the transition from a traditional society, where goals are limited by social order and morality, to a modern society, brings about the emergence of individualism with its plight of unchecked desires, unlimited markets, deregulation, disengagement and unhappiness. Because society is less present in the individual, anomie develops and become chronic, normal.

Anomie, described by Durkheim, this sense of purposelessness and isolation that comes during periods of rapid cultural transition such as the rise of modern society has some similarities to Marx s term alienation . However, if for Marx alienation resulted from the structure of production, for Durkheim anomie is the problem faced by the individual in society; it is a problem of the social order.

Forty years later, Merton sets out to expand on Durkheim s concept of anomie. However, he reconceptualizes the idea. For Merton anomie is an imbalance or a disjunction between the two components of social structure: cultural values and norms of conduct. In contrast with Durkheim who posits that anomie occurs among societies in sudden social transformation, Merton argues that anomie is inherent to a social structure that proposes the same goals to all its members without giving them equal means to achieve them.

In Social Structure and Anomie Merton describes the adaptations between cultural goals and institutionalized means to attain these goals. Conformity is the most common mode of adaptation; most people are conformist because they accept society s culturally prescribed goals (in America the emphasis upon success goals) and use (have access to) the available means for their attainment. Anomie (or normlessness), he argues, occurs when there is a strain between ends and means, a breakdown of the normative system, when the disciplining effect of collective standards has been weakened. Anomie will develop to the extent that the technically most effective procedure, whether culturally legitimate or not, becomes typically preferred to institutionally prescribed conduct (p.252.)

Merton adds on Durkheim s ideas in the sense that one can feel an underlying critique of the American society in which great emphasis upon certain success-goals occurs without equivalent emphasis upon institutional means (p.252.) Moreover, in the American Dream there is no final stopping point (p.252.) This is exactly what Durkheim describes as leading to anomie: the pursuit of unattainable goals. And Merton says that it is a characteristic of American society.

The disparity between goals and means invites a mode of adaptation that Merton calls Innovation . Innovators use institutionally proscribed but effective means of attaining success. He describes this type of behavior occurring at top economic levels ( white-collar crime ), but the greatest pressures toward deviation are exerted upon the lower strata (p.258.) He says that it is a normal reaction since we have a situation where the cultural emphasis upon pecuniary success has been absorbed, but where there is little access to conventional and legitimate means for becoming successful (p.258.) Merton insists on the disparity between the cultural emphasis on pecuniary success for all and the lack of equal access to legitimate means. However he concludes the article by stating that individuals who choose illegitimate ways to achieve culturally approved goals, have been imperfectly socialized , and that if they had been perfectly socialized they would abandon the goal and conform to the law. On page 258, Merton refers to a study of 1,700 middle-class individuals, of which 99% confessed to having committed one or more of 49 offenses under the penal law of the State of New York, each of these offense being sufficiently serious to draw a maximum sentence of not less than one year Do we conclude (if we can infer from this study to the total population) that we ve all been imperfectly socialized or that there is way too much emphasis in our society to the pecuniary goals, and as Durkheim noted, that this state has become chronic, normal, accepted, encouraged in our society.

The concept of anomie was coined about one hundred years ago, at a time where urbanization and industrialization transformed deeply the social fabric of society. Durkheim s concept of anomie and its relation to suicide are still alive today. Is the electronic revolution having the same effect on us as the industrial revolution? In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam argues that we are seeing a break down of civil society as Americans become more disconnected from their families, neighbors, and communities. They are far less engaged in civic and religious organizations, community projects, having friends over for dinner, card clubs, and various other group activities. He shows that social relationship and civic engagement, or their lack measurably affect public health and social justice. He also finds striking parallels between the situation today and the declining levels of social interaction in the late 1800 s, as reported by Durkheim.

As the technological revolution provides us with infinite ways of communicating with one another, it also brings about a disengagement, a chronic state of anomie.

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