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Often defined simplistically as normlessness, the term anomie has been popular in social science at least since Emile Durkheim’s 1897 book on suicide, and thus has been used in a variety of different ways.  Indeed, Stephen Marks (1974) has documented that Durkheim’s own thinking about the concept evolved across a number of his publications.  Applied to individuals, the adjective anomic often is used as a synonym for demoralized or alienated, and anomic society may be considered disorganized.  Yet given the availability of these supposed synonyms, there is no good reason to dilute the meaning of anomie, and it is probably best used to refer to the model developed by Robert K. Merton in his 1938 essay, “Social Structure and Anomie,” which connects naturally to broader perspectives called strain theory and Structural Functionalism.  This more focused approach is especially effective in developing theoretical connections to religion.

Although Durkheim’s Suicide gives religion a prominent role, oddly it is not central to the part of his argument that focuses on anomie.  He frames a set of four categories (Dohrenwend 1959), distinguishing anomie from egoism, which can be defined as weak interpersonal bonds, and contrasting both with altruism, roughly the opposite of both anomie and egoism, and fatalism, which is discussed only in a footnote.  Rather than stressing the power of religion to add meaning to human life in his discussion of anomie, he examines the connection between economic fluctuations and the suicide rate, claiming that the rate rises both during very bad economic times and very good economic times, thus aggravated by the unusual nature of the situation.  In bad economic times people may despair, but in financial booms they may lose any sense of standards.  Human beings need a sense of stable goals and expectations within definite limits, Durkheim said, and economic instability erodes it.  Later researchers failed to find a connection between sharp economic upturns and suicide (Henry and Short 1954), yet this does not render anomie a vacuous concept, or reduce it to depression which describes a mood conducive to suicide as well as unusually poor economic conditions.  Rather, anomie can be interpreted in terms of the values and norms of society, both of which may be established and supported by religion (Stark and Bainbridge 1996: 18-19).

Merton’s anomie model describes relationships a person or group may have to the values and norms of society.  Values can be defined as the cultural goals people are expected to achieve in life, while norms are the legitimate means for achieving those goals.  In principle, one may accept or reject either of these independently of the other.  That gave Merton four possible combinations, each of which he named:

  1. Conformity: accept values, accept norms
  2. Innovation: accept values, reject norms
  3. Ritualism: reject values, accept norms
  4. Retreatism: reject values, reject norms

While these are presented as choices a person or group may decide, the surrounding socio-economic conditions also play a role.  People are most likely to be conformists, accepting both the values and the norms, if as a practical matter they are able to achieve the culturally established goals by societally approved means.  What happens if, for some people, it is impossible to achieve the values by following the norms?  Innovation comes into play, and it may take many forms.  Much of the relevant literature cites criminal behavior as the most obvious example.  If the society establishes material wealth as the goal, then for some people conforming to the norms of getting a good education and working hard in a high-paying job will achieve that goal.  People who do not have access to a good education, or cannot benefit from the opportunity, may turn to crime to achieve wealth, thus violating the norms while continuing to seek the values.  For a variety of reasons, including incompetence as a criminal, or perhaps because of their personality disposition, some people ritualistically follow the norms while having given up hope of achieving the goals.  After a series of diverse disappointments, others may retreat into a condition in which they abandon hope of achieving the goals of society, and also fail to follow the norms.

It is noteworthy that Merton named one of his categories innovation, rather than for example criminality.  Society has many norms, and violating some may not constitute a crime.  How do you ride to town?  On a horse, of course.  Yet inventing the automobile violates this expectation, and offers a new way to travel.  Similarly, innovation in the arts often involves deviating from established styles, as was the case many decades ago with the emergence of rock within popular music, which had established norms encouraging harmonious songs; by definition, innovation in art often requires dissonance with the old.  Innovation also occurs in and around religion.  Consider the fact that women were prevented from playing high-status roles in the conventional churches in past years.  This is a possible explanation for why Mary Baker Eddy innovated in creating Christian Science, or Aimee Semple McPherson founded the Foursquare Gospel Church.

Not all of Merton’s associates were entirely happy with his innovation category, and perhaps in response he invented a fifth category he called rebellion.  Standing somewhat outside the system of the four other categories, rebellion involves replacing standard values and norms with new ones.  Thus it is like a positive variant of retreatism, renouncing one culture while adopting or even creating a substitute.  It is an open question whether adding rebellion improves the four-category model, or confuses it.  And the connotation of the term rebellion may be rather harsh.  Where does one draw the lines between rebellion and the other categories?  Establishing a radical religious commune does sound like rebellion, except that its members might prefer a more positive term, such as liberation.  Suppose people who cannot earn wealth in order to gain the value of social status join or create a religious sect that confers status through their relationship with God?  Is that rebellion, innovation, retreatism or what?  Yet despite the ample room for quibbles such as these, Merton’s anomie model has been tremendously influential in the history of sociology.

Neil Smelser’s 1962 treatise, Theory of Collective Behavior, may be the most complex influential development from Merton’s model.  It offers a general explanation for the emergence of social movements as well as fads, crazes and panics.  Smelser was a student and collaborator of Talcott Parsons, the leading Structural Functionalist who assumed that each viable culture possessed a set of relatively stable values, often described as widely shared goals for social action, supported by systems of norms that constituted institutions (Parsons and Shils 1951).  Parsons (1964) argued that religion was one of the evolutionary universals of humanity, saying that all societies possess four features of supreme importance: religion, communication with language, social organization through kinship and technology.  He concluded that these four are essential for human society, and that all lasting cultural developments must be based upon them.  While some individuals may be irreligious or skeptical, if everybody abandons religion, then the society will fall as surely as if everybody abandoned technology, he believed.

Yet Smelser agreed with Merton that the values or norms of a society often fail to function well for an individual member of society, or sometimes an entire category of people.  Smelser’s analysis was not limited to the two concepts, values and norms, but added two others:  mobilization, in which institutions of society such as churches define the roles that members of the society should perform, and facilities, the situational resources or barriers that assist people in attaining their goals or prevent attainment.  These are the four components of action that comprise the social system and if they fall out of harmony with each other, the result is structural strain, which can either be called anomie or considered the most common cause of anomie.  Structural strain is a necessity for emergence of a radical social movement, but the second point in a six-step value added model, in which each step prepares the way for the next to take effect:

  1. Structural conduciveness: A precondition, such as the existence of a financial market before there can be a financial panic.
  2. Structure strain: Impairment in the relations between the four components of action.
  3. Generalized belief: An ideology that attributes a cause to the strain and says what to do about it.
  4. Precipitating factors: Dramatic events that trigger action based on the generalized belief.
  5. Mobilization of participants: Communication brings together people suffering from the strain who are ready to share the same generalized belief.
  6. Social control: Ways in which the regular institutions of society work against the emergence of unconventional collective behavior or a social movement.

An especially influential application of Smelser’s strain theory is the model of recruitment to a radical religion developed by John Lofland and Rodney Stark (1965), based on their observational study of a small branch of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, early in its entrance to the United States from Korea.  Lofland and Stark were students in the same academic department where Smelser taught, but they also benefitted from other mentors, notably sociologist of religion Charles Y. Glock, with whom Stark collaborated.  The Lofland-Stark theoretical model is a series of seven steps that a person makes, perhaps in this order, to become what they called a deployable agent, a dedicated member of a “cult” who could be effective in converting new members:

For conversion it is necessary that a person:

  1. experience enduring, acutely felt tensions;
  2. within a religious problem-solving perspective;
  3. which leads to defining himself as a religious seeker;
  4. encountering the cult at a turning point in his life;
  5. wherein an affective bond to adherents is formed (or pre-exists);
  6. where extra-cult attachments are low or neutralized;
  7. and where, to become a “deployable agent,” exposure to intensive interaction is accomplished.

The acutely felt tensions in the first step may be the direct result of structural strain, if for example the individual person is unable to find satisfactory employment in a market-oriented economy, or an indirect result, as in cases when standard medical institutions fail to provide effective treatments for chronic disorders.  The individual experience of structural strain can be identified as anomie, especially following a very practical definition of the term: “The state of being without effective rules for living” (Stark and Bainbridge 1987: 217).  The fourth step in the model, turning point, may also provoke anomie, because the person experiences dislocation such as from a divorce, losing a job, or even more positively, graduating from school, when old forms of behavior may no longer be effective.  The sixth point is a time when social attachments are weak, thus aggravating anomie as well as representing the low social control that the last step of Smelser’s model says would leave a person free to deviate from standard norms.

The religious problem-solving perspective of the second step in the Lofland-Stark model represents the generalized belief third step of Smelser’s model, and under conditions of anomie drives a search for a new religion.  Alternative problem-solving perspectives would include political action to change society, psychiatric treatment to change the individual, or as in Merton’s innovation concept, even criminal behavior.  The fifth and seventh steps of the Lofland-Stark model develop social bonds with members of the group, achieving mobilization for new norms and values, as well as social incorporation in the group.  The work of Smelser, Lofland, and Stark shows how an important concept like anomie can be integrated logically with different but compatible concepts to produce a sophisticated theoretical model of human religious behavior.


Dohrenwend, Bruce P.  1959.  “Egoism, Altruism, Anomie, and Fatalism: A Conceptual Analysis of Durkheim’s Types,” American Sociological Review 24(4): 466-473.

Durkheim, Emile.  1897.  Suicide.  New York: Free Press [1951].

Henry, Andrew F., and James F. Short.  1954.  Suicide and Homicide.  Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark.  1965.  “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective,” American Sociological Review 30: 862-875.

Marks, Stephen R.  1974.  “Durkheim’s Theory of Anomie,” American Journal of Sociology 80(2): 329-363.

Merton, Robert K.  1938.  “Social Structure and Anomie,” American Sociological Review 3(5): 672-682.

Parsons, Talcott.  1964.  “Evolutionary Universals in Society,” American Sociological Review 29:339-357.

Parsons, Talcott, and Edward A. Shils (eds.).  1951.  Toward a General Theory of Action.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Smelser, Neil J.  1962.  Theory of Collective Behavior.  New York: Free Press.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge.  1996. Religion, Deviance and Social Control. New York: Routledge.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge.  1987. A Theory of Religion. New York: Toronto/Lang.

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