A Critique of Durkheim’s Theory of Anomie

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Attaining a perfect society without crime is an idea that is difficult to comprehend. Durkheim brought the idea of “normlessness” or a state where values and standards in society are changing constantly, making it difficult for people to know what to expect from each other. Norms and values in such a society can, therefore, from Durkheim’s perspective, be termed as unclear and confused. They can also be termed as not present. Relating this theory to societies’ definitions of law, crime, values, and behaviors can be a difficult task. This paper examines Durkheim’s theory of Anomie, its background and arguments. It also examines and how modern societies compare with this sociologist’s arguments, and whether the arguments remain applicable today.


Crime is a vice that has been on the rise especially recently due to the global challenges of inflation. The disparity between the rich and the poor has been growing bigger due to the rising rate of the ramification of capitalism. As men and women seek to make themselves a living, they constantly find themselves engaging in unethical activities like corruption in the endeavor of earning just a little bit more. Where did crime come from? What role does it play in the community? These are some questions that most psychologists and sociologists seek to answer as they try and devise ways through which the vice can be curbed.

Even though crime is regarded as a vice, it has a role to play in ensuring the societal balance since it is rather unfeasible for a perfect society to exist. One very conspicuous study of the societal vices was done by Emile Durkheim whose works have been seen to give a wide range of rational explanations of social vices and forms of deviance. He is convinced that the character a man has cropped up from the type of the social environment they find themselves in and it is sustained by the ethics found in that particular setting.

The most significant change in economic development; the industrial revolution is seen to be the most relevant time in the studies done by Durkheim. He outlines that the changes in the structures of different economies resulted in high immigration levels and modernization of societies. This modernization resulted in increased rates and instances of individualism and diversity in the structure, interpretation, and understanding of belief systems; creating the foundation for social vices.

The immigrants brought their beliefs to the new communities but had a hard time adapting to the new society’s norms. This, therefore, resulted in a distortion of the equilibrium in the society resulting in an instance Durkheim referred to as anomie. This was what resulted in defiance in societies. The theory of anomie by Durkheim is what will form the basis of this report.

David Emile Durkheim was a sociologist and philosopher from France that is seen to be the father of the current social sciences and sociology. He was particularly interested in the means through which modern societies at that time ensured the maintenance of integrity and social coherence. When he was doing his work and studies, he wrote the book by the name “suicide” in 1897. In this book, he focused on the instances of suicide among the Catholics and Protestants and brought about the concept of social research while distinguishing political philosophy from psychology. He observed that there were lesser suicide cases among the Catholics due to a higher level of social control among them (Turner, 2006).

Historical Information

Concepts of Mechanical and Organic Society

The ideas presented in this book are very coherent to the ideas he presented in his other book, “The Division of Labor.”He presented the idea of anomie; the insufficiency of social norms in this book. This concept aims at describing the disintegration of social bonds between a person and the community resulting in the distortion of the conventional social expectation of the community; no one knows what to expect from other people. Anomie represents the instances in which social ethics and norms are absent, ambiguous or misunderstood (Turner, 2006). He also delivers the concept of two types of societies: The mechanical and the organic.

The mechanical society represented the initial forms of societal organization that was simple, worked as a unit, had similar goals and had a very low level of specialization, if any. The organic society represented the complex and highly specialized societies that emerged from mechanical societies as a result of the industrial revolution. As the societies developed in terms of technology and the society’s need to exert more pressure on the people economically, societies were fragmented and group-oriented achievements reduced. This sudden change brought about differences that enhanced the eruption of criminal activities since norms were no longer governing the societies (Turner, 2006).

Origins of Crime

When I looked deeper into this theory, it dawned on me that it does not only talk about the roots of crimes in the society but also the origin of the different forms of laws, policies, regulations, and punishments we have come to know. Durkheim provides the description of the law as a solid and purposeful indicator of the level of morality within society, and it is a tool of restitution and not a means of bringing oppression to anyone. This definition occurred to me as one that has a very similar definition to ancient traditional beliefs. This, therefore, avails a position for concluding that the forms of governance provided by the law are all products of the countless beliefs of a society and a representation of what such societies perceive to be fair, right and true.

This is the same concept described in the study of mob psychology; beliefs are held on to by a group of people and every member feels obligated to obey and live in accordance with these beliefs. Failure to this, one risks exclusion from the group. This, therefore, outlines the origin of the laws and vices within a society. If one does something against the normal beliefs, whatever they have done gets the tag of vice and whatever action is consequently taken, it is tagged the name punishment. The authority that gives the “Punisher” the ability to correct the vice is therefore called the law.

Looking into the setting at the time the theory was developed from, the only bold judicial system was that of religion; the religious beliefs governed the people and their behavior in the society. Religion represented the conscience of the whole society and the leaders of the clergy were the people who took the role taken currently by judges. This gave Durkheim the grounds to argue that any offense done to the sovereign beings like gods was an offense done to the society at large. It is for this reason that we see lower rates of suicide among the Catholics then as compared to the protestant since the Catholics acted in a more coherent and strict society governed by similar religious laws and customs; their legal system was well defined. The damage resulting from crime did not, therefore, attract emotions of anger and vengeance towards the offender or the offense they made but to the distortion of social values and cohesion in the community.

The Gist of the Theory

The disintegration of the society working hand in hand with the division of labor created the foundation for crime and rebellion in the societies. This was because the population in ancient times was rapidly increasing due to the industrial revolution. Most communities viewed children as a symbol of power hence large families dominated the communities. Contraceptives were not yet invested in a reliable and trusted means of family planning and people were very keen on ensuring their legacy and name are perpetuated into future generations. All these resulted in population increase and with came the need for job specialization to create income security. People had to be particularly skilled in a specific field to make sure they had a secure income source.

Durkheim developed a social theory that stipulated the relation between social facts that give a description to social tendencies and the individual qualities of a person. From this, he defined the relationship between the rates of suicides in the societies and these social variables. He outlines several types of suicide based on the motive and scale with which the suicide occurred. He came up with fatalistic suicide, altruistic suicide, anomic suicide, and egoistic suicide.

Types of Suicides According to this Theory

Egoistic suicide is an indication of a prolonged feeling of seclusion from the society and what it does; lack of integrations into societal experiences resulting in the feelings of lethargy sadness, stress or depression or a combination of all as a result of the loss of social bonds that linked an individual to the society’s collectivity. Durkheim claimed that such a suicide was due to a phenomenon he termed as excessive individuation. This was a situation in which an individual’s level of detachment from society largely increases according to Durkheim. This was due to the fact that they were not actively involved in the society’s group activities hence lacked the sense of governance provided by social norms, traditions, and values, therefore, lacked a guiding tool in their lives. An example of such a suicide is seen when people who are not married hence lacks the element that connects them to the societal ethics through their spouses and their children (Franzese, 2009).

Another type of suicide as outlined by Durkheim was the altruistic suicide which resulted from the devastating social beliefs held staunchly by a community. The rigidity of the beliefs makes the society give preference or priority to the goals of the society in such a way that the goals dictated by an individual’s conscience are not recognized as valid or potent enough. This created a pile-up of pressure within the individual hence suicide. In such a community, the only thing that could make an individual’s suicide the society’s concern was in the instance where the individual willingly dies on behalf of the community (suicide), for example, a soldier dying for the protection of the community (Franzese, 2009).

Anomic suicide results from an individual’s confusion of the morals they believe in due to the dynamism created by social and economic disturbance. It results from distortion of the definition of their personal aspirations due to the misinterpretation of the rules that govern the society creating a limiting factor. Such an individual does not know their niche in the society hence they do not have a clear definition of what is expected of them or even what they expect from themselves hence are in a constant state of disappointment. The most surprising thing about such a suicide is that it can result from a positive change. Even if such a man creates more wealth, they become confused by the expectations of their previous life and they chose to push them all aside but take more time to create new ones for the new life status. Before he creates the new standards of evaluating his success, he becomes confused and regards himself as a failure.

The final type of suicide according to Durkheim is fatalistic suicide. This comes up as a result of overemphasized governance done by the laws within a society that results in the total disregard of an individual’s passion. Some communities are highly oppressive hence people prefer death to living in such an environment. Such instances occurred in settings like prisons where oppression and abuse are constant (Franzese, 2009).

Durkheim claimed that most cases of suicide have been recorded among a specific group of people like intellectual people, celibate and unmarried people. There were also gender differences when it came to suicide intent. This was concluded in relation to the religious people. According to me, the high levels of suicide are the result of being secluded from society. The intellectual people are too caught up in their research work; their studies and their constant endeavor to improve their preceding work. The unattached and celibate people are seen to be very lonely, and since they do not have any form of affiliation to anyone hence the governance of the ethics and norms in the society are not very applicable to them, they feel secluded from the society. This demonstrates the fact that social collectives, group coherence, and values have a very high potential of curbing social vices like crime and suicide.

Differences between Mechanical and Organic Societies in Relation to Coherence

When we look at the concept of mechanical and organic societies as presented by this theory, we can safely conclude that the organic society, though diverse and highly specialized, is more stable as compared to the mechanical society since the members of the organic society are seen to have chains of interdependence. The art of specialization means that one person has the skill that another person doesn’t hence they will need the assistance or cooperation of the other party. The acceptance of diversity creates more cohesion since there is a sense of individual importance as opposed to the idea that everyone is similar hence should be governed by the same set of criteria.

The organic society can be said to be more stable due to the fact that, in mechanical societies, people are more or less the same in terms of skill and know-how. This, therefore, creates a phenomenon similar to intraspecific competition in ecology in the sense that they will strive to compete against each other for them to survive since they are all in possession of the same type of skills. The organic society is, however, more coherent since they have a diversity of skill hence people tend to rely on one another. It is this change and difference that resulted in what Durkheim called anomie.

Financial Disparity and Crime

Clearly most financially stable people in the current society are seen to have a belief that they are independent; they depend on their power and whatever they achieve is due to their skill and not that of others. For the direct flip side, the poor are saved from the claws of suicide simply because they have found a means of being content with what they have. In the current society, more crime is registered in poor communities while more rates of suicide are recorded among the rich. This is because the rich strive to get more and more to their disposal and when they do not do so, they perceive themselves as losers due to the reputation they are bound to destroy (Tiryakian, 2009).

On the other hand, the poor have to engage themselves in crime for them to get a source of living since they lack the resources that put them at the same level as the rich. Due to this lack of resources, they are seen to find rather unethical ways to earn a living for them to level up with the rich; they direct their crime to the rich whom they blame for their state of poverty.

Durkheim’s Suggestion against Societal Conflict

How did Durkheim then suggest the social vices like crime be solved? Durkheim suggested that the vices that occur in the society can be properly handled through the concept of occupational associations. He suggested that there was no particular conflict of interest among the different social groups based on status; leaders, employers, and investors. The problem, according to him was the lack of a common source of morality and reverence (Tiryakian, 2009).

This can be attributed to the instability of the social integrative structure; the structure created by occupational associations. This concept would involve the unity and organization of all the driving agents of a particular industry. This would bridge the gap between top, middle and lower management and the relation they have with the employees. It would also create a sense of common goals that can be achieved through cooperation and at the same time promote diversity and specialization to reduce the intraspecific competitive rates. It would also satisfy the need for an integrative system of norms and morality that a society has and reduce the significant effects of collective morality.


This theory devised by Durkheim has made a very great impact on the field of sociology. It relates relevantly to the situation of most people currently in the world. Most people are in a state of anomie. When we look at anomie on a larger scale, it appears to be applicable to several countries, one of them being China. Ancient China was a very simple community, simple roles within the family setting, simple societal organization, and simple economic activities. Chinese people practiced simple agriculture done mainly by the males in the society. Their wives and generally the rest of the females mostly did weaving of baskets using bamboo; the roles and level of division of labor were not in any way sophisticated (Tiryakian, 2009).

The societies back then believed only in the simple ideology of Confucianism that lay a lot of emphasis on loyalty and virtue. However, this changed when the nation was introduced to the concept of communism which resulted in the ideology of Confucianism being replaced by the ideology of socialists. Chinese leaders initiated the reforms that were aimed at opening up China to the rest of the world. This appeared to be another socialist idea of making the economy of China a socialist market.

The reforms made China’s economy to explode even though Chinese abandoned Confucianism bit by bit until it collapsed as the reforms intensified. This is when anomie erupted in China; people found themselves in situations that required norms in the society, but the old ones were done away with and new ones were not yet formed. Law and policies were hence not very well defined hence confusion was prominent since people did not really know what was right and what was wrong. This has continued up to date to the extent where people even use criminal activities to realize what they desire; hence the recent rise in crime (Tiryakian, 2009).


Braithwaite, J., Braithwaite, V. A., Cookson, M., & Dunn, L. (2010). Anomie and violence: Non-truth and reconciliation in Indonesian peacebuilding. Acton, A.C.T: ANU E Press.

Franzese, R. J. (2009). The Sociology of Deviance: Differences, Tradition, and Stigma. Springfield: Charles C Thomas Publisher, LTD.

Tiryakian, E. A. (2009). For Durkheim: Essays in historical and cultural sociology. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Turner, S. P. (1993). Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and moralist. London: Routledge.