Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Sociological concept, developed especially by Émile Durkheim; refers to a state of deregulation (déréglement ) of normative standards and accompanying derangement of individual experience. The term in its modern meaning has ancient roots. Thucydides contrasts Pericles's expression of Athenian "civil religion," in his funeral oration, with the lawlessness (anomias ) of Athenian conduct under the subsequent plague. Ancient Jewish and early Christian writers refer to sin as anomia , but in the sense of iniquity, not lawlessness.

Durkheim discusses the abnormal, anomic division of labor. He also links anomie to the dislocation and excessive inflation or frustration of desires experienced under rapidly fluctuating social and economic circumstances. Less frequently, he ties anomie to the failure of religious constraints on the individual, preferring to conceptualize the influence of religious groups in terms of egoism and altruism. Marcel Mauss applied the concept to religion by studying the physical influence on the individual of collective ideas about death (e.g., "voodoo death").

Robert Merton saw anomie as a disjunctive condition of overemphasis on the cultural value of success at the expense of norms of conduct (e.g., the "work ethic"). This generates deviant adaptations such as innovation, or use of illegitimate means to achieve values, and ritualistic "acting out" of norms in the absence of commitment to social goals. His theory shares as much with Weber's "Protestant ethic" thesis as with Durkheim's thought and touches on traditional issues of religious meaning in its emphasis on the effort-merit-reward complex.

Peter Berger renewed Durkheim's emphasis on the integrative functions of religion by arguing that ideas of "the sacred" establish an orderly cosmos that prevents anomie, while Robert Bellah's analysis of "civil religion" also suggests its possible anomic disintegration under conditions of a "broken covenant."

The concept of anomie is closely related to the ideas of cognitive dissonance and mazeway disintegration, which have been used in the study of millenarianism. Dissonance between millennial prophecies and actual events is overcome through increased proselytizing, which redeems failure. Natural disasters and cultural collapse, frequently both occurring together among tribal peoples, rip apart the thread of meaning woven by the cultural mazeway. Revitalization movements seek to reestablish "the way" by reaffirming traditions, forging syncretisms, or creating new prophecies.

Donald A. Nielsen


L. Festinger et al., When Prophecy Fails (New York: Harper, 1956)

R. K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure , rev. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1968 [1949])

M. Orrů, Anomie (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987)

A. Wallace, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist 589(1956):264-281.

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