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Emile Durkheim described anomie which is 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.


In 1893 Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie to describe an emerging state of social deregulation, i.e. the norms or rules that regulated people's expectations as to how they ought to behave with each other were eroding and people no longer knew what to expect from one another. In early, nonspecialised societies, people pooled their labour for the production of the necessities for survival. They tended to behave and think alike as they worked to achieve group-oriented goals. When societies became more complex, work became more specialised, and social bonds grew more impersonal as the culture shifted from altruism to economic where labour was exchanged for money. 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 seems to confirm, 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.


  • Durkheim, Emile. (1893). The Division of Labour in Society
  • Durkheim, Emile. (1897). Suicide

Simple English

Normlessness is when norms are very poor or below a standard.

A norm is an expectation of how people will behave. It takes the form of a rule that is socially, rather than formally enforced.

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