Is Anomie the Answer?

I usually like to write about positive and optimistic ideas, but recent news has caused me to recall some memories from long ago.

Back in the early 1980s, I was working with some French social scientists, looking at social trends across Europe, and a word that I had never heard before kept cropping up – Anomie.  At first, I thought it was similar to a word we had used to describe a group of young people, mostly male – the Aimless – who didn’t seem to care much about anything.  They gathered together on street corners, kicked balls around the streets and drank beer.  But they didn’t seem to be a cause of concern for the general population.  However, I could tell from the tone of our conversations that Anomie had a much darker aspect to it.

It is likely a transition phase in which the values and norms common during one period are no longer valid, but new ones have not yet evolved to take their place.

The concept of anomie[1] was identified by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who wrote The Division of Labor in Society.  This was an entirely original work on the nature of labor and production as they were being shaped by the industrial revolution.  This seminal work studied the nature of social solidarity and explored the ties that bind one person to the next in order to hold society together.  He discovered that anomie occurs during and follows periods of drastic and rapid changes to the social, economic, or political structures of society.  It is a social condition in which there is a disintegration or disappearance of the norms and values that were previously common to the society.   We can see how that situation is one in which we find ourselves today.  It is likely a transition phase in which the values and norms common during one period are no longer valid, but new ones have not yet evolved to take their place. Periods of anomie are unstable, chaotic, and often rife with conflict because the social force of the norms and values that otherwise provide stability is weakened or even missing.

Durkheim saw it as a breakdown of the ties that bind people together to make a functional society, a state of social derangement.

From our own social models[2], in the last two decades, we have seen a rapid growth of what we call “Inner Directed” values, and a decline in “Sustenance” and even “Outer Directed” values.

In the UK, we had identified a group of young people we called Aimless, mentioned above, mostly male, whose values were between Sustenance and Outer Directed values.

Several people have described the killers in several mass shootings as having completely emotionless expressions on their faces, or even smiling.  This would indicate a detachment from the kinds of emotions related to killing that we would expect.  In the UK, we had identified a group of young people we called Aimless, mentioned above, mostly male, whose values were between Sustenance and Outer Directed values.  While many people with these kinds of values are high energy, not aimless in nature, we had called this area of values the danger zone, as we found that the people with these values could be petty criminals and, depending on the country, could be inclined towards terrorism.  We had not looked at the possibility of them becoming killers.  We should probably pay more attention to this group, research them more thoroughly, and try to find ways of overcoming or bypassing anomie.

One final thought.  When we first identified this Aimless group, realistic gaming technology was not available, although they did sometimes frequent amusement arcades.  It is very likely that video games, especially violent ones would appeal to guys in this group.  And, more than a decade ago, people in military training communities were concerned that the video game-like nature of simulations and trainings could desensitize the trainees into de-humanizing potential adversaries.  Descriptions of shootings could support this idea of dehumanization.

People who live during periods of anomie typically feel disconnected from their society because they no longer see the norms and values that they hold, whether they hold them dear or not, reflected in society itself.

This can lead to the feeling that one does not belong and is not meaningfully connected to others. For some, this may mean that the role they play (or played) and their identity is no longer valued by society. Because of this, anomie can foster the feeling that one lacks purpose, engender hopelessness, and encourage suicidal behavior, deviance and crime.

What might we do to enable them to find meaning?


Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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