Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, established the concept of anomie in his book The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893. He used anomie to describe a condition of deregulation that was occurring in society. This meant that rules on how people ought to behave with each other were breaking down and thus people did not know what to expect from one another. Anomie, simply defined, is a state where norms (expectations on behaviors) are confused, unclear or not present. It is normlessness, Durkheim felt, led to deviant behavior. Anomie thus refers to a breakdown of social norms and it a condition where norms no longer control the activities of members in society.
Individuals cannot find their place in society without clear rules to help guide them. Changing conditions as well as adjustment of life leads to dissatisfaction, conflict, and deviance. He observed that social periods of disruption (economic depression, for instance) brought about greater anomie and higher rates of crime, suicide, and deviance. Durkheim felt that sudden change caused a state of anomie.
The system breaks down, either during a great prosperity or a great depression, anomie is the same result. He recognized deviance as important to the well-being of society and proposed that challenges to established moral and legal laws (deviance and crime, respectively) acted to unify the law-abiding. Recognition and punishment of crimes is, in effect, the very reaffirmation of the laws and moral boundaries of a society
. The existence of laws and the strength thereof are upheld by members of a society when violations are recognized, discussed, and dealt with either by legal punishment (jail, fines, execution) or by social punishment (shame, exile). Crime actually produces social solidarity, rather than weakens it. Durkheim also proposed that crime and deviance brought people in a society together. When a law is violated, especially within small communities, everyone talks about it. Meetings are sometimes held, articles are written for local news publications, and in general, a social community bristles with activity when a norm is broken.
As is most often the case, a violation incites the non-violators (society as a whole) to cling together in opposition to the violation, reaffirming that society’s bond and its adherence to certain norms. A third idea Durkheim held was that deviance and crime also help to promote social change. While most violations of norms are greeted with opposition by the masses, others are sometimes not, and those violations that gain support often are re-examined by that society.
Often, those activities that once were considered deviant are reconsidered and become part of the norms, simply because they gained support by a large portion of the society. In sum, deviance can help a society to rethink its boundaries, and move toward social change, hopefully for the greater benefit of the group.