Anomie and the search for meaning

by John MacBeath Watkins

The French have a word for it: Anomie. No norms. It is a condition when people find themselves so disconnected from social norms that they cannot find their place in the world. Emile Durheim used the term in his book, Suicide, published in 1887.

His theory was that a rapid change in the values and standards of society would lead to a feeling of alienation
and purposelessness. Picture the situation; society is changing rapidly, and while it may try to prepare you for your place in it, that place is no longer there by the time you are trained for it. Your entire life plan, the existence you have spent your childhood and adolescence preparing for, is nowhere to be found.

Are you a failure? No, worse. There was no path to a life of honorable labor, no place for you in the world.

You cannot even fail, because all that you have prepared for is simply not there. You were groomed to play a part in a pantomime that has been cancelled. And here you are, alone on the stage in a parody of makeup for a part no one cares to see you play. How meaningful is your life, then? If society were a dictionary, you would not even be a word, just an indecipherable squiggle in the margin.

That is anomie, diagnosed at the end of the 19th century, discussed to death to 20th century, a wallflower at the party in the early 21st century.

As you might expect from the title of Durkheim's book, suicide was one common response to this condition. Perhaps it still is. We don't talk about anomie much anymore. People still kill themselves, people still feel disconnected from social norms, but that 19th century term is less common than it once was. It's a shame, because the term explains a lot.

Much of what makes us human is in our interaction with others. It is in the social realm that we display our sanity or madness, and our very humanity. That is why solitary confinement is such a severe punishment, one that can even produce psychological effects such as hallucinations, paranoia and obsessive thoughts. We are meant to be social creatures, incomplete without interaction with others.

Once, society changed slowly, and when we spoke of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom, we meant social orders that differed little and lasted a thousand years each. Then it was possible for generation following generation to fall easily into their social roles, and we can suppose anomie was not a problem. Those days ended in the Axial age, which we discussed in this post..

When the world started changing too rapidly for an entire society's structure to adapt new places for its members, individuals had to find their own places. That may seem hard enough, but when they invented their new positions, they had no norms established for the new ways of life they were inventing. They needed guidance, and they got it in a great age of prophesy. Across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, prophets told people that they should be compassionate, that they should do unto others as they would have done unto them. And that was enough, for two or three millennium. People could think for themselves, and still think about others, with the guidance of the prophets.

And then, the world started changing faster, and faster, and faster. The feeling of disconnection from social norms, social roles, spread wider and wider. Some felt the change, and said “God is dead.” Some felt the change, and said, “God, save me!” and started churches dedicated to preventing change. Some felt the change, and the loneliness, and the pain, and became angry, and said, “God, I will kill those who caused this!” and became terrorists. And some, strangely enough, said, “God is dead. I bet we can build a better one,” and started dreaming of an all-knowing computer.

Do you want to know how they felt? Do you know who's to blame? Look in a mirror. No, seriously, that's one way to study the problem. Psychologists have people look in a mirror in order to get them to focus on themselves, in order to study one of the central problems of psychotherapy.

People come to see a psychologist very often because they are depressed. The psychologist needs to assess the problem, so has the client talk about themselves.

This self-focus causes the people talking about themselves to become sadder if they perform this self-focus in private, or to experience social anxiety if they do it in public. In essence, they experience a heightened sense of anomie, of disassociation from the warmth and comfort of human contact, because they are focused on themselves.

There is the problem, then. To be human requires participation in human society, and rapid social change can cast us adrift, maroon us in an island of the self. And as we try to understand ourselves, we focus on ourselves, and feel more isolated and alone as a consequence.

The shared hallucinations of our social constructs are meaningless if we are alone. If we are only animals, eating, sleeping, reproducing, we are only the appetites our genes have programmed us to have. If we are human, we live in a world invisible to most animals, a world of language and symbol, in which what we pass on to others may not even be physical matter, such as genes. It may be our ideas, ideals, songs and gods. It may be the world of meaning, the most human world of all.

However out of place we may feel, however useless our social skills and unattainable our aspirations, what makes us human is the people who have shaped us. We are never alone, because they are a part of us, and we are a part of those whose lives we've touched. Even the worst families teach their children to be human. What those children rejects from those who have shaped them sets the boundaries of their souls, what they accept gives those souls their content.

Unlike most animals, we can cooperate with one another even without family ties. This is because in that ethereal world of symbolic thought, we can pass on a part of who we are to people genetically unrelated to us. Our thoughts are at least as fecund as our bodies, and we lust for the sort of social intercourse that will allow us to transmit our wisdom to each other and build up something greater than ourselves.

Anomie is a symptom of the failure to do this, a sign that we must find a way to reach one another and find comfortable niches for ourselves in the great body of civilization.