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Why “anomie” is eroding the soul of our society

Don’t buy a yellow car in Bibury.
A row of houses in a village
Credit: David Davies / PA Images via Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • “Mechanically integrated” groups are those which have a common purpose and establish social norms.
  • When we live outside of these groups, or do without these norms, then it leads to a state of anomie. For Émile Durkheim, this leads to depression and loneliness.
  • Here we look at two examples of anomie and consider why we might want social norms after all.

In 2015, Peter Maddox bought a yellow car. Within a few months, people were going ballistic — well, as ballistic as people get in a quaint British village. What the retired Maddox hadn’t considered was that there were rules to living in Bibury. And one of those rules is, “Don’t buy a garishly colored hatchback.”

Bibury is a tourist’s dream: a hamlet of thatched cottages framing a gently babbling brook. Buses full of tourists offload in Bibury every day for selfies, postcards, and overpriced pastries. So, what Bibury didn’t need was Peter Maddox and his yellow car ruining it for everyone else. The thing about small communities like Bibury is that they have mores. “Mores” is a somewhat antiquated word, but it means those intangible expectations a social body places on its individual members. It’s a bit more than etiquette, but a bit less than morality. It’s something more like “rules of behavior.”

And, according to the French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, modernity’s lack of these mores is making us very unhappy, indeed.

Mechanically integrated groups

When you become a parent, you get inexorably dragged into the black hole of “parenting groups.” You go to baby play sessions and get the dubious pleasure of joining innumerable social media groups — all about parenting. Everyone there is united by the single purpose of raising their kids well and trying to stay sane doing so. All the moms and dads, more or less, are doing the same things, in the same way, with the same bags under their eyes. These groups are what Durkheim called “mechanically integrated.”

A mechanically integrated group is an isolated society (or portion of society) that is committed to the same task. It might be workers in a company, hobbyists meeting in a townhall, or a congregation in a church. Over time, these groups establish strong social norms or mores. There are rules established — sometimes formal, but often unspoken. In parenting groups, this might be something like, “Don’t make disparaging remarks about your daughter,” or, “Spend as much time as you can with your son.” All mechanically integrated groups have these norms. Those who violate them are labeled deviant and then reprimanded or shunned.

So, when I joke, “I think my son might be a moron,” I had better make sure it’s outside the mechanically integrated grip of parenting groups.

The anomie of normlessness

While we might rail against or mock these social norms, they are also essential to our well-being. For Durkheim, what we’re seeing today is a life without them — a condition he labeled anomie (AN-uh-mee).

Anomie is the feeling that you do not belong. It’s when you are adrift, with nothing really to anchor you to other people or life more generally. We are so inured these days to rejecting all kinds of social or peer pressure. We are told, “Be yourself,” even if it means stepping away from the crowd. But, when we do so, we forget what psychological and existential benefits come from being in the crowd.

We are wired to live in societies, and we are happiest when we live alongside others, and a part of that means signing up to certain social norms and morals. We need to know what the rules are, and we need to treat them with the utmost seriousness. When we live our lives like some paragon of individualism — when we care not one jot for the rules — then we suffer because of it. We become depressed and lonely. For Durkheim, it might even lead to worse.

Widows and working

We can get a better understanding of anomie by examining two modern examples.

Widowers and widows. Marriage is the ultimate mechanically integrated group because two people make a promise to love each other and commit to a common purpose. They are there to make a home, to have children (perhaps), and to look after one another in old age and sickness. In the process, marriages (or any long-term relationships) establish all sorts of unwritten, unspoken rules. Two people start to regulate their behavior according to these rules and it feels good. It feels happy.

It would be no surprise to Durkheim, then, that studies show, “Widowed people have a high prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders.” The removal of these norms — the casting out into anomie — is hugely detrimental to a person’s mental health, regardless of age or gender.

Working from home. The workplace has changed drastically in the last decade or so. More people are working from home than ever before, and most people prefer to do so. But, as with any major, structural realignment of society, we perhaps ought to tread carefully. While it might be that many people dislike their commute or going into the office, workplaces have their own sociological function.

The workplace is, as sociologist Ray Oldenburg puts it, a “second place.” It’s the place most people spend most of their time away from home. And like every other mechanically integrated group, it has social norms, usually called “company culture.” Often, this culture gets mocked, but when we remove ourselves from it (as with working from home), this can amplify a modern ennui. We disassociate from our job and develop resentment. You might hate the company banter and petty office politics, but they are more important than you think.

Embrace social norms

So, maybe it’s time to push back on a radical narrative that outright rejects any kind of social norm or expectation. While norms and expectations can feel restraining and oppressive at times, a life without them might be worse. While you may be tempted to fart very loudly at a McDonald’s, society is better off because most of us don’t.


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