When social regulations break down, the controlling influence of society on individual propensities is no longer effective and individuals are left to their own devices. Such a state of affairsDurkheim calls anomie, a term that refers to a condition of relative normlessness in a whole society or in some of its component groups. Anomie does not refer to a state of mind, but to a property ofthe social structure. It characterizes a condition in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms and where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuitof their goals.
Although complete anomie, or total normlessness,is empirically impossible, societies may be characterized by greater orlesser degrees of normative regulations. Moreover, within anyparticular society, groups may differ in the degree of anomie that besets them. Social change may create anomie either in the wholesociety or in some parts of it. Business crises, for example, may havea far greater impact on those on the higher reaches of the social pyramid than on the underlying population. When depression leads to a sudden downward mobility, the men affected experience a de-regulation in their lives--a loss of moral certainty and customary expectations thatare no longer sustained by the group to which these men once belonged. Similarly, the rapid onset of prosperity may lead some people to a quick upward mobility and hence deprive them of the social support needed in their new styles of life. Any rapid movement in the social structure that upsets previous networks in which life styles are embedded carries with it a chance of anomie.
Durkheim argued that economic affluence, by stimulating human desires, carries with it dangers of anomic conditions because it "deceives us into believing that we depend on ourselves only," while "poverty protects against suicide because itis a restraint in itself." Since the realization of human desires depends upon the resources at hand, the poor are restrained, and henceless prone to suffer from anomie by virtue of the fact that they possess but limited resources. "The less one has the less he is tempted toextend the range of his needs indefinitely."
By accounting for the different susceptibility to anomie in terms of the socia lprocess--that is, the relations between individuals rather than the biological propensities of individuals-- Durkheim in effect proposed a specifically sociological theory of deviant behavior even though hefailed to point to the general implications of this crucial insight. Inthe words of Robert K. Merton, who was the first to ferret out in this respect the overall implications of Durkheim's thought and to develop them methodically, "Social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in non conforming rather than conforming conduct."
Durkheim's program of study, the overriding problems in all his work, concerns the sources of social order and disorder, the forces that make for regulation or de-regulation in...