Peter R. Martin: Historical Vocabulary of Addiction, Vol. II



According to the electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the noun anomie was borrowed from French, which in turn was derived from post-classical Latin anomia (lawlessness) and its precursor from ancient Greek ἀνομία (lawlessness, lawless conduct).  An earlier version, the noun anomy (“Disregard for or violation of law, especially divine law; [also more generally] lawlessness”), is now obsolete but this spelling is still sometimes used when the essence is meant as anomie (see below).  

There is but one definition of anomie in OED: “Absence of the usual social or ethical standards of belief and conduct in an individual or group; (later also) a state of alienation from mainstream society characterized by feelings of hopelessness, loss of purpose, and isolation.”

The first use of the word anomie recorded in OED is by the Australian psychologist, industrial researcher and organizational theorist George Elton Mayo (1880 –1949) in The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization (Mayo 1933): “We are facing a condition of anomie, of planlessness in living, which is becoming characteristic both of individual lives and of communities.”  This quotation identifies anomie as an evolving and distressing characteristic of individuals within communities, a general aimlessness and a feeling of not belonging, which may eventually influence societal mores (and go full circle to impact the individual).  It is how this rootlessness and lack of purpose may play a significant role in initiating use of alcohol or drugs and perpetuating addictive behaviors that is the topic of the present discussion.

 Subsequently, the American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910 –2003) used the word in his article “Social Structure and Anomie” to introduce the concept into sociological thinking (Merton 1938): “The integration of the society becomes tenuous and anomie ensues.”  This was the beginning of his development of what has since been called Merton’s strain theory, which proposes that social structures within a society may pressure citizens to commit crimes.  The linkage between criminality and addictive disorders are well recognized (Martin 2021b) but the capacity of Merton’s views to be applied to addiction has been questioned (Fazey 1973).

The word anomy, as employed by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858 –1917) in his treatise Suicide; a Study in Sociology, has had considerable influence in the field of mental health (Durkheim 1952): “The state of de-regulation or anomy is… further heightened by passions being less disciplined, precisely when they need more disciplining.”  Durkheim described four types of suicide, namely egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic, of which anomic suicide is characterized by moral confusion and lack of social direction in the individual due to dramatic upheaval in the social structure.  The link between anomie and suicide is now well accepted (Spencer 1997). 

Additionally, a significant association has long been recognized between psychopathological underpinnings of suicide and alcoholism (Huss 1849) and more recently, other drug use disorders (Martin 2020).  It seems reasonable that suicidal behavior, the ultimate self-destructive act with its own complement of biopsychosocial contributors, may overlap with such harmful behaviors as addictive disorders (“slow suicide”) and thus, that suicide, addiction and anomie may be associated with each other (Rizk. Herzog, Dugad et al. 2021).

The association between anomie (alienation) and drug use was intensively studied in the second half of the 20th century, an era when a range of problems associated with drug use became a subject of significant concern in society (Martin, Weinberg and Bealer 2007).  Drug use and related behaviors such as sexuality among the young had transformative effects on social mores during this period.  The influence of one’s peers and their social surroundings in development of problematic drug and alcohol use in adolescence emerged as a central focus of scientific study (Kandel 1973; Kokkevi, Arapaki, Richardson et al. 2007). 

The sociobehavioral research that emerged supported an association between anomie and addiction via multiple converging paths, including biological, social and psychological determinants of risk (Lasky and Ziegenfuss 1979; Barr, Driver, Kuo et al. 2022).  Biopsychosocial underpinnings of personality (Martin 2024) are fundamental determinants of risk for the individual for both addictive disorders and anomie.  These features of personality interact with the societal role played by the individual and expressions of sexuality and aggression, especially when inwardly directed, as is the case with suicide. 

The American sociologist Leo Srole (1908–1993) examined the concept of “social integration” of the individual in various aspects of mental health in populations of interest and thereby broadened the formulation by Durkheim of anomie (Srole 1956).  He implemented a measure of “interpersonal alienation or “anomia” proposing that “the attitude-type scale devised afforded an operational formulation of the anomie concept” which he expressed as the A scale.  Srole proposed that the score on the A-scale was a fundamental characteristic of the personality of an individual and how they interact with their social environment.  He further noted (summarizing the related existing literature) that:

“in applying the A scale or adaptations of it have established significant connections between this measure of individual anomia and such diverse phenomena as social isolation among the aged, certain specific forms of psychopathology among metropolitan adults, the life threat represented by the exogenous [medical] condition of rheumatic heart disease, adolescents living in areas marked by different rates of drug addiction, etc.” 

Srole’s formulation has subsequently been examined in research in adolescents and has been partially supported with respect to the association between anomie and addiction (Lasky and Ziegenfuss 1979).  In particular, the notion that anomie is associated with addiction and may even be an etiological factor among youth in American Indian reservations have been emphasized (Brown 2010).  Some modern social scientists have conceptualized anomie as “a state of society” rather than a “state of mind” (Teymoori, Jetten, Bastian et al. 2016).  Although structural disruptions of society (“a state of society”) may contribute to addiction risk (Erickson 1992), the focus of the present discussion is that anomie is a manifest trait of the individual (“state of mind”), a consequence of the experience of being part of society, which might actually be considered exposure to a significant stressor (Martin 2021a).  

Demonstrating an association between the trait of anomie and addiction (Kinsey and Phillips 1968) does not prove that the relationship is causal nor does it explain the mechanistic underpinnings of the linkage.  It should be noted that addiction is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors, including genetic predisposition, environmental factors, the psychopharmacologic effects of the drug(s) involved and mental health issues.  Addiction is a long-lasting and complex brain disease that involves alterations in brain circuits related to reward, motivation, and decision-making.  Anomie is just one sociological framework that can be used to quantify and understand some aspects of addiction (Simon 1986; Cambron, Kosterman, Rhew et al. 2017).  

While anomie is not directly a biological factor (as might be inferred from earlier research), it can indirectly influence addiction risk through its impact on learning and drives such as aggression and sexuality and, in particular, mechanisms of coping with exposure to stressful and traumatic experiences. 

Epigenetics refers to how environmental conditions such as stress, trauma and other life events can modify gene expression in various cellular elements of the brain (Holt and Nestler 2023).  Epigenetic changes can impact addiction risk by altering brain function and responses to substances.  Accordingly, the theory of anomie can be applied to understanding how societal pressures and the lack of clear societal norms can lead to the biopsychosocial determinants of addictive disorders.  In particular, stress-related alterations in brain functioning may enhance the likelihood of developing drug-seeking behaviors as a means of coping, leading to addictive disorders (Lyons-Ruth, Pechtel, Yoon et al. 2016; Brady, Donohue, Waller et al. 2023; Geiger, Balouek, Farrelly et al. 2024).  

In summary, while anomie itself is not a direct biological risk factor, its psychosocial impact on mental well-being and coping strategies can indirectly influence addiction vulnerability via biological mechanisms. Top of Form

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March 28, 2024