Cultural Anomie Stress Disorder

by Sarah Anne Robinson, Ph.D.


It is stressful when people don’t play by the rules. What rules? There may not be any. The reaction to such freedom varies with the individual and the situation, but the general reaction pattern is universal and can be identified as a psychological disorder deserving of a label such as CASD.

Before discussing the consequences of cultural anomie, we must be able to examine the concepts of “culture” and “anomie” from the same point of view. Presently, there is not general agreement on what either really entail.

The term “anomie” is derived from the Greek word “anomia” meaning “without laws”. As it is used today, anomie means “without norms” and covers both a socio-cultural condition and the psychological state of an individual.

The Sophists, as early as 5th Century B.C., debated the relationship between individual deviance that could produce social change versus regulation imposed on the individual by some external entity, either religious or governmental. The tautological argument always has focused on the dominance of one or the other as cause of some identified condition, and the debate has raged off and on down through the centuries, especially at times of cultural uncertainty and rapid change. 

Eighteenth century Europe was such a period. Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx exemplify the debate. Marx saw society rising in rebellion and seizing control to change the rules; whereas Durkheim, who came from a religious background, saw in statistics of suicides that people need guidance. Rules are vital even for self-control.1

In North America, interest in anomie developed among sociologists and psychologists in the 1930s and lasted well into the 1960s. This too was a period of cultural and social upheaval. 

Anthropologists in mid-20th century America were not much help in resolving the cause-and-effect process or in understanding the ramifications of cultural confusion. Most anthropologists at the time perceived “culture” as mutable but basically static. Research had gone beyond describing and listing “traits” but was still focused on finding “patterns” among those traits.2

Interest has died down in anomie because the conceptual tools to study the condition have not been agreed upon. I suggest starting consideration by examining the concept of culture. There is no single definition of “culture” per se. It is an organic entity identified with and interacting with a specific social body. As such it is operational and not a single ”thing.” It is the way that a social entity presumes to operate.

By evolution or design, a culture is purposeful in so far as it meets human needs. If it doesn’t, this certainly is distressing for the individual and can produce anxiety. However, a disturbance in the culturally prescribed social order generates a particular stress that produces a syndrome of psychological traits which are universal in comparable situations. 

For examples, look at the effects of colonization on small, kin-based societies. For additional examples of this syndrome, look at the effects of government policies on Indigenous societies in Canada and the United States. Look at the fabled “Wild West.” 

In the 1870’s the Black Hills goldrush town of Deadwood was a quintessential example of cultural anomie. Law and order were a personal matter operating on an ad hoc basis. The inhabitants were not only isolated but also alienated from the greater American society. They exhibited extensive alcoholism and drug addiction coupled with apathy and impulsive, high-risk behavior. 

The Deadwood example also demonstrates two caveats. Some people have a greater or lesser tolerance for stress caused, essentially, from being in a double-bind situation. Other people are in a position where the stresses from anomie are mild or non-existent. 

As a syndrome of universal reactions to cultural anomie, the psychological disorder is comparable to grief after loss and to PTSD. All three are the result of prolonged stress resulting from a life experience. The syndromes show many similarities, but the importance of the various traits varies significantly from one psychological disorder to another. 

In the case of cultural anomie, a particular source of stress is generated when the people one must deal with do not behave as commonly prescribed. To understand the frustration that generates such stress, we must understand the vital importance of social order. 

Whole societies, institutions, any kind of working organization, are normally structured to operate and produce some desired outcome. This can best be illustrated in the flow chart of a corporation where places in the organization are labeled, duties and perquisites accordingly specified. This chart may or may not be followed, but it exists as a theoretical basis of operation. In practice, deviant behavior will have different effects on the interaction of participants if not on the overall operation and the character of the organization itself. However, the original design will persist until it too evolves or is deliberately replaced.

The key to understanding cultural anomie is that both the organizational structure as well as its operation depend ideally on the rights and obligations that flow between categories of individuals. It is the nexus of many such “conduits” that establishes a position in the structure, a status. Time is a factor in the dynamics of an organization because not all rights and obligations are at play at the same moment. For an example, consider the structure of the nuclear family. Ponder what frequently occurs in modern American adolescence. Or consider the difficulties of dealing with the homeless.

The nature of obligations and rights underlay the development of a prescribed role, that is, the prescribed behavior necessary in getting and giving the rights and obligations attendant to a particular status. When, for whatever reason, practices and their supportive beliefs become at odds with the structure, a functional relationship can become dysfunctional. The individual trying to operate within the system finds it frustrating and stressful, especially when the expectations of behavior connected to a status may not have changed in the consciousness of the general population.

In a dysfunctional social organization, people become self-centered, with a diminished sense of altruism. They become conservative in the sense that they resist further change. They become localized as well as present-centered, focusing on the here and now. The past, unless it is romanticized as a golden age, is irrelevant; the future is unpredictable. It is difficult to understand how to proceed beyond the familiar, so, for the individual, the relevant realm shrinks. 

People prefer to interact with and rely upon individuals they know personally or otherwise believe to be like-minded. Everyone else is categorized and expected to behave according to a stereotype. This stereotype is presumptive and based on personal experience or identification with a like-minded group, not on cultural prescription. Therefore, the stereotype may not jibe with social reality, resulting in more confusion about expected outcomes of behavior.

While the relationship between behavioral cause and effect becomes unclear, further ramifications of an action or belief become even less clear and harder to predict. A person becomes fatalistic. This leads either to apathy or to heightened risk-taking. People stressed by cultural anomie often vacillate between the two.

Distrust is a key outcome of the reaction to cultural anomie. Suspicion and superstition can take hold. Logic does not apply. Therefore, authoritative sources of information, even what is personally observable, are thought to be no more real or reliable than any other source. One can choose what to believe, fitting it into an evolving rational. 

Those affected learn to distrust not only categories of people they must deal with, but whole institutions as well. Alienation can persist for generations. 

Presently, the general population in the United States is reeling from rapid and life-altering changes that occurred like a flood in the 20th century and have continued into the 21st. The cumulative effect has been culturally chaotic and resulted in fundamental differences among those who feel threatened by loss of control and those who feel less so. The threatened tend to join with others to resist the flood and to regain some control over their changing circumstances.

Demographic changes have added to the cultural threats, producing organized factions of resistance. “Identity politics” can arise from either source of threat then combine as a “culture war.” Once a grievance group is recognizable, other groups with similar interests can become involved and add both adherents and concerns, even coopting the original faction. 

An example of the interworking of psychological, social, and cultural factors is the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party was a self-selected segment of American society who perceived that present institutions were dysfunctional and not meeting people’s needs. Adherents adopted many beliefs consistent with anomic traits and exhibited distrust in the seeming “helplessness” of current governmental institutions by harkening back to an imagined Golden Age in the 18th century, presuming the intentions of signers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Their movement contributed to the development of “originalism.”

The current majority on the Supreme Court espouses originalism; yet, as individuals, they are not subject to anomie. They are “conservatives” seeking to stabilize society by stopping, and even reversing, cultural change. Importantly, they are in a position of power in the national structure and thus can alter American culture through their decisions about government operations as well as its laws. 

This is an example not only of the interplay between individual, social, and cultural anomic influences but also of one kind of process of culture change. Powers assigned to a status in the social structure can have an immediate and significant impact. They can offer a solution to cultural anomie by dictating some form of social order. 

In general, change, no matter how odious to certain segments of the population, is accepted as normative so long as it is perceived to be consistent and its operation certain. The individual may not like the change, may mourn the loss of old ways, and try to preserve what can be retained, calling it “tradition”; but, so long as the change is perceived as consistent, it will survive culturally, and anomie will be avoided. 

I believe cultural anomie is not a process but is a social condition resulting from inconsistent adherence to widely recognized roles in a structured arrangement of obligations and rights. When there are no regulations or norms are not followed, confusion results. The stress on directly affected individuals results in a universal pattern of personality traits that can be identified as a psychological syndrome. A society so populated by affected individuals will, in turn, affect the culture. The cycle repeats over and over till order is imposed or adaptation slowly takes place. 

This thesis is open to research and to careful experimentation. Who better to treat cultural disorders than applied anthropologists?


1If you want to trace the history of the concept of anomie, I recommend “Anomie – History and Meanings”, published in 1987. It is an exhaustive study by Marco Orru’.

2This article is based on a paper presented by ZOOM at a session of the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Santa Fe, NM, March 29, 2024.

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