The eminent French sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote more than a hundred years ago about the consequences of anomie in society, a term usually defined as normlessness, or a situation in which societies and social groupings lack agreement on norms of behavior, resulting in a breakdown of structure and disagreement on values and guidelines for behavior.
Durkheim famously associated anomie with suicide, and later scholars focused on the condition of anomie and its relationship to social problems such as crime and deviance. The important takeaway: when societies and social systems lose a sense of common agreement, and when citizens of a society disconnect from structures and systems, the society can suffer negative outcomes.
Over the years, there has been much scholarly nitpicking and disagreement on Durkheim's writings, including a focus on the fact that he never precisely defined anomie. As a result, we can't empirically measure the exact level of anomie in contemporary American society. But there are several trends evident in our study of public opinion that, I think, signify a move to new frontiers with less tradition and more criticism of systems and structure, leading to significant but largely unknown implications for U.S. society in the years ahead.
Changing Norms on Sexual Behavior
The first of these trends has been the movement away from norms that control sexual behavior and support family-centric reproduction and a movement toward individual choice regarding moral and values decisions. I noted in a recent review that Americans have become increasingly likely to say that several such behaviors are morally acceptable -- including having a baby outside of marriage, sex between an unmarried man and woman, gay and lesbian relations, divorce, sex between teenagers, and polygamy. As I pointed out, "Views on 'having a baby outside of marriage' provide a good example. Twenty years ago, 45% of Americans said this behavior was morally acceptable, suggesting a lack of normative consensus in either direction. Now, 67% of Americans say it is acceptable, a clear indication of a much-diminished norm 'frowning' on what used to be considered stigmatized behavior."
The increase in individual choice norms means that individuals can make up their own minds as to how they want to behave when it comes to many aspects of life. This is connected, in my opinion, to the finding that fewer Americans can be classified as participants in religious organizations and that fewer identify with a specific religion. And, perhaps due to reduced disapprobation against sex and having a baby outside of marriage, we have seen an apparent decline in traditional family formation.
Declining Confidence in Institutions
Second, Gallup data show diminished confidence in major societal institutions, particularly compared with previous decades. As my colleague Megan Brennan recently summarized, "Average confidence in the 14 institutions Gallup has tracked long-term continues to lag behind where it has been historically." More specifically, we see a clear diminishing of confidence in the church and organized religion, the Supreme Court, Congress, public schools, the news media, and the presidency. Americans continue to name the general institution of government, including its leaders and its effectiveness, as the most important problem facing the nation.
Criticism of Societal Systems and Structures
Third, and directly related to the diminished confidence in institutions, we see an increasingly critical look at what constitutes our society's "systems" and "structures." We frequently hear the word "systemic" used in journalistic, political and advocacy discourse, representing a critical focus on problems with our large-scale, societal foundations. As one BBC headline put it in reference to the impact of COVID, "Coronavirus: Why systemic problems leave the US at risk." We have in recent years seen a substantial increase in references to systemic racism or structural racism, signifying an emphasis on the basic and foundational aspects of American society that result in negative and unsustainable outcomes for minorities.
The emphasis on structure and systems as the root causes of societal dysfunctions can be differentiated from an emphasis on individual actions and responsibility. The focus exemplifies the view that members of society are controlled by systemic and structural factors that largely influence their life situations and life chances. Social systems and structures are related, the argument goes, not only to racism but to inequality, unequal life chances, the huge economic and wealth differences that are often directly related to demographic status, and many other societal dysfunctions. The emphasis thus shifts to the need to delegitimize and reform these structures and systems. The hope is, and I will return to this below, that we can replace them with structures that result in more optimal outcomes.
Impact Looking Ahead
All three of these trends in public opinion are tendencies and are not reflected across all subgroups of society. There are major partisan and ideological differences in Americans' relationships to norms, institutions and views of structures and systems. But the broad, general trends are clear.
There are, of course, strong arguments for why these trends -- increased acceptability of previously taboo moral behaviors, loss of confidence in major societal institutions, and sharp criticism of many of society's systems and structures -- are appropriate and needed to remedy unsustainable, negative aspects of American life. Many norms, institutions and structures represent historical and cultural processes no longer appropriate or needed in our society. And arguably, the process of reevaluating the basic structure of any society or social organization is important and can result in rejuvenation and positive changes.
At the same time, and this is what Durkheim was getting at many years ago, any social system of significant size has to have structures, institutions, culture, and norms that provide its citizens with meaning and purpose, and that enable the society to continue to exist and move forward and to avoid collapse and dissolution and disarray. This is true for businesses, and it's true for larger societies as well. In fact, sociology, my field, initially followed in the footsteps of Durkheim by studying the structures, norms and institutions that are necessary and functional to keep a society going -- as is true for the structures and bylaws of any organization. Sociology and social science have shifted their focus in recent decades; the currently-reigning perspective argues for critical analysis of dysfunctions and what is going wrong in society, with a particular assumption that society's problems largely reflect the actions of those with power, wealth and privilege.
As is true with much of life, we essentially come down to tradeoffs. Once we begin to dismiss norms and structures as arbitrary and resulting in negative consequences -- even if appropriately so -- we find ourselves with a different kind of challenge. The question we are faced with is how to best and optimally replace the prevailing norms, institutions, systems, and structures that have become the objects of criticism and targets for revision. As people wiser than I have noted, it is easier to criticize than it is to build. It is easier to be negative and focus on what is going wrong than to develop specific plans for systems and structures that will make things go right. We may not have reached true anomie in our society, but we are edging closer and thus have a self-evident need to figure out where we go from here.
This is not a matter of either/or; clearly, there are new norms and many suggestions for ways of restructuring society and reimagining how major institutions function. But as research shows that Americans show a lessening need to adhere to traditional norms and exhibit increasingly negative perceptions of institutions, structures and systems, it's important to keep the focus on just how the public would like to see things changed. This remains a major challenge for the years ahead. Important though it is to criticize the systems and structures of our society, it is equally important to recognize that we need acceptable systems and structures that will work well in their stead.
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