(If you’re interested in this topic, please see my earlier posts on neoliberalism (1) and (2))
Increasingly, there appears to be a connection between neoliberalism and the development of anomie. Such an association is unsurprising considering that neoliberalism encourages individuals to achieve ever greater success even though such a goal is unrealistic. In response to being blocked from realizing their never-ending aspirations, Merton (1968) argues that people in success-driven societies will feel deprived and frustrated as a divide forms between idealistic ambitions and factual reality. While such a divide has traditionally been the widest in developed capitalist states like the U.S., Passas (2000) contends that the growth of neoliberalism has exacerbated this problem in countries throughout the world. As a result, anomie, or the “withdrawal of allegiance from conventional norms and a weakening of these norms’ guiding power on behavior” has increased on a global scale (Passas 2000:20). Oozing with the anomie brought about by constant strain, neoliberalism can intensify the occurrence of violence as frustrated people struggle to live and to succeed in an unequal society. In response to this idea, it appears that as neoliberalism becomes more prominent in a country, it can be expected that anomie and, as a result, interpersonal violence within that country will increase. (more…)
Recently, various cable and national news outlets reported that U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend had “ordered” soldiers under his command at the base at Ft. Campbell, KY to not commit suicide. While this makes an attention-grabbing headline, it was more of an exhortation than a command. Nevertheless, the U.S. military has been criticized for years about the way it has been handling the skyrocketing military suicide rate, which, by some measures, has now surpassed the overall U.S. population suicide rate. The base has the highest suicide rate in the entire U.S. Army.
Over a century ago, Durkheim’s famous (though methodologically flawed) study of suicide concluded that members of those groups with stronger social integration are less likely to take their own lives. It is hard to imagine a more socially cohesive group than military units; yet it appears that numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, for longer periods of time, are eroding the more primary social ties, such as to the family and community. Gen. Townsend has tried to appeal to the soldiers’ sense of duty to the army and commitment to their units. However, some experts believe that this will be ineffective, as it does not address the wearing away of the very connections that may be the best way to avert the problem in the first place.
“Suicide” by Steven Stack
This week, the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut was released. Regions are seeing religious shifts – the Northeast is losing its religious population, while the South is gaining. Clearly, this is due to migration within the country, as well as the more typically religious Hispanic population increasing in numbers in the South. But there has been an overall decline in those who identify with a particular religion. This systemic change can be explained by several factors. Scandals involving sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church have driven away members. Zealous politicization of the religious right may have hurt their membership in some quarters, while the growth of megachurches has helped it in others.
Although only 1.6% of Americans self-identify as atheist or agnostic, the number who say they do not profess a belief in a higher power, or that “believe in a higher power but not a personal God” is at a combined rate of 24%. This was the only category that increased in every state, perhaps the study’s most significant finding. Why is this the case? In an interview with CNN, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League “said he thinks a radical shift towards individualism over the last quarter-century has a lot to do it.” Does Donohue provide the greatest explanation for this radical change? Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of a majority shift to a more neo-Durkheimian state of conscience collective, where secular ceremonies (such as the recent election of Barack Obama, who acknowledged unbelievers for the first time in an inaugural address) are replacing the need for specifically religious events. What’s more, everyone can participate, regardless of faith or lack thereof.
The Rise of the Megachurches and Changes in Religious Culture by Stephen Ellingson
The unemployment rate in the United States has reached a 16-year high of 7.2%. Economists say that we are still far from the recovery period and until then, expect things to get worse. Effects are certainly being felt on a global scale. The recent suicide of German billionaire, Adolf Merckle raises the timeless question: what are the causes of suicide?
What is particularly interesting is that even with significant losses Merckle was still worth about £6 billion. Merckle left only a note for his family with the words “I’m Sorry”. It has been noted that the most important role in life for Merckle was to pass on the business to his children, as was done for several generations before him; even surviving two world wars and the Great Depression.
While it is difficult to explain Merckle’s suicide in terms of Durkheim’s categories, it is interesting to think about Durkheim’s notion of anomie given the current recession. The term anomie to Durkheim refers to a condition where social and moral norms are confusing, unclear, or not present. This lack of norms often leads to deviant behaviour. In times of uncertainty, goals become seemingly infinite in scope rather than being limited by social order. In the absence of clear goals, weakened social ties and uncertainty, there is little hope that any goals are attainable.
Instead of trying to pinpoint the causes of suicide, it is more useful to situate and understand these events in relation to broader social contexts. It is important to acknowledge that suicide is a complex social phenomenon. Even the most seemingly obvious explanations such financial loss, are often not the most logical.
Cecil L. Willis on Durkheim’s Concept of Anomie: Some Observations
Recently, CNN reported on the case of a woman in Papa New Guinea being burned alive for witchcraft (see below). Aside from the echoes to our own history of witch hunts, this case also highlights the collective effervescence, specifically religious, of which Durkheim was interested. According to Durkheim, group energies can culminate in a kind of frenetic moment and can itself construct a collective reality. This effervescence marks the delineation of the space between a heightened collective experience and mob mentality. Marking an unknown or possibly threatening force, witches in this case, Muslims after September 11th, homosexuals and many other examples, represent an impetus to the collective energy that can result in anger or exaltation, wonder or fear. What this kind of collective action demonstrates is that the relationship between the individual and the collectivity is not as important to understanding acts of violence, devotion, hatred, or kindness as is the relationship between individuals within the collectivity. In the moment of effervescence, at the culmination of a group energy into a particular action, a reality is constructed that may be motivated by something much stronger than individual will and belief systems. By burning this woman at the stake, do these individuals retain their subjectivity or simply get caught up in the moment of effervescence?
CNN “Woman Suspected of Witchcraft”
Useem on Collective Action
With campus binge drinking on the rise, advocates on opposing sides of this issue are using health and safety study data to support their positions. Last July, the non-profit organization Choose Responsibly launched the Amethyst Initiative, a coalition of Unites State college presidents who want to start a serious debate about lowering the drinking age in an effort to curb binge drinking on campus. Citing the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the group argues that the raising of the national legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1984 has had no effect on preventing alcohol use in this age group. In this case, the law is fighting an uphill battle; Durkheim’s theories on social influence tell us that behavior is acceptable if it is approved by one’s peer group. Additionally, the coalition believes that the prohibition actually encourages dangerous binge drinking that sometimes results in death. Legislators, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and U.S. highway safely officials oppose this move, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies that show traffic deaths due to alcohol have decreased during this period. Opponents also cite a New Zealand study that shows traffic deaths rose in the period immediately after the country lowered its drinking age.
Biddle, et al., on Social Influence and Behavior