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Anomie, Society, and Scholar Findings

The idea that anomie explains persistent social ills has been common among the upper classes probably since there were such things as upper classes. Anomie is often inappropriately applied to social groups. It is not applicable to social groups, however, because the existence of a social group is evidence that anomie does not exist as it is defined. Anomie is, according to Merton and others, the feeling in the individual of being at odds with society.

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Anomie is necessarily a problem of the single person, the loner, for it identifies a lack of social ties or social order. A pervasive problem in a given community is not anomie, but rather the opposite, evidence of a social process or processes that is or are functioning, but whose function results in unpleasant results. When a large number of people experience anomie, it become something other than anomie. That is, there is often conflict in Merton's definition of anomie and the application of the theory.

Community Anomie
This has not stopped a host of academics from applying the term to any culture or subculture whose actions are considered in some way socially inappropriate. Which, if one were to use the theory as they do, could be considered anomie itself! All of these academic saying unpleasant things about other people must be a sign of the lack of social order within the academy, after all. Cao and Zhao provide an interesting example of this when they describe the "negative" aspects of the process of democratization as "anomie". They view the distress and problems of democratization as a collection of entirely discrete and individual actions, rather than comprehending them as their own system, one in which their behavior is the norm and where they are supported by a community if not a state.


The question this paper will explore is a narrow example of alleged anomie, that of crime among poor and working class people. We will examine how drug use among poor and working class African Americans is often described as being a result of social disorder. This paper will discuss marijuana use. Marijuana was chosen because it is the most commonly used illegal drug (rather than controlled substance such as alcohol or prescription medications).


The hypothesis of this paper is that crime rates involving marijuana are not an acceptable measure of marijuana use and that this disconnect reveals that anomie is the wrong theory to apply to marijuana use among African Americans.


"The Growth of Neighborhood Disorder and Marijuana Use Among Urban Adolescents" is a perfect example of the ways that marijuana use is linked to poverty and race. Before they even begin, they admit that they consider neighborhoods a "potential determinant" of drug use, and site no source for that link. They do perform a survey of mostly African American teens and rely partially on criminal statistics and arrest rates as a basis for the idea that certain neighborhoods and certain people are more likely to use marijuana. All of this is attributed to social breakdown and to individual reactions to that "breakdown". By exploring its use in research, we will see how anomie is an inappropriate means of understanding social ills, though it may still be useful in understanding individual crises.


Anomie is used to describe a lack of social structure, and sometimes the breakdown of social structure that leads to that lack, that inspires alienation and therefore antisocial behavior. In and of itself, this is a reasonable and interesting concept. Unfortunately, anomie is often misapplied to negative social events as if their being negative alone identifies them as anomie/ a breakdown of society and the alienation of an oppressed person. In many cases, a careful examination can reveal that negative events are not the result of a social breakdown, but of established social practices.


Cao and Zhao have no end of references to research that shows what a terrible thing it is to live in a poor neighborhood. They include an exhaustive list of the kind of things that are "linked" to criminal activity, merely because they are more prevalent in poor communities than they are in affluent ones. Among the things that are cited as making drug use more likely are a "lack of residents", i.e. empty homes and "high levels of fear". The latter is particular interesting, as it does not bother to reveal of what people were afraid. There was no explanation of whether they were afraid of losing their jobs or homes, or anything specific.


Not surprisingly their research, like so much research, found what it was looking for and relied heavily on opinion about the status of certain neighborhoods. They claim to have found a link between adolescent marijuana use and the "disorder" of a given neighborhood. However, the neighborhoods that they said were disordered, were not disordered at all. Rather, they were measured by Cao and Zhao,on a variety of rubrics and found to be deteriorating in measurable and consistent ways over time. Thus, the essential error here is in calling systematic decline "disorder", when it is not.

While Cao and Zhao used crime as a part of their measure, it was not their entire measure. They did however refer to it and site criminal statistics as both evidence of levels of use and as evidence of disorder. However, another study has found that teen Anglo Americans are more likely than African American to use marijuana and that the more education their parents had, the more likely teens were to use marijuana.

So why do the numbers not add up? Anglo American teens are more likely to use marijuana that African American teens. Further, Anglo American teens outnumber African American teens in the general population about six or seven to one. Yet African Americans are far more likely to be arrested or have a criminal conviction related to marijuana. At the same time, the more educated one's parents, the more likely they are to have used marijuana as a teen. Yet, we consistently equate marijuana use with "disorder" (though disorder is more accurately named "decline" in Cao and Zhao).


It is possible that what neighborhoods of color face is a greater degree of scrutiny from the police and thus a greater likelihood of being caught. The presumption of academics and scientists that merely by being poor or working class or a person of color, one is more likely to be a user of marijuana is not purely confined to the lab. How else to explain that despite incidents of Anglo teen marijuana use that dwarf Black teen use at a rate of six to one, crime rates suggest the opposite? Combining this idea with Cao and Zhao's findings that a neighborhood in persistent decline is likely to have a higher rate of marijuana use but African American neighborhoods that are troubled but do not suggests that anomie or disorder are not the correct theory for this problem. Cao and Zhao's findings suggest that systemic decline, not chaos, or uneven social support is what increases the likelihood of drug use on the one hand. While Bachman, et al's, work suggests that policing and enforcement are systemically applied in an unequal ways across the country, again providing evidence against anomie or disorder.

While anomie might be used to described the feelings of a single person in society, including an individual who uses drugs as an escape, it is not an appropriate means of describing negative social trends. That some scholars continue to do so suggests that they have failed to understand that two or more cultures might exist in the same place and therefore conflict without the existence of anomie, and Merton's theory as an expression of an individual response to prevailing social order.


Bachman, Jerald G., Lloyd D. Johnston, Patrick M. O'Malley, John E. Schulenberg, and John M. Wallace. "Racial/Ethnic Differences in the Relationship Between Parental Education and Substance Use Among U.S. 8th-10th, and 12th-Grade Students." Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Cao, Liqun, and Rouhui Zhao. "Social Change and Anomie." Social Forces. University Research.

Essay Scam Research. Mathematics and Multiple Intelligencies in 9-Grade Students. Online:

Furr-Holden, Debra, Nicholas S. Ialongo, Renee M. Johnson, Kwang-sig Lee, Myong Hwa Lee, and Adam J. Milam. "The Growth of Neighborhood Disorder and Marijuana Use Among Urban Adolescents." Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 72.3.
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