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[FOUNTAIN]Drifting in the wake of change

Apr 10,2003
Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, introduced the concept of anomie because he lived in one of the most radical and unstable times in history. In his youth, he witnessed the Paris Commune, formed in 1876, a radical political group of the proletariate when France was still under the influence of the French Revolution. Durkheim, who was Jewish, felt sickened when Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French army officer, was accused of being a spy by anti-Zionists during World War I. Durkheim died shortly after his son was killed in the war.
The meaning of anomie is the condition in which no rules or moral standards exist. Chaos spreads as old social rules are abandoned and innovations abound, but it was first used to describe irregular conditions that caused social deviations.
The most notable such social deviation that Durkheim recognized was suicide; he wrote a book on the subject in 1897 that made the term “anomie” better known to readers. He said that suicide was the most dramatic and radical behavior in conditions where there are no rules and no morals. People living in the condition of anomie tend to feel empty because they are skeptical of existing social values and hesitant to draw up new goals for their lives. The emptiness ultimately leads them to suicide.
Durkheim defined suicide as a social behavior, not an individual act, and said it could be classified as murder. The opposite type of suicide from anomie, Durkheim said, is “selfless suicide.” He was speaking of persons who kill themselves when the rules and regulations established in a society are too strict.
The stereotypical example of selfless suicide could be the Iraqi soldiers who killed themselves and their enemies for the compelling causes of nationalism and religion. Durkheim was more interested in suicides because of anomie than selfless suicides because the former is a more general social phenomenon.
A principal at an elementary school recently committed suicide; that symbolizes the anomie situation of this country. The principal might have been more comfortable with the old educational ways. He might have regarded the teachers union, anti-Americanism and anti-war protests as anomie. The principal might have been suffering from confusion about changed values. Perhaps he was disappointed with society. May he rest in peace.


by Oh Byung-sang

The writer is the London correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.


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