Durkheim, modern American hyper-individualism, and moral consensus today

One commentator links Durkheim’s ideas about suicide, anomie, and society to individualism in America today:

Here in the West, we take individualism and freedom to be foundational to the good life. But Durkheim’s research revealed a more complicated picture. He concluded that people kill themselves more when they are alienated from their communities and community institutions. “Men don’t thrive as rugged individualists making their mark on the frontier,” the University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out recently: “In fact, men seem to be much more likely to end up killing themselves if they don’t have traditional support systems.” Places where individualism is the supreme value; places where people are excessively self-sufficient; places that look a lot like twenty-first century America—individuals don’t flourish in these environments, but suicide does.

Durkheim’s work emphasizes the importance of community life. Without the constraints, traditions, and shared values of the community, society enters into a state of what Durkheim called anomie, or normlessness. This freedom, far from leading to happiness, often leads to depression and social decay (as the “twerking” Miley Cyrus perfectly exemplified recently at the Video Music Awards). Durkheim thought that the constraints—if not excessive—imposed on individuals by the community ultimately helped people lead good lives.

But we live in a culture where communitarian ideals, like duty and tradition, are withering away. Even conservatives, who should be the natural allies of these virtues, have in large part become the champions of an individualism that seems to value freedom, the market, and material prosperity above all else, leaving little room for the more traditional values that well known thinkers like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver cherished. “Man is constantly being assured today that he has more power than ever before in history,” wrote Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences (1948), “but his daily experience is one of powerlessness. . . . If he is with a business organization, the odds are great that he has sacrificed every other kind of independence in return for that dubious one known as financial.”…

Let’s return to the Google Books Ngram Viewer to illustrate the point. When Twenge, Campbell, and their colleague Brittany Gentile analyzed books published between 1960 and 2008, they found that the use of words and phrases like “unique,” “personalize,” “self,” “all about me,” “I am special,” and “I’m the best” significantly increased over time. Of course, it is not just in our books where this narcissism appears. It is also throughout the popular culture, not least in pop music. When a group of researchers, including Campbell and Twenge, looked at the lyrics of the most popular songs from 1980 to 2007, they found that the songs became much more narcissistic and self-centered over time. In the past three decades, the researchers write, the “use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased.”

Durkheim was very much about social cohesion, moral consensus, and the interdependence of individuals in modern society. Individuals may think that they are self-sufficient or able to do a lot on their own but much of their lives are built on the efforts of others.

Another aspect of this might be the declining participation of Americans in civic groups as outlined by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. This doesn’t mean Americans are completely withdrawn but it does suggest they might be more wary of collectives or only choose to participate when it suits them. This is how you can view online social networks like Facebook and Twitter: they enable social interaction but it is at the demand of individual users as they get to decide when and how they interact.

You could flip this this around and ask a different question: what are Americans all committed to? Where do we still have moral consensus? Perhaps in declining trust in institutions. Perhaps in celebrating Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps the idea that homeownership is a key part of the American Dream. Perhaps in religiosity (even with the rise of the “religious nones,” some of whom still believe in God). Here are a few other things 90% of Americans can agree on:

Yet there are some opinions that 90% of the public, or close to it, shares — including a belief that citizens have a duty to vote, an admiration for those who get rich through hard work, a strong sense of patriotism and a belief that society should give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Pew Research’s political values surveys have shown that these attitudes have remained remarkably consistent over time.

The proportion saying they are very patriotic has varied by just four percentage points (between 87% to 91%) across 13 surveys conducted over 22 years. Similarly, in May 1987, 90% agreed with the statement: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” This percentage has remained at about 90% ever since (87% in the most recent political values survey).

It is not that we don’t have zero social cohesion these days. The argument here could be two-fold: (1) social cohesion has declined from the past; (2) social cohesion today has changed – it might be more “alone together” than everything else where we can be around others at times and share some common values but we generally want to follow our own paths, as long as they aren’t impeded too much by the paths of others.

Durkheim discussed “suicide viruses”?

I was reading a recent edition of Newsweek at the gym and ran across a story about a Russian model who committed suicide. Toward the end of the article, the writer tries to explain higher suicide rates in Russia and invokes Emile Durkheim:

Young women from the former Soviet bloc are particularly fragile. Six of the top seven countries worldwide for suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics: Russia is sixth in the list, Kazakhstan second. The sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that suicide viruses occur at civilizational breaks, when the parents have no traditions, no value systems to pass on to their children. Thus there is no deep-lying ideology to support them when they are under emotional stress. Ruslana’s and Anastasia’s parents were brought up in the Soviet Union; their children lived in a completely different world.

I find this idea of  “suicide viruses” to be somewhat strange as it makes suicide sound like a contagion or a disease. Durkheim himself suggested in Suicide that suicides were the result of anomie, the idea that individuals in a society need to be integrated into the surrounding or they may feel disconnected and take drastic action. Imitation was not much of a social cause (see this summary here); rather, suicides are driven by a normlessness that one can experience if not properly integrated into society.

I think this paragraph referring to Durkheim could be better executed by talking about how young women in these former Soviet Republics have a difficult time finding their place in society. In this particular story, it sounds like the model was destabilized by this particular group/cult and didn’t know where to turn. The socialization process between parents and children might play a role in this but there could be other factors as well. The suggestion in the story is that parents have little ideology to pass on to their children and this is more of a society-wide concern than simply the responsibility of individual families.

High rate of arrests among NFL players?

Going into the Super Bowl, everyone knows about the legal issues Ben Roethlisberger has faced in recent years. But one sociologist has found that behavior that breaks the law is not unknown to NFL players. One website suggests that sociologist Eric Carter found “nearly 35% of all players in the league have been arrested.” Elsewhere, Carter goes into more detail about why so many NFL players are arrested at some point and how religion could help players deal with anomie:

Eric has conducted over 100 interviews with NFL players, some who have led happy and well-adjusted lives but also with many who have not.  We talk about the typical pressures that a professional player faces, coming into sudden fame and fortune.  Prof. Carter brings the research ideas of Emile Durkheim, particulary “social anomie,” to bear on what a number of these athletes face when moving into the professional ranks.  The sudden change in lifestyle combined with intense pressures to perform often leave many of them unhappy, confused and susceptible to all sorts of deviant behavior (some of which makes the news).  We talk then about the role of religion in helping players cope with these changes.  Our discussion looks at what factors might help players make adjustments to their new environments, including: a religious upbringing; the support networks they have access to at college; and religious role models in the locker room.

More details about Carter’s study of NFL players can be found here. Although this is a small sample of 104 players (there are at least 1440 players in the NFL each year – 45 players on 32 rosters), Carter found that 33 of the players had been arrested (31.7%). And Carter wrote a book, Boys Gone Wild, based on his study.

What is interesting about this is that the NFL seems to avoid scrutiny in the public eye about this. Whereas baseball stars are vilified for cheating, NFL players are regularly arrested (if this arrest rate holds true across the NFL – and even if it was really 10-20% lower, it still is a decent number) and the popularity of the NFL has continued to grow. Even with players like Roethlisberger or Rae Carruth or Michael Vick or Ray Lewis or Donte Stallworth or Marvin Harrison getting into trouble, this sort of news gets overwhelmed by the behemoth that is NFL entertainment.

In a more recent interview, Carter talks about how the NFL is able to keep this information out of the public eye:

“We see a lot of what goes on, because of the media,” Carter said. “But I was amazed at how much goes on that isn’t picked up — how powerful the NFL is in combating some of the potential bad media. I couldn’t believe how many guys contemplated suicide or attempted it, or were that unhappy with their lives that they engaged in these self-destructive behaviors.”

Carter found that 32 percent of the players he interviewed had been arrested after they entered the league — and others said they often evaded arrest by dispensing autographs to star-struck police officers — and nearly half described themselves as unhappy people.

“Fifty percent? That’s a big number,” he said, especially when you consider that these are young men who make on average more than $1 million a year to play football, and many of them much more than that.

“It just goes against our contemporary American conceptions of what happiness is. They have it all. They have the wealth, the fame, the power, the status — all of those things that many people equate with a happy life.”

Perhaps the NFL is able to bury these stories or minimize them. Or perhaps the American public doesn’t want to face this kind of information or thinks the athletes are compensated enough and can deal with the problems on their own.

Placing “anomie” among states of sadness

A writer discusses the different states of sadness including melancholy, mal du pays, neurasthenia, and anomie. Here is the description of anomie:

“Anomie” was another condition once favoured in the 19th Century by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and from a sociologist, a sociological condition. Anomie was defined as an isolated mood caused by the breakdown of social norms, sense of purpose and rules of conduct.

This famous term came out of Durkheim’s thinking in Suicide. I’ve never thought of it as a sadness – I usually think of it as a slotting issue where some individuals don’t have roles within larger society. Durkheim was less interested in how it was experienced by individuals and more interested in why it occurred and then might lead to more suicides.

If I had to describe the kind of sadness that anomie represents, I might go with something like a feeling that one does not have a place in society, doesn’t fit, doesn’t have a role, and is outside society’s norms and rules.