Association and community, relationships with individual others or relationship to a group as a whole, which would you be inclined to say reduces anomie? We may be inclined to think that community should have a stronger effect. Indeed, it may seem to us that anomie and loss of community are almost synonymous. Not so, says some recent research reported in Social Networks Vol. 32, Issue 3, July 2010.

Perusing this issue, my eye is caught by the article whose abstract appears below.

Matthew E. Brashears "Anomia and the sacred canopy: Testing a network theory 

Abstract: This article evaluates the Durkheim/Berger argument that integration in a network of co-religionists protects against anomia. The 1985 General Social Survey network instrument is used to evaluate the effect of integration on anomia and the probability of unhappiness. Results indicate that contact with religiously homogeneous others paired with personal religious belief reduces anomia and the likelihood of unhappiness. Additionally, while ego/alter closeness is important, alter/alter closeness is not. These results suggest that individuals benefit from religious association more so than religious community. Additional analyses indicate that these exults are unlikely due to homophilly.

The suggestion made here that no congregation is needed; a network of co-believers is enough to ward off the unhappiness of anomie is a striking hypothesis. If correct, it implies that the reasons for forming congregations, or other cohesive groups, must be found in something besides shared meaning. Or am I missing something here?

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Durkheim's notion of anomie arose as part of a three-fold typology of relations between individuals and society that might influence the propensity for suicide (courants suicidogenes). Egoistic suicide demonstrated a weak link between individuals and society (maybe your network or associational type); altruistic suicide demonstrated the overhelming dominance of society over the individual (congregation perhaps or strong community); and anomic suicide resulted from a breakdown of relations between society and the individual (a loss of norms).

The abstract makes only static comparisons and deflects attention from the central question of how individuals and society are linked dynamically (unhappiness doesn't really figure in Durkheim's sociological scheme). You refer to the question of formation which seems to concern neither Durkheim nor this writer (but which did concern Mauss). Durkheim was keen to point out that a sudden improvement of fortune may be even more catastrophic for individuals than remaining poor and downtrodden.

Beatrice Webb reports in My Apprenticeship on a new working class civilization she discovered in Northern England as a teenager. This was founded on three institutions: the chapel, union and co-op. The first was a congregation but animated by Protestant individualism, the second encouraged combination in the workplace, but was based on individual ownership of tools, the third promoted combination in the market but on a basis of individual ownership. Whereas Marx and Engels discerned two classes, a proletariat with only its labour in common and a petty bourgeoise addicted to individual ownership, Webb saw that all successful institutions must combine individual rights with collective organization.

So what strikes me about the above is that, in order to generate and test a statistical null hypthesis, Brashears separates terms that are dialectically inseparable and mixes up sociological hypotheses without ever approaching the dynamic questions concerning social attachment that made Durkheim introduce the concept of anomie in the first place.

If this Group is concerned with possible theoretical importations from other disciplines like sociology, this example leads me to conclude that anthropologists can still learn from Durkheim, for all his faults, but this latterday stuff is too debased to be of interest to us.
Perhaps so. But what if one finds the result more interesting than the intellectual genealogy? To be sure it rests on thin ground—the General Social Survey is a very limited instrument—and one can always muddy the water with hand-waving, muttering about dialectics and postulating dynamics that are left totally unspecified. But the proposition, that the meaningfulness that wards off anomie and possibly suicidal depression can be provided by associations organized in loosely structured networks with no need for group solidarity? If true that's an interesting, if only because unexpected, finding. Could be absolute crap. But revisiting ancient intellectual history doesn't prove it one way or the other.
Sorry that my comment came across as being more snotty than intended. It is true that I like citing classical sources for my own purposes, but, this being a group about theory, I wanted to address the theoretical basis for the empirical generalization that interests you. I found it wanting in a number of respects, but especially for the absence of movement in the framrwork of the argument, an absence that I associate with indifference to history, intellectual or otherwise, but also to questions of dynamics, formation, emergence, dialectic and so on. The word anomie comes from somewhere. It is one of the few that have passed from social science into general usage; so I thought its use by the man who coined it might be of some interest. I also sought, again through an archaic reference, to point to how the conceptual terms of the statement are imbricated in each other, making them unsuitable for this sort of statistical argument. But my main crime was to ignore the substance of what interested you. I just wanted to draw out a theoretical argument and I am not sure that the terms of what we have are that meaningful.
Thanks, Keith. Very gracious. Reflecting on what you have written, it strikes me that we are writing from positions informed by different habits of mind. On one side, there is the academic, the fighter trained by seminar and peer-review to try to knock out the other. From this position, any weakness in the other's idea is seen as a chance to pounce. On the other, there is the adman, trained by brainstorming and presentation development sessions to look for ideas that, while still imperfect, suggest some new angle that might, if developed, transform conventional thinking. In a good brainstorming session, hundreds of ideas will be considered. The fast majority will be dismissed, but a few, perhaps only one, will cause someone to say, "Well, if that's the case...." Then someone else will chime in, "Then, couldn't we...." As participants add to, instead of detracting from, what they have heard, the idea grows, revealing new possibilities. Instead of a Pyrrhic "critical" victory, something creative happens.

In this case, what Barshear's analysis suggested to me was a transformation of usually tacit assumptions that life is lonely and meaningless without belonging to a group. What if a loose association of diverse friends with whom you share a few ideas provides sufficient sociality and keeps life interesting? If that proved to be the case..... What would be the implications?

"Anomie" may not be the right term; conflating anomie with the loneliness and disorientation of someone who finds him or herself a stranger in our shifty, liquid modern world may stray a long way from Durkheim's original meaning. But if, as I do, you see words as pointers to possibilities instead of forever locked to some essential reference, these are only quibbles. There's a world of difference between "How do you define that?" and academic turf wars on the one hand and "There may be something here. What can we do with that?"—the search for new possibilities that informs advertising, art, and, yes, real science.


Keith Hart said:
Sorry that my comment came across as being more snotty than intended. It is true that I like citing classical sources for my own purposes, but, this being a group about theory, I wanted to address the theoretical basis for the empirical generalization that interests you. I found it wanting in a number of respects, but especially for the absence of movement in the framrwork of the argument, an absence that I associate with indifference to history, intellectual or otherwise, but also to questions of dynamics, formation, emergence, dialectic and so on. The word anomie comes from somewhere. It is one of the few that have passed from social science into general usage; so I thought its use by the man who coined it might be of some interest. I also sought, again through an archaic reference, to point to how the conceptual terms of the statement are imbricated in each other, making them unsuitable for this sort of statistical argument. But my main crime was to ignore the substance of what interested you. I just wanted to draw out a theoretical argument and I am not sure that the terms of what we have are that meaningful.
I do not know how relevant it is to this conversation, but it brings to mind how small towns struggle to maintain vibrant "scenes" in the performing and visual arts.

At any given time a small town might have a small cadre of artists struggling to put something together. The relatively small number of artists in a small town makes such an ad hoc scene vulnerable to small perturbations, such as when a particularly motivated individual leaves to pursue a career in the big city. The success of these endeavors, and I mean a community's qualitative assessment of the vibrancy of the "scene" waxes and wanes as these artists move in and out of the area, have kids get jobs, and so on. In turn, this relates to how isolated and dispirited many members of a small town, especially the artists and lovers of the arts, feel. Art institutions, like a museum of contemporary art or a concert hall, might serve to hedge against such perturbations by insuring that a minimum of art-related activity occurs, not to mention by providing art-related jobs and grants to struggling artists who might have otherwise had to make a decision between doing art and working a day job.

I imagine that congregations provide long-term stability in communities of like-minded believers.
Jacob, this strikes me as very relevant, and I have some additional thoughts about congregations (my parents helped found two churches). What I'd like to do though is step back for 24 hours or so and make space for others to join the conversation.

To anyone else out there: Please jump in.

Jacob Lee said:
I do not know how relevant it is to this conversation, but it brings to mind how small towns struggle to maintain vibrant "scenes" in the performing and visual arts.

At any given time a small town might have a small cadre of artists struggling to put something together. The relatively small number of artists in a small town makes such an ad hoc scene vulnerable to small perturbations, such as when a particularly motivated individual leaves to pursue a career in the big city. The success of these endeavors, and I mean a community's qualitative assessment of the vibrancy of the "scene" waxes and wanes as these artists move in and out of the area, have kids get jobs, and so on. In turn, this relates to how isolated and dispirited many members of a small town, especially the artists and lovers of the arts, feel. Art institutions, like a museum of contemporary art or a concert hall, might serve to hedge against such perturbations by insuring that a minimum of art-related activity occurs, not to mention by providing art-related jobs and grants to struggling artists who might have otherwise had to make a decision between doing art and working a day job.

I imagine that congregations provide long-term stability in communities of like-minded believers.
Jacob, what I like best about your example is that it takes a discussion that tends to get stuck in abstract, global framework (individual vs society, with absence of settled norms leaving individuals not knowing what to expect or what they ought to do) and locates it, instead, in a specific context, how small towns struggle to maintain vibrant "scenes" in the performing and visual arts. This suggests other possible moves in which a specific set of relationships is at stake.

I think, for example, of a marriage and what happens when a child is born. I imagine a world in which parents agree on what they want for their child and on how the child is supposed to acquire the relevant norms. Then I think of my own experience as a parent, who had grown up in a "traditional" family, father going off to work, mother staying home, established, religiously sanctioned, conservative norms; was married to a woman whose family background was somewhat different, especially in sensitive areas like bathroom behavior; and both consciously committed to creating a more egalitarian and less gender role divided family than either set of parents had exemplified. The endless negotiation was tiring and, in rough passages, a cause for near despair. This is all now history, and I am one of the most happily married men I know. Still, however, the memories linger.

I find myself envisioning a life that, like the one I lead, involves overlapping social circles, all subject to the kind of perturbations you describe in small town art scenes. I can envision a situation in which the perturbations heterodyne into something truly overwhelming or, alternatively, are spaced in a way such that one cancels out the other. Not knowing what to expect or what to do in one circle is offset by good news in other circles. Or it may simply be that multiple circles allow dropping out of one circle without being left totally isolated.

Now seeing the problem as one conceived in terms of THE individual and THE society, as though there were only one of each seems incredibly simplistic. But developing more complex models, with overlapping circle and multiply entangled networks. That sounds like a great problem for someone like you, who both knows the relevant mathematics and also appreciates the anthropological complexities.

Jacob Lee said:
I do not know how relevant it is to this conversation, but it brings to mind how small towns struggle to maintain vibrant "scenes" in the performing and visual arts.

At any given time a small town might have a small cadre of artists struggling to put something together. The relatively small number of artists in a small town makes such an ad hoc scene vulnerable to small perturbations, such as when a particularly motivated individual leaves to pursue a career in the big city. The success of these endeavors, and I mean a community's qualitative assessment of the vibrancy of the "scene" waxes and wanes as these artists move in and out of the area, have kids get jobs, and so on. In turn, this relates to how isolated and dispirited many members of a small town, especially the artists and lovers of the arts, feel. Art institutions, like a museum of contemporary art or a concert hall, might serve to hedge against such perturbations by insuring that a minimum of art-related activity occurs, not to mention by providing art-related jobs and grants to struggling artists who might have otherwise had to make a decision between doing art and working a day job.

I imagine that congregations provide long-term stability in communities of like-minded believers.

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