November 25, 2008

The Anomie of Homelessness and the Anomie of Western Buddhism

I want to set the ground for an issue I want to get heavily into later. It begins with a definition of anomie and then an exploration of the Typograpy of Deviance, the ways and reasons people pull away (or are pushed away) from what is accepted or normal for their society.

Anomie comes from the Greek, literally meaning "without"+"law." With respect to sociology, it's meaning is defined -- at dictionary.com -- thusly: "A state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people." But this is better for our purposes, a quote from an essay at the South Carolina University webspace, using Sociologist Robert K. Merton's definition as he came to use it in his 1968 book Social Meaning and Social Structure, writing: "when society places a greater stress on achieving the culturally preferred goals (whatever they are) but does not equally stress the approved norms regulating the means to achieve those goals, society is in a state of anomie." Merton’s concept of anomie in the broadest sense is concerned with the disparate emphasis which exists between cultural goals and institutionalized means. More narrowly defined, however, anomie is said to exist when the “cultural (or idiosyncratic) exaggeration of the success-goal leads men to withdraw emotional support from the rules."

Anomie seems to be used focusedly in describing homeless people. This is understandable, for what group could more centrally be pointed at as those who have fallen out of the general society or culture where they are? And, yet, from my experience, swimming in the pool of homelessness, it is its own culture, rich with a grand variety of individuals. It is an open question, for me, whether Merton's Typography of Deviance, as constructed, slots us homeless properly.

Also of great interest is a look at so-called Western Buddhism [aka, New Buddhism or American Buddhism], defined as a deviant life choice. How do the typically caucasian persons who are attracted to Western Buddhism in America come to the religion? What can we say about individual Western Buddhist's goals and means which induce them to practice our religion? How big a component, ultimately, is the rejection of Christianity or Judaism or secular atheism/agnosticism? or, do Western Buddhists always/usually/ultimately come to "play their own game" within the context of the larger society (that is, are we typographically rebels)?

So, now, this of central importance to the discussion, something that comes to me after first visiting Ryan Garou's blog On Homelessness in America [link] and then doing a bit of googling. It's a brief overview of Robt Merton's Typography of Deviance found at the mashica webspace:

In 1938, the sociologist Robert Merton wrote about anomie using the term to mean the DISCONTINUITY BETWEEN CULTURAL GOALS AND THE LEGITIMATE MEANS FOR REACHING THEM. For example, the idea of monetary success (in the USA, where Merton did most of his studying) is a very strong goal shared by virtually all of the population. However, this goal is not always accompanied by a socially acceptable means to fulfillment. This anomie places stress on the society and causes dysfunction in its specific groups that lack the possiblity to attain those same goals. The fruit of this dysfunctionality in society is called, by Merton, deviance. Deviance, I propose, is the twin sister of disobedience and can be easily used as syonyms one for the other.

Each person's reaction to the anomie is to be understood as a mode of adaptation. For Merton, there are 5 basic modes of adaptation to anomie in his (and our) society: Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism, and Rebellion. This is also known as Merton's deviance typology.

CONFORMITY is the typical successfull hardworking person who both accepts the goals of the society and has the means for obtaining those goals. This is an example of NON-anomie.

INNOVATION is the form of adaptation of the person who has accepted the goals of the society but does not have the ability to attain those goals. This person, then, creates a new way of obtaining the same goals by different means. This is the role of creativity! This the most typical anomie. Many persons of this type can be very beneficial to society in the long run. However others included in this group are thieves or other criminals (say, of the white-collar variety).

Adaptation in the form of RITUALISM represents the person who in spite of not having the goals of the society, continues to participate in the means. This is the person who works hard but has no desire or is ambivalent to becoming successful. This is also the typical role of a beaurocracy that is followed as an end in itself; or an inflexible following or an insistance on rules for everything.

RETREATISM: The person who rejects the means AND the goals is said to be retreating from society. Stereotypically, this adaption to anomie is represented by the person who refuses to participate in society; the drug-addict, the street person.

The last category of adaptation is REBELLION. The rebel may or may not have accepted the the goals and may or may not have accepted the means to the goals. The goals or/and means are replaced by other goals and/or means. If he acts within the means to fulfilling a goal, he does so for reasons that have nothing to do with the goals of the society as a whole. He is playing his own game.


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