French sociologist, Emile Durkheim defined the social state of anomie as a situation in which social and/or moral norms are confused, blurred, or nonexistent. Durkheim felt this state of “normlessness” gave rise to deviance and irregular behaviours in individuals. Durkheim cites that anomie is triggered when social controls are weak, moral obligations which constrain and keep individuals in check; break down and can no longer imprint social conformity. In times of rapid social change the prevalence of this phenomenon is escalated, such as in times of recession, industrial booms and political uprisings. These rapid changes in norms skew peoples desires, expectations and ability to succeed. Individuals, who cannot adapt to this swift change, are washed away by the social tidal wave, becoming the flotsam and jetsam in a pool labelled anomie. Durkheim extrapolates on this, reasoning “The scale is upset; but a new scale cannot be immediately improvised. Time is required for the public conscience to reclassify men and things” (Haralambos and Holborn 1995:185). During the course of this, individualism and self-interest breeds into the social psyche. The authority of shared norms and morality is battered and individuals gain the power to apply autonomy towards their behaviour. This social evolution or survival of the social fittest detracts from social solidarity, moving from a herd mentality of shared duty, responsibility and unity to a protectionalist and discriminatory hierarchy. This hierarchy sees those unable to adapt and places them at its lowest runs to govern and manage themselves. This is homelessness.
The homeless are those in society that when faced with the dilemma to conform or concede, opt or are opted out of society. Their inability to identify with and internalise social norms and values creates disillusionment, and they internally remove themselves from a society that they cannot relate to and feel alien within. Most societies have a preconceived idea of how its members should conduct themselves, live their lives and what they should aspire to. For example, in Britain since the early 20th century the ideal of the nuclear family, with 2.4 children, a well paid job and a generally clean cut, law-abiding demeanour has been held up as the social ideal. Those displaying the desire to deviate from facets of this are seen as irregular and separate. Homelessness is a rejection of this societal and institutional power, an anomic insolence towards “playing the game”. In her book “The culture of homelessness” Ravenhill supports this, citing “rather than individuals being made to dress, act and behave in a manner compatible with mainstream society, they instead choose to create a society in which they are the norm” (Ravenhill 2008:154). Be this by not committing to the establishments of housing, employment, taxation, law or society. This can be seen in all homeless people from flouting laws on illegal substances, to having no fixed abode, to unemployment, begging and so on. These are all things that society teaches to be unsavoury and anti-social, as must be those who engage in them. Living in a society that ostracises their choices, absence of abode, lack of shared goals, substance use or perceived anarchic behaviours they experience a vicious cycle of feeling abnormal and the reinforcement of being seen as so by the remainder of society.
Through this severance and distinction as such, homeless subculture materialises as, could be argued, a brotherhood of the anomic. Trying to offset the detrimental and isolating effects of anomie, the homeless band together; attempting to find security and belonging. Ravenhill summaries this entrenchment succinctly, stating “Separation from the predicable norms, values and expectations of the mainstream society may increase anxiety and fear and threaten ontological security, or create feelings akin to Durkheim’s anomie. In an attempt to counterbalance this instability and threat to ontological security, it would appear that some take refuge in the homeless culture” (Ravenhill 2008:157). This creates a culture in which these anomic values and the avoidance of mainstream societal systems are acceptable and possible. This accommodating reassurance bonds the individual to the subculture, bringing about a challenge to disengage from it and reconnect with a presumed volatile mainstream.
This creates an ideological stand-off between the housed and the homeless. The anomic fail to conform to the housed population’s dogma and values and the housed fail to see the hardships and struggles faced by the homeless. In their piece in the journal “Critical Social Policy”, Scanlon and Adlam echo this, stating; ”Rather than being seen as traumatized through shaming experiences of poverty, deprivation, neglect, and abuse, their anti-social stance is construed to be delinquent, deviant or offensive. In the face of this presentation the impulsive societal and institutional response, which operates both defensively and offensively, oscillates between opposing and irreconcilable impulses to ‘lock ’em in’, ‘lock ’em out’, ‘throw ’em out’ or ‘lock ’em up’” (Scanlon and Adlam 2008:540). This expands the divide between “us” and “them” on both sides, fuelling the anomic nature of the homeless to unite and remain separate. The consequent refusal of the homeless to bow to the power of institutions also feeds into this, strengthening the velocity of the vicious cycle.
Homelessness is experiencing life through the continuum of anomie. It is a combination of rejecting conformity and being rejected for nonconformity. The homeless reject societal norms and values on how to live and what to aspire to. As such they consider themselves different and in turn are deemed so by society. This leads to them forfeiting their place in mainstream society and becoming internally and outwardly separate from it. Seeking to find stability, belonging and security some attach to homeless communities or subcultures. Strengthening and validating their anomic believe, this entrenches and distances them further. Stuck in a turbulent maelstrom of feeling separate from society and being seen as so, it is difficult for the homeless to leave the perceived safety of their anomic network and reconnect with mainstream society. Until society can learn to accept such ideological diversity, this will continue, as the state of homelessness is a product of societies inability to accept those that deviate from its rigid norms.