By David Mayeda

For Emile Durkheim, anomie was a state of normlessness, a society where individuals’ connections with each other had become frayed. This happened during times of massive social change and could lead to heavier patterns of suicide. For Durkheim, the other critical aspect of anomie was that it existed when there was an absence in social regulations that would help to guide behaviours. Or put in more Durkheim-esque terms, anomie equates to normlessness in social regulations.

That is partly what we see in this clip from HBO’s awesome drama, The Wire (season 3). Here Major Colvin (a.k.a., “Bunny”, pictured below) has established a safe zone of sorts for mid-level drug dealers from a variety of gangs. This sector becomes called “Hamsterdam” after a youth misinterprets the area being compared to Amsterdam where drug use is largely decriminalized. There are very little regulations in “Hamsterdam,” as the drug dealers may freely sell their products while law enforcement turns a blind eye, as long as there is no overt physical violence.

In short, dealers may deal, and users may buy and use without many legally enforced regulations or forms of social control. It should also be noted that Durkheim felt crime was a normal part of society. But, when the level of crime passed a certain threshold, then crime would no longer be considered normal and instead would be an indicator of society being truly sick. But before we get to the clip, let’s also account for Robert Merton’s rendition of anomie.

For Merton, anomie happened when there was a loss of means, meaning society didn’t care about the pathways by which people gained wealth, as long as they got wealthy (see also here). Or put another way, getting wealthy was more important than the processes by which someone made/got money. Likewise in this socially constructed environment of “Hamsterdam,” the means by which drug dealers make money is out of control. The goal is to profit, and there are no social morals that would otherwise guide people on how to reach those goals appropriately. Hence, the dealers (as directed by their superiors in the drug crews) will sell drugs to whoever will buy, something that’s facilitated in “Hamsterdam.”

In “Hamsterdam,” we see a combination of normlessness regarding both regulations and means…it’s total anomie for both Durkheim and Merton. Consequently, the levels of crime, and retreatism are astronomical. Even a seasoned character like “Bubbles” in this scene is deeply disturbed as he walks through the community. Of course as Major Colvin would like to point out, by decriminalizing drugs in one sector of the community, the rest of the community is much improved. Gang violence has subsided substantially across the broader sectors of West Baltimore. Unfortunately, unlike Amsterdam, public health-based social services are completely lacking in “Hamsterdam,” and only come in too late as Colvin’s social experiment is about to get shut down.

Okay, now let’s check out “Hamsterdam”:

http://youtu.be/tpV18bqN16w

4 thoughts on “Durkheim, Merton, and Anomie in “The Wire”

  1. Functionalists also point out that one way to control deviance and restore the social system to equilibrium is to isolate or segregate offenders. Hamsterdam is one form of isolation,a strategy that has helped members of the larger society sleep better at night. But what helps the larger society achieve normalcy may also be disastrous to the lives of offenders. One group gains safety at the expense of bringing greater danger for the excluded group. Moreover the root of deviance is not addressed, only the symptoms are mitigated. In the long run, Hamsterdam does not solve the drug problem; it only exacerbates it. No wonder the experiment will soon shut down. There’s got to be a better solution — and a better theory to deal with the drug issue.

  2. Salamat Ricardo! Agreed, anomie (however it’s conceptualized) does not ultimately explain drug use, let alone trafficking, certainly not the root causes. I think Hamsterdam is simply a good illustration of how substance use and dealing get even more out of control when norms are completely eradicated. But in The Wire, drug use and trafficking were already very out of control pre-Hamsterdam. I like using the series to illustrate various criminology theories when I teach. I’d personally take more of a critical criminology perspective to explain substance use, particularly in this environment.

  3. […] For Merton, anomie happened when there was a loss of means, meaning society didn’t care about the pathways by which people gained wealth, as long as they got wealthy (see also here). Or put another way, getting wealthy was more important than the processes by which someone made/got money. Likewise in this socially constructed environment of “Hamsterdam,” the means by which drug dealers make money is out of control. The goal is to profit, and there are no social morals that would otherwise guide people on how to reach those goals appropriately. Hence, the dealers (as directed by their superiors in the drug crews) will sell drugs to whoever will buy, something that’s facilitated in “Hamsterdam.”  […]

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