Anomie: Margaret Singer on Recovery from Cults

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Anomie: Margaret Singer on Recovery from Cults

Post17 Jan 2015

Margaret Singer, now deceased, was a pioneer in the study and treatment of individuals recovering from cults. The video is from 1991, but remains pertinent to day. Her "Coming Out of the Cults" published in Psychology Today, January, 1979 was one of the defining articles in the field.

In it, she talks about the state of anomie, a "condition of instability and indecisiveness resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals". The term introduced by French sociologist Émile Durkheim from his study of suicide. She relates it to the internal conflict of having 3 different value systems (pre-cult, cult, real world post-cult), the breaking down of logical, consequential thought that happens in cults.

Singer also mentions how "many ex-members find that a variety of conditions; stress and conflict, a depressive low, even certain significant words or ideas can trigger a return to the trancelike states they knew in cult days.

As an aside, one thing to notice is how lively, even jolly the crowd sounds at what you might have presumed a very serious "cult watch" type seminar/conference. If every any of you have the chance to attend such a seminar/conference, I strongly recommend it. You will find it interesting, inspiring, and liberating.

Here she is, interviewed in 1997.

According to Durkheim, when an individual or social system is in a state of anomie, common values and common meanings are no longer understood or accepted, and new values and meanings have not developed. Such times produce psychological states characterized by a sense of futility, lack of purpose, and emotional emptiness and despair.

Striving is considered useless, because there is no accepted definition of what is desirable.

American sociologist Robert K. Merton found it severest in people who lack an acceptable means of achieving their personal goals. Goals may become so important that if the institutionalized means - i.e., those means acceptable according to the standards of the society - fail, illegitimate means might be used. Greater emphasis on ends rather than means creates a stress that leads to a breakdown in structure. If, for example, a society impelled its members to acquire wealth yet offered inadequate means for them to do so, the strain would cause many people to violate norms. The only regulating agencies would be the desire for personal advantage and the fear of punishment. Merton defined a continuum of responses to anomie that ranged from conformity to social innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and, finally, rebellion.

In the psychological use of the term, anomie means the state of mind of a person who has no standards or sense of continuity or obligation and has rejected all social bonds. They may have a sense of futility and a conviction that associates are not dependable sources of support.

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