Merton holds that anomie, otherwise known as normative breakdown, and some forms of deviant behavior derive largely from a disjunction between culturally sanctioned aspirations of a society and the socially structured means for realizing those aspirations (Merton, 1949). In other words, a disconnect between people’s aspirations and their access to legitimate means of achieving them results in a breakdown of values, at both societal and individual levels.
Merton states that social values are clearly defined in the universal focus on monetary success and the mainstream egalitarian ideology (Merton, 1949). He further points out that there is a disjunction between socially described means and the goals of a given action. This imbalance is the result of over-emphasizing cultural goals at the expense of institutionalized means. This is what causes anomie (Merton, 1949).
In the US, unlike many other societies, the cultural goal of economic success is the “American Dream” of social mobility, meaningful work, home ownership, material comforts, and easy retirement. This forms the legitimate expectation for all members of society, not just for a fraction of them. Doctrinally, this culturally defined goal is achievable through socially sanctioned means that are held to be equally available to all.
In reality, however, that ideal has never been achieved. While it may have exhibited extraordinary strides, US society still restricts or closes access to these avenues of opportunity for significant portions of the population; at the same time, it places heavy emphasis on the achievement of success.
The disconnection between socially described means and the goals of a given course of action is quite evident in the movie The Breakfast Club. This movie is a rendition of teen comedy in which five students are confined in detention in Shermer, Illinois high school library. The students have to cope with each other for nine hours while writing a one-thousand-word essay explaining who they think they are. This is done under the watchful and frustrated principal. The students start out as individuals, but eventually, once they have discussed their personal lives, they undergo a change of heart and become one unified group, the breakfast club.
Merton’s theory of anomie is quite evident in this movie. This is because the movie portrays the gap between socially described means and the ends of actions. This is evident in each of the five students in the movie, as well as their aggressive principal. At the beginning, the movie introduces each of the characters to the audience. The characters are Andrew, John, Brian as well as Claire and Allison. To complete the picture, there is also the school principal, Mr. Vernon.
Brian can be tagged as rebellious. His mother drives him to the school compound, continuously harping on him about the importance of studying. However, it looks like he is rebelling from all that his mother stands for. The fact that his mother has been imploring him to take his studies seriously yet he ends up the detention clearly suggests that Brian is a rebellious student.
Brian’s rebellious nature is also evident at the detention. There is a general consensus from his fellow students that he writes the essay that Mr. Vernon had assigned to them earlier. However, instead of writing the essay according to the instructions given by the principals, and according to the agreement with fellow students, he writes a letter contesting the requirements of the essay (The Breakfast Club, 1949). Moreover, he does not even bother to personally hand it in to the principal; instead he chooses to leave it on the table hoping that the principal will come across it.
Merton also classifies people as ritualists in his distinctions of anomie. The ritualist abandons the goals of material success and becomes compulsively committed to institutional means. This is the case of the principal, Mr. Vernon. He is overly aggressive and frustrated in his handling of the students in detention. He orders the students not to speak or move from their seats during the detention. He also ensures that none of the students sleep during the entire time they are in detention.
The students, therefore, can only interact in his absence. They are able to form social and interpersonal relationships, something that Mr. Vernon would have squashed through the unnecessarily harsh rules and regulations. Moreover, Mr. Vernon is overly critical of everything. At one point, the movie depicts him complaining about the quality of food served for him.
The principal also separates the students during lunch time. He dispatches Allison and Andy to the faculty office for milk. This shows that the principal is in the category of ritualists, as put forward by Merton. This is because Mr. Vernon is compulsively committed to institutional means, such as fetching milk from the faculty, ensuring that the rules of the detention are carried out to the letter, regardless of their negative impact on the students (West & Lynn, 2010).
Mr. Vernon also displays a ritualistic tendency when he takes stiff measures against John, when he discovers him out of bounds. In this episode, the students contravene Mr. Vernon’s instructions to remain indoors and, instead, venture out on the tour of the school compound. Everything seems to be working out well until they hear the principal’s footsteps. Since desperate times call for desperate measures, the students split up to avoid being discovered and John agrees to be a sacrificial lamb. He creates a diversion to distract the principal and in the process he is caught and receives full punishment.
The movie also depicts an element of retreatism. Merton avers that retreatists basically withdraw from both the goals and means of the society. In most societies, retreatists are usually drug addicts and most teenagers who have taken to alcohol. In the movie, this aspect is portrayed clearly when the students sneak out of the library where they have been detained to tour the school compound. However, as the movie unfolds, the audience learns that the students do much more than just touring the school compound. They have concealed marijuana in one of the lockers and they undertake to retrieve it.
Then, there is the aspect innovation. Innovators submit to the goals of the society but use improper means to access them. This group of people consists of individuals who do not mind the consequences of a given course of action, so long as it leads them to their desired end or outcome. In the movie, the students have the desire to open up to each other and get to know each other well. However, they are constrained by the fact that they are under detention. They soon find innovative ways of interacting and learning about each other.
The ensuing interaction between the students reveals very critical information about them. This information would have been useful to the school administration because it would have helped the school management determine the best way to handle them. This is because detention may not have been very helpful to the students. The fact of the matter is that the five students were not actually detained since they could easily sneak out and interact with each other.
As the movie unfolds, very interesting pieces of information concerning each of the student’s character default are presented to the audience. For example, Allison emerges as a compulsive liar, Bender is a product of an abusive household, Claire is embarrassed o be a virgin while Brian has once contemplated suicide (The Breakfast Club, 1985).
Through interaction, the teenagers discover that they actually have more in common than they actually thought. In this regard, they are able to achieve the socially acceptable goal of bonding and understanding each other, but in a manner that is not so acceptable, at least as far as the principal is concerned.
Another instance of innovation is evident in the movie. At the request and consensus of the students, Brian is asked to write the essay Mr. Vernon assigned earlier. Instead of writing about the assigned topic, Brian writes a letter to the teacher objecting to his request to describe to him who they are since, despite Vernon's preconceived views about every one of them, each member of the now more closer group of students feels equally like an athlete, a basket-case, a princess, a brain, and a criminal. Brian signs the essay as "The Breakfast Club" and leaves it at the table for Mr. Vernon to read when they leave (The Breakfast Club, 1985).
In this episode, the students wish to express their dissatisfaction with the treatment they receive in the library during the detention. They are not comfortable with the idea of writing an essay describing them, which is a socially acceptable goal. This is because an individual may not adequately describe themselves due to biases that mat come naturally. Consequently, it may not be the most appropriate way of revealing their character.
In conformity, members of the society would want to be in tandem with the others, who may be more successful than them. Due to inequalities in the distribution of economic and social resources, a section of the society may lag behind in its actualization of the American dream, as it is aptly put. This is because they may lack the means with which to access the socially sanctioned avenues that would help them achieve their desired status. The need to conform; therefore, drives this group of people to engage in activities that go against the norms of the society so as to achieve their aspirations.
This is quite evident in the movie The Breakfast Club. It is the case for Allison who is described as a compulsive liar (The Breakfast Club, 1985). The implication of this is that Allison is driven into lying by external forces. This is because she would want to conform to the environment around her. It is maybe due to this reason that she also ends up in the detention.
The janitor in the movie has also been used to depict the conformist approach to the theory of anomie. The janitor ensures that things are done in the socially acceptable manner. The janitor has also been used to create comparison between the teenagers and the adults. The implication of this is possibly to bring to the fore the differences or similarities in the effects of anomie on both teenagers and adults.
Merton’s theory of anomie, therefore, runs predominantly in the movie, The Breakfast Club. It is important to understand the causes of anomie, and its effects of different types of individuals. For the teenagers, it interferes with their learning processes, leading them into detention. It is also important to note that the four adaptation mechanisms of the theory of anomie as applied by Merton are significant in this movie. These are conformity, retreatism, rebellion and ritualism.