SIFO/SAFO skriftserie Nr 1 1971
Svenska Institutet för Opinionsundersökningar, SIFO

Reprinted by Permission



By Hans L Zetterberg


Table of contents:

è The Intellectual Heritage
è The Outline of a Formalization
è Some Illustrative Survey Data



In the advanced, rich countries certain problems are moving into the foreground that are reminiscent of many old morality plays and epic dramas on the setting of limits for man's ambitions. These privileged societies deliver a high standard of living to their populations. Yet waves of discontent now and then sweep over them because these societies also create among their people aspirations for a still higher standard or different kind of life. The most incisive and most coherent ideas on this topic do no longer come from plays and fiction about hybris but from a theory of expectation and performance ó evolved within social science. We shall look at some of these ideas and illustrate them with data from survey research from different countries conducted by Gallup International.

1) An address given at the EMNID-Tag in Bonn on the occasion of EMNID's 25th Anniversary on September 29, 1970. The author is Professor of  Sociology at Ohio State University and also board chairman of The Swedish Institute of Public Opinion Research in Stockholm and a director of  Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Ltd in London.


The Intellectual Heritage

The intellectual tradition on which social scientists base most current interpretations of the problem of expectations originated in the 1890's with Europe's first professor of sociology, Emile Durkheim. His ideas on the subject are contained in a book called Le Suicide published in 1897. It pays handsomely to revisit this monograph. As is the case with several other classical works, this book is like a nest of Chinese boxes stuck into one another. The more carefully one studies it, the more likely it is that new boxes are discovered.

The outside box is a very energetic review of the statistics on suicide available at the end of the nineteenth century from various countries and provinces and population subgroups. Quételet had earlier demonstrated the possibility and usefulness of a quantitative social science. His analyses, with unimportant exceptions, are now forgotten. Durkheimís statistical analysis of suicide, however, shows such methodological skill and imagination that examples from it are still used in the training of social scientists. For instance, Herbert H Hymanís advanced textbook Survey Design and Analysis (1955) makes full use of Durkheimís material.

The second box in Durkheimís book is a contribution to the general theory of man in society. By studying the extreme instances when individuals choose to break with society in the act of suicide Durkheim obtains a starch and startling illumination of manís relation to his society. It is the extraordinary insights in the ties of man to society that has made Le Suicide a great, surviving work of sociology. The various types of suicide that are analysed by Durkheim are nothing but types of relations between the collective and the individual. The reader who finds this box will discover that suicide is an illustration to the subject of the book, not the subject itself.

One of the dimensions along which Durkheim classifies how man stands in relation to society runs from the "normal" to what he designates as the "anomic". He notes that the rate of suicide increases at the time of financial crises and bad business conditions. And he notes that the rate increases among widowers and widows. The explanation to both findings is trivial enough: persons grow accustomed to the rewards of income and the support of a spouse, and when these no longer are present they become unhappy and may in extreme circumstances find it useless to go on living. However, quite contrary to common sense assumptions, Durkheim also finds that the suicide rate increases during economic upswings when many persons become much richer than they used to be. And he finds that the rate goes up among the divorced, that is those who after much suffering at long last can end an unhappy marriage. These paradoxes in the data lead Durkheim to the theory of anomie.

The theory of anomie presupposes that non-biological needs of human beings are important. We eat and become satisfied and do not want any more food for the time being even if it is available. We dress and become warm and do not add another garment to what we wear even if we have access to it. The make-up of man provides rather fixed satiation points for our biological needs. But our social needs are different, Durkheim argues. Our needs for such things as happiness, contact, appreciation, status, new experiences of sexual and other kinds have no natural points of satiation. Instead society defines them, not our biological nature. Our fellow men can encourage or discourage our ambitions, they can urge us into a pursuit of success, or into a dolce vita, or they can say that we should remain at our stations in life. More important, events beyond the control of ourselves and our circle of fellow men affect our aspirations. Good times and bad times have noticeable consequences on our expectations. When things in general go well, then our ambitions tend to rise, and when things go poorly our sights are lowered. The pace of change in expectations in our minds depends in large measure how fast things turn to the better or to the worse in our immediate outside world. However, our expectations can sometimes shift faster than our resources to meet them, or vice versa. Whenever the rise of expectations outpaces the rise in our resources to meet them we grow dissatisfied.

The control that society exercises over the satiation points of our non-biological needs can be shaken by two types of crises. The first one Durkheim calls "the crisis of poverty" and it is constituted by a sudden loss of resources. The other consists in a sudden inflation of expectations and is the "crisis-of richness". Both lead to dissatisfactions ó in severe cases of the kind that Durkheim labels "anomic". But again he illuminates here not merely a variety of suicide but an important dimension of manís relation to his society. In the "normal" situation the socio-economic-emotional-aesthetic-religious rewards given to an individual fall within a, to him, customary region which only slowly changes: what society promises, society holds. In the "anomic" situation there is a discrepancy between the ambitions fostered by society and the resources to realize them: what society holds out, society does not deliver. The anomie of good times is the most interesting here. In times of economic upturn and success the resources have increased, but our expectations have increased even more. Here the paradox is wide open: the newly rich is unhappy as is the newly divorced.

The third box in Durkheim Ďs book consists of this advice to the leaders of nations. He recommends measures to reduce the risk of anomie. Most of them strike the modern reader as conservative solutions ó stricter divorce laws is an example. But there is no doubt that he has a message on how the norms of society should be shaped in order to control anomie, particularly the anomie of run-away expectations in periods of material booms.

The innermost box is a message about Durkheim himself, a secularized intellectual from a family of rabbis. It tells the story of his own temptations along three major avenues his study has taken him. There is the temptation to wholly immerse himself in his own groups and surrender to French nationalism. There is the temptation to be a law unto himself and pursue a version of total individualism not uncommon among French intellectuals. And there is the anomic temptation of not setting limits for his ambition in the days of success and thus as a triumphant turn a deaf ear to the slaveís whisper "remember that you are mortal".

In all, Le Suicide is a very worthwhile book, particularly its chapter on anomic suicide.


The Out-line of a Formalization

There have been several attempts to restate Durkheim's theory of anomie for use by modern social scientists. The one most frequently cited is Robert K Mertonís essay "Social Structure and Anomie" from his collection of essays entitled Social Theory and Social Structure (1949). The most recent and perhaps most faithful both to the original and to recent research findings is Ralph Ginsberg's thesis Durkheim's Theory of Anomie (1965). What follows is based on both works but takes its starting point in my own theory "On Social Motivation" (in B. Anderson et al. (eds), Social Theories in Progress, 1966).

Basic to any discussion of rewards, resources, and levels of expectations are certain properties of a scale to measure them. All scales of evaluation have a range. This is the difference between getting an A or an F in a college course, the gap between the very rich and the very poor, the distinction in military life between the private and the general. Through our encounters we become accustomed to a rather limited range: most students never meet one whose typical grade is F, most persons know no one who has an income of 10 million dollars a year, nor anyone with an income of 100 dollars a year; most people in the Army do not know generals, nor privates facing dishonorable discharge. Our encounters usually provide us with a limited, not full range. An evaluation is a complex communication that cannot be understood unless we know three separate components:

  1. A unit. This may be a grade in school, items of visible consumer goods, a rank in an organization, et cetera.
  2. An anchorage point. This may be the average grade in school, the average standard of living, the typical rank for ones age group, et cetera.
  3. An evaluative score. Here we become specific, and speak of, for example, a B-plus student, a boy with generous allowance and car of his own, the president-elect of an organization.

The score is, of course, the valuation proper. But it is clearly dependent on the other two. Units may change. Better tests allow for more discriminating grades that A, B, C, D, and F and we may assign numerical grades ranging, say, from 50 to 100. Car models and other status symbols may change to make it easier (or more difficult) to see what is plain and what is fancy. Personal distinctions and ranks may multiply. Anchorage points may also change. A new admission policy may bring influx of very bright students so that the average grade is pushed upward. The standard of living may rise so that every student has a car. The number of executives may rise. All this illustrates that the evaluation is a function of the size of units in use and the location of the anchorage point employed. Only as long as all the encounters a person has employ the same units and the same anchorage point, will the scale of evaluation remain stable.

Figure 1: Evaluative Scale with Anomic Ranges

A person, we postulate, is motivated to maintain the evaluations (approval, status, rewards, etc.) he receives from his fellow men within the limited range to which he is accustomed. To be thrown outside this accustomed range through a sudden loss of social station and resources, a sudden catapulting promotion, or stroke of financial luck makes a man lose all his bearings. As a plant or an animal accustomed to a temperate zone runs the risk of perishing when suddenly transplanted to a tropic or arctic climate, so a person also risks destruction when suddenly thrown below or above his accustomed range of evaluation.

It is the sudden change outside the accustomed range that brings about the anomic state. If the shift upward or downward is slow, then there is time to acquire new anchorage points and units of evaluation, and thus extend one's scale to realms in which one previously did not know any of the bearings. Even those who rather suddenly find themselves in an anomic range but manage to survive the first confusion eventually build scales that fit their new circumstances. It is instructive to contemplate that a skid row, something that seems so anomic to the outsider (including most sociologists who have written about it) upon close analysis manifests its own distinct scale of evaluation and a hierarchy of status based upon it (Wallace, Skid Row as a Way of Life, 1965). The territory outside this accustomed range is the state of anomie. People living in anomie do not have any way of evaluating themselves or what happens to them. They have lost their bearings, lost touch with the anchorage points and units of their evaluative scales. Thus they cannot respond to social rewards, and society has no way of controlling the satiation points of their social needs.

In the chart overleaf (Figure 2) we have plotted against an evalutive scale both actual levels of rewards (solid lines) and levels of expectations (broken lines). We have called this "Normal Process" because the levels of expectation and rewards follow each other closely and both do not stray into anomic ranges. As we succeed in the prime of life our expectations are adjusted upwards toward a continued higher level of rewards, and as we begin to fail to keep up in older days our expectations are adjusted to a lower level. A well established normative network of social influences helps the individual make these adjustments in his life cycle. We are first asked to play in a junior league with modest demands, then in an adult league with high demands, and finally among the old boys with scaled-down demands.

Figure 2: Normal Process

However, the exegesis of life and history are such that-the two curves of expectation and rewards sometimes part ways. We then obtain the four anomic processes illustrated in Figure 3. In an anomic process aspirations and rewards move at separate paces, if not at separate directions. When such discrepancies occur they are accompanied by either satisfactions or dissatisfactions. When rewards in a country exceed expectations the citizens are happy; when expectations exceed rewards they are unhappy. By also considering whether the whole process points toward the upper anomic range (success) or the lower anomic range (failure) we get the four types delineated in Figure 3.

  1. The happy success. This is an easily understood condition: we experience rapidly rising rewards and slowly rising expectations. Thus we achieve more than we had hoped for and feel grateful and happy.
  2. The unhappy failure. This is also an easily understood condition: we experience rapidly falling rewards but our expectations remain pegged at a high level and we do not cut them down enough to match our falling rewards. Frustration, misery and unhappiness prevail.
  3. The unhappy success. This is the most interesting of the possible anomic processes and it takes some effort to understand it. Here rewards are increasing but expectations are increasing at an even faster rate. Times are getting better, people feel they can do greater things, swing bigger deals, control larger events. We may begin this process reasonably well satisfied greater than expectations, but since the latter rise at such a fast pace, they will soon bypass society's ability to deliver the commensurate rewards, and unhappiness will result. Here we place Durkheim's noveau riche who committed suicide in the splendor of his recent wealth because he had been led to expect still more. And here we find Durkheim's divorced man, freed from his marital bonds to go after any new woman he desires and embarking on a series of sexual adventures, but never quite certain whether one would prove more exciting still and thus growing fatally unhappy in his new freedom. During the last few decades the unhappy success has been the lot of many large groups in the world. Perhaps two thirds or more of the world's population now find themselves in the position of unhappy advances; in the underdeveloped countries we notice a much more marked development of the level of expectations than a development of a standard of living.
  4. The happy failure. This is another not-so-easily understood condition which Durkheim never dealt with but which should be included for the sake of completeness. Here both rewards and expectations decline but the latter at a faster pace. In this category are the happy investors in a declining market; to be sure they have lost money but others have lost much more. And here is the phenomenon of the unmarried young lady, very unhappy at age 25 when all her girl-friends get married, and very happy, although still single, at age 35, when her friends begin to get divorces, have problems with the children, and develop dull, thwarted personalities tied to home making.

The above indicates some ways in which Durkheim's ideas can be transformed into a more formal theory of anomic states and anomic processes. We shall not deal here with the interesting question why expectations sometimes outpace rewards and vice versa. To show the relevance of the theory for any study of the contemporary condition let us merely point out that the process of inflation greatly affects economic expectations but often fails to deliver the corresponding rewards.



Some Illustrative Survey Data

In each of the past few years some members of Gallup International have conducted a New Years Poll to gauge how people in various countries view the coming new year. Among others the following questions were asked:


W. Germany

The Netherlands




Per cent who say that their standard of living is increasing

-68 -69 -70

25% 29% 38%

= +13%

-68 -69 -70

26% 27% 33%

= +7%

-68 -69 -70

20% 18% 21%

= -2%

-68 -69 -70

30% 33% 37%

= +7%

-68 -69 -70

17% 17% 22%

= +5%

"Do you have more, about the same or less than you need for health and comfort?"













More ./. Less



- 9




Happy success

Happy success

Unhappy failure
Unhappy success

Unhappy success

Unhappy success

Table 1


The results are matched to our theoretical reasoning in Table 1. We see that Germany and The Netherlands illustrate the pattern of happy success. France has experienced both unhappy failure and unhappy success. Britain and Sweden show clear cases of unhappy success. It is perhaps telling that the two countries with happy success patterns have both experienced a revaluation upwards of their currencies in recent years. Perhaps it is also worth noting that the two countries exhibiting the unhappy success pattern are the most ambitious ones in their welfare policies of the nations here considered.

It is important to recognize that we are approaching on a nation-wide scale the condition that was the starting point for the theory of anomie, namely that most needs to be filled are not physical or biological needs with fixed satiation points but socially determined needs. Not that the war on poverty is completely won; there are pockets of poverty in all the countries mentioned including the most advanced welfare states. But on balance these are small pockets. The first generation of welfare-state politicians have indeed delivered the basic welfare, that is, the meeting of outright biological needs for food, clothing, shelter and security. The second generation of politicians of the welfare state have a much more subtle problem; they must manage the expectations of the populations in the welfare state, and not merely manage the delivery of the welfare.

Social research has helped much in guiding the governments toward meeting the basic welfare needs. From the "blue books" of the Royal Commissions at the times of the Webbs in Britain to the 1970 inquiry into the way of life of low income groups in Sweden runs a proud tradition of survey research collecting facts to help the disadvantaged. Survey researchers are now ready to launch a new line of social research, indexing not only the standard of living but also the expectations, thus mapping whether countries or subgroups within countries are moving from the happy success pattern into an unhappy success, or a failure. This will be an important development in the years to come and a worthwhile enterprise in the national and international research houses in social science.