Anomie as Individual Disorder:
The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Émile Durkheim used this word in his book outlining the causes of suicide, to describe a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values, and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. Anomie is remarkably common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse, and more generally when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and the practice of everyday life. The protagonist of Albert Camus's The Stranger is an example from literature of an individual experiencing anomie.

Anomie as social disorder:
The word, spelled anomy or also anomie, has also been used to apply to societies or groups of people within a society, who suffer from chaos due to lack of commonly recognized explicit or implicit rules of good conduct, or worse, to the reign of rules promoting isolation or even predation rather than cooperation.

Friedrich Hayek notably uses the word anomy with this meaning. Anomy as social disorder is not to be confused with anarchy. The word 'anarchy' denotes lack of rulers, hierarchy, command, whereas 'anomy' denotes lack of rules, structure and organization. Many opponents of anarchism claim that anarchy necessarily leads to anomy; however, many anarchists will argue that hierarchical command actually creates chaos, rather than order (e.g., see the Law of Eristic Escalation).

As an older variant, the Webster 1913 reports use of the word anomy as meaning "disregard or violation of the law". Durkheim's Theory of Anomie can be viewed as the weakening of the normative order in society.