The Social Science Guide to “Anomie” and What It Could Mean for The Ink Black Heart.

I will admit that prior to seeing the pre-publication blurb of The Ink Black Heart, I was not familiar with the term “anomie.” Indeed, my initial assumption when learning this was the online handle of a cartoonist’s cyber-stalker, was that the name was intended as a variant of “anime.” However, thanks to Beatrice Groves’ initial post and the flurry of discussion from our friends on the Twitter feed, I quickly learned it was a term used in my own field of psychology, albeit strongly on the sociological/cultural side of that discipline. This explains why I, a behavioral neuroscientist, had never heard of it. I will be interested in seeing if Robin knows what it is, given that it is more associated with sociology than psychology.

I’m always open to learning new terminology, especially when it comes to better understanding the works of J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith, so I spent some time today reading up on this concept. Learn what I found out, and what it might mean for The Ink Black Heart, and specifically for the 5-6 Flip Idea after the jump.

Modern social scientists owe the concept of anomie to two “founding fathers” of sociology, Frenchman Emile Durkheim and American Robert K. Merton.  Anomie is derived from a philosophical term meaning “normlessness” or “lawlessness.” Durkheim, in a series of books published in the 1890’s, theorized that institutions such as the family, the church, educational institutions and government stabilized society by establishing and maintaining social norms. In times of rapid societal change, these norms weaken, resulting in the state of anomie, where behavioral expectations are less clear. A second cause of anomie, according to Durkheim, was an economy built on division of labor, as separated groups (e.g. workers and managers) have weaker connections to their shared societal values.  With societal constraints on behavior removed, undesirable behaviors emerge.

As Beatrice pointed out, the choice of this sobriquet indicates a person capable of pure depravity. We don’t know what kind of online persecution Anomie engineered: when you look at what people have called “online persecution” it can be anything from reasonable criticism to being banned from a platform to much more harmful practices such as doxxing, threats of violence or mass defamation. Robin’s decision that “the agency can’t help”  could be for multiple reasons: she thought the Anomie was relatively harmless (her success with Postcard may have tripped her up here), she thought they lacked the computer skills needed to help, the waiting list was long, or she thought it was a situation so dire that it should be turned over to the police. In any case, the outcome will no doubt trigger regret, guilt and a need to seek out justice.

I don’t think we have a way to tell, at this point, if we will be seeking a killer like Laing (who certainly persecuted his victim plenty, as intent on ruining Strike’s business and reputation as in killing) or like Liz Tassel. The difference between the types was outlined nicely in The Silkworm:

The killer of Owen Quine was like that blacktip, he thought. There were no frenzied, indiscriminate predators among the suspects in this case. None of them had a known history of violence. There was not, as so often when bodies turned up, a trail of past misdemeanors leading to the door of a suspect, no bloodstained past dragging behind any of them like a bag of offal for hungry hounds. This killer was a rarer, stranger beast: the one who concealed its true nature until sufficiently disturbed. Owen Quine, like Dave Polworth, had recklessly taunted a murderer-in-waiting and unleashed horror upon himself.

In the mid-20th century, Merton popularized the concept of anomie in the United States, and specifically connected it to crime and deviance. For Merton, anomie was not so much about the breakdown of cultural institutions as it was a discrepancy between the common goals valued by society and the inability of certain individuals or segments of the population to access those goals. For example, in a society that values acquiring wealth, segments of the population who cannot access that goal through acceptable means (getting a well-paying job, accessing a good education) will experience anomie, and seek the goal through unacceptable means (for example, by committing crimes).

So, what could all of this mean for The Ink Black Heart? First, I want to return to the OED definition of anomie that Beatrice cited in her post:  “absence of the usual social or ethical standards of belief and conduct in an individual or group.” Very similar language has already been used to describe two characters, in Career of Evil:

Strike was sure that Whittaker had recognized in Shanker the same deficit from which he himself suffered: a lack of normal boundaries. Whittaker had concluded, rightly, that his teenage stepson might well wish him dead, but that he was restrained by a desire not to distress his mother, a respect for the law and a determination not to make an irrevocable move that would forever blight his own prospects. Shanker, however, knew no such restraints and his long periods of cohabitation with the fractured family kept a precarious curb on Whittaker’s growing tendency towards violence.

Jeff Whittaker and Shanker were both introduced as anomic characters, although we should perhaps assume that Shanker has become less so in recent years, having become an apparently loving common-law husband and step-daddy. This is a pointer to Whittaker as possibly being, if not Anomie himself, somehow part of the “family connections” our heroes will have to navigate in this case. If so, this would be support for the 5-6 Flip Idea, which predicts connections to CoE as well as The Silkworm.

How likely is it that Stepdaddy Dearest, the hygienically-challenged, Satan-worshipping, ex-musician turned roadie/ crack dealer/ pimp/ woman beater, is somehow involved in the stalking, tasing and murder of a cartoonist?  That depends on what kind of cartoon the fictional Ink Black Heart is supposed to be. Cartoons are generally thought of as animated TV shows or films, but it could be a newspaper strip or other print media. Given the younger demographic and the online nature of the stalking, I’m inclined to think we are talking about a web-comic or something else available through the internet. Would Whittaker be computer-savvy enough to know a web-based cartoon, let alone become the type of cyber-terrorist that appears to be targeting poor Edie?  He might be, if he has made the logical next-step career move and expanded into making or marketing online porn. Which would give Cormoran Strike another good reason to want to take on this very special “family” member.

As for the nature of the cartoon itself—  set in a cemetery?  This makes me think of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, or perhaps the original Charles Addams cartoons. Whittaker certain looks liked he’d fit right in—  and there is that shady bit about his history of grave-digging and mummifying bodies. There has already been one suggestion, in the Strikefans twitter discussion, that young Switch LeVay Bloom Whittaker may be the co-creator.

On the other hand, if the killer is more “blacktip,” it would rule out Whittaker with his history of violence and point to someone much more ordinary, a person with no criminal record but sociopathic enough to unleash horror on someone who creates cartoons for a living.

Will Anomie even turn out to be the killer? As Beatrice pointed out, the nature of mystery novels conditions us to look elsewhere. On the other hand, one of my predictions was The Ink Black Heart would have less of a twist, just as HBP’s Draco actually did turn out to be a junior Death Eater, as Harry, usually wrong, suspected.  Our heroes may have foreshadowed this in Troubled Blood, with their quip, “Just because everyone thinks it’s Creed doesn’t mean it isn’t.”

Anomie could also tie into Leda Strike’s possible suicide (see here and here for in-depth discussions about the idea that Leda might have done herself in, or had help doing so). Leda is also an anomic person, as described in Troubled Blood.

Leda Strike’s whole life had been a battle against constraint of any kind: going for a march in her underwear would have seemed to her just one more fabulous blow against limitations... The basis for her life’s philosophy, if such a word could be used for the loose collection of whims and kneejerk reactions she called beliefs, was that everything of which the bourgeoisie disapproved must be good and right.

One of the earliest applications of the sociological concept of anomie was as a means to explain population differences in suicide rates. According to

Durkheim believed that anomic suicide happened because Catholicism reflects “strongly integrated social groups” (Durkheim, 1951, Stark, Doyle & Rushing, 1983), and that Protestants had the power to question the church, to overthrow the social order created by its beliefs in a way that Catholics, according to Durkheim, did not. Because Protestants could question the church, they experienced a higher degree of normlessness than Catholics. In short, Durkheim argued that the societies with high suicide rates experienced anomie (Stark, Doyle & Rushing, 1983).

Could the Quick-Lime Girl’s death have been her last act of rebellion against societal norms?  If Whittaker or Shanker turn up, more might be uncovered about her.

The final way I could see the anomie theme relating in the book as a whole is by revisiting another common theme in the series: the gulf between the rich and the poor. Both Durkheim and Merton saw societal divides along wealth and privilege lines as a key cause of anomie: Durkheim because the division weakened shared values and cultural cohesion; Merton because of the strain between striving toward goals and the blockades in place that prevent many from achieving them.  I have argued elsewhere that extreme wealth is the “magic” of the Cormoran Strike series, and Strike, like Harry, is caught between the two worlds. Strains induced by wealth differentials show up in every book.  Here’s just a partial list:

  • Rochelle’s willingness to let Lula’s killer get away if it means she can access blackmail money
  • Rokeby having his pick of publishers while true writers struggle for recognition,
  • Elin’s calling the most exclusive restaurant in London “a decent meal, for a change.”
  • “They think there’s a kind of natural law in operation, where Chiswells get what they want and lesser beings just fall into line.”
  • “So there was Margot, an outsider in her own home, not even allowed to change the ornaments.”

I expect we’ll see, as we did in The Silkworm, our heroes caught between wanting justice for a client that cannot pay, versus their practical need for wealthy, materialistic clients willing to pay for information that will assure they stay wealthy. And perhaps learn more about why Jonny Rokeby’s so eager to reconcile, and just how much dough is in that nest egg, anyway.

Hat-tip to for a nice overview of the term and its history.


  1. Wayne Stauffer says

    Sounds like Anomie is a more intense version of the general sense of alienation that is common in adolescence, and in young adult fiction. Now we need to revisit Harry’s saga for Anomie there. Tom Riddle? Draco? Bellatrix? Sirius? Hagrid? Deatheaters? Dementors? Mundungus? Remus?

  2. I’d be surprised if Edie’s cartoon isn’t online, whether comic strip or animated format. JKR has said IBH involves a much younger demographic (making a newspaper/print fanbase unlikely) and it’s consistent with Anomie’s online stalking.

    To me, basing the threats in online culture also adds meaning to the name ‘Anomie.’ Social media and other online interaction have become almost a ‘State of Anomie’ – a metaphorical wild west where social norms don’t apply. Entering that realm seems to unleash the beast – people say hateful or threatening things they never would to a stranger, face to face. Anyone remotely in the public eye has experienced this. The anonymity (linguistically related to Anomie, I’d guess?) and angry confederacy must be galvanizing. In fact, maybe Anomie doesn’t act alone or turns out to just inspire violence by others.

    Whether or not you agree with her opinions, online aggression is obviously a phenomenon JKR knows well. In her place and with her imagination, you’d have to wonder, if only hypothetically, what happens when online animus crosses from virtual into real life?

    This also might point to another aspect of Robin’s turning Edie away. Maybe while disturbed by this kind of online hostility, Robin feels impotent to do anything about it. So, like most of us, she sort of accepts it by default. Easy to imagine Robin then feeling tremendous guilt over her complacency towards Edie’s case and driven to seek justice.

  3. Louise Freeman says

    Very good insights, Amy. Thanks.

    Interestingly, “anomie” and “anonymous” are not cognates, related only by the prefix a- (in front of a consonant) or an- (in front of a vowel) meaning “without”

    a + “nomos” (meaning law) gives anomie
    an + onomos (meaning name) gives anonymous.

    I don’t know enough Greek to know if “nomos” or “onomos” themselves share a common root.

  4. Thanks for this Louise – very interesting.

    In my mind’s eye the cartoon is inspired by Alison Bechdel’s brilliant graphic novel The Fun House: both its literary allusions and the setting (in a funeral home) seem pertinent. (Bechdel is also very interested in psychology.) Bechdel wrote a comic strip for newspapers as her primary employment until relatively recently, and has – of course – been immortalised in youth/on-line culture via the Bechdel test.

    Just thought I’d add – since a real & fictional cemetery are clearly going to be central to Ink Black Heart (and your comment re: Whittaker’s history of grave-digging), that there are a surprisingly large number of real-world cemetery references in Harry Potter. In addition to the names Rowling took from Greyfriars Kirkyard (in which, not far from the grave of William McGonagall, is the tombstone of Thomas Riddell) there are its mortsafes; a reminder that the most famous body snatchers – Burke and Hare – were Edinburgh residents, and one of whom is likewise recalled in the name of dark artefacts shop Borgin and Burkes. There is also the possible reference to grave digging in Voldemort’s name ( )

  5. Dr. Freeman,

    And now I wish that Tolkien was still alive, if only so he could help out with the root meanings, and possible relationships between words like Anomie, and Alienation. That just sounds like it would have been a really informative reply. Heck, wouldn’t it be fun if you could coax and philological essay out of him on the matter, one that spoke not just to words, but how they’re embodied in the modern predicament…. I’ll go take my meds now. This is still a fascinating article, though.

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