By now you might be tired of hearing about Tiger Woods and his alleged mistresses. I know I am. And yet when high profile figures are thought to cheat on their spouses it becomes big news again and again, especially if a politician or celebrity is involved. Once Tiger’s story goes away there is sure to be another public figure whose behavior will enter the public fray for dissection.
There are many explanations for why people are interested—it’s salacious, it pervades the news at a time when ratings matter and news organizations’ budgets are being slashed, and in the Woods case it seems to be an opportunity for several people to get their fifteen minutes of fame. These are just a few of many explanations that have sparked a slew of conversations about why this is even news in the first place (including one I recently participated in on NPR). But how might the founder of sociology explain the attention celebrity infidelity receives if he were alive today?
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is often regarded as the father of sociology, both for employing research methods to study sociological phenomena and for the theories he created about social life. While he lived before our hyper-mediated age, some of his ideas can add insight into why stories of infidelity seem to get the public’s attention.
Durkheim was very interested in how complex societies remain cohesive. He, and those that adopted his way of thinking, were very interested in how various aspects of society operate in concert in order to maintain the social order. Often called functionalism, this school of thought dominated sociological thinking for most of the twentieth century. One of functionalism’s central questions asks: What is the glue that holds increasingly diverse and sometimes divergent groups together?
Here’s where infidelity fits in. The collective disgust and outrage people express about high-profile cheaters serves to reaffirm a central societal value of fidelity. Functionalists emphasize the importance of shared values in creating bonds across society. News of infidelity is a chance for most of us to feel connected in agreeing that this behavior is wrong. While we might not agree on much else (witness the hotly debated health care reform legislation and other political melees), there aren’t too many people who are publicly pro-infidelity. Yes, it seems counterintuitive that something that could break up a marriage and family might provide social bonding. It may not do a family any good, but functionalists might argue that pillorying cheaters serves an important purpose for the rest of us.
Just as public hangings and stockades served to embarrass law breakers of the past and send a message to others of what would happen to them if they followed suit, media floggings serve a similar function today. Functionalists might argue that so much news focuses on undesirable behavior for the purpose of helping to maintain the social order; if we agree upon a set of norms and values we might feel a greater sense of who we as a group are and thus follow the rules. You might have noticed that when defining people as outsiders from our society we often focus on how their norms and values are different from ours.
It doesn’t take bad behavior to help unify an otherwise diverse society. According to Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, authors of Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, media events that galvanize the public’s attention serve the very important purpose of creating a shared culture and history in a complex society that can often feel fractured. Major media events can serve as common experiences to help us feel more connected.
Tiger Woods and other public figures involved in scandals enable the rest of us the chance to reaffirm a sense of shared values, but on the most basic level they provide a common topic we can all talk about, and therefore feel a greater connection to one another.
The functionalist perspective is not without its shortcomings. For one, we might argue that a complex society such as ours has a multitude of competing values, rather than a stable set of shared beliefs. It’s also important to note that people’s actual behavior falls short of the very values they may claim to hold. Proponents of conflict theory might argue that the focus on shared values and beliefs leaves out the issue of power: the power some have to define societal values and the power to evade punishment when said values are violated.
Sociological theories offer many perspectives that seek to explain social life. What other sociological concepts might help us understand the role that infidelity plays in public life?