Sociological Theories: What are They and Why do We Need Them?
Why do people engage in deviant or criminal acts? Do you ever argue with your friends and/or family about the answer to that question? In brief, here are some sociological answers to the question.
Strain theory explains willingness to participate in crime based on the fact that those who feel strain (frustration) may resort to crime when they hold a socially desirable goal, but lack the legitimate means by which to attain that goal. In other words, everyone is socialized to want to attain success as measured in our society by wealth and prestige. For those with limited education and career opportunities, the means (money and opportunity to earn it) to achieving success may not be apparent; the resulting frustration (strain) may be expressed by some people in the choice of criminal activities to secure their goals.
Labeling theory addresses deviance and crime by focusing on the importance of labels and how we behave. In essence, being labeled a criminal makes us criminal—we develop a reputation as such—so much so that actual guilt or innocence may be irrelevant as how we are treated is dictated by the labels.
Let’s switch gears for a moment. What do former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York Representative Anthony Weiner, President Bill Clinton, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards all have in common? All of these politicians were embroiled in sex scandals during their marriages.
Why did they do it? Do you think it’s because they feel a sense of entitlement because they are rich and powerful? Is it that they think of themselves as so exceptional and brilliant that they won’t get caught in these escapades? Or is it that they lack moral fortitude? Maybe it is that women are so attracted to power that they seek these men out and the men are unable to say no, or perhaps these mean are all sex addicts.
What are your explanations for why these stories are about men, and not women? Would you point out that women make up a relatively small portion of those in elected office and argue that since there are fewer women in similar positions, there are simply fewer women who could be in these sex scandals? Or maybe you think that women are socialized to be “good girls” and participate less frequently in extramarital affairs?
To answer the question about why people engage in deviant behaviors or any of those about the sex scandals, and a host of other questions we need theories. Theories help us put puzzle pieces of empirical data together and interpret facts. How are things related? Why does this happen? Sociological theories help us explain and understand what’s going on in our world. Each of the three major theoretical perspectives in sociology— structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory—give us a lens, or way of interpreting facts.
One of the reasons you may not be keen on studying theory is because it deals with abstract concepts and those can be difficult to grasp. Why the abstract concepts? Because that’s the only way a theory can be used to explain a wide variety of phenomena.
Let’s go back to the sex scandal example. If Theory X can explain why Arnold Schwarzenegger had an affair, but is completely unhelpful with helping us to understand why John Edwards did, we would question how useful Theory X is. If we had to consider a new theory for each individual case of marital infidelity, there would be an immeasurable number of theories—all dealing with just that tiny slice of life. Similarly, if one of our explanations of deviance, let’s say labeling theory could only explain public response to the OJ Simpson trial, but not the Casey Anthony trial, how useful would it be? The power of a good theory lies in its ability to explain all examples—at least the ones relevant to it.
So, go ahead. Apply the theoretical concepts you learn to aspects of your daily life and everyday events: this is their purpose.