August 02, 2011

Sociological Theories: What are They and Why do We Need Them?

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

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.

According to differential association theory, the answer is found by looking at those closest to us, clip_image002our families. If our families are law-abiding citizens, then we are likely to be the same. On the other hand, if our families participate in deviant activities, then we are likely to follow that lead. Given that half of those in U.S. jails are related to someone who is, or was, also jailed supports this theory.

clip_image004Strain 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?

clip_image006clip_image008To 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.


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Great read. Thank you for sharing such an article. I really enjoyed it.

It helped with me with my sociology class! Thank you very much!

Thanks it help break things down for me in my sociology class!! Tina

I like this explaination. We are going this in my sociology class. The explainations above makes sense.

Thank you for this post! Your explanation of theories was very interesting to read. The differential association, strain, and labeling theories make it much easier to understand why people act with deviance.

I enjoy this post because it provides three legitimate reasons or theories for why most people commit crimes or act deviantly. It is definitely interesting to wonder what could possess some people to act the way they do, but I can understand all three theories quite clearly. If your parents or another role model has gone to jail for having broken the law, kids or young adults might get the idea that they should act that way too, or that it is somehow socially acceptable because their parents did it. This theory goes to show how impressionable young people can be. The strain theory is an accurate representation of someone feeling desperate; when they don't have the means to succeed, they feel they can achieve success in no other way than committing a crime. The labeling theory is also relevant, because it depicts how stereotypes and the way other people treat someone can impact a person's life. It's sort of like after someone says something degrading for so long, the other begins to believe it's true. When I think about the reasons for crime, I also consider the impact of culture on impressionable minds, as well as the intense emotions of anger and vengeance.

in linking with sociology it has some definite issue.. clearly a good writing . thanks keep it up

I believe that your article was an excellent read. You also helped me understand better what role family life plays in affecting deviant behavior. The article also presented modern day examples to help better visualize people who fit the model of deviant behavior.

Another great theory would be that of "Conformity" (the psychological force that causes a person to act in accordance with the expectation of others). Conformity is generally classified into three types: based upon reward or punishment ("Compliance": this behavior generally ceases once the reward or punishment is not respectively available or avoidable); based upon "Identification" (a response to social influence resulting from the individual's desire to be like the person he/she is identifying with: such behavior is self-satisfying, it does not require reward or threat of punishment); and "Internalization" (a deeply rooted social response which is based on a desire to be right). These three social forces would explain why someone who grew up in a deviant family can still become a law-abiding citizen (overcoming the differential association theory's prediction): he/she might develop a desire to be like a law-abiding teacher or friend ("identification"), and "internalize" a set of lawful social beliefs and behaviors that saves him/her from a destiny similar to that of the rest of his/her family. That's why politicians should do their best to be great role models.

In our sociology text books, we recently read about why people commit crimes and like you stated in your blog above the text book also touched bases on how people commit crimes because of a previous family member doing so.

I Really Like Your Blog This Is Very Informative And Interesting Keep Sharing This Type OF Topic And Thanks For Begin Here

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