April 29, 2013

Thinking Sociologically about the Boston Tragedy

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Since the bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 15, the nation has been trying to figure out how and why someone would do something so horrific. The bombers’ methods and motives are the domain of law enforcement, trying to figure out first who did it, how, and why.

Sociology can be useful to help us to develop hypotheses about why events take place, particularly those events involving large group. Explaining why any particular individual behaves the way they do is harder to understand, and as I write investigators are working diligently to learn more about the suspects to figure out why they would build bombs and hurt innocent people. So it is too soon to specifically use sociological concepts to understand the suspects.

But we can think sociologically about the public’s reaction to the violence.

AlmostUnited we stand immediately there were reports of marathoners running to give blood after crossing the finish line. Normally bitter sports rivals with the Boston Red Sox, the next day the  New York Yankees  included a tribute to the people of Boston. Fans entering Yankee Stadium that day saw a banner featuring both teams’ logos and the words “United We Stand.”

 Other cities, like Chicago also expressed unity with the people of Boston. Pictured below, the people of Boston celebrate as news spread of a suspect in custody. The One Fund Boston, set up to provide relief for victims, reflects this sense of unity. MissionHillCaptureCelebrations


These touching stories of people coming together reflect an increase in social cohesion, when people feel a strong sense of connection to the broader society. United in sadness, anger, and disbelief, tragedies can make other divisions less important, at least temporarily. Sociologist Emile Durkheim discussed this quite a bit in his work, noting that social cohesion is extremely important for the smooth functioning of society. If we feel a connection to the larger group, we are less likely to transgress against it and more likely to be productive contributors, according to Durkheim. By contrast, feeling outside of social bonds can produce what he called anomie, or “normlessness.” Investigators are considering whether the bombing suspects felt like outsiders in the U.S., and whether this played a role in the attack.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would think that inflicting violence against civilians would accomplish anything. Because these acts of terror often help create a greater sense of cohesion, with people coming together more than they normally would, the society as a whole may not be permanently damaged. Certainly the lives of individuals who are killed and injured, as well as their families and friends, will never be the same. But the society itself can actually become stronger from an event like this.

The tragedy also highlights social fissures as well.  Concerns about immigration have resurfaced because the suspects were foreign born, just as Congress was in the process of debating immigration reform. The suspects’ religious affiliation and questions about whether they held extremist views continue to be the focus of investigation and public debate. Both immigration and religion have been central issues of debate in U.S. politics, and this event heightens attention to them.

While a tragedy can help unite people, it can also further the sense of “us” and “them” between groups. Part of the unity comes from the reaffirmation of shared values, a reaffirmation that casts the “out group” as holding different values and thus undesirable. Sometimes out of fear and anger, the out group becomes defined more broadly than just those that would support an act of violence like this to include an entire ethnic group or religious denomination. Laws might be passed to restrict people who are feared to be part of the enemy group (such as internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II).

Just as Peter Kaufman recently blogged, the tragedy in Boston leaves us with more questions than answers. Unfortunately, some of these questions might never be answered. But sociology can help us make sense of parts of this event. What other sociological concepts can help us understand violence and its aftermath?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Thinking Sociologically about the Boston Tragedy:


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Violence and the Need to Be Imaginatively Aware | Main | To ”Commit Sociology” »