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A Sociologist Looks at Violence

It’s a cliche but when the tragedies hit, the questions start coming. This is certainly the case with the horrible massacre in Connecticut. The horror of the events put us at edge of global madness and the immediate question is “why.”  As I argue in my Sociology of Religion class, humans naturally search for meaning and so when an event like this occurs we want to know the meaning. In fact, when an event like this occurs, we’re desperate for it. We look around in abject horror and shock and we ask the people who are supposed to know (i.e. psychologists, priests, and the media)  “what’s the meaning and why” and we stand around expectantly waiting to know. Ask these people though and not only will the answer you get depend on who you ask, but the answer they give will never be very satisfying.

For example, ask a priest “what’s the meaning and why” and the answer will be something to the effect that “only God knows the meaning why.” The priests job is, by definition, to search for meaning and they’ll grasp desperately to provide it, but the answers they provide are ultimately unsatisfying (even if we to pretend otherwise) because it is ultimately an admission of ignorance. “Only God knows” is exactly the same as “I don’t know.”  If you are religious you are supposed to accept this answer,  but accepting it provides no real relief. It is a pernicious statement because it passes the buck and doesn’t really leave you in anything more than a passive and vulnerable position.

Of course you fair only marginally better when you ask a psychologist. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and their students tend to internalize causation. That is, the problem is a problem with something inside you. In the case of Connecticut the problem will no doubt have something to with mental illness, or madness, or temporary insanity. It isn’t an issue with parenting, or the school system, or society, or the gun culture, or our dependency on harsh pharmaceuticals known to create depression and violent, or a violent society fueled by a violent Hollywood media machine, it is a problem with the individual. In this case the explanation is mental illness and the meaning is individually derived.

And what about the media? Again, in my opinion, not so good. The main stream media is corporate controlled and corporate funded after all and they aren’t going to say anything bad about any corporate acts that might have been involved.  More than that, the media depends on attracting the attention of the masses and in order to not jeopardize their control of mass attention, they’ll stay firmly within the bounds of mass opinion, even if that opinion is stone-cold wrong. If the masses rally against guns, then guns will be the problem. But wait a minute, lots of people like the NRA watch the news as well so let’s not take a stand  that’s too strong, let us just say that “opinions differ” and leave it like that. Hear it long enough and you eventually realize the mass media doesn’t report news, it reinforces the status quo and reflects social convention. Take meaning from the media if you want, but be a smart sociologists about it and consider the possible limitations of the source.

So, leaving behind unsatisfying explanations, let us look at how a sociologist might look at the events? And that would be with as much care and statistical sophistication as possible. As I say in my Sociology 287 class (Introduction to Sociology), Sociologists are complex thinkers and complex events like the Connecticut massacre rarely come down to single causes.  Guns are certainly a factor, as is mental disturbance (who but a mad man could do something like that), but these can only be part of the cause and probably not the most proximate cause at that. So a sociologist would ask deeper questions, and go further down the rabbit whole. A link has been suggested between anti-depressant pharmaceuticals, depression and violence for example and so we might start by wondering, were there bad drugs involved.  Maybe there were social reasons, like exclusion, or ridicule. But even if so there is still way more to it then even that. Let us not forget, for example, how violent our Western culture really is.Deny it all you want but in our country we solve things violently. Many of us may be above physical violence, but not so many above emotional and verbal. When we don’t get no satisfaction, the gloves come off and the [physical, emotional, psychological] beatings begin. Physical beatings, straps, name calling, shaming, incarceration, and a host of other violent acts dot our daily existence. When our children don’t do what we say, we hit them. When a student doesn’t repeat the world in our image, we shame them. When a country does something we don’t like, we use our military to get what we want.

Violence is everywhere around us.

And don’t even get me started on our “entertainment” industry. They will tell you they are responding to market demand but  is the market really demanding ultra violent video games, torture porn, and “good guy murders bad guy” action thrillers? There isn’t even any artistic integrity involved anymore. When violence wins the day, story loses sway. A great example is the recent Expendables sequel, or anything by Tom Cruise these days. In these movies, if you can call them that, we see nothing but special effects enhanced violence.


And this overview of our social violence is just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even mentioned sports (in particular Hockey),  our nation wide obsession with business competition (which is really just a form of economic violence), our military culture, or our religious doctrines which  make us think that’s it OK to beat the bad guy down “if” the bad guy can be defined as “evil.” Remember the Spanish Inquisition, or the crusades, or all the other wars fought in the name of holiness? Or what about religion’s involvement in class oppression? (“divine right of kings, noblesse oblige, or the worldly estates).

And don’t forget religions support of child abuse (“spare the rod”).

Do you want meaning?

Do you want to know the reason why?

The violence in our societies, and the justification for that violence, goes on and on and so is it any wonder at all that when you put a billion guns into the mix people, even young children, aren’t going to get killed?  It is a wonder we don’t have massacres every day, but then again, maybe that’s where we are headed. Ask anybody from the mainstream media and they will tell you, the year 2012 was a banner year for mass violence and massacre. If you want my professional opinion, things are going to continue to get worse until enough people are dissatisfied with the stock answers that they’ll finally make the effort to wake up and see the truth. Let’s hope, for the sake of children and families the world over, that day is sooner rather than later.

So what’s a Sociology professor, professional, or student to do? Well, we can do what others do and march, hold vigil, and protest; but we can also bring to bear on the situation our deep critical sensibility, bestowed upon us by the nature of our sociological training. Anybody who has spent any time in a Sociology classroom will know the depth and breadth of the analysis can be, at times, breathtaking (even if often not expressed very well). So take a page out of the notebook of a Sociologist and put the pieces together so you can understand the bigger picture. It’s not drugs, or parenting, or gun. Those are intervening variables only. The real problem is our international obsession with violence. It is our international obsession and acceptance of violence in all its forms that has ruined the Christmas of so many families in Connecticut. As a parent my heart goes out to them, but as a Sociologist I have to ask, isn’t it time to wake up and say no to violence in all its forms? Isn’t that the only way to end our increasingly obvious descent into global chaos, violence, and darkness?





Cite This Article

Dr. S. (2012). A Sociologist Looks at Violence. The Socjourn. [https://sociology.org/a-sociologist-looks-at-violence/]

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  1. A sociologist’s job is more far reaching and probitive then the psychologist. Questions of a fractured social structure, laws that do not work,(anomie)and the question “why”, will never bring back the children lost in this event. Kids are people who will power the future. All i have to say is that society looses a great deal when kid are violently dismissed in this way. The question “why” is only the starting point of a very complicated sociological process of investigation.

  2. In my opinion, it also goes back to Merton’s theory of deviance: conformity, ritualism, innovation, retreatism, and rebellion.

  3. The typology put forth by Merton, is all part of a larger sociological explanation of crumbling social structures, where social order is destroyed, by laws that simply do not work. Superimposing Merton’s popular typology, along with Durkheim’s notion of anomie (normlesness), makes the sociologist look at the fractured social structure even more. I agree with Tim. We must as social scientists use all the tools we have to study complex social structures in flux.

  4. Singling out one group over the other is bad sociological practice. We should be tolerant of all social groups good or bad.

  5. I am not sure what you are referring to Robert, about the singling out. I was pointing out, if the Catholic Church can make up such a story about how salvation is gained through the murder of a single human being, (although originally tagging him as evil), it must be just a matter of simply suggesting, for media to create an idea such as violence in video games as an acceptable toy.

    What is the point of Sociology, if it is not used as a tool in fixing a dysfunctional society through observation and comment.

  6. You are correct Lucy. If the original mandate of sociology is to produce reforms for society to follow, then sociology as Comte has envisioned it has failed. As MaCiver (1942) says, socilogists must look at all coexisting factors, where the outcomes of violence is the focus. So if I misunderstood you I appologise. Sometimes I get lost in my own sociological dysfunction.

  7. “I agree with Tim. We must as social scientists use all the tools we have to study complex social structures in flux.”

    and then what? Just study the structure more? Is there a goal in mind other than observation? What does a Sociologist do with all the observation? Do they write more books with complicated sentences that leaves the common reader scratching their head. I’m not picking a fight, I am asking you what the point is of a Socilogist if there is not action towards resolution after all the research has been completed.

  8. We are trained in sociology graduate school, when, how and why. So the question why along with the tools of sociology become the process of analysis. Unfortunately, many studies never approach this question. Mixed methods are suppose to widen the viability od answering the question why. Dr. Sosteric and Dr. Megettigan, try to reduce all of this to a simple and understandable interpretation. Sociology is really for understandable explanations for complex problems.

  9. @ Lucy: “What’s baffling is that the Jews once upon a time deemed Jesus as a ‘bad guy’ and therefore murdered him”

    You can’t be that seriously lacking of true historical events are you? And, I must say I was enjoying this website and thought it reputable until I came across such a racist anti-semitic statement.

    • Hi Yosef. My apologies. I’m usually better at nabbing theses sorts of statements. Lucy, Yosef is right. Fingering an entire population for the sins of a few individuals is racist or, in this case, anti-semetic. It is the kind of thing that the PTB use to divide and rule and we don’t need to be perpetrating such strategies here.

  10. “Sociology is really for understandable explanations for complex problems”

    I don’t know that I understand the reasoning for all the social injustices that oftentimes are rooted in greed, but that is how the System works and it’s always been that way so we should just observe it, comment on it as to why and go on our merry way.

  11. Lucy your statement although valid misses a point that is at the core of sociology. Social structures that make up society, are scrutinized in scientific ways, that become not easy to understand. So some of sociology is permanently glossed over and the common person will never understand it. I have written sociology I do not understand. So your comment is right and mine makes no sense.

  12. I have faced anti-semetic actions, statements all of my life. I am proud to be jewish and try to understand the racist mentality of people. From elementary to college these racist people out everywhere. Yosef I believe that such statements by these people are inappropiate. I am glad Dr. Sosteric does not condone it either.

  13. “Lucy, Yosef is right. Fingering an entire population for the sins of a few individuals is racist or, in this case, anti-semetic.”

    My statement was not meant anti semetic at all. It was about how ideas become norms such as the belief that Jesus died on a cross to save sins; which, in actuality was a murder. This is the foundation of Catholicism; Salvation. I don’t know where you get the idea that I was attempting anit-semitism. Really if I am pointing a finger it would be at the Catholics…but really I am making a statement about the creation of norms.

    I would apologize but my intent was not to be anit-semetic. So I am not going to apologize for something that I did not do. Where did I make this anit-semetic statement? I am thinking that the comment was taken out of context

  14. “You can’t be that seriously lacking of true historical events are you? ”

    Yes, I know my history.

  15. And furthermore, are you going to tell me that the Catholic liturgy is anti-semitic as well. I have spent at least 40 Catholic Lenten seasons, listening or presenting the liturgy about the death of Jesus at the hands of the Jews. It is often written as ‘the Jews’ I strongly doubt that intent was anti-semetic either.

  16. Most Jewish people like myself are very sensitive to antisemitism. So my question here would be how do sociologists explain the never ending prejudice and devaluation of the Jewish people. The word “Jew” is a schism against Jewish people. So Lucy how would you explain all of what you say in sociological terms? Let us look at this in a common sense reality. Sociologists are suppose to have common sense in what is done analytically. That is how common people become involved in sociology inn the first place. Clear concise methods and evaluation.

  17. “So my question here would be how do sociologists explain the never ending prejudice and devaluation of the Jewish people.”

    I know what you are saying. WWPS?, right? (What would the Palestinians say?)

    “So Lucy how would you explain all of what you say in sociological terms?”

    I did. I mentioned the creation of norms and gave an example and for some reason it was taken as anti-semitic.

  18. Happy New Year Lucy. First of all the sociologist would have to identify a strategy to answer the question of why of anti-semitism. Secondly, the Sociologist, must identify all coexisting factors that lead to devaluation of Jewish people in any given social structure. In this sense, Lucy the sociologist, must be creative in developing this study. A mixed methods approach would probably be required. So Lucy as you are doing all of this research development, you always ask the question WHY.

  19. Happy New Year.

    As in the case with the Catholic Church, the ‘why’ in the creation of a religious cultural norm would be to maintain control over the people. (And to irradicate the authentic teachings of Christ, which were discovering the divinity within and access to your own divine power.} I think you could call this type of erasure, genocide.
    Would a Sociologist write this off as ‘human nature’?, or in other words what some believe, that it is human nature to dominate it’s own environment.

    Is it an idea of supremecy, generated by one such as, say Hitler? The question might be how did he persuade others into believing that one particular culture is not worthy of respect and the right to the pursuit of happieness? The Sociologist would investigate the tools used in order to spread such a horrific idea.

    I read this article about the abuses swept under the rug within the Catholic Church: http://www.salon.com/2012/11/16/pick_of_the_week_the_case_that_unlocked_the_catholic_scandal/

    How would a Sociologist understand this one and explain the reasoning behing the inability of a religious culture to be accountable for their own representatives? It certainly isn’t human nature. It is clearly a taught behavior to mask any Truth that makes the individual uncomfortable. Can the Sociologist chalk it up to poor child rearing? Teaching children to cook up some wonky story in order to save face? Is it the inability of accountability? The new acceptable norm is that of going to great lengths in order to mask the Truth?

    I could go on but I won’t. I am puzzled with the point of sociological research, if it isn’t about getting to the root of the problems and finding solutions for a better society. No reform here, that word comes with disciplinary feel that parallels with the term punishment that belongs in institutions such as correctional facilities.

  20. The job of the sociologist is to analyze sociological issues in different ways. I am not well versed in what you are saying or presenting. This electronic journal as presented is for common sense interpretations of social issues. So I do not know what to say.

  21. Rev. David Johnson

    I believe you over simplify the reaction of clergy to this kind of violence. There are many thoughtful answers to why from a biblical perspective other than “God only knows”. I realize you come from a different world view than I do, but from the perspective of a Christ follower Sociology, psychology, and theology are interwoven sciences. The difference between the 2 world views is simply that I have made a conscious choice to believe all three as truth. Theologically speaking the answer to the question of why lies in the nature of mankind. The first and initial response is sin. However this also is too simplistic, but the existence of evil is where I would start. Not only that the perpetrator is evil but that society has a bendedness towards evil. The sociological norm is to expel God, religious expression, and moral argument from all logical public discussion, or even education. This retreat from Godly influence is also a retreat from Godly protection. It is logical to say that those that are indoctrinated in moral behavior, such as murder is evil, and there are eternal consequences are less likely to commit murder. If we look at current events we see the other side of the coin. Militant Islam indoctrinates that murder of infidels is right, and there is an eternal reward for it. Therefore they would be more likely to kill. In the case of mass murder in America and in the world of militant Islam we see the sociological effects of theology on society as a whole. In one case wrong theology perpetuates violence and in the other the absence of right theology creates a moral vacuum where mankind reverts to the essence of his nature.

  22. “Not only that the perpetrator is evil but that society has a bendedness towards evil.”

    I argue that this boy was not ‘evil’. What he did may have been evil, but he was not evil. I not sure what you mean by “the question of why lies in the nature of mankind.” Our true nature is goodness. The evil lies in the external factors that we live among from the time we are born, which by the way, we are not born evil. A child could be taught that murder is a sin and believe that it is indeed a sin; however, inflict enough physical and mental abuses on them, eliminating the oppressor may not look sinful for very long. I am not excusing the behavior, I am explaining the why. I am also not excusing or excluding the idea of evil intention existing outside of this boy that had a great deal of influence on him either.

    In the case of Islam, those are religious norms created at a particular time that made sense to that particular group. They are ideals created to maintain order and create community or protect them.

    “The sociological norm is to expel God, religious expression, and moral argument from all logical public discussion, or even education.”

    Maybe this is because of the many expressions of God, honored by the culturally diverse populations that make up our schools. Not all expressions adhere to the patrelineal, male-head-of-household figure that is often a representation of God. Beliefs vary. I know of agnostics who respect all forms of life and would never consider harming another. How does a Godless individual live in this True nature? it is the indoctrination or simply being raised in Right-thinking or honoring all life forms.

    “In one case wrong theology perpetuates violence and in the other the absence of right theology creates a moral vacuum where mankind reverts to the essence of his nature.”

    Women are included in this. Again I will disagree with you, in that it is not our true nature to dominate. Domination is indoctrinated through the people we interact with on a daily basis and the media that influences culture. Capitalism and domination seem to work well together, but it is not our true nature by any means to disempower our fellow human beings to suceed.

  23. Rev. David Johnson

    I believe where we disagree is in the area of theology. Christian theology teaches that the nature of mankind is sinful due to the fall.

    I believe the root of our difference of opinion is theological. Christian theology teaches that mankind is sinful due to the fall. And that religion is a pursute to remedy the problemof the sin nature. The opinion stated in the former post is founded on that perspective.

    I understand the reasoning behind expelling thology from the discussion. That is that there is diversity of thought that disagrees with its findings. In a word tolerance. I have to ask the question ” is it tolerant to expell one world view in order not to challenge others?”

    As a Christian minister my role is to find meaning. My former response does that but only from the perspective of one who views theology with equal weight as psychology and sociology. If theology is subtracted from the discussion no meaning can be found. And in the absence of theology I can see how one would say that the answer to the question of ” what does this mean?” Would be “God only knows”.

    My point here and in the previous post is that thology or religion has more to say than was stated in the original article.

    Your disagreements are noted, and I believe I understand your point of view. However when studying sociology and religion it’s only fair to include theological perspectives.

    Thank you for your response, and I enjoyed reading what you wrote. Blessings to you.

  24. “My former response does that but only from the perspective of one who views theology with equal weight as psychology and sociology. If theology is subtracted from the discussion no meaning can be found.”

    Not true, sociologists study groups and how they act and react upon each other among other things and then research the why. If one individual is brought up in a particular set of beliefs AND behaviiors they are bound to behave in a manner that reflect those teachings. It is not clear if this young man was taught not only to respect the fire arm but also have a respect for life. There was an absense of love, or God. Why was that? What happened in this young man’s life that caused him to take drastic measures? Religion has a tendency to exclude or shun those who do not replicate appearances and attitudes. Theology is an explanation that has no grounding other than “he chose to sin.” Again, what external factors, or experiences brought him to that final decision?

    Theology is based on altered historical ‘facts’ that form a rule book or guidelines to maintain control over a population.

  25. In the early development of sociology, Auguste Comte, envisioned a social science of reform in society. Sociology (in cased you missed it) is made up of many disciplines, including political science, economics, anthropology etc.

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