Social pathology is a concept developed in modern social science to refer both to aspects of social structures and to the behaviors and values attributed to particular social categories. Definitions of social pathology are particular to specific times and reflect the dominant moral concerns of the era. This concept fits within the ideas of anthropologist Mary Douglas. In Purity and Danger (1966) she examines the universality of cultural explanations of things considered “out of order” as polluting and dangerous. These cultural constructions emerge in specific contexts. Regarding social pathology, prior to the Enlightenment in Europe, social transgressions (pathologies) were attributed to supernatural forces exerted by spirits (e.g., possession) or evil humans (witchcraft). As the Enlightenment focused on human reason and scientific understanding of the natural world, early social scientists began to objectify what they defined as natural laws of “society” that explained undesirable human behaviors as transgressions of natural law.
Modern social science developed during a period of rapid social change produced by expanding industrial capitalism and colonialism. Such processes created increased migration and a growing wealth gap between, on the one hand, colonial nations and colonized territories, and on the other, wealthy industrialist/financiers and European working classes. These social changes produced dislocations and inequalities that led to fears among established groups of moral and social danger. In the nineteenth century, following parallel developments in the advancing science of biology, social theory often used either biology (e.g., racial types) or biological analogies to the physical body and biological processes to explain the social system.
Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist, created the foundation for the modern sociological study of society by focusing on social facts, structures, and systems rather than individuals. His profound ideas generated many concepts and laid the basis for many fields of study. Like other foundational social theorists confronting rapid change, he privileged solidarity and cohesion as normal. Durkheim introduced two analogies for a smoothly functioning social order characterized by solidarity: the machine (mechanical) and the body (organic). He envisioned society as a system seeking equilibrium with norms for behavior. Anomie was a pathological condition of moral breakdown at the societal level.
Throughout the early twentieth century, this emphasis on social equilibrium or structural functionalism, further developed by such thinkers as Talcott Parsons, dominated U.S. social theory. In defining equilibrium and stasis (status quo) as desirable, it was implied that change and disorder were abnormal and threatening. These pathologies were not attributed to the differential nature and value of individuals but rather to aspects of structure. Nonetheless, such ideas emphasized the value of returning to the status quo over change.
The idea of declaring the behavior of individuals in particular social categories as socially pathological followed a different trajectory. In the post-Darwin nineteenth century, Darwin’s theories of evolutionary change were applied loosely in ways that misinterpreted his theory. Particular social categories or populations were seen as having an essential, innate, and immutable behavioral inferiority leading to criminal and dangerous behaviors. While Darwin saw natural selection occurring in a random, purposeless way with no implied hierarchy of worth, Social Darwinism saw different classes and races as arrayed in terms of inferiority and superiority.
The development of race studies occurred as new nation-states were restructured from former European imperial monarchies, creating a need to build national unity and loyalty among diverse citizens. This led to preoccupations with the dangers of difference and an interest in the scientific study of race. Throughout the new nations of Europe and in the United States, nascent disciplines emerged such as the now-repudiated anthropological “science” of race and the racially tinged science of criminology, which used race to predict and explain criminal behavior and justify policies of “social hygiene.” In the twentieth century, the racial ideas of scientific racism and criminology continued, especially in Germany. There they culminated in Nazi racial theory, which advocated a removal of categories of people defined as biologically debased, such as Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals.
As such racial thinking was repudiated in the twentieth century, concepts of culture and cultural relativism, as well as concepts related to the self, psychic states, and personal identity, developed. Behaviors viewed as pathological for society relied less on innate racial attributes. While they continued to be associated with specific social categories, the new link between populations and pathology emphasized cultural learning and personal experience rather than biology. While biological attributes retained explanatory power for differences between genders and sexualities (e.g., homosexuality), behavioral pathologies were more associated with improper values, choices, and psychological states.
Ideas such as the culture of poverty first promulgated by Oscar Lewis blamed poor people for perpetuating their condition through inappropriate values and “weak ego structures.” A whole series of “social pathologies,” from dependence on welfare to substance abuse and inner-city gang violence, were linked to having learned improper values through substandard parenting in single-parent households. Yet these explanations, which blamed specific populations for social pathology, merely replaced racial determinism with cultural determinism.
Because stability and order are privileged as natural and normal and the profound and rapid social changes of recent decades are relegated to the sphere of the abnormal and dangerous, people who are the most disadvantaged and excluded in dominant ideologies and representations, such as single mothers (“welfare queens”), nonwhites, and nonheterosexuals, are blamed for their own situations. They also function as popular scapegoats for broader social problems and “moral decline.” In this way, they carry the weight of social problems not only through their personal circumstances of material and political deprivation but also through their symbolic representation as stigmatized and despised people.
Social science critiques of the culture of poverty examine ways to represent poor people as varied individuals with competence and awareness who cannot be categorized in terms of innate biology or culture. Particular behaviors of the poor can be analyzed in terms of the extremely constrained options of disadvantaged social positions, as rational strategies, or as political opposition rather than social pathology.
Moreover, in the second half of the twentieth century U.S. sociologists such as C. Wright Mills and William Ryan began to point out the role that dominant elite interests play in defining normalcy and pathology as the status quo as well as the way this masks the relationship between structural relations of power and the social production of inequality. Blaming the victims (stigmatized and disadvantaged groups such as the poor) was shown to not only hide the effects of power and privilege but also to stifle recognition of a need to address social problems through sociopolitical change. Late-twentieth-century European social theories developed by such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and others have brought issues of differential power and inequality to the fore. After continued world wars and the cold war as well as social movements advocating anticolonial independence, socialism, feminism, and civil and human rights, these ideas have emerged and have led to reexamining the ideological uses of social pathology as a way of reinforcing current inequalities in the social order.
SEE ALSO Benign Neglect; Bourdieu, Pierre; Crime and Criminology; Culture of Poverty; Darwin, Charles; Darwinism, Social; Determinism, Cultural; Durkheim, Émile; Foucault, Michel; Inequality, Gender; Inequality, Income; Inequality, Political; Inequality, Racial; Inequality, Wealth; Lewis, Oscar; Mills, C. Wright; Morality and Inequality; Neighborhood Effects; Poverty; Social Science; Sociology
Bellah, Robert, ed. 1973. Émile Durkheim: On Morality and Society: Selected Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Horowitz, Irving L. 1966. Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.
O’Connor, Alice. 2001. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ryan, William. 1971. Blaming the Victim. New York: Pantheon.