Social Pathology: Definition and Theory

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  • 0:01 What Is Social Pathology?
  • 1:27 Social Pathology in Theory
  • 2:47 What Causes Social Pathology?
  • 3:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
In this lesson, you'll learn how to define social pathology, explore how it develops in cultures, and how it is applied as a framework for understanding social problems.

What is Social Pathology?

If you spend much time watching television these days, you might have noticed a seemingly endless stream of police procedural shows shown on several different channels. In fact, not only are there several different shows on the subject, but an entire cable channel dedicated to true crime reality television. While some people may not be willing to admit it, the existence of these television programs suggests a growing fascination with criminal behavior and an interest in what causes people to commit such acts.

In the social sciences, deviant behaviors and actions, like violent crime, are known as social pathology. In medicine, pathology is the study of the causes and effects of illness, which is usually conducted in a laboratory environment. Applying that same concept to society, modern psychologists and sociologists have started to use the term social pathology to refer to problems or behaviors that violate social norms and often have a negative effect on society.

Often times, social pathology is a technical term used in reference to deviant behaviors, or actions that societies have agreed are immoral or unacceptable. For example, in most cultures, murder is considered a deviant behavior, or social pathology, because it is harmful to society and a transgression against one of the fundamental social boundaries. Additionally, homelessness can be considered a social pathology because it transgresses social norms.

Social Pathology in Theory

In biology or medicine, when a living organism contracts an illness or virus, it may seriously weaken or die. In the study of social pathology, psychologists and sociologists think of societies as living organisms that need certain things in order to function properly. From their perspective, when a society contracts an illness or pathology, and if the cause cannot be discovered, the society can weaken or collapse.

For example, imagine if a particular society didn't view violence or murder as a deviant behavior. How long do you suppose that society would last? In this way, labeling an action as a social pathology helps to prevent widespread occurrences of harmful behaviors.

Although social pathologies are often framed within a negative context, some theories suggest they're also essential to societal survival. For example, 19th century French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, proposed that social deviance was a necessary element of the social structure. From Durkheim's perspective, deviations from social and cultural norms helped to strengthen the values of individual societies by clearly defining what was and what wasn't acceptable. Durkheim felt that the existence of deviant behaviors helped societies to identify the boundaries of acceptable behaviors and beliefs.

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