Social Pathology
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Social Pathology

A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior

Edwin M. Lemert

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Social Pathology

A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior

Edwin M. Lemert

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Persons and groups are differentiated in various ways, some of which result in social penalties, rejection, and segregation. These penalties condition the form which the differentiation or deviation takes. Sociopathic differentiation and sociopathic individuation are theoretically considered and applications made to several groups of deviants: the blind, speech defectives, radicals, prostitutes, criminals, alcoholics, and psychotics.—APA

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In the earlier history of sociology the basis for judging what constituted society’s ills was candidly and uncritically moralistic. By this we mean that sociologists bothered little or not at all about the method by which they placed their ethical tags of “good” or “bad” on various social conditions or behaviors. They simply drew upon their own sense of the rightness of things or took their cue from social reformers of the time—usually the social workers (from whom they were not always distinguishable)—and condemned poverty, crime, prostitution, alcoholism, and related behavior as evils to be stamped out. Like General Custer’s, their tactics were simple; they “rode to the sound of the guns.”
Generally speaking, these late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sociologists grouped together under the heading of “social pathology” those human actions which ran contrary to ideals of residential stability, property ownership, sobriety, thrift, habituation to work, small business enterprise, sexual discretion, family solidarity, neighborliness, and discipline of the will. In effect, social problems were considered to be any forms of behavior violating the mores from which these ideals were projected. The mores behind the ideals, for the most part, were those of rural, small town, and middle-class America, translated into public policy through the rural domination of county boards of supervisors and state legislatures and through the reform activities of humanitarian social workers and Protestant religious federations. In this connection we note with special interest that many of the early writers on social pathology lived their more formative years in rural communities and small towns; often, too, they had had theological training and experience, so that it was only natural that they should look upon many forms of behavior associated with urban life and industrial society as destructive of moral values they cherished as universally good and true.{1}
Although some few sociologists still adhere to this point of view in one form or another, there has grown up among many of them a scientific sophistication—even cynicism—about the reform movements which flourished around the turn of the present century. Many sociologists would now agree that reform movements often create more problems than they solve and that in such cases the “problem” turns out to be the reform action itself. It is likewise beginning to be plain to some of these sociologists that the sanctioned values of the culture have an important function in producing the behaviors which reform groups disapprove of and seek to eliminate. From the recognition of such facts has come the newer emphasis in the field of social pathology—the tendency to look upon problem-defining behavior as an integral part of the data to be studied as well as the objective conditions which strike reformers as being “problems.”
In studying the problem-defining reactions of a community, it can be shown that public consciousness of “problems” and aggregate moral reactions frequently center around forms of behavior which on closer analysis often prove to be of minor importance in the social system. Conversely, community members not infrequently ignore behavior which is a major disruptive influence in their lives. We are all familiar with the way in which populations in various cities and states have been aroused to frenzied punitive action against sex offenders. Nevertheless, in these same areas the people as a whole often are indifferent toward crimes committed by businessmen or corporations—crimes which affect far more people and which may be far more serious over a period of time. It is well known that collective efforts to eradicate juvenile delinquency nearly always strike a chord of immediate response from the public, whereas “problems” of the conservation of soil, water, and natural resources remain the concern of only a few specialized groups which often struggle in vain to stir up support for their programs.
The generally unreliable nature of moral indignation and public dissatisfaction as guides to the definition of social problems led a few of the early social pathologists to the belief that responsibility for guiding a community’s thinking about its problems should rest with its leaders. Thus, specific indication of the conditions or behavior in need of remediable action should come from a consensus of competent authorities, presumably intelligent lay leaders and professional people, such as social workers, physicians, attorneys, and churchmen. Unfortunately for this point of view, deciding just who are the “competent” authorities of a society or a community is no easy task. Furthermore, competent authorities or experts at times have a way of being embarrassingly wrong in their analysis and prediction of social phenomena. In the final count the consensus of such leaders may prove to be a projection of moral beliefs or special interests of certain power groups in the community, with little to distinguish them from the moral judgments of the uninformed laity save, perhaps, a more convincing top-dressing of rationalizations.
Here and there we encounter the belief that social scientists, being the best informed persons we have on such matters, should assume a dominant role in pointing out those aspects of our social life which should be modified or ameliorated. Among sociologists this question appears in the controversy over whether students of society and culture should make value-judgments about the data they examine. One group has strongly insisted that it is impossible not to make value-judgments; merely by the selection of the particular social phenomena he studies and by publishing the results of his investigations the sociologist makes value-laden decisions. On the other side of this argument are sociologists who maintain that the making of value-judgments is incompatible with science as we know it and that if sociology is to be a science then it must forego ethical generalizations.
In providing a working answer to this controversy let us freely grant several things. First of all, let us admit that certain values do in here in science itself; there is behind science the idea that, generally speaking, free (even irresponsible) and systematic inquiry into natural phenomena is a valuable technique of aiding mankind individually and collectively in the achievement of goals, whatever they may be. Beyond this lies the more generalized ethical conviction that through reliance upon science modern societies will become more conducive to the satisfactions of the people who live in them. With further candor we can say that sociologists do indeed select data for study which is of topical interest to large numbers of people or which is of practical concern to persons in positions of power.
But do these admissions mean that the sociologist must break out his colors and show whose side he is on in public controversies? We think not; within the generalized value-context of science there is nothing which demands that the scientist advocate or condemn the discoveries he makes. Furthermore, there is nothing in science as it has been defined which can prove that anything is good or bad. The function of sociology as a science is to study and describe the uniformities of human behavior, the relatively repetitive sequences of human events. Those who argue that sociologists in their research on human cultures and societies must push beyond this function to evaluate the uniformities or sequences of sociocultural events which they discover are saying in effect that sociology is not a science, that it is a philosophy. Yet we cannot, in the light of the recent history of sociology, give any serious consideration to this claim.{2}
Up to this point we seem to be saying that there is no way of objectively determining what social problems are in the sense of what is “bad” or undesirable about a society or culture. If this seems to be an uncomfortable agnostic position to the reader, then he must be reminded that it is not incompatible with the dominant democratic philosophy of our society, which carries the assumption that groups and individuals will formulate their own values, objectives, and goals within fairly broad limits of freedom. In a democratic society (as well as in other types of society) the social scientist can best function to inform policymakers what the consequences of certain lines of social action are likely to be, and also to enlighten them, if possible, as to the most economical means of reaching their goals.{3} By delimiting his function the sociologist not only increases his value to society, but he also makes his social status more secure and more effectively integrates his occupational personality.{4}
While the social-problems approach remains in favor with many sociologists and probably will continue to be the orientation of academic courses in sociology for some time to come, nonetheless it is not clear that this approach corresponds to any precisely delimited field or to any system of well-defined concepts. In so far as the approach can be said to be distinctive, its main features have been as follows: (1) a low level of abstraction or conceptualization; (2) a stress upon the immediate, practical, “everyday” difficulties of human beings; (3) the discussion of “problems” as discrete and unrelated phenomena; (4) the injection of moral judgments into many of these discussions.{5}
The recognition of the methodological weaknesses of the traditional social-problems orientation has led those who still pay it allegiance to employ the concept of social problems in a purely descriptive or classificatory way. The term “social problems” is taken by them to mean a social situation about which a large number of people feel disturbed and unhappy—this and nothing more. Defined in this way, without any implications that the situation is dangerous or undesirable, the term “social problems” achieves a maximum clarity and acceptance by sociologists. Questions as to whether social problems thus defined are unanticipated consequences, secondary stabilizing derivatives, or necessary preconditions of the sociocultural system in which they develop are left open for inquiry and further research. Whatever the answers to such questions may be, there is a mounting awareness among sociologists that social problems are functions of the structure of a total social system, not congeries of disunited parts operating through unique processes of their own.{6}
An alternative formulation of the field of our interest, which to some extent overlaps and in some ways supplements the social-problems viewpoint, is phrased in terms of “social disorganization.” This general theoretical position can be traced back to the ideas and writings of Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Auguste Comte, and Herbert Spencer, and has numerous contemporary representatives. Practically all variants of this view associate such things as social change, uneven development of culture, mal-adaptiveness, disharmony, conflict, and lack of consensus, together with social disorganization and personal disorganization, as aspects of a separate field of sociological inquiry. While nearly all the social-disorganization (sometimes disintegration) theorists start their analyses with the ideas of change and organic process, nevertheless extremely divergent conclusions have been reached as to what organized and disorganized societies are. On one hand we have the “cultural-lag” theory which postulates as an organized society one in which the various parts of its culture change evenly and in conformity with scientific and technological developments. Conversely, an unevenly changing culture, particularly one in which other changes are not geared to technology and invention, suffers from cultural lag, a condition equatable with social disorganization.{7}
Standing in what would seem to be almost a direct contradiction of the cultural-lag conception is the viewpoint of those writers on social disorganization who find the prototype of the organized society in the pre-scientific, preindustrial society. In this version, an organized society is identified by its qualities of stability; intimate, personal interaction; continuity of social relationships; and high degree of consensus among its members. Contrariwise, the disorganized society becomes synonymous with a rapidly changing society which is unstable, has little continuity of experience from one group to the next, and which lacks agreements among its members on the common concerns of everyday life. The disappearance of organic intimacy of social relationships which is taken as the mark of a disorganized society makes way for a highly individuated, self-seeking behavior. The fractured, atomistic social contacts of the disorganized society are assumed to leave its participants frustrated and thwarted in fulfilling their deeper personal needs and desires. Because science, industry, and urbanism have initiated the changes leading to such conditions, we are left with the fairly definite impression that they give birth to societies which not only cannot be integrated but which can never be humanly satisfying.{8}
The nostalgic ideal of an organized society which is advanced in the above statement of social disorganization has a long history in sociology. As we made clear previously, it was implicit in most of the early treatments of social problems. It was made explicit in the writings of such pioneer sociologists as W. I. Thomas and Charles H. Cooley and has appeared as variations on a common theme in the thought of many sociologists up to the present day. Of all the sociologists who have laid heavy emphasis upon the normality of the small, intimate, primary community and the abnormality of the large, formally organized community, none has stated the view more cogently or been more influential than Cooley. For this reason let us scrutinize his ideas more closely.
Central to the Cooley formulation is the notion of social life as an organic process involving the mutual interaction of society and the individual. Social disorganization is to be found in the nature of the dynamic relationships between individuals and the institutions of their society. Institutions are looked upon as devices for fulfilling human needs which at the same time function to limit or control the responses of individuals. However, when institutions are no longer responsive to these needs, a condition exists in which the institutional symbols no longer exercise this control. Such a condition or process is known as “formalism,” which was Cooley’s term for social disorganization.
A further summary of Cooley’s ideas is at hand in the following excerpt in which the writer of a text on social disorganization gratefully acknowledges his indebtedness and that of others for their theoretical premises. Thus he says:{9}
However, none of the various approaches to the study of social disorganization come potentiall...


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Zitierstile fĂŒr Social Pathology

APA 6 Citation

Lemert, E. (2020). Social Pathology ([edition unavailable]). Barakaldo Books. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

Lemert, Edwin. (2020) 2020. Social Pathology. [Edition unavailable]. Barakaldo Books.

Harvard Citation

Lemert, E. (2020) Social Pathology. [edition unavailable]. Barakaldo Books. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Lemert, Edwin. Social Pathology. [edition unavailable]. Barakaldo Books, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.