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Analyzing Tragic Mass Shootings As A Sociologist, Part 1

Sociologists focus on our world today. Today we have seen tragic news of shootings at a mall in Nairobi, a park in Chicago, and a Navy Yard in Washington D.C., all within the week. This devastating loss of innocent lives has impacted families, friends, and community members, and left many questions in our minds. As sociologists, we use three theoretical perspectives (think of them as three pairs of glasses with different lenses) to analyze society. One method that can be used for analyzing mass shootings such as the heartbreaking Navy Yard shooting in Washington D.C., is structural functionalism. In this post, Mediha Din describes structural functionalism and how this sociological perspective can be used.

How can we analyze society from the point of view of structural functionalism? Think of the morning cup of joe.

Do you drink coffee? Does it help you wake up? Focus? Give you an energy boost? These are some functions (purposes) of caffeine. Or do you avoid it because of the energy crash, acidity, or jitteriness it causes you? These are some dysfunctions of caffeine.

Looking at society from a functionalist point of view includes examining how something is functional (useful) and dysfunctional (not useful).

The structural functionalist point of view sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote stability. The human body is often used as an analogy for structural functionalism. Many different parts (heart, liver, brain, lungs) work together in order for the body to work.

Human Body

Functionalism is also focused on maintaining harmony in society, just as your body works to maintain harmony (if you are cold, your body shivers to warm you up, if you are hot, your body produces sweat to cool you down).

When we look at terrible occurrences such as the mass shooting in D.C., we will immediately see many dysfunctions caused by this horrendous crime. Families have lost a loved one, provider, and support mechanism. Our Navy has lost valuable members of their workforce, and many surviving members may suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. The members of society as a whole feel disheartened, fearful, and confused by these horrific acts of violence. Looking at the negative consequences of a behavior is part of structural functionalism.

Functionalism also analyzes how criminal acts can provide some functions in society. (This does not mean justifying atrocious acts of violence against innocent people in any way). Crime can have a role in society, and some positive outcomes can be seen coming out of extremely negative circumstances.

How can crime be functional for society? A few ways:

1. It can strengthen group cohesion.

People often unite to express outrage over a crime. As we come together to share our pain and anger, we can also feel more connected to our fellow community members. The members of the Navy have always described themselves as a family, and this tragedy connects them even more deeply to one another. Many of us felt this connection as Americans after the terrible attacks on our nation in 2001. We also carry out collective tributes of respect and honor for the people lost in a tragedy through events such as shared moments of silence. As you drive around your community you are sure to see many business and institutions with the American Flag lowered to half mass in honor of the lost Navy Yard workers.

2. Punishment reiterates boundaries of what is considered right or wrong.

When we see someone punished for breaking the law it reminds us of what we consider acceptable as a society and what is not. Attacking innocent civilians is something we want to see punished. Our desire to see the guilty reprimanded is evidenced by President Obama’s statement soon after the shooting, promising that “whoever carried out this cowardly act is held responsible.” The FBI announcement asking for any information about the deceased shooter Aaron Alexis, also highlights our desire for justice. We also see that the killing of the shooter by police officers in such situations is something accepted as permissible by members of society, because of their attack on innocent civilians.

3. Crime may inspire social change.

Criminal acts can also inspire people to make a difference in the world. Mass shootings bring the public’s attention to issues regarding gun violence in the nation as well as mental health. People have become inspired to propose changes such as universal background checks for gun ownership, changes in availability of weapons, and increases in education about mental illness over the past few months, as news of mass shootings around the nation and globe seem to increase.

How else might a sociologist analyze the Navy Yard tragedy or other mass shootings? We might use other lenses such as Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism. Stay tuned for these posts from my colleagues.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Read the following article, Good Police Training Is A Grim Benefit Of Mass Shootings.  The article describes functions of mass shootings for Law Enforcement Agencies. What are other outcomes of these events that may produce some function for police departments?
  2. Crime may inspire social change. Read the proposals for changes in Mental Health Care in the United States that have received increased attention after the numerous mass shootings in headlines this year. Research and describe other ideas that have been proposed to support improved access to care and education for people with mental health concerns.
  3. Use structural functionalism as a lens to analyze any current issue in your community or in the nation. Describe 2-3 functions as well as dysfunctions of the issue.
  4. Functionalists state that all of the different sociological institutions (i.e. the government, the media, education, the healthcare system, religion, etc.) work together to keep the whole of society stable and secure. After a tragedy like a mass shooting, how do these institutions work together to return society to a stable and secure order?