Who needs help? How do we ascertain that they need help? What kind of help should be most appropriate for them? These are some of the toughest questions a social worker should ask when evaluating the cases that come their way. As social workers, we will need to differentiate social deviances (or behaviors that violate social norms) that are true psychiatric conditions from people who are suffering from trauma because they are unable to gain culturally-defined goals through the current means made available for them. Any wrong diagnosis of the situation may cause unimaginable consequences that will affect the individual’s life. For the purpose of this post, we will look at social deviances through the three sociological paradigms, and how we should redefine social ministries with this added knowledge.
Structural-Functionalist Perspective – Merton’s Strain Theory
The functionalist looks at how interconnected parts fulfill their functions and work interdependently in a society to ensure the cohesiveness of the society as a whole. Any social deviances in a community will be seen as a structural dysfunction.
“Merton’s Strain Theory posits that there are culturally defined goals that everyone should attain and the inability to attain these goals causes social deviances.”
Robert K. Merton studied how pressure from social factors drives an individual to commit a crime or act in ways that are against social norms. In his theory, he posits that there are culturally defined goals that everyone should attain and the inability to attain these goals causes social deviances. Merton listed 5 modes of adaptation; each of it represents a different response to cultural goals and their ability to attain these goals through institutionalized means.
Conformity: People conform to culturally defined goals and norms because they accept culturally defined goals and have the institutionalized means made available for them to achieve these goals.
Innovation: People innovate when they accept culturally defined goals but do not have the institutionalized means to achieve it. For example, it is a culturally defined goal to be wealthy because wealth meant success in life. However, without the means to achieve this goal, people may resort to innovating. This will result in actions such as stealing or to gambling.
Ritualism: People who do not accept culturally defined goals may resort to a ritualistic life, doing things because they have to. These people go on in their daily lives, adhering to rules and routines without any inherent purpose.
Retreatism: People who do not accept culturally defined goals and do not have any institutionalized means to achieve anything will retreat into a world of their own. People who fall into this category are often seen as mentally unfit, but in fact, they may have dived so deep into their innate struggles that they found that closing in on oneself is the best option.
Rebellion: People who rebel may or may not accept culturally defined goals. In fact, they may have their own reasons for doing what they do. People who fall within this mode of adaptation may or may not have the necessary institutionalized means to achieve their goals. For them, it does not matter because they may have substituted cultural goals and institutionalized means for other goals and means.
Conflict Perspective – The Helpless Ones
From the conflict perspective that posits that the wealthy bourgeoisie oppresses the poor working proletariats that will cause an uprising, social deviances are seen to be oppressed by the society in general. Any form of uprising is exhibited through the above modes of adaptation where people either innovate to get what they want, retreat into their own world, or rebel in their own manner.
Most of the time, society respond violently to the struggles that these people face, causing them to not be able to conform to culturally defined goals and norms. The violent responses may have occurred since childhood, affecting the person’s growth and psychological health. This brings us to the third sociological paradigm that talks about how meanings are derived from symbols, labels, and actions.
The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective – Lethal Labels
Within the symbolic interactionist paradigm, labeling theory is a type of symbolic interaction that deals with how meaning is being derived from symbols. In this context, it would mean interpreting certain behaviors as deviant then attaching these labels to certain people.
“The presence of this label will cause them to reject themselves or act more defiantly.”
Research has shown that people who have negative labels attached to themselves have lower self-esteem. The presence of this label will cause them to reject themselves or act more defiantly. This cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy will cause them to spiral further into helplessness, increasing the difficulty for them to re-adapt to cultural norms. Over time, this self-fulfilling prophecy might lead these labeled-individuals to commit unthinkable atrocities such as suicide, murder, or another type of harm towards others.
They Do Not Understand What They Do
A vast majority of the cases that I have encountered, matched the above analysis. They accepted culturally defined goals to succeed in life. However, they do not have the institutionalized means to do achieve success. Hence, they resort to different modes of adaptation based on their innate character, and are labeled by prominent figures within the society as “deviant” or “psychologically impaired”. Most of them do not understand the things that are happening within society. They too do not know why they are reacting the way they are acting. When asked to reason, most say that they “do not understand the world”.
From the biblical perspective, I find this surprisingly similar to Paul’s struggle with sin.
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
(Romans 7:15-17, NIV)
In context, Paul was describing the two opposing laws that are found within him – the law within the scriptures and the law of sin. However, when attempting to point out the differences between the two of them, Paul describes his struggles with sin as doing what he “do not understand” and doing what he “hate”.
“It appears that something as harmless as a false label can cause someone to dive deep into sin.”
Here, it appears that something as harmless as a false label can cause someone to dive deep into sin. The vast majority of the cases in which I have met all shared a common testimony: they know and desire to conform to culturally defined goals and norms. They want to succeed in life, they want to contribute productively to society. But the common barrier to their attainment of goals is the fact that they can’t. Most of the time, their inabilities to attain culturally defined goals are due to labels and the consequences that come with it (namely, wrong diagnosis and the provision of medication for an illness that does not exist).
Main Focus of Social Ministry
Relooking into the structural-functional paradigm, it may appear that the foundations of the problem of social deviances are founded on the individual’s knowledge of culturally-defined goals and the lack of institutionalized means to achieve them. In the article, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, I discussed that societal progress is also a key aspect of God’s kingdom on earth. Hence, the culturally defined goals to succeed in life should be retained. The resulting solution to the problem is to increase the institutionalized means to help individuals achieve these goals.
“When considering social ministry, one of the key things we should consider is how people adapt to the lack of institutionalized means to meet goals and the resulting act of deviance that arises from it.”
Considering the fallen nature of the world and the prevalent nature of social inequalities, the lack of institutionalized means may be here to stay. Hence, when considering social ministry, one of the key things we should consider is how people adapt to the lack of institutionalized means to meet goals and the resulting act of deviance that arises from it.
Social Ministry on the Macro Level
On the macro level, ministry planners can consider ways to improve institutionalized means to help people meet culturally-defined goals. This can include the founding of charity foundations that provide more scholarship rewards, linking business and church to match people’s skillsets to their relevant career paths, and the provision of enhanced educational systems that focus on interest and strength development rather than a specified curriculum.
“The key focus of social ministry on the macro level is to link people to their relevant career paths based on their skillsets and abilities.”
The key focus of social ministry on the macro level is to link people to their relevant career paths based on their skillsets and abilities. For people who are slightly poorer academically, skill-based education should be provided to help people gain a firm standing in life. For families with poorer financial, social, and cultural capital, non-discriminatory mediating platforms can be established to help people find a tangible path to a successful life. This will, on the institutional level, minimize behaviors of social deviances.
Social Ministry on the Micro Level
This is the level that many focuses on when we think about social ministry. On this level, people often provide individualized care to an individual or to a small group of people. This includes focusing on the physical needs of others and neglecting the root cause of their struggles. On this level, people provided food to entice people to come to church, set up homes to help the orphans and elderlies, or set up NGOs to provide welfare services in general.
Sure, all of these are good. But the crux of the matter remains unsolved. People are still struggling due to their inability to attain culturally defined goals that they have held so dearly to.
“On the micro level, institutions should relook the ways they use to help people walk out of their struggles and back into society.”
On this level, institutions will need to relook at the protocol that they follow, re-evaluating the ways in which they use to help people walk out of their struggles and back into the society. Institutions will also need to find a way to remove culturally-imposed labels from people with which they have previously labeled as “deviant” so that they can be healthily reintegrated back into society.
Whether is it the macro or the micro level, we will need to re-evaluate the way we look at social ministry. Much harm has been done to people when institutions segregate people who act against social norms from the vast majority. These harm remains within them and causing them to spiral deeper into helplessness. Hence, the key focus of social ministry is to walk them out of their struggles and back into society.
Robert Merton: Anomie Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.d.umn.edu/~bmork/2306/Theories/BAManomie.htm
Strain Theory. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/strain-theory-sociology
Theories of Deviances. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cliffsnotes.com/study-guides/sociology/deviance-crime-and-social-control/theories-of-deviance
Walmsley, A. E. (n.d.). Christians and Social Ministry: Witness to a New Age. Retrieved from https://www.religion-online.org/article/christians-and-social-ministry-witnesses-to-a-new-age/
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