December 31, 2009

Infidelity, Tiger Woods, and Émile Durkheim

new karen 1

By Karen Sternheimer

By now you might be tired of hearing about Tiger Woods and his alleged mistresses. I know I am. And yet when high profile figures are thought to cheat on their spouses it becomes big news again and again, especially if a politician or celebrity is involved. Once Tiger’s story goes away there is sure to be another public figure whose behavior will enter the public fray for dissection.

There are many explanations for why people are interested—it’s salacious, it pervades the news at a time when ratings matter and news organizations’ budgets are being slashed, and in the Woods case it seems to be an opportunity for several people to get their fifteen minutes of fame. These are just a few of many explanations that have sparked a slew of conversations about why this is even news in the first place (including one I recently participated in on NPR). But how might the founder of sociology explain the attention celebrity infidelity receives if he were alive today?

clip_image002Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is often regarded as the father of sociology, both for employing research methods to study sociological phenomena and for the theories he created about social life. While he lived before our hyper-mediated age, some of his ideas can add insight into why stories of infidelity seem to get the public’s attention.

Durkheim was very interested in how complex societies remain cohesive. He, and those that adopted his way of thinking, were very interested in how various aspects of society operate in concert in order to maintain the social order. Often called functionalism, this school of thought dominated sociological thinking for most of the twentieth century. One of functionalism’s central questions asks: What is the glue that holds increasingly diverse and sometimes divergent groups together?

Here’s where infidelity fits in. The collective disgust and outrage people express about high-profile cheaters serves to reaffirm a central societal value of fidelity. Functionalists emphasize the importance of shared values in creating bonds across society. News of infidelity is a chance for most of us to feel connected in agreeing that this behavior is wrong. While we might not agree on much else (witness the hotly debated health care reform legislation and other political melees), there aren’t too many people who are publicly pro-infidelity. Yes, it seems counterintuitive that something that could break up a marriage and family might provide social bonding. It may not do a family any good, but functionalists might argue that pillorying cheaters serves an important purpose for the rest of us.

Just as public hangings and stockades served to embarrass law breakers of the past and send a message to others of what would happen to them if they followed suit, media floggings serve a similar function today. Functionalists might argue that so much news focuses on undesirable behavior for the purpose of helping to maintain the social order; if we agree upon a set of norms and values we might feel a greater sense of who we as a group are and thus follow the rules. You might have noticed that when defining people as outsiders from our society we often focus on how their norms and values are different from ours.


It doesn’t take bad behavior to help unify an otherwise diverse society. According to Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, authors of Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, media events that galvanize the public’s attention serve the very important purpose of creating a shared culture and history in a complex society that can often feel fractured. Major media events can serve as common experiences to help us feel more connected.

Tiger Woods and other public figures involved in scandals enable the rest of us the chance to reaffirm a sense of shared values, but on the most basic level they provide a common topic we can all talk about, and therefore feel a greater connection to one another.

The functionalist perspective is not without its shortcomings. For one, we might argue that a complex society such as ours has a multitude of competing values, rather than a stable set of shared beliefs. It’s also important to note that people’s actual behavior falls short of the very values they may claim to hold. Proponents of conflict theory might argue that the focus on shared values and beliefs leaves out the issue of power: the power some have to define societal values and the power to evade punishment when said values are violated.

Sociological theories offer many perspectives that seek to explain social life. What other sociological concepts might help us understand the role that infidelity plays in public life?


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I think this blog is very informative. I learned a lot of things I needed to know for my Sociology class about Emile Durkheim. I think it's interesting how gossip about celebrities relate to the hangings of people.

This blog made me think. It was also very important. It made me get a better understanding about some of the things in my Sociology class. It surprises me that people conform and do things to keep the social environment going.

I think this was very interesting information. Many don’t realize the extreme lengths people go to for attention. It is just very shocking that people would sink that low for attention.

I am currently in a sociology class and I am finding it very interesting in how it explains social lives of everyday events. This blog was very informative and very interesting.

good post! In my sociology class, i'm covering a chapter called "Deviance and social control" and i found this article very helpful in understanding parts of it. Your article brought to my attention the ability of the media to reinforce our positive and also negative deviances. I also liked how you connected Emile Durkheim to the other content of the article, like tiger woods' affairs.

It's very interesting how we can relate the learnings of the past to the present. It's crazy how one incident can effect the society in various ways. For instance, Tiger Woods being unfaithful affected his loved ones in a negative way. People, mostly referring to those who aren't celebrities, are effected by this in a positive way. They learn how to be faithful and know what the consequences can be for making a mistake like that. Also, it brings people together because it gives them something to socialize about. This post is helping me understand sociology even more. =]

It is amazing how many articles are published on infidelity and how the public response to them. But, as this artical mentions it has away of bring people together. People I have never met before will start talking to me about Tiger Woods. As a sociology student, I can see how this is an example of functionalism. It is a way of bring people together and making them feel that they are a apart of social group.

I really enjoyed reading this blog because I'm a big Tiger fan. LOL, I do want to say he missed everything up for himself though. I agree with society that infidility is wrong and immorral and he shouldn't have cheated EVER but especially if your in such a good place already!! I loved the way she stats that there are not many people that would say that they are FOR cheating...I know of people that do it and then turn around to their family members and say, "I hate cheaters!"

This post did a good job of illustrating the conflict theory applied to real life examples. It's definitely true that not everyone has power, especially through the mass public, so that can definitely lead to being a conflict in one's life. Also, the media's influence has such a great impact on the mass public, it leads to conflict.

Great insight! This post answers a lot of questions for me about the state of our society in general.

Do you think that it might be possible that we are addicted to watching people suffer? Erving Goffman also pointed out that people play different roles and that no one person is ever really true to their real self. We use different identity techniques to help ourselves rationalize why we chose to act the way we do. I think that what also holds society together is being able to connect with the celebrity or the person who committed an infidelity and then we distance that role from ourselves saying something along the lines of, “Oh that is so sad, I am so lucky to not have a life like that”. There is something going on that is a new phenomenon and that is keeping up with celebrity gossip that is playing a role in our life and how we as a society come together.

This blog was interesting and informative. I liked how the author related something that is so common and well known to Emile Durkheim, who is not well known except among sociologists and sociology students. It also addressed why the public needs public figures and though I’ve understood that, I’ve never actually had the ability to put it into words. The blog was well written and it kept my interest so easily.

This blog was informative and has good use of such a common topic of Tiger Wood’s affair that mostly everyone can relate too. The author uses Durkheim’s functionalism concept in her own blog by using a topic that the society can understand and feel as if they are part of the group. The author avoids anomie, which is the term used for loss of social purpose or alienation from society. People of society hate to feel as if there is no solidarity in their lives they need solidarity otherwise they become an anomic person. My attention was held through the entire blog post it is definitely worth reading for anyone but especially for those in sociology.

I think that the author did a great job of drawing a parallel between functionalism and infidelity. The blog made me think of the idea of deviance and how it relates to functionalism in a different way than I had before. It was easier for me to relate it to Tiger Woods’ infidelity because I had previously learned about the scandal on the news and in magazines.

I love psychology, and my theory on the role that infidelity plays in public life is that maybe because some people are more focused on the negative side of life. Its like its normal for people to feel envious of those who are more fortunate or famous than they are. And so, they tend to be fault finder at times. I definitely agree that the issue of infidelity is also an issue of a bad moral values which many of us would agree.

Its one thing to read about sociology in a textbook, but when reading a story like this, its easy to see how it applies to everyday life.

Would you please complete a minute long survey it is for a sociology class, and I am trying to reach more people, the link is:


Interesting view. I got intersted in this subject, after I experienced infidelity first hand. I try to read and study sociology and psychology to understand what goes on in people who choose to be unfaithful and are drawn to someone else. A common phenomenon in our society nowadays.

I never considered that a scandal, including the immediate actions of the media, and public scrutiny can all enable social cohesion, and just an overall more unified society. The same thing happened with Sandra Bullock and Jesse James's scandal.

Great, I was actually sent to your article from a pal. She suggested it since we were having a chat about this issue the other day.

This blog was meerly very informative and served as a great basis for my dissertation around functionlisim and the positive/negative aspects of role models and the surbordination effects on society.

So now i can further conclude my hub is completely out of touch with hiz actions or needz God ........ agreeing with me how horrible yet continues paying the prost. half my age

It is impressive that after this incident. His career was hit pretty hard because he lost a lot of thing by the image that he had as a man of family that he struggle to became the start that he was.

This incident was the turning point in his career. Even though he deserved everything it affected him as the image of a family guy.

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