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The Salem Witch Trials: A Sociological View

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The Sociological Explanation

Two little girls, one nine years old and the other eleven, began to act strangely. They would scream out, act as if in a trance, and have seizures. Shortly after, more girls began to act the same way. Their behavior could not be explained by any physical cause at the time and so the physicians came to the conclusion that the girls were being influenced by Satan. This then led to efforts of trying to reveal the ones responsible. The girls, pressured to give names, claimed that three women were the cause: Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Eventually more and more people were being accused of practicing witchcraft, leading to the hangings of nineteen people at Gallows Hill, their names were Bridget Bishop, George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, George Jacobs Sr., Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, John Proctor, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardwell, Sara Wildes, and John Willard. The man that was pressed to death was Giles Corey.

The first step toward understanding how a group could be capable of destroying so many lives, and keep in mind this can be used to explain many groups behavior, you need to understand what these people are exposed to. During the time of the witch trials the people of Salem were living in a Puritan society, so as you can imagine strict religion reigned. This religion can be described in sociological terms; it's a total institution. In order for something to be a total institution, there are a few things that must happen; first the people in the total institution need to be isolated from influences that are different from what the institution wants its members to believe. In addition, the member must have any past beliefs suppressed so the new beliefs can take over. But when it comes to religion the normal rules don't always apply, often there are no previous beliefs because the religion is family derived and pushed on a person at an early age. Also, most total institutions try to suppress the norms of society, but in the case of a major religion, it is the norm in society. Other characteristics of a total institution would be that they closely supervise their members and they control all information that is received by the members. Finally, the institution controls the rewards and punishments that are received by its members. The Puritan society fits this description very well. Religion controlled everything, laws, punishments, schools, ect. All of this is very much a brain washing process. The Puritan society isolates its members from all "bad" influences, it closely watches its member's behavior and how they are brought up, and it controls everything they are exposed to. This all leads to no choice but to submit. All of this is important to understanding the witch trials because if it had not been such a strongly religious community the whole event may not have happened. Because the religion controlled the laws that governed the people anything considered to be Satanic could be made punishable by law. Of course witchcraft was evil in their eyes and at one point was made a capital crime. And in effect of this many were hanged simple because they were accused of being a witch. Those put to trial were told that if they admit to being guilty they could be saved and if they denied it they would be hanged. So of course these people were left with a dilemma because of their religious beliefs, should they plead guilty and lie to save their life or die with only god knowing they are innocent.

Of course there are many more ways to explain why the people of Salem were able go through with the trials. Although these following theories are all very similar to everything that's already been said and to each other, they need to be mentioned because they can occur without a total institution being present. One such theory is Sykes Neutralization Theory. In his theory Sykes says that everyone knows the difference between right and wrong, the same goes for the people of Salem, When someone does something that is wrong they make excuses. The different kinds of excuses are denial of responsibility, denial of victim, denial of injury, and condemnation of the condemners. Some of the excuses the people of Salem may have used were denial of responsibility, "we have to hang the witches, they are evil." and denial of victim, "innocent people are not harmed by this, the innocent die a good Christian death. Another theory that works is Becker's labeling theory. In Becker's theory he says that when people are labeled as something they can begin to believe they are whatever they were labeled as. Before the person begins to believe the label is true it is called the primary. After the label has taken over it is the Secondary. The label becomes the person master status; in other words, it is their main focus no matter what else is going on in the person life. There are other parts to this theory but they do not apply to the people of Salem in this case. For the people of Salem, religion was the most important thing in their lives, and in a way this was a label, you are religious. At this point it was just primary, then the label became their master status and it became secondary. The people of Salem had a master status that they are religious people, and religious people do what they need to do in the name of god. Religious people stamp out evil, and witchcraft is evil. This theory can work in another way as well. The people that were accused of practicing witchcraft were being labeled as witches. This is the primary stage, before they believe themselves to be the label. It most likely didn't any further than that though.

In conclusion I would like to say that all of what has been said are just theories and may not be the case or they could all have contributed to the deviance, I just wanted to give a sociological view into what may have occurred. I feel that what happened in Salem was a tragic event and I just hope that humans have evolved sense then.