The Sociology Behind The Walking Dead

by | Nov 18, 2013

The Sociology Behind The Walking Dead

by | Nov 18, 2013

we bury the ones we love

“We bury the ones we love and burn the rest,” says Andrea, a survivor, after she impales a zombie’s skull with a scythe and then nonchalantly picks up a severed arm and tosses it to the side.

The Walking Dead is a post-apocalyptic television series where a group of survivors fights to stay alive in a world where the dead walk. As the show progresses past the first season, it becomes the apparent the more interesting storyline has nothing to do with zombies, but with the dynamics between those who are trying to stay alive. Not only stay alive, but stay alive while keeping their humanity. The survivor’s morals and ethics are continually tested in a world favoring survival of the fittest.

Andrea’s line “We bury the ones we love and burn the rest” is both cold and endearing. In a world where a group of survivors fights to stay alive in the face of hordes of zombies (“walkers”), this line is especially telling. Taking the time to bury a loved one, requires being out in the open and expanding considerable physical effort; both actions put you at considerable risk for attack. And in a world filled with dead bodies strewn across the landscape, this distinction of burying someone in the ground is important. Loved ones are worth the effort and risk. At the same time the “burn the rest” part hints at the cold, detached mindset required to thrive in this world. Of course “the rest” are surely other people’s loved ones deserving of burial, but they’ll be piled up five bodies high, dosed with gasoline, and set ablaze.

From a sociological perspective this show is intriguing, here are some of the key themes it show explores.

Reference Reading: How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.

Social Norms

In a post-apocalyptic world there is no government, there is no law enforcement, money has no value, there are no emergency responders, and there is no clearly defined social structure. This is world where your neighbor may become a walker and you will have to kill him or her, with a blunt object. People abandon their cars on the highway and run for shelter. And survivors hide away in basements and closets, trying to keep silent so as to not get the attention of a group of walkers. This is not normal. People have no frame of reference for how to deal with this scenario, there is no past precedent in history to follow here.

the walking dead sociology

Let’s define a norm. A norm is an expectation of how people will behave, and it takes the form of a rule that is socially rather than formally enforced. Norms are group-held beliefs about how members should behave in a given context. Sociologists describe norms as informal understandings that govern society’s behaviors. Although not considered to be formal laws within society, norms still work to promote a great deal of social control.

For instance, we don’t steal from the store because (1) it’s illegal, but also because (2) it breaks a social norm. Society frowns upon it and we know our close friends and family members will look down upon this action and think less of us because we have violated a social norm. This is a rough example of social control theory.

Originally written as social bond theory  by Travis Hirschi in 1969, social control theory attempts to explain why it is that all of us do not commit crime. Or to put it another way: why are most people law-abiding? The answer lies in dimensions of social control. The many ways in which people are controlled by family, schools, work situations, conscience, etc. Basically all the normal societal bonds that keep people from making deviant decisions are fractured or broken in this post-apocalyptic world. What makes The Walking Dead interesting is the complete breakdown of social norms and social control. In fact, if not already broken, survival sometimes requires it to be broken. While in the same sense, those clinging to what’s left of normal human world, feel tremendous pressure to keep these norms intact.

Reference Reading: How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.

walking dead season 2


The sociological term “anomie” describes a lack of social norms or “normlessness.” It describes the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community. This can happen under unruly scenarios, resulting in fragmentation of social identity and the rejection of self-regulatory values. It was popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book Suicide (1897). The Walking Dead requires its characters to let go of self-regulatory values in favor of self-preservation, sometimes at the cost of other’s lives. This fragmentation requires characters to make a delineation between the living and the walking dead, even if the walking dead were living just minutes ago and still look very much like their human versions. Previous social norms required us not to kill each other, the idea of killing did not come to mind on a daily basis and was not a natural reaction to a given  situation.

The first time I saw a walker, it was just half a body, snapping at me from the ground and my first inclination wasn’t to kill it. But what the world is out there isn’t what you saw on T.V. It is much, much worse and it changes you. Either into one of them, or something a lot less than the person you were. -Rick Grimes

the walking dead sociology

This is the first episode of the show. One of the first walkers Rick encounters is a child. In this scene he must choose and his choice represents the new world he is living in.



In the face of change, how do they survive as a society? How do they maintain group cohesion? One of the main influences that groups exercise over their members lies in their capacity to induce conformity – the process through which members modify their behavior to comply with the group’s norms or decisions. Research shows that group pressure does not have to be intense to produce conformity, however the show’s characters are under immense pressure to conform within the group, to fill the necessary roles (stand watch, bash zombie skulls, gather food, treat the wounded, etc.), or people will die.

In The Walking Dead, survival requires a new social norm that relies on greater brutality and physical strength. It is survival of the fittest in the most literal sense, however the show’s characters are not barbarians, they are school teachers, fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, police officers, the town drunk, retirees, and all manner of normal people forced into a survival situation. Time and time again we see when characters are first exposed to walkers they are scared and apprehensive to physically confront them, still seeing that the walker happens to be wearing a fire fighter’s uniform and identifying the person it used to be. But the more seasoned characters, who have faced walkers for months, will bash that same walker’s head in with a baseball bat without thinking twice.

You and I have our differences: the way we look at walkers. Those people; they may be dead, they may be alive, but my people? Us? We are alive, right now, right in front of you. – Herschel

We also learn that group cohesion anchored to a reliance on brutality, leads to fraying of the group, some cannot accept the brutal choices that must be made. The brutality evolves, and the concern becomes not for the bashing of zombie skulls, but the treatment of the living. Rick believes the decisions required in this world can transform a you into “something a lot less than the person you were.”

Reference Reading: How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.

The Walking Dead

At times the group must choose between what some see as right and wrong. But in a world where “right” and “wrong” decisions, no longer hold the same contrast, a gray area pervades. The characters are no longer working through right and wrong, good or bad, they are making the most of a situation where they are forced two choose between two bad choices. This is where the group’s ethics are put to the test. How does the group treat the living? While we would like to think that as a society we will always value the lives of others, history has always shown us differently.

There’s us and the dead. We survive this by pulling together, not apart. – Rick Grimes

Protect the In-Group

Sociologist William Graham Sumner (1959) coined the concept of in-group to indicate a group to which one belongs and toward which one feels a sense of loyalty. An in-group always exists in relation to an out-group: a group to which one does not belong and toward which one feels hostility. An individual tends to have a positive view on members of his in-group whereas he will have a negative view of members of the out-group.

the walking dead

Randall. Tied up in the barn. Awaiting for his fate to be decided by the group.

In Season 2, the group is confronted with a choice. One night the show’s main characters (including our hero, Rick), are scouting an abandoned town for supplies and encounter another group of survivors who attack them (note: living attacking the living) in order to get the supplies. The noise of the firefight attracts a large horde of walkers, and in their desperation to get away, the other group of survivors leaves Randall, one of their members, behind (and wounded). Rick cannot stand the thought of leaving him to be killed by walkers, so he blindfolds Randall and takes him back to his group’s farm. Now we have problem, what to do with Randall once his wounds are treated? If they let him go, he might go back to his group, tell them about Rick’s farm and come back in force and attack them. This puts Rick’s entire group at risk. Do they imprison Randall? Keep him tied up the barn, risking possible escape? Or do they kill him, a scared teenager abandoned by his own group, to ensure the the safety of their group? The group must deliberate and decide his fate. To even imprison Randall required certain group members to take on controlling and authoritarian roles.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this quick adoption of authoritarian roles. In situations where norms are removed or fractured, we have seen normal people take on roles of responsibility they have no experience in. A highly regarded sociological case study from 1971 is Phillip Zimbardo’s prison experiment, which showed how easy it is to get people to engage in violent behavior against others who have done nothing to them. We see how people quickly adapt to the roles assigned to them (or forced on them). In Zimbardo’s experiment, college students readily took on the roles of prison guards and prisoners. The students assigned to be prison guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment got so out of hand so quickly that the experiment was shut down in a matter of days, the full reports of which took years to be fully released.

Reference Reading: How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.

the walking dead, sociology, bonds



You are going to beat this world, I know you will. You are smart, and you are strong, and you are so brave, and I love you. You gotta do what’s right. It’s so easy to do the wrong thing in this world. So, so, if it feels wrong don’t do it, alright? If it feels easy don’t do it, don’t let this world spoil you. -Lori to her son, Carl

Control Theory, as developed by Walter Reckless in 1973, states that behavior is caused not by outside stimuli, but by what a person wants most at any given time. According to the control theory, weak social systems result in deviant behavior. Deviant behavior occurs when external controls on behavior are weak. According to control theory; people act rationally, but if someone was given the chance to act deviant they would. So, basically, if you have strong social bonds to positive influences, deviant behavior is less likely than someone who has no family or friends.

merle walking dead

Merle Dixon, he’s one of those bad guys who you just know has a heart down there somewhere. Believing his only family in the world (his brother Daryl) is dead, Merle goes to the dark side. Upon finding out his brother is alive, Merle seeks redemption the only way he knows how.

Control theory stresses how weak bonds between the individuals and society free people to deviate or go against the norms. Or the people who have weak ties would engage in crimes so they could benefit, or gain something that is to their own interest. This is where strong bonds make deviance more costly. Deviant acts appear attractive to individuals but social bonds stop most people from committing the acts. Deviance is a result from extensive exposure to certain social situations where individuals develop behaviors that attract them to avoid conforming to social norms. Social bonds are used in control theory to help individuals from going after these attractive deviations.

After the first season the show quickly takes on an appropriate tagline:

Fight the dead. Fear the living.

The survivors quickly learn that while the walkers are lethal, it’s the living who they should really fear. Resources are finite; food is hard to come by, weapons are low on ammo, cars low on gas, and medical supplies are few and far between. These are precious commodities and it frequently comes down to who is willing to fight for them to ensure the survival of their family or group. Those willing to commit the most violence in order to gain these resources is likely to come out on top. We see murder, kidnapping, torture, and other unspeakable acts committed throughout the show. We often see deviance committed in order to protect one’s own group, however it always come at a cost.

We Bury The Ones We Love and Burn The Rest

walking dead sociology


The question at the heart of the show is how Rick and his group of survivors can stay alive while also keeping their humanity intact. The decisions the group must make come with a heavy price. The Walking Dead resonates with us because it forces us to examine the weight of decisions made under extreme circumstances. As the original members of the group are killed off, those bonds that once held their social structure together become frayed. The characters are put under more and more stress, but yet they strive to keep their group together, to keep eachother safe, and to protect the social norms they’ve created. They fight, even when outnumbered, outgunned, and outzombie-ed, to protect what they believe is right. They fight for more than the lives of the people in their group, but for what they believe are the remaining ideals keeping them human. To betray those norms, those ideals, the beliefs they know to be most true, would make merely being alive not worth living. We Bury The Ones We Love and Burn The Rest.

Reference Reading: How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.


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