There are many themes in S. E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders, including friendship, individual identity, and loyalty. However, the main theme is arguably social conflict. The book revolves around the Greasers, a gang of poor boys from the East Side. They are viewed as delinquents because of their social status. The Greasers have frequent run-ins with the Socs, a gang of affluent boys from the West Side. While the Socs also participate in some delinquent activities, society does not view them as delinquents because of their social status.
The socioeconomic differences between the Greasers and the Socs cause a great deal of tension. For instance, recall how the Socs look down on the Greasers because they are poor. Meanwhile, the Greasers view the Socs as pretentious. The conflict takes up almost all of the boys’ time and energy. Recall how Johnny tells Ponyboy:
I gotta do something. It seems like there’s gotta be someplace without Greasers or Socs, with just people. Plain, ordinary people.
There is a whole world outside of the conflict between the Greasers and the Socs but the threats and violence and pressures to maintain their images have them all trapped. Hinton is trying to show the many real reasons why boys join gangs and how the social conflicts they become involved in impact their lives.
Ponyboy also learns that even though people might come from different backgrounds, everyone has problems. Recall how Cherry tells him:
I bet you think the Socs have it made. The rich kids, the West-side Socs. I’ll tell you something Ponyboy, and it may come as a surprise. We have troubles you’ve ever even heard of. You want to know something … Things are rough all over.
Ponyboy learns that just because a person has money does not mean they do not have problems, and the Socs learn about the Greasers too. Recall the scene in which Ponyboy tells Randy that he is worried he might have to go into foster care. Randy is genuinely surprised and genuinely sorry. He had never really reflected on how complex their lives were because of their rough backgrounds. The book suggests that it is not right to make assumptions about people based on their social status, and it is not right to put others down because of the way they grew up.