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SOC102H1 Chapter Notes -Social Constructionism, Social Inequality, Moral Panic

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Lorne Tepperman

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May 14th: Probs 1
Social Problems Chapter 1
What is a social problem?
A condition/pattern of behavior that warrants public concern/collective
What is sociology
Systematic study of societies
sociology is well- equipped to help us inform ourselves about current
problems and their possible solutions
sociology is an engaged, progressive, and optimistic discipline founded
on the notion that we can improve society through research and the
application of research-based knowledge
No field is more likely than sociology to force us to make connections
sociology has always been about social change, social conflict, and social
cohesionand all of these are connected to social problems
Goal: use knowledge to improve social life
‘progress’ included indus- trialization and urbanization; inventions and scientific
discovery; and exposure to new and different ideas and cultures. ‘Progress’ also
meant the possibility of social improvement or social ‘amelioration’.
Sociologists then believed that social life could be improved through the
systematic study of social issues: by applying knowledge and expelling ignorance,
superstition, prejudice, and blind custom.
They believed deeply in the value of social research as the means for diagnosing
social problems and for inventing and evaluating solutions.
They believed that social change could be directed to good ends; that social con-
flict could be resolved in just ways; and that the social order could be re-
established around new principles of organization.
Note that an objective of sociology is also to find and test natural laws about
these sub- jective beliefs and their consequences.

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The rise of sociology itself coincided with the rise of modern societies
There are two aspects to social problems
1) Objective Elements
Measurable features of a negative social condition (eg crime, sexual
abuse, pollution)
This activity is based on a philosophical premise, sometimes called
‘positivism’, of a material reality we can perceive with our senses; and
what we call ‘science’ is the systematic attemptto find and test natural
laws through measurements of this reality.
2) Subjective Elements
Our evaluations of objective conditions and the processes that influence
their evolution (eg moral labels)
and the accounts they give for these acts and situations. These moral or
aesthetic judgements reflect people’s beliefs and tastes
the beliefs become an aspect of social reality-Beliefs set in motion actions that
have social consequences
These ‘subjective’ aspects of social problems affect and reflect our emotional
reactions to information we receive about the world.
econd, our ‘subjective’ or emotional responses often lead to what we call the
‘social construction’ of social problems—including a search for vil- lains, moral
panic, crusades for better behaviour, a demand for improved laws, and so on. A
central feature in the social construction of social problems is called ‘claims-
making’—a process by which people try to capture attention and mobilize public
opinion around par- ticular problems and their solutions.\As we will see, our
formulation of social problems is influenced both by changes in meas- urable
reality and by changes in our perceptions of measurable reality.
By bringing together the objective and subjective elements, we can define a social
problem as both a conditionan empirically observed condition that threatens
the well-being of a significant part of societyand a processthe sequence of
events by which members of society come to see a condition as a social problem
that warrants and needs collective remedial action.Sociological Imagination
C. Wright Mills

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The ability to see connections between one’s life (micro events) and the
social world (macro events)
This enables people to distinguish between personal troubles and public
This connection is made by closely analyzing reality at two levels
o Microsociology: interactions between individ- uals in small
groups. This approach studies people’s understanding and
experience of social problems at the local, personal level
o Macrosociology: major bureaucratic organization and social
institutions It explores the ways that social trends occurring
within major bureaucratic organizations and social institutions,
such as the economy or the govern- ment, affect the population
as a whole
The sociological imagina- tion makes a connection between the
conditions of our personal lives and the larger social context in which we
Present unemployment results in part from so-called ‘globalization’, a process
that sends high-wage Canadian jobs to low-wage counries.
We need both levels of analysis for a proper understanding of social problems and
to see that many private troubles are essentially public issues. Take the case of
street youth, or homeless youth, written about in a classic work of sociology by
John Hagan and Bill McCarthy (see Box 1.1). Hagan and McCarthy (1998) take a
purely objective, positivistic approach to the study of homeless youth. They show
no doubt whatever that (1) there are identifiable homeless youth they can study;
(2) they can find out all the necessary facts about the lives of these homeless
youth; and (3) they can devise explanations or theories about the reasons these
young people live on the streets. This is sociology in the traditional, scientific
An alternative approach might be to ask the youth to give personal accounts of
their homelessness, then analyze and compare their narratives to understand
why some youth accounted for homelessness in one way, while others did so in
another way. This is called a post-modern approach. Finally, Hagan and McCarthy
might have carried out the study a different way: to determine the reasons why
few people consider youth homelessness a major social issue, despite the efforts
by some to raise public awareness about this issue. This is called a subjectivist or
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