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Social Problems, Chapter 1 – What Are Social Problems? What is a “social problem”?  Social Problem  A social condition or pattern of behaviour that is believed to warrant public concern and collective action.  Sociology  The systematic study of societies. Purpose: to help us inform ourselves about current problems and their possible solutions. Sociology and the study of social problems  Much of early sociology was the study of social problems.  Sociology has always been about social change, social conflict, and social cohesion.  Rise of sociology – 19 century. Deep confidence in the idea of “progress”. o Progress  industrialization, urbanization, inventions, scientific discoveries, exposure to new and different ideas and cultures. Also, social improvement or social “amelioration.” o Sociologists believed social life could be improved through the systematic study of social issues by applying knowledge and expelling ignorance, superstition, prejudice, and blind custom. Objective and Subjective Elements  Objective elements  The measurable features of a negative social condition. Such a condition might include crime, poverty, or alcohol abuse and can be considered an objective reality. Systematic measures show that the condition exists and that it harms people. o Can study its causes and effects objectively – without having to impose any moral judgements, etc. o Can make and test theories about how to increase/decrease their rates. o Based on philosophical premise – “positivism” – material reality we can perceive with out senses.  Subjective elements  People’s evaluations of objective conditions and the processes that influence their evaluations. They include the moral labels that people apply to particular acts or situations, and the accounts they give for these acts and situations. o Reflects people’s beliefs and tastes. o Beliefs set in motion actions that have social consequences (e.g. laws) o Another object of soc is to find and test natural laws about these beliefs. o Harder to measure and harder to explain, so theories are less developed. o Affect and reflect our emotional reactions to the info we receive about the world. o Often lead to “social construction” of social problems – search for villains, moral panic, crusades for improvement, etc. o Claims-making  process by which people try to capture attention and mobilize public opinion around particular problems and their solutions.  By bringing together the objective and subjective elements, we can define a social problem as both a condition and a process. Social problems and the sociological imagination  Sociological imagination  a term used by sociologist C. Wright Mills in his 1959 book, The Social Imagination, that describes the sociologist’s ability to connect seemingly impersonal and remote historical forces to the most basic incidents of an individual’s life. The sociological imagination enables people to distinguish between personal troubles and public issues. o The ability to see connections between one’s own life (micro-events) the social world in which one lives (macro-events), and between personal or private troubles and public issues.  Sociologists make connections by closely analyzing reality at two levels – micro and macro. o Microsociology (micro-level analysis) – focuses on the interactions between individuals in small groups. o Macrosociology (macro-level analysis) – focuses on the societal level. Explores ways that social trends occurring within major bureaucratic organizations and social institutions, such as the economy or the govt, affect the population as a whole.  Methods of conducting sociology o Traditional, scientific manner – determine a population of study, identify facts about the population, and devise theories and explanations about the population’s condition. o Post-modern approach – analyze and compare the narratives people give of their condition. o Subjectivist/constructionist approach – determine why few people consider something a major social issue despite efforts to raise public awareness. Social problems research as a moral enterprise  Our efforts to improve society sometimes backfire (think civilizing mission)  Much of research on social problems simply criticizes the existing social order.  Sociologists identify the social-structural conditions that make people vulnerable to “personal troubles”. Also the social-structural factors that increase the likelihood of problem behaviours. Social construction  All social reality is conditional and temporary.  Social reality  social construct, set of ideas, beliefs, and views that is (almost) infinitely flexible and always open to interpersonal influence.  Thomas dictum – when people define a situation as real, the situation will be real in its effects. People’s subjective view of reality shapes their behaviour.  Social constructionism  a sociological research approach that examines the ways people interact to create a shared social reality. Looks at the ways people create and institutionalize social reality. o Goal: to examine the ways people interact to create a shared social reality. o Believe that humans react not to physical objects and events themselves, but to the shared meanings of these objects and events.  Moral entrepreneurs  Term coined to describe people who “discover” and attempt to publicize deviant behaviours. Moral entrepreneurs are crusading reformers who are disturbed by particular types of evil they see in the world and who will not rest until something is done to correct the problem.  Claims-making  involves the promotion of a particular moral vision of social life and, thus, is anything people do to propagate a view of who or what is a problem and what should be done about it.  Symbols  gestures, artefacts, and words that represent something else. o Shared meanings make social interaction possible, and interaction allows people to cooperate and influence one another.  Roles  the specific duties and obligations expected of those who occupy a specific social status.  The meaning of anything is the product of the dominant cultural and symbolic practices in a group or society.  Social constructionist position: four basic assumptions o The world does not present itself objectively to the observer but is known through human experience, which is largely influenced by language. i.e. we use language and images to create emotional responses. o Historical and cultural specificity is recognized. The language categories used to classify things emerge from the social interactions within a group of people at a particular time and in a particular place. o Knowledge is sustained by social process. How reality is understood at a given moment is determined by the conventions of communication in force at that time. o Knowledge and social action go together. Within a social group or culture, reality is defined by complex and organized patters of ongoing actions.  Social group  a set of people, defined by formal or informal criteria or membership, who feel unified or are bound together in stable patterns of interaction.  Institutional ethnography – mode of inquiry designed to help researchers explore the social organization of everyday knowledge. o E.g. investigating ways people use language to deceive – e.g. “enhanced interrogation” instead of torture. “Climate change” instead of global warming. “Death tax” instead of estate tax. o First job is to deconstruct the language used to confuse and obscure public understanding of reality. Second, aims to shine a light on taken- for-granted relations of power, to demystify the relations of ruling, and to point out ways that ruling relations can be modified to better serve ordinary people in everyday life. Warnings Panics, and Claims  A goal of ruling classes is to generate social and moral concern about behaviours they want to control. Thus, they’re likely to use claims-making strategies to provoke intense feelings of pity, concern, and even fear. o Media has a large role in shaping people’s perceptions of a problem.  Whistle-blowers  Employees in a bureaucratic organization who bring forward valid information about wrongdoing or illegal conduct by their organization and who are often punished for doing so.  Moral panics  public expressions of feeling and attitude typically based on false or exaggerated perceptions that some cultural behaviour or group of people (frequently a minority group) is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. o Folk devils - People who are believed to be to blame for them. E.g. JK
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