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
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
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
o Harder to measure and harder to explain, so theories are less
o Affect and reflect our emotional reactions to the info we receive about
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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