Chapter 1: Understanding Social Problems
•The discipline of sociology began in Western Europe during the late 1800s and
soon made its way to the U.S.
•A. Javier Treviño, recent president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems,
emphasizes that "early American sociology was primarily a reformist endeavor."
Called the vision and goals of the early American sociologists service sociology
"Service sociology is a sociology of social problems intended to ameliorate
conditions of life for those in need of assistance, and to insure and promote the
welfare of the community. Motivated by care and compassion, a service-oriented
sociology is aimed at helping people meet their pressing social needs. As such,
service sociology involves the application of sociological knowledge combined with
the expression of humanitarian sentiment."
1.1 What Is a Social Problem?
•A social problem is any condition or behavior that has negative consequences for
large numbers of people and that is generally recognized as a condition or
behavior that needs to be addressed.
•Objective component of the deﬁnition above: For any condition or behavior to be
considered a social problem, it must have negative consequences for large
numbers of people.
•Reasonable people do disagree on whether there are negative consequences but
accumulated data from academic researchers, government agencies, and other
sources strongly point to extensive and serious consequences.
•People hotly debate the reasons for the consequences as well as the existence of
these consequences - example: Climate change.
•Subjective component of the deﬁnition of social problem: There must be a
perception that a condition or behavior needs to be addressed for it to be
considered a social problem.
•Social constructionist view - The belief that negative social conditions or
behaviors do not become social problems unless citizens, policymakers, and other
parties call attention to the condition or behavior and deﬁne it as a social problem.
(Unless someone draws attention to it and deﬁnes it as a social problem, it is not a
•Ex: Rape & Sexual violence - "Although men were sometimes arrested and
prosecuted for rape and sexual assault, sexual violence was otherwise ignored by
legal policymakers and received little attention in college textbooks and the new
media, many people thought that rape and sexual assault were just something that
•Due to the women's movement which began in the late 1970's, rape and sexual
assault were seen as serious crimes and manifestations of women's inequality.
They entered the public consciousness, policymakers payed attention, and it
became a social problem. "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, is a sound made?" -
Reinforces one of the key beliefs of the social constructionist view: Perception
matters at least as much as reality, and sometimes more so.
• Social constructionism emphasizes that citizens, interest groups, policymakers,
and other parties often compete to inﬂuence popular perceptions of many types of
conditions and behaviors.
• Just as a condition or behavior may not be considered a social problem even if
there is strong basis for this perception, so may a condition or behavior be
considered a social problem even if there is little or no basis for this perception. Ex:
Women were discouraged from going to college because researchers and
physicians wrote textbooks, newspaper columns, etc. about how the stress of
college would disrupt the menstrual cycle and women wouldn't do well in exams
during "that time of the month".
The Natural History of a Social Problem
! Stage 1: Emergence and Claims Making
• A social problem emerges when a social entity (such as a social change
group, the news media, or inﬂuential politicians) begins to call attention to a
condition or behavior that it perceives to be undesirable and in need of
• Claims-making process: The use of arguments to try to inﬂuence public
perceptions of a social problem, the reasons for it, and possible solutions to
• Not all efforts to turn a condition or behavior into a social problem succeed,
and if they do not succeed, a social problem does not emerge.
• The more well known a person is, or the more people who protest, the
greater the chance of a social problem being noticed.
• Because politicians have the ear of the news media and other types of
inﬂuence, their views about social problems are often very inﬂuential.
! Stage 2: Legitimacy
• Once a social group succeeds in turning a condition or behavior into a social
problem, it usually tries to persuade the government (local, state, and/or
federal) to take some action - spending and policymaking - to address the
• To accomplish this, the social group tries to convince the government that its
claims about the problem are legitimate - that they make sense and are
supported by empirical (research based) evidence.
! Stage 3: Renewed Claims Making
• Even if government action does occur, social change groups often conclude
that the action is too limited in goals or scope to be able to successfully
address the social problem.
• They often press their demands anew by reasserting their claims and by
criticizing the ofﬁcial response they received from the government or other
established interests, such as big businesses.
• This stage may involve tension between the social change groups and the
targets of their claims. ! Stage 4: Development of Alternative Strategies
• Social change groups often conclude that the government and established
interests are not responding adequately to their claims.
• They may continue to press their claims but also realize that they won't get
an adequate response from established interests. Then they develop their
own strategies for addressing the social problem.
*The deﬁnition of a social problem has both an objective component and a subjective
component. The objective component involves empirical evidence of the negative
consequences of a social condition or behavior, while the subjective component
involves the perception that the condition or behavior is indeed a problem that needs to
*The social constructionist view emphasizes that a condition or behavior does not
become a social problem unless there is a perception that it should be considered a
*The natural history of a social problem consists of four stages: emergence and claims
making, legitimacy, renewed claims making, and alternative strategies.
1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems
• Many individuals experience one or more social problems personally: poverty,
unemployment, poor health, family problems, alcoholism, etc.
• Most people hear about these individuals and think that their problems are theirs
alone, and that they and other individuals with the same problems are entirely to
blame for their difﬁculties.
• Sociology takes the approach that individual problems are often rooted in problems
stemming from aspects of society itself.
• Personal troubles refer to a problem affecting individuals that the affected
individual, as well as other members of society, typically blame on the individual's
own personal and moral failings. Ex: Eating disorders, divorce, and unemployment.
• Public issues, whose source lies in the social structure and culture of a society,
refer to social problems affecting many individuals. Problems in society thus help
account for problems that individuals experience.
• Sociological imagination - the ability to appreciate the structural basis for
individual problems. (From C. Wright Mills, the realization that personal troubles
are rooted in public issues).
• Ex: If only a few people were unemployed, we could reasonably explain their
unemployment by saying they were lazy, lacked good work habits, and so forth. If
so, their unemployment is their own personal trouble. But when millions of people
are out of work, unemployment is best understood as a public issue because "the
very structure of opportunities has collapsed".
• Eating disorders are a public issue because there are more American women than
men with an eating disorder and it relates to the ideals of beauty.
• Blaming the victim - The belief that people experiencing difﬁculties are to blame
for these problems. Blaming the system - The belief that personal difﬁculties stem from problems in
Theoretical Major Views of
Perspective Assumptions social
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is necessary problems
for a strong weaken a
society, and society's
adequate stability but do
socialization not reﬂect
and social fundamental
integration are faults in how
necessary for the society is
social stability. structured.
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important should take the
functions to form of gradual
help ensure social reform
social stability. rather than
Slow social sudden and
change is far-reaching
desirable, but change.
rapid social Despite their
threatens effects, social
social order. problems often
society. Theoretical Major Views of
Perspective Assumptions social
Conﬂict theory Society is Social
characterized problems arise
by pervasive from
based on faults in the
social class, structure of a
race, gender, society and
and other both reﬂect
factors. Far- and reinforce
reaching social inequalities
change is based on
needed to social class,
reduce or race, gender,
eliminate social and other
inequality and dimensions.
to create an Successful
egalitarian solutions to
change in the
society. Theoretical Major Views of
Perspective Assumptions social
Symbolic People Social
interactionism construct their problems arise
roles as they from the
interact; they interaction of
do not merely individuals.
learn the roles People who
that society engage in
has set out for socially
them. As this problematic
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negotiate their other people.
deﬁnitions of Individuals also
the situations learn their
in which they perceptions of
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and socially other people.
reality of these
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rely heavily on