Social Problems

views updated May 11 2018

Social Problems

History of social problems approach

Theoretical issues

Social pathology

Social problems and social disorganization

Social problems as dysfunctions

Social problems as deviation

Future of social problems approach


Social problems are described most simply as perplexing questions about human societies proposed for solution. The distinctiveness of such questions as a separate object of sociological study rests upon their topicality, currency, and pragmatic derivation. Social problems are part of the climate of opinion in society which centers on expressed needs for public policies and anticipated requirements for social control. Social problems study or research consists of the ordering of perspectives and social facts in relation to the ends and means of collective action.

Proceeding beyond this general statement to a more precise definition of social problems poses a complicated task of sorting out the wide diversity of views held by sociologists as to the nature of the subject matter and the perspectives from which it should be studied (Merrill 1948). These conflicting viewpoints, as well as salient misgivings shared by many as to whether social problems is a“field,”or can validly be included with sociology, are in part understandable in the context of the origins and history of sociology itself.

History of social problems approach

Concern with social problems has been singularly American or Anglo-Saxon. Antecedents can be found in the literature of socioeconomic criticism and reform which was directed at many of the consequences of commerce, industrialism, and urban growth in western Europe, particularly eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century England. The more immediate forerunners of what came to be the social problems approach emerged from writings, reports, essays, and surveys by Protestant clergymen, philanthropists, and middle-class humanitarians, in the United States as well as England, who were dedicated to a variety of social reform activities. These included prison reform, settlement work, child rescue, promotion of temperance, housing betterment, and improvement of conditions of employment of women and children; by the middle of the nineteenth century many of these had crystallized into organized actions or associations.

The roots of the intellectual orientation toward social problems as an academic subject are more precisely located in the broadly based American reform movement from which, in 1865, there issued the American Social Science Association. This represented a merger of a variety of local and regional associations, whose constituted objectives were clearly meliorative (Bernard & Bernard 1943). In large part it was responsible for the introduction of social science courses in American colleges and universities, beginning in 1865 and reaching a peak between 1885 and 1895. Many, if not most, of these courses, however titled, dealt with topics subsequently recognized as the substance of social problems courses in sociology with possibly somewhat greater attention paid to education and law.

The development of such courses reflected motivations of persons both within and outside the universities who were seeking to arouse and prepare students for careers of legislative reform. The courses attained quick popularity with students, many of whom were repelled by limitations of the classical or science curricula and who were fired by the social ferments of the post-Civil War period. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when sociology began to receive formal departmental recognition in colleges and universities, many of those recruited to teach it came from backgrounds of the ministry and welfare work. The lineal ties of their versions of sociology to the older social science movement are attested by the substantial numbers of these early sociologists who were members of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections and of the American Prison Congress (Sutherland 1945).

The scientific rationale

Such facts strongly tempt one to the conclusion that American sociology was fathered by the study of social problems. However, this is opposed by another theme, reflecting continuity with the thought of August Comte and Herbert Spencer, holding to a scientific purpose in the study of society, which was present almost from the first in the social science movement. To the scientific emphasis in pioneer American sociology was added an antireform bias, stemming from the laissez-faire philosophy of Spencer and sounded in W. G. Sumner’s strident disdain for social welfare activities. The conflict of purposes among early sociologists is epitomized by the lengths to which Sumner himself went in devising titles which would sharply distinguish his courses from the reformistic ones taught by his colleagues at Yale Divinity School.

It is generally accepted that Lester F. Ward’s teleological philosophy outweighed the influences of Spencer and Sumner in the formative years of American sociology and that the notion of an“applied sociology”became or remained dominant. Yet the applied sociology of Ward (1906) was little more than an idea which took its concrete meaning from classroom teaching, student field trips to charitable institutions, and the writing of textbooks, a number of which appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century. These, as well as the ones which followed, drew heavily on factual data from a variety of sciences construed to have a bearing on the problems under discussion, roughly ordered into“causes,”“effects,”and “solutions.”This was consistent with Spencer’s conception of sociology as a synthetic,“capstone”science, but this scientific rationale probably made a virtue of necessity. The amount of“pure”sociology available for application to social problems was severely limited; early sociologists, like Yankee inventors, made do with materials at hand.

Changing perspectives

The passing of time saw the social problems approach in sociology lose ground as the socioeconomic characteristics of recruits to the field changed and as the need to validate sociology’s status as a macrocosmic science was increasingly accepted. In the middle decades of the twentieth century sociologists turned more and more to self-conscious discussion of methodology, research design, and theory, with a growing attention to the European sociology of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. A kind of ideological commitment to social neutrality and nonevaluative research took hold of the discipline. The gulf between social theory and the study of concrete social problems grew wide, intellectually stranding many sociologists with continuing interest in the latter (Davis 1957). Their discontent culminated in the establishment in 1952 of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, which, while affiliated with the American Sociological Association, nevertheless carefully cherishes its separate identity.

Despite the shift in perspective regarding the fundamental tasks in sociology, the flow of textbooks on social problems has continued unabated, and courses so titled continue to be taught—albeit more restively by a younger generation of sociologists trained to demand theoretical meaning in materials with which they deal. The attenuated identification of sociologists with social problems courses is perpetuated by the relatively large number of students attracted to their offerings who nevertheless do not plan to follow sociology as a course of study. Instruction in social problems courses in otherwise scientifically oriented sociology departments is given various rationales—general education, a“service function,”or a means of recruitment of students to the field.

Other pressures also have made it difficult for sociologists to disengage themselves from the old ties to social problems. Government recognition of military uses of sociology during World War II, plus research support from industry, government, and private foundations after the war, drew the interest of sociologists toward applied research on problems posed by persons or agencies outside the field. The massive surge of the American Negro after 1954 toward greater equality of opportunity multiplied the contingents of sociologists at work on applied research. The looming threat of thermo nuclear war motivates others toward immediately useful, rather than abeyant,“scientistic”sociology. A number of highly articulate critics both within and outside sociology have inveighed against the sterility or inapplicability of much contemporary theory, directly challenging the claim that sociology can or should aspire to ethical neutrality.

Theoretical issues

The most sweeping indictment of social problems writings appeared in an article by C. Wright Mills (1943) entitled“The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists.”With slashing phrases he more or less condemned an entire generation of social pathologists for the low conceptual level of their textbooks, the discrete and unrelated nature of their treatments of various social problems, and insertions of rural-biased value judgments in the guise of objective terminology. These observations, while undeniably cogent and pointed, were closer to stricture than to science, although they were organized around Mills’s own brief for structural analysis of social problems data.

Closer study and more sanguine assessment of the field in the past make it less atheoretical than it would seem, especially if the textbooks are disregarded in favor of provocative articles by Frank (1925), Waller (1936), and Fuller (1937; 1938; compare Fuller & Myers 1941a). These writers, especially Fuller, both saw and sought to analyze social problems in a general setting of values and value conflict. Fuller’s distinction between ameliorative problems and moral problems, implications of which he developed in a paper on morals and the criminal law (1942), bears insightfully on structural questions concerning the relationship of values to norms and the contingency of legal action on variations in this relationship.

Both Frank and Fuller stressed a holistic view frequently repeated by many contemporary sociologists, i.e., that situations or behavior considered to be problems, on finer analysis prove to be expressions of cherished values or institutionalized norms crucial to the operation of society. From this came Fuller’s conclusion—dismal to somethat solutions to social problems may be or are impossible. This, when fitted with his later effort to demonstrate a natural history of social problems (Fuller & Myers 1941; Lemert 1951a), closely allies his thinking with the laissez-faire philosophy of Sumner, but it is also akin to the political conservatism many sociologists believe to inhere in modern“system”theories of society. In sum, these critics seem to say that putting social problems into a structural context destroys bothideological rationale and the individual motivation for reform, by showing the problems to be“necessary”consequences of a given type of value system or by making clear that values will have to be sacrificed and institutions disrupted if the problems are to be eliminated.

Definition as an issue

The first authors of books on social problems bothered little or not at all about definitions of social problems, uncritically drawing on fairly homogeneous convictions about the aspects of society that needed improvement or reform. Among the first attempts at definition were those of Ellwood (1915), Howerth (1913), Kelsey (1915), and Hart (1923). The prevailing definition, however, came from Case (1924), who was attracted to ideas of Thomas (1909) dealing with generic elements in the process of cultural origins. Predominant among these was an element of attention, defined as the subjective or reciprocal aspect of social control, which is activated by crises (Thomas [1917-1937] 1951, p. 218). These ideas led Case to propose that social problems are situations impressing a large number of competent observers as needing remedy by collective action. They became for him and many others after him sociopsychological phenomena; social problems, stated most simply, are whatever a goodly number of members of society say they are.

This definition more or less identifies sociologists with the lay populace and makes public opinion sociological opinion, with implied faith in a democratic process. Its difficulties accrue from recognition of the irrational or spurious qualities in public expressions or collective behavior, which counsels considerable discounting of public reactions or moral indignation as guides for sociological criticism of society or its institutions. Moreover, questions must be faced as to how many or what persons qualify as an acceptable panel for making judgments as to what are social problems. Many issues in modern society are articulated almost exclusively within coteries of specialists in health, medicine, welfare, correction, and education. They reflect technical interests, often couched in esoteric language, which are projected into the arena of public opinion only ephemerally or adventitiously.

Superficially, Fuller’s distinction between moral and ameliorative problems seems to reconcile the older conception of social problems with the facts of technical specialization. However, the division between moral and technical problems often becomes vague or disappears, for means may become ends or ends means, depending upon the vantage point of the beholder. The older idea that social problems could be defined by a consensus of professional and welfare experts made little headway with sociologists, largely because judgments of specialists outside their own or adjacent areas of interest can claim no greater validity than those of educated lay persons. Representative specialists often are spokesmen for organized groups, necessarily supporting vested agency values as well as conveying judgments derived from technical knowledge. Finally, it must be noted that the ordering of social problems with respect to priority or importance cannot be determined by consulting specialists who define them distributively.

Social pathology

The subjectivism inherent in the“popular”definition of social problems runs athwart the conception of sociology as a body of knowledge which rises above common sense and is accumulated through application of special methods by observers or researchers at least relatively detached from the social facts under scrutiny. If social problems are defined in terms of such a body of knowledge, they become objective rather than subjective facts,“discoverable”from laws or generalizations about necessary conditions of social life. Despite its well-documented shortcomings, the bare idea of social pathology is more congenial to such a formulation of sociology than is that of social problems.

Social pathology was an effort to apply a biological or medical model to the analysis of problematical phenomena of society. It rests on the idea that societies or their constituent parts may develop abnormally or anomalously and that they can be described or“diagnosed”in the light of some pristine or universal criterion of normality or health. The orientation of social pathology was, however, toward man rather than society, being heavily pervaded with the nineteenth-century concern about the relevance of institutions to the perfectibility of human nature. The notion of individual adjustment figured large in discussions of social pathology, revolving about the consequences of physical illness, mental deficiency, mental disorders, alcoholism, lack of education, or incomplete socialization for the realization of life goals regarded as normal for most people. The fact that many of these conditions are indeed associated with organic pathologies or were assumed to have a hereditary foundation lent strength to the idea that social problems were external, or objective, facts. Sociological residues of this idea persist today among those who believe alcoholism and mental disorder to be diseases. In the perspective of time it may be said that so long as American society was dominated by middle-class values, laissez-faire individualism, localism, and southern regionalism, the more absolutistic conception of social problems as social pathology remained tenable.

Social problems and social disorganization

The growth of cultural relativity in sociology, infiltrating from the critical-historical themes of American anthropology, together with the general questioning of paramount American values that was generated by the great depression of the 1930s and by foreign revolutions, put an end to social pathology as a viable perspective on social problems. The need for concepts to organize thought about societies in wholesale flux and crisis was conjoined with the need to place discussion of social problems in a more comprehensive intellectual scheme that would be in keeping with the methodological aspirations of sociologists. The needs in part seemed met by restatement of conceptions of social disorganization originally set down by Thomas and Znaniecki (1918-1920) and Charles H. Cooley (1918). Many of the phenomena that had long been the subject matter of social problems or social pathology now were postulated as symptoms or products of such processes as uneven cultural development, conflict, dissensus, and dialectical change. Taken together, these processes mean social disorganization. A pivotal distinction was set up between social disorganization and personal disorganization, with the latter assumed to be functionally associated with the former. On this point most textbook writers followed the organic analogy of Cooley rather than the ideas of Thomas and Znaniecki, who saw no necessary relationship between the two.

While some sociologists have decried texts on social disorganization as being little different from those on social problems, apart from their introductory chapters, this ignores the lively development of ecological studies by sociologists at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, whose findings appeared to give statistical support for the notion that social problems are expressions of a common, underlying social process. For a while, at least, the idea of“disorganized areas”in urban communities became established sociology and a welcome new way of ordering the data in textbooks. Vice, crime, poverty, divorce, and mental disorder all became part of a zonal or area parcel explainable in terms of generic ecological growth, change, and deterioration.

Social disorganization as a subject has the look of an impressive theoretical fagade which on closer analysis is disillusioning. The concept of process on which it relies is vague at best, and the distinction between social and personal disorganization is difficult to maintain. Serious doubt has been cast on the method of ecological correlation, undermining the neat idea of disorganized areas. Careful ethnographic studies of the slum, such as W. F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1943), make it undeniably clear that such areas can be or are relatively well organized. [See DEVIANT BEHAVIOR.]

The idea of social disorganization still has its theoretical partisans and, defined simply as human activities or failures to act which impede or block other activities, is indeed demonstrable and of heuristic value. Thus, if artillerymen fire shells that, by reason of faulty communication or function, fall on their own troops, the result is fittingly enough described as social disorganization. But if questions are asked whether the attack was part of integral tactics, or whether the associated campaign advanced over-all strategy, or whether the war should have been fought in the first place, theoretical analysis quickly moves into speculation where fact and value blur. In any but a specifiable, closed social system or subsystem with consensual goals, the formulation of social disorganization reduces to value choices of its author.

Social problems as dysfunctions

Forms of thought from the traditions of European sociology and English anthropology offer the theoretical alternative of subsuming the data of social problems under the category of social dysfunctions. This descriptive and analytic device proceeds from assumptions that there are functional prerequisites of social life around which institutional structures operate, mutually supporting each other, meeting psychobiological needs of individuals, and contributing to an over-all integration of society. Practices or activities which run counter to functional prerequisites, which disrupt the institutional nexus, or frustrate individual needs are defined as social dysfunctions.

The difficulties of functional analysis are well known. Determining what is indispensable to maintain a specific complex of behavior and what is adventitious is made difficult by the fact that the range of cases or time series in human societies from which to generalize often is small and some kinds of events have only a few instances. Culture comes to each generation in unsorted bales or packets, and historical, comparative, or cross-cultural studies are limited in their potential for sorting out that which is functional or dysfunctional. When cultures change or undergo disruption, that which may have seemed to participants or ob-servers to be a causal or functional association may turn out to be dispensable. The social problems of yesteryear often live only as the quaint reminiscences of today.

The persistence of ancient social problems or dysfunctional activities in such forms as crime, political corruption, gambling, or prostitution in the face of collective efforts to eradicate them is not readily explained by functional analysis. An explanation for such seeming paradoxes was proposed by Robert K. Merton (1949, chapter 1) in the form of a distinction between“manifest”and“latent”functions; R. M. Williams (1951) also dealt with this matter in his discussion of“patterned evasions of institutional norms.”However, these explanations seem secondary or residual at best. They call attention to the fact that actions may have functions as well as dysfunctions. In another light, they are implicit concessions that determination of functions in a culturally diverse society depends in large degree on the particular needs, perspectives, or values adopted by the observer.

A more crucial but closely related issue in functional analysis is whether it can reveal those activities which can be established in objective terms as social problems, even though they are not necessarily subjects of popular awareness or collective action. In a general way Case (1924) heeded this question when, in defining social problems primarily as aspects of the collective mind, he nevertheless recognized that statisticians and others could describe adverse conditions of society; furthermore, the inclusion of a“situation”in definitions by a number of other sociologists was recognition that objective factors were a necessary part of social problems (Smith et al. 1955). Ogburn (1922), more clearly of functionalist persuasion and impressed by the discrepancies between dynamic technology and institutional adaptation, sought a totally objective definition of social problems as consequences or expressions of “cultural lag.”Subsequent critics showed that this conception was not, as hoped, free from value judgments and strongly argued against its underlying dichotomy of material and nonmaterial culture.

The causal relationships between technology, culture, and moral ideas and the sequence in which they change continue to be among the great moot questions of sociology. They have grown more prominent as ruling groups in some societies seek to assist others to industrialize or raise agricultural productivity. The discovery in many instances that introduced technology does not always lead to the expected consequences has compelled students of socioeconomic development to conclude that their judgment of what is functional and dysfunctional for others is not easily imposed for the purpose of directing change.

Social problems as deviation

Since 1940 a sizable portion of the traditional subject matter of social problems, such as crime, delinquency, prostitution, drug addiction, and physical handicaps, has been categorized as deviance, deviation, or deviant behavior. The amoral, statistical, or descriptive implications of the terms carry a strong appeal, although they tend to acquire morally invidious connotations. Generally, deviance is defined as violations of norms, or departures from social expectancies, but beyond this minimal agreement the ideas projected for its analysis differ considerably.

One group of sociologists, following Durkheim, Parsons, and Merton, has concentrated on sources of deviation in discontinuities, anomie, or strain within the structure of a society that is assumed to be more or less an integrated system. The analysis of deviation in this theoretical context is voluntaristic, in contrast with deterministic or strictly causal versions of functionalism. Deviation originates from permutations of choice by individuals motivated by culturally given ends and confronted with means of varying accessibility. The most cogent statement or theoretical design derived from these ideas appeared in Merton’s widely influential article“Social Structure and Anomie”(1938).

Critical assessment of the structural or“anomie”interpretations of deviation was slow to crystallize but was finally made by a symposium of sociologists qualified by extensive research in areas of deviation. In this volume, edited by Marshall B. Clinard (1964), they raised serious doubts as to whether Merton’s effort to design an embracing theory of deviation was sufficient for the complexities of the data. The ends-means distinction is not an easy one to maintain with concrete data, and the individual motivational base of structural sociology is barren ground for the production of a theory of group-related deviation in any but reactional terms. The heavy accent on conditions of social order in works of Parsons (1951) reduces social control to a negative mechanism for repressing deviation; the recognition of deviation as a creative necessity for social change is absent from structural theories or appears only in revised afterthoughts.

Standing at considerable theoretical distance from the objectivism of current structural theories of deviation are the productions of a small nucleusof sociologists represented by Erving Goffman (1963; 1961), Howard S. Becker (1963), and Edwin Lemert (1948; 1951fc), whose perspectives are more microcosmic than macroscosmic. Characterized by the importance they assign to interactionally derived meanings in the genesis of deviation, they have dwelt upon factors present in interaction, such as labeling, stigma, self-presentation, identity conflict, and identity protection; they have also dwelt upon the more structural concepts of role, deviant career, societal reaction, and secondary deviation. These writers do not talk of social problems, but their interests in the self-definitional and constrictive impacts of social control align them with the notion that social problems are products of definition. They are little concerned with criteria for rational social control or solutions for problems of deviation, preferring to show how agencies of reform, rehabilitation, or “treatment”give form and meaning to deviation and stabilize it as secondary deviation by intervening interaction processes.

While these sociologists offer strong negative criticism of institutional controls and public policy relevant to deviance, thus far they have not produced explanations of how definitions of deviation and related policy appear as cultural phenomena, or of how and why they change. Neither have they done much theoretically to connect deviation with innovation and creativity in the processes of change. Broadly assessed, however, interactional studies of deviation show more sensitivity than systematic sociological theory to many salient features of modern society, among which must be numbered functionally derived morality, shifting ends-means relationships, pluralistic group action, segmentalized social relationships, information control, attenuated role commitment, and the operational consequences of these for norms and rules defining deviation.

Future of social problems approach

In some respects social problems is one of the most important branches of sociology, for it provides the testing ground for predictions and the ultimate usefulness of sociology. Yet it remains a theoretically embarrassing area for many sociologists who regard its crucial questions of definition as unanswered. Discussions and research in social problems, particularly those subsumed as deviancy, now can lay claim to a closer alliance with general sociological theory than was true in the past. However, the dilemma between subjective and objective viewpoints persists, reviving with nearly every attempt to formally delimit the field.

There are growing indications that this dilemma may be resolvable with theory and studies of values and valuation, concepts toward which sociologists and other social scientists have been pushed by the dissensus, group conflict, and resistance which seem to be the ubiquitous concomitants of swift change in modern society. Some sociologists, and more anthropologists, have sought to discover the basis of action in a general structural matrix of values delineated by age, sex, occupation, kinship, and other status attributes; others have looked for significant values in derivative,“second order”categories, such as “personality structure.”However, these researches bypass the question of how values are aggregated for a pattern of action in any increasingly pluralistic society containing tangles of competing groups and associations.

One consequence of the heightened interest in values and valuation may be the evolution of a science of social action from the more amorphous area of social problems, implemented by studies of conflict resolution and short-term change and emphasizing content as well as forms of group interaction. This requires a different imagery of social problems, one less pointed to crisis and reform and more amenable to the facts of continuous change and policy revision in high-energy societies. The notion of a solution to social problems as a synoptical“best possible”choice from a number of alternatives will prove less useful than knowledge of how decisions are made and executed the“hard way.”These decisions, it is to be hoped, will be seen less as“causes”of change in static situations than as strategies for intervention into ongoing processes. If value aggregation through group interaction is an important phase of such processes, it will be no less important to specify who has access to what means of social control and to locate the relevant values of power elites; for these, too, are among the“conditions”of change.

Successful linkage of“subjective”value phenomena with“objective”social structure and technology may come from theoretical extensions of human ecology, widely conceived to show how time, space, energy, and resistance to change intrude into the sociopsychological aspects of action. This necessitates acceptance of the idea that technology can change the order of choice among values, otherwise set by culture and social structure, by altering the costs of their fulfillment. This is not to say that human beings always perceive and respond economically to“costly”ways of acting. Both the definition of social problems and the organization of rational intervention are problematical phenomena to be explained. Insofar as social scientists assume responsibility for supplying critical knowledge for rational intervention, they help to organize it. Consequently, it is doubtful that social problems can be studied from an ethically neutral position.

Edwin M. Lemert



Becker, Howard S. 1963 Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York and London: Free Press.See especially Chapter 1,“Outsiders,”and Chapter 2,“Kinds of Deviance: A Sequential Model.”

Bernard, Luther L.; and Bernard, Jessie 1943 Origins of American Sociology: The Social Science Movement in the United States. New York: Crowell.See especially pages 554 ff.

Case, Clarence M. 1924 What Is a Social Problem? Journal of Applied Sociology 8:268-273.

Clinahd, Marshall B. (editor) 1964 Anomie and Deviant Behavior: A Discussion and Critique. New York: Free Press.Includes“An Inventory of Empirical and Theoretical Studies of Anomie,”by Stephen Cole and Harriet Zuckerman.

Cooley, Charles H. 1918 Social Process. New York: Scribner.See especially pages 153-168,“An Organic View of Degeneration.”

Davis, Arthur K. 1957 Social Theory and Social Problems: Fragments for a Philosophy of Social Science. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 18:190-208.

Ellwood, Charles A. (1915) 1919 The Social Problem: A Reconstructive Analysis. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan.

Frank, L. K. 1925 Social Problems. American Journal of Sociology 30:462-473.

Fuller, Richard C. 1937 Sociological Theory and Social Problems. Sociai Forces 15:496-502.

Fuller, Richard C. 1938 Problem of Teaching Social Problems. American Journal of Sociology 44:415-425, 433-435.

Fuller, Richard C. 1942 Morals and the Criminal Law. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 32:624-630.

Fuller, Richard C.; and MYERS, RICHARD R. 1941a Some Aspects of a Theory of Social Problems. American Sociological Review 6:24-32.

Fuller, Richard C.; and MYERS, RICHARD R. 19411) The Natural History of a Social Problem. American Sociological Review 6:320-328.

Goffman, Erving (1961) 1962 Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Chicago: Aldine.

Goffman, Erving 1963 Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Hart, Hornell N. 1923 What Is a Social Problem? American Journal of Sociology 29:345-352.

Howehth, Ira W. 1913 Work and Life: A Study of the Social Problems of To-day. New York: Sturgis & Walton.See especially Chapter 1, ’The Social Problem To-day.”

Kelsey, Carl 1915 How Progress Causes Social Problems. Pennsylvania, University of, University Lectures Delivered by Members of the Faculty in the Free Public Lecture Course [1914-1915]: 9-16.

Lemert, Edwin M. 1948 Some Aspects of a General Theory of Sociopathic Behavior. Washington State Univ., Pullman, Research Studies 16:23-29.

Lemert, Edwin M. 1951a Is There a Natural History of Social Problems? American Sociological Review 16:217-223.

Lemert, Edwin M. 1951b Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Merrill, Francis E. 1948 The Study of Social Problems. American Sociological Review13:251-259.For divergent views see the accompanying“Discussions”by Ernest R. Mower and Stuart A. Queen on pages 260-262.

Merton, Robert K. 1938 Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review 3:672-682.A revision of this article appears on pages 161-194 in the 1957 edition of Merton 1949 as“Continuities in the Theory of Social Structure and Anomie.”

Merton, Robert K. (1949) 1957 Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Mills, C. Wright 1943 The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists. American Journal of Sociology 49:165-180.

Ogburn, William F. (1922) 1950 Sociai Change: With Respect to Culture and Original Nature. New ed., with supplementary chapter. New York: Viking.

Parsons, Talcott 1951 The Social System. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.See especially Chapter 7,“Deviant Behavior and Mechanisms of Social Control.”

Smith, Thomas Lynn et al. 1955 Social Problems. New York: Crowell.See especially Chapter 1.

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1945 Social Pathology. American Journal of Sociology 50:429-435.

Thomas, W. I. (1909) 1920 Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society. Boston: Badger.See especially pages 16-18.

Thomas, W. I. (1917-1937) 1951 Social Behavior and Personality: Contributions of W. I. Thomas to Theory and Social Research. Edited by Edmund H. Volkart. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Thomas, W. I.; and Znaniecki, Florian (1918-1920) 1958 The Polish Peasant in Europe and America.2d ed. 2 vols. New York: Dover. - An unabridgededition of the original five-volume work.

Waller, Willard W. 1936 Social Problems and the Mores. American Sociological Review 1:922-933.

Ward, Lester F. 1906 Applied Sociology: A Treatise on the Conscious Improvement of Society by Society. Boston and New York: Ginn.

Whyte, William Foote (1943) 1961 Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. 2d ed., enl. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Williams, Robin M. JR. (1951) 1960 American Society: A Sociological Interpretation. 2d ed. New York: Knopf.H See especially Chapter 10,“Institutional Variation and the Evasion of Normative Patterns.”

Social Problems

views updated May 29 2018


The discipline of sociology was born during a century of rapid social change attributable largely to the Industrial Revolution. Social theorists in nineteenth-century Europe devoted much of their attention to the institutional consequences of the erosion of the old social structure. American sociologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially at the University of Chicago, added an intellectual orientation derived from the political idealism and meliorist pragmatism then fashionable in this country. "Social problems" generally were understood to be conditions that disrupted peaceful social life (e.g., crime) or produced obvious human misery (e.g., poverty) and that could be eliminated or alleviated by means of enlightened social policy and effective social engineering. Nearly all the conditions envisioned as social problems were associated with burgeoning cities and the dispossessed immigrants (foreign and domestic) they attracted. Few scholars doubted that these problems could be objectively diagnosed and treated, much like a malady in the human body.

By midcentury, however, American sociology was influenced increasingly by the functionalism and positivism of some of the earlier European intellectuals, whose major works had only recently been translated into English. Under this influence, sociologists assumed a more detached and value-neutral posture toward traditional social problems. While still acknowledging certain social conditions as problematic, most sociologists limited their responsibilities to scientific analysis of problems and their causes, leaving meliorist activism to politicians, social workers, and interest-group partisans. A split within the American Sociological Association between the more detached and the more activist visions of the discipline led to the formation in 1952 of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, which generally favors a more actively meliorist role for sociology. Since its inception, that society has published the quarterly Social Problems, the journal that most defines the content and direction of social problems theory and research in American sociology.


Historically, the reigning paradigm in the sociology of social problems has properly been called an objectivist one. From this perspective, social problems are conditions that (1) are in some sense undesirable to any trained and objective observer and (2) are in one way or another amenable to alteration. Interest-group differences are acknowledged in regard to how the problems should be defined and corrected, but it is taken for granted that the problems themselves exist as objective realities in the form of structural arrangements, material conditions, institutional processes, interactional patterns, and the like. In much of the literature on social problems, especially textbooks, there is an implicit analogy to medical diagnosis; that is, a social problem is to society as a disease is to the body, an objective reality apart from popular opinion. Often conventional medical terms are even used, such as pathology (or social pathology), epidemiology, and etiology, not only for social problems that might be quasi-medical in nature (such as alcoholism and mental illness) but even for those which are entirely societal (such as poverty and juvenile delinquency). From this point of view, social problems require the investigation of diagnostic experts (social scientists) who can objectively discern the nature of a problem and the most effective way of addressing it and thus enhancing the welfare of people and society.

These diagnostic experts also come from different schools of thought, as is often the case in other disciplines. Two theoretical orientations have tended to dominate the diagnosis and analysis of social problems by sociologists who work within the traditional paradigm. The first is functionalism in one version or another. From a functionalist perspective, society is seen as a more or less organic entity made up of interdependent parts (i.e., institutions). Breakdowns occasionally occur, but the whole generally succeeds in maintaining its natural state of equilibrium. These breakdowns (also called dysfunctions or social disorganization) are social problems; once they are fixed, the social system can return to a normal state of functioning. This perspective has been criticized by activists as being informed by the conservative assumption that the existing social system is acceptable as it is, with only meliorative adjustments needed to deal with the occasional breakdown.

The second school of thought within the traditional paradigm, one generally preferred by activists and derived mainly from the Marxist heritage, is a more radical theoretical perspective sometimes called critical theory. From this perspective, social problems are the inevitable and endemic characteristics of a capitalist system. Efforts to deal with social problems in such a system can never produce more than temporary palliation, or, worse still, only co-op discontent and protest in the class interests of the dominant and oppressive establishment. Therefore, only the drastic overhaul or total overthrow of the capitalist system can produce a society free of social problems. This radical perspective shares with its more conservative functionalist counterpart the premise that social problems can in principle be objectively identified, diagnosed, analyzed, and corrected.

The belief that social problems have objective bases, which is the foundation of the traditional paradigm, continues to inform public policy at local, state, and federal levels of government in the United States and elsewhere. Accordingly, public funding for research on and amelioration of conditions officially designated as social problems has helped promote the objectivist paradigm in sociology. In the war on poverty of the 1960s, the war on drugs of the 1990s, and the war on violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century, billions of dollars in government support have gone into research on the prevention and/or correction of the social problems deemed most prevalent and consequential in a given era. Both the objectivist paradigm and the professional careers of its proponents, including sociologists with an applied orientation, have been strengthened in the process.


While the objectivist approach continues to dominate textbooks and policy-oriented sociology, the academic literature on social problems in recent decades, including much that has appeared in Social Problems, has provided a robust alternative theoretical paradigm. Generally called subjectivist, in contrast to its traditional counterpart, this paradigm derives from different epistemological premises. With roots in phenomenology and symbolic interactionism rather than in the positivism of the objectivist paradigm, the subjectivist approach to social problems in its original formulation is akin to what is sometimes called the labeling perspective in the study of crime and deviance. Intimations of this subjectivist paradigm can be found in some nineteenth-century European theoretical literature and even in the work of some American sociologists earlier in the twentieth century (Fuller 1937; Fuller and Myers 1941a, 1941b; Mills 1943; Waller 1936). The emergence of this paradigm into the mainstream of the discipline, however, has occurred mainly since the 1960s in the work of Becker (1966), Blumer (1971), and the team of Kitsuse and Spector (Kitsuse and Spector 1973; Spector and Kitsuse 1973, 1977). More recently, the paradigm has been promoted in the works of Best (1989, 1990) and the team of Holstein and Miller (1993; Miller and Holstein 1993a).

In the simplest terms, the subjectivist paradigm holds that a social problem lies in the eye of the beholder, not in objective reality. Certain social conditions may be real (e.g., deviance, inequality, depletion of the ozone layer, and natural disasters), but to term them problems requires an evaluative judgment not inherent in the condition itself; thus, there is a distinction between a (real or imagined) social condition and its acquisition of the standing as a recognized social problem. In this formulation, social problems are best seen as projections of collective sentiments and representations rather than as mirrors of objective conditions (Best 1989; Holstein and Miller 1993; Mauss et al. 1975; Miller and Holstein 1993a; Spector and Kitsuse 1977). Collective sentiments and representations reflect judgments emanating from the political, economic, cultural, moral, religious, and other interests of the persons who allege the existence of a problem. Accordingly, the subjectivist paradigm denies the analogy to medical diagnosis on the grounds that there are no generally accepted scientific standards in sociology, as there are in medicine, for judging what is "pathological." For example, in the study of societies there is no counterpart to the medical standard that "normal" human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (and that significant departures from that figure are symptomatic of pathology). Instead, the judgment that a social condition is undesirable or problematic in any sense is entirely relative to cultural (or subcultural), generational, and many other social variables.

As evidence of relativity and variability in the definition of the term "social problems," subjectivists make at least two historical observations. First, social conditions once regarded as serious problems in the United States are no longer so regarded, whether or not they are still extant. One example is witchcraft, which now is considered never to have existed "in reality" but nevertheless was recognized as a major social problem in seventeenth-century Massachusetts and elsewhere. Other, more recent examples include miscegenation, which gave rise to a powerful eugenics movement early in the twentieth century; prostitution, which is now legal in some jurisdictions, and illegal in others but nowhere regarded as the national social problem that it was at one time; and homosexuality, which once rated attention, along with prostitution, in most social problems textbooks and even a listing as a disorder in the official diagnostic manual of psychiatry but now often is considered a legitimate lifestyle and is protected by civil rights legislation. In none of these examples has there been any evidence of a reduction in the actual incidence of the condition, and so the erosion in their status as "real" social problems can be attributed only to changes in public perception.

The second observation, related to the first, is that no consistent relationship is apparent between the waxing and waning of given social conditions, on the one hand, and the official or public designation of those conditions as problems, on the other hand. For example, the official and professional recognition of racial discrimination as a social problem in the United States came not while the Jim Crow regime was at its worst (before World War II) but only after the lot of African-Americans had begun to improve significantly. Similarly, it is only since the 1980s that so-called hate crimes (crimes motivated by bias based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, etc.) have entered into national discourse despite the fact that this type of intergroup violence is as old as humankind. In the opposite direction, the war on poverty of the 1960s was effectively dropped from the national agenda of social problems with no change in the actual incidence of poverty. Similarly, the national war on drugs was officially declared after more than a decade of decline in the incidence of alcohol and drug use by both adults and youths in the United States.

This common and paradoxical lack of correspondence between objective social conditions and the ebb and flow of social problems means that the two phenomena can vary independently. From the subjectivist viewpoint, the traditional objectivist focus has made the mistake of studying not social problems but only certain social conditions. In evaluating these conditions as problems, objectivists have not assumed the positivist, value-neutral stance of science, as they have supposed; instead, they have unquestioningly accepted the transitory evaluative definitions of interest groups, government funding agencies, and a fickle public. If the objectivists have been studying the wrong thing, what should the focus be for sociologists of social problems?

From the subjectivist viewpoint, the sociological study of social problems, properly understood, is the study of the process by which putative social conditions come to be defined as social problems by governments and publics (Spector and Kitsuse 1977). In this formulation, social problems are reconceptualized in terms of discourse, interactions, and institutional practices by which only some social conditions are defined as social problems and given a place in the social problems marketplace (Best 1990; Hilgartner and Bosk 1988). The social conditions themselves can be left to sociologists with other specialities: Criminologists can and should study crime; family sociologists can and should study divorce, spousal conflict, and child-rearing stresses; environmental sociologists can and should study the ways in which the physical environment and the organization of social life interact; specialists in stratification can and should study inequality; and so on. None of this other work, however important, constitutes the sociology of social problems per se, for social problems do not originate in social conditions. They originate in claims-making activities of interest groups and partisans who undertake to gain political acceptance for their perceptions of certain conditions as "problems," after which those perceptions reflect the evolution of social problems construction (Spector and Kitsuse 1977; Jenness 1993). It is those claims-making activities, then, that should constitute the focus of study in the sociology of social problems. Put another way, the study of social problems is a study of the social construction of reality (Berger and Luckman 1966). Thus, subjectivists who study social problems in this way also are called social constructionists (or simply constructionists).

To understand how social problems are constructed, Kitsuse, Spector, and their disciples focus primarily on claims-making activities. These activities consist of the usual tactics of interest groups in asserting claims and grievances, including boycotts, demonstrations, and lawsuits, as well as the strategic use of terms, labels, semantics, and other rhetorical devices, to win political and public support for definitions of certain putative social conditions as problems (Spector and Kitsuse 1977, pp. 9–21, 72–79; Schneider 1985, pp. 213–218, 224). The particular arena within which claimsmaking activities occur can be as large as American society or as small as a college campus, a corporation, or even a professional society. Whatever the arena, it is claims-making activities or "social problems work" that constitutes the appropriate focus of research in social problems (Miller and Holstein 1989).

While the subjectivist or social constructionist paradigm is relatively recent as a theoretical alternative to the positivist or objectivist tradition in the study of social problems, it is actually cognate to several other well-established lines of inquiry in sociology. One of these fields is cultural analysis, represented especially in the work of Douglas (1966; Douglas and Wildavsky 1982). Broadly defined, cultural analysis is the study of the production and distribution of culture (including popular culture). As applied to social problems, cultural analysis includes the assessment of risk as a cultural product, much like a religious ideology (Stallings 1990). Miller and Holstein (1989) see a parallel here to the early Durkheimian concept of collective representations, which they understand as a cultural product of social problems work (see also Gusfield 1981).

A second theoretical link can be made between the social constructionist approach to social problems and conflict theory (Pong 1989). Inspired partly by Marxism, conflict theory, like critical theory, rejects the functionalist assumption that the natural condition of society is a state of equilibrium among interdependent parts (institutions). Instead, it emphasizes the naturally conflicting tendencies in society among economic, political, religious, and other interest groups (Eitzen and Zinn 1988; Skolnick and Currie 1985). While the objectivist tendency in the way conflict theory defines social problems does not accord well with the social constructionist paradigm, the claimsmaking activities that are so important in that paradigm are classical examples of the political struggle and agitation that constitute the typical focus of conflict theorists and, more recently, of the critical theorists working in the deconstructionist (Michaelowksi 1993; Pfohl 1993), feminist (Gordon 1993), postmodernist (Agger 1993), and poststructuralist (Miller 1993) traditions. These recent critical challenges "represent promising opportunities to reconsider assumptions, distinctions, and categories on which social constructionism and social problems theory rests" (Miller and Holstein 1993c, p. 536).

The social constructionist perspective converges perhaps even more closely with a third important preoccupation of sociology: social movement theory. The claims-making activities that are the principal focus of the constructionist approach are also the classical tactics and strategies of social movement activists. This would include both rhetorical products, such as ideology and propaganda, and mobilizing activities, such as demonstrations, agitation, and political organization (Hilgartner and Bosk 1988; Mauss et al. 1975; Mauss 1989). The "resource mobilization" approach to social movements that has gained currency in recent years seems especially close to the claims-making focus of the subjectivist or constructionist perspective on social problems (Zald and McCarthy 1987; Turner 1981).

At least in part because of the many ways in which the subjectivist approach to social problems has converged with other literatures in the social sciences, it has come to dominate scholarly approaches to social problems theory. Indeed, by the mid-1980s Schneider, a former editor of Social Problems, concluded in the Annual Review of Sociology that "over the last two decades the constructionist approach to social problems has constituted the only serious and sustained recent discussion of social problems theory" (Schneider 1985, p. 210). By the mid-1990s, it had produced "a torrent of empirical studies" (Miller and Holstein 1993b, p. 3) that focus on diverse social conditions and activities, including alcohol and driving (Gusfield 1981), hyperactivity (Conrad 1975), child abuse (Best 1990), AIDS (Albert 1989), alcoholism (Schneider 1978), cigarette smoking (Markle and Troyer 1979), crime (Fishman 1978), rape (Rose 1977), homosexuality (Spector 1977), hate crime ( Jenness and Broad 1997), premenstrual syndrome (Rittenhouse 1992), chemical contamination (Aronoff and Gunter 1992), drugs (Orcutt and Turner 1993), satanism (Richardson et al. 1991), prostitution ( Jenness 1993), and even earthquakes (Stallings 1995). True to the constructionist perspective, this work has been sustained by research questions and procedures focused not on social conditions but on the full range of political and claims-making activities that cause these activities to be understood as social problems.

As demonstrated by Mauss (Mauss et al. 1975; 1989) these are also the activities typically associated with social movements. Accordingly, an issue among subjectivists and their allies is the question of whether the constructionist approach to social problems is equivalent to the study of social movements. The 1985 and 1989 annual meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems featured the theme of social problems as social movements. At those meetings and in subsequent publications, proponents of the subjectivist perspective have not agreed on whether the study of social problems should be subsumed by social movement theory or, alternatively, should be approached as a theoretically distinct field of study. Some would say that the dominant way in which social conditions come to be seen as social problems is through the work of social movements (Gerhards and Rucht 1992; Mauss 1989; Troyer 1989; Holstein and Miller 1993; Miller and Holstein 1993a). As early as 1975, Mauss (p. 38) presented the case for considering "social problems as simply a special kind of movement." This case rests largely on the proposition that the characteristics of social problems are typically those of social movements and that social problems are always outcomes of social movements. In this formulation, the study of social movements and the study of social problems are rendered compatible through an examination of the genesis of social problems movements, the organization and mobilization of social movements, the natural history of social movements, and the decline and legacy of a social problem. More recently, Bash (1995, pp. xiii–xiv) argued "that what is addressed as the Social Movement, in the one instance, and what is targeted as a host of social problems, in the other, may not reflect distinctive sociohistorical phenomena at all." In contrast, Troyer (1989) has noted the similarities and differences between the definitional approach, the standard structural approach, and the more recent resource mobilization approach to social movements (Zald and McCarthy 1987). More recently, Klandermans (1992, p. 77) has observed that "many situations that could be considered a social problem never become an issue, even though they may be no less troublesome than situations that do become a rallying point. Further, a social problem does not inevitably generate a social movement" (he does not cite any examples).

A more vigorous debate among subjectivists began with the provocative critique offered by Woolgar and Pawluch (1985) of the "ontological gerrymandering" they attributed to the constructionist analysis of social problems. A successful constructionist explanation for social problems, they argued, "depends on making problematic the truth status of certain states of affairs selected for analysis and the explanation, while backgrounding or minimizing the possibility that the same problems apply to assumptions upon which the analysis rests" (Woolgar and Pawluch 1985, p. 216). Since constructionist analysis is itself a claims-making activity, these authors observe, it involves selective relativism and theoretical inconsistency: Constructionists invoke subjectivist assumptions about the phenomena under study but at the same time present their claims as objective facts.

In an attempt to rescue the constructionist paradigm from this apparent inconsistency, Ibarra and Kitsuse (1993, p. 26) have proposed replacing the term "putative condition" with the term "condition-category" as the appropriate focus of study. Mauss (1989, pp. 36–37, notes 1 and 2), however, implicitly rejects the entire issue raised by Woolgar and Pawluch by insisting that constructionists need not question the objective reality of "putative conditions" any more than that of any of the other elements in the construction of social problems but should focus only on the process by which those conditions come to be defined as problems. Yet if the issue of "ontological gerrymandering" has stalled the theoretical development of the constructionist perspective, as is feared by Ibarra and Kitsuse (1993), at least that argument has required of subjectivists more awareness of their own potential biases.

The position advocated by Mauss might be called "strict constructionist," an example of which can be found in the work of Jennes and Broad (1997) on the anti–hate crime movement in the United States. In this work, the authors do not attempt to evaluate the accuracy or "objective" reality of the claims made by the women's movement or gay/lesbian movement in the efforts of those movements to define violence as a social problem. In contrast, a somewhat nuanced approach, that might be called a "contextual constructionist approach" includes the evaluation of claims by interest groups as an important part of the analysis of the development of a social problem. For example, Best (1993), in his work on threats to children, relies on statistical and other data to assess the claims he describes. Calling a statement a "claim" does not discredit it, according to Best, who calls for social scientists to "worry a little less about how we know what we know, and worry a little more about what, if anything, we do know about the construction of social problems" (Best 1993, p. 144).


In effect, two paradigms for understanding and explaining social problems have historically defined the sociological study of social problems. The traditional objectivist paradigm, which dominates textbooks and anchors policy-relevant research, evaluates certain social conditions as problems by definition. In this conceptualization, there is an implicit analogy to a cancer or another disease in the human body. That is, a social problem is understood as an objectively real and undesirable condition in society that should be diagnosed and treated by experts (especially sociologists). The more recently developed subjectivist paradigm, in contrast, denies that any social condition can be defined objectively as a social problem, for such a definition depends on the evaluation and claims-making activities of interest groups. Those groups organize and mobilize social movements in an attempt to gain general political acceptance of certain "undesirable" conditions as "social problems."

Despite the growing prominence of the subjectivist approach in academic debates, at the level of social policy and undergraduate teaching the objectivist paradigm is likely to remain dominant. One reason for this dominance in the public policy arena is the objectivist bias in the political culture of North America, in which public opinion has traditionally taken for granted the amenability of social ills to objective diagnosis and the responsibility of the political system to ameliorate those ills. As for undergraduate teaching, the lack of intellectual sophistication typically found at the freshman and sophomore levels of college education, where most courses in social problems are taught, makes teaching the subjectivist position difficult. The phenomenological epistemology of the subjectivist paradigm may be too abstract for most college students. Thus, the overwhelming majority of social problems textbooks continue to be organized around one or both versions of the traditional objectivist paradigm insofar as they assume that select social conditions—most frequently things such as crime, mental illness, poverty, environmental degradation, and suicide—are inherently social problems. It is rare to find a textbook that is organized around subjectivist concerns (but see Best 1995).

The emergent subjectivist paradigm is likely, however, to continue to provide the basis for the most novel and creative scholarly and professional literature on social problems. This is the case because its epistemology and methodology leave much room for development, in comparison with objectivism and positivism. Some scholars have even attempted to reconcile the objectivist and the subjectivist paradigms (e.g., Jones et al. 1989), but such attempts are most often made in textbooks, which are notorious for their sacrificing of theoretical focus in favor of eclecticism. Ultimately, the two paradigms probably cannot be reconciled, since they proceed from different epistemologies and study different topics. Objectivism focuses on certain social conditions, such as inequality and deviant behavior, taking for granted the evaluation of those conditions as problems. Subjectivism focuses on the political players and processes by which those conditions come to be defined as problems.


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Armand L. Mauss

Valerie Jenness

Social Problems

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Social Problems






Race, racism, and social problems intersect in many ways. First, social problems are not randomly or evenly distributed; some groups of people are affected by social problems more often and more severely than others. Second, race and racism are important factors in how problematic situations are defined and dealt with. Third, racism itself is an issue that is defined and debated as people interpret the potential causes, effects, and solutions to social problems.


The concept of social problems refers to major societal issues or conditions that have harmful effects on large numbers of people. Strictly speaking, though, there is no consensus on a definition of social problems, for it is difficult to specify precisely what constitutes “major issues,” “large numbers of people,” or even “harmful effects.” Moreover, the word social implies a human component, a focus on situations that are created and potentially solved by people, though it is difficult to distinguish socially created conditions from those that are exclusively “medical problems” or “natural disasters,” because much of what human beings do influences their health and their experiences with the natural world (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods).

Another complexity is that social problems can be approached in at least two ways: as objective situations or as interpretations. Some scholars study problems by attempting to find facts. What is the nature and extent of the problem? What causes the problem? What are the effects of the problem? What are the solutions to the problem? Other scholars study problems by focusing on interpretation. They study how different people make claims (interpretations) about the nature, extent, causes, effects, and solutions of putative problems. In practice, many scholars combine the objectivist and subjectivist approaches by alternating between treating problems as discernibly real or factual and treating them as ambiguous situations that are “defined into being” via interpretative views.


Objectively speaking, social problems can have wide-reaching implications and effects. Issues such as poverty, crime, and environmental decline either directly or indirectly touch the lives of nearly everyone. However, it is usually an oversimplification to assert that a social problem “crosses all lines” or “knows no boundaries.” Social problems are not randomly or equally distributed. The location and impact of social problems are somewhat patterned and predictable, and they affect some groups more than others.

The majority of poor people in the United States are white. However, in terms of percentages rather than absolute numbers, whites as a group tend to be afflicted with poverty at a much lower rate than other groups. In the 1990s, for example, poverty rates for African Americans and Hispanics (approximately 20–30%) were generally two or three times higher than what they were for whites (around 10%). Due in no small part to poverty, crime victimization is also differentially distributed by race and neighborhood. African Americans are more likely than whites to be robbed, burglarized, assaulted, and murdered. Health problems, too, are not random. White Americans, on average, live several years longer than African Americans, and they tend to receive superior medical treatment. Lastly, whereas it would seem that an issue such as environmental decline would have no racial component, many believe this is not the case. In major cities such as Los Angeles, for example, people of color tend to live in areas with the greatest air pollution. Some argue that environmental hazards (such as toxic-waste disposal sites) are disproportionately located near the communities of minorities rather than whites.

Similar examples can easily be found with respect to education, housing, employment, and other aspects of social life. Major social problems tend to be distributed unevenly along racial lines, rather than emerging randomly or equally across all groups.

Occasionally, the argument “this is a problem that affects everyone” can be a useful strategy for eliciting support, motivating volunteers, and prompting new policies. In many instances, though, this “;universalization” of social problems can remove attention and resources from those who suffer the most from a problem, which often means the poor and people of color. For that reason and others it is important to keep in mind exactly who is affected by a social problem, and to what degree.


The study of social problems is challenging because there is often little consensus on how to define any given societal situation. Does a problem exist? What kind of a problem is it? What are its causes, effects, and solutions? Different individuals, working from different perspectives, can answer all of these questions differently. For interpretive scholars, problems are “defined into being” as people think and talk about them. Problems arise and are given meaning when activists, politicians, reporters, and others interpret ambiguous situations as troubling in one way or another.

A clear example of the interpretation of problems that involves race and racism is the case of “drapetomania,” which was conceived as a widespread problem involving many African Americans. In 1851, Samuel Cartwright (a doctor at the University of Louisiana) published an article in a medical journal describing drapetomania as a “disease of the mind” that compelled slaves to flee their masters. For Cartwright, the problem at hand was not slavery itself, which he described as a proper, natural, God-given role for “Negroes’’ instead, the problem as he interpreted it was the fleeing of slaves from their service. The treatment and prevention of this ailment, according to Cartwright, was to continuously remind slaves of their (submissive) place, while still treating them in a kindly manner. This could be done by providing adequate food and shelter but restricting the use of alcohol and limiting social activities at night. By doing so,

Cartwright argued that southern slave owners could help reduce the social problem of runaway slaves.

It seems painfully obvious that drapetomania is a highly questionable and racist interpretation, rather than a factual diagnosis, of a social issue. The “problem” at hand could very easily be defined as slavery itself, not people fleeing from slavery; and the cause of fleeing could be seen not as a “disease of the mind” but as a “normal” or “natural” desire to be free.

The identification of more modern problems also seems influenced by racism. Beliefs that certain groups are lazy, intellectually inferior, or immoral often seem to influence whether problems are noticed and how they are interpreted. For example, the reduction of poverty does not seem to be a high priority in American politics, and even when it is, the victims are often blamed for their own plight. The image of the African–American “welfare queen”—whose culture and behavioral choices purportedly lead to her own poverty and her continuing reliance on government aid—has often pervaded discussions of welfare reform, despite the inaccuracies of the stereotype. Drawing attention to the supposed problem of welfare abuse shifts the debate from the historical and structural causes of poverty to the issue of “how to get people off government aid.”Similarly, illegal immigration has been portrayed as a serious (if not apocalyptic) problem through the presentation of images of immigrants as criminal, pathological, potentially terrorist, freeloading individuals who are eager to use publicly funded social services. Obviously, not all analysts agree with this interpretation of immigrants, their reasons for migrating, and their status as a society–threatening problem. Rather, many see immigrants as hard–working individuals who are trying to support themselves and their families in the face of interregional inequality, and who are making positive contributions to American society in the process.


It would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that racism is itself an interpretation. Like race, racism is a concept that can be defined and used in different ways. It is something that often must be inferred from statements and actions, and these are usually open to multiple interpretations. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, most agreed that the devastation was exacerbated by the slow reaction of the federal government. Some commentators speculated, however, that race and racism played a role in the government’s sluggish response, given the racial (and economic) makeup of the city of New Orleans. Others vehemently disagreed with this viewpoint, citing inexperience, poor communication, difficult on–scene conditions, and other causal explanations.

Thus, while race and racism play large roles in the occurrence and interpretation of many social problems, the exact nature and extent of their impact is often an emotionally charged subject that is open to debate.

SEE ALSO Children Racial Disparities and Status of; Education, Racial Disparities; Ethnic Cleansing; HIV and AIDS; Poverty; Violence against Women and Girls


Collins, Sheila. 1996.Let Them Eat Ketchup! The Politics of Poverty and Inequality. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Feagin, Joe. R., and Pinar Batur. 2004. “Racism in Comparative Perspective.” In Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective, edited by George Ritzer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press.

Foster, John. 1999. The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment, rev. ed. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Heiner, Robert. 2006. Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lindsey, Linda L., and Stephen Beach. 2002. Sociology, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Szasz, Thomas S. 1971. “The Sane Slave: An Historical Note on the Use of Medical Diagnosis as Justificatory Rhetoric.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 25 (2): 228–239.

Wagner, David. 1997. “The Universalization of Social Problems: Some Radical Explanations.” Critical Sociology 23 (1): 3–23.

Welch, Michael. 2002. Detained: Immigration Laws and the Expanding I.N.S. Jail Complex. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Scott R. Harris

social problems

views updated Jun 08 2018

social problems A generic term applied to the range of conditions and aberrant behaviours which are held to be manifestations of social disorganization and to warrant changing via some means of social engineering. Typically, these problems include many forms of deviant behaviour (such as crime, juvenile delinquency, prostitution, mental illness, drug addiction, suicide), and of social conflict (ethnic tensions, domestic violence, industrial strife, and so forth). Most of these topics are discussed under discrete headings in this dictionary. In the complex social structures of modern industrial societies, individuals and groups are differentially exposed to these hazards, and people occupying different statuses and roles tend to differ in their appraisal of social situations and in their views as to what constitutes a social problem requiring a solution. For this reason, the range of possible social problems is almost infinite, and can include phenomena as diverse as declining standards of literacy and the demise of the work ethic. Similarly, the proposed solutions are also variable, and this too is (at least partly) due to the different interests and values of the various parties involved.

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