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Social Problems
Darryl Hall
Department of Sociology
University of Nevada, Reno

Studying Social Problems

• A social problem is a condition that undermines the well-being of some or all members of a society and that is usually a matter of public controversy.

• Because any issue affects various segments of our population differently, almost nothing is harmful to everyone (e.g., governmental regulation of pollution is a problem to certain business owners, but pollution itself is a problem faced by others)

Subjective and Objective Understandings of Social Problems

• The subjective thesis asserts that social problems exist only insofar as people are aware of them.

• The objective thesis states that the existence of social problems depends on facts, not public awareness.

• The reality of a social problem is partly a matter of objective facts and partly a matter of how individuals subjectively interpret these facts.

Social Movements

• One indication that people recognize an issue as a social problem is the formation of a social movement, an organized effort to encourage or discourage some dimension of social change.

• Typically, social movements pass through four distinct stages:

1) Emergence – people define a situation as problematic and establish an organization to address it

2) Coalescence – the coming together of a movement, which occurs as the new organization begins to mobilize resources (e.g., money, media attention, public involvement) and starts demonstrating, and political lobbying

3) Formalization – the social movement becomes established, relying less on the personal skills of early leaders and more on the efforts of a bureaucratic staff

4) Decline – many social movements eventually decline, either due to success or failure

Important Considerations about Social Problems

1) Social problems result from how society operates, and are not caused by bad people
2) Social problems are not abnormal; instead, they are structural in nature (i.e., built into a way of life). In some cases, what is considered a problem may actually help society to operate.
3) Solving social problems requires change.
4) People see problems differently. What is viewed as a problem to some people may not be seen as a problem to others.
5) Many, but not all, problems can be solved
6) Definitions of problems change over time
7) Problems involve values as well as facts
8) Various social problems are related
9) Solving one problem can create a new problem

Sociological Perspectives

1) The Structural-Functional Paradigm

- Structural-functionalism views society as a complex system of interrelated parts that work together to maintain social order and stability

- Sociologists use the term social institutions to describe the major spheres of social life, or societal subsystems, that are organized to meet basic human needs

a) Early Functionalist Thought: Problems as Social Pathology

- The social pathology approach examined social problems in terms of a “medical model” that was applied to society as though it was a living organism. Functionalists saw society as good and healthy, and they assumed that social pathologies stemmed from deficient people (e.g., Herbert Spencer’s view of the poor).

b) The “Chicago School”: Problems as Disorganization

- Social disorganization theory holds that social problems arise when rapid change overwhelms society’s institutions (e.g., the rapid economic and urban expansion associated with the Industrial Revolution disrupted established social patterns)

c) More Recent Functionalism: Problems as Dysfunctions

- Many contemporary sociologists have changed their emphasis from the activism associated with the Chicago School to scientific analysis. These sociologists distinguish functions (or eufunctions) from dysfunctions.

2) The Social-Conflict Paradigm

• The Conflict perspective views conflict, competition, and disagreement over scarce resources (e.g., power, wealth, and prestige) as the fundamental reality of social life.

• Karl Marx examined the conflict between the bourgeoisie or capitalists – those who own the means of production (e.g., the factories, land, raw materials, warehouses, machines, and tools) – and those who do not own and must necessarily labor (i.e., the proletariat). Business owners are able to produce enough food and material goods for everyone and thus have the power to end human suffering; however, capitalists are concerned with profit rather than the needs of people.

• Society is structured in ways to benefit a few at the expense of the majority. Social stratification or inequality is linked to such factors as class, race, sex, and age.

3) The Symbolic-Interactionist Paradigm

• According to the symbolic-interactionist perspective, society arises from the ongoing interaction of individuals; people’s perceptions of reality are variable and changing

• Symbolic interactionists examine how people learn attitudes and behavior, as well as how people come to define situations as problems.

• The process by which people creatively shape reality through symbolic interaction is referred to as the social construction of reality. Determining whether a social problem exists often depends on which audience is watching, who the actor is, where the action takes place, and when the action occurs.

Sociological Research

Experimental Method

- In an experiment, the research investigates cause-and-effect relationships under highly controlled conditions.

Types of variables:

1) Independent variables – those variables that are thought to produce a change in some variable (e.g., teasing).

2) Dependent variables - those variables that are influenced by independent variables (e.g., anger in a person).

Experimental group – the group of subjects exposed to the independent variable

Control group – the group of subjects not exposed to the independent variable

Survey Method

• In a survey, data is collected by having people answer a series of questions

• It is important to properly sample the population (the target group to be studied) in order to ensure that the research can be generalized to the population of interest

There are two main ways to conduct survey research:

1) Questionnaires – respondents answer questions on their own (e.g., mail surveys)

2) Interviews – respondents are directly questioned by researchers (e.g., telephone surveys, face-to-face/in-person interviews)

Field Research/Participant Observation

- In participant observation the researcher participates in a research setting while observing what is happening in that setting

• Field researchers must balance the demands of being a participant, one who is involved in the setting, with the demands of being an observer, one who adopts a more detached position in order to assess a setting or situation more objectively

• The researcher may choose whether or not to disclose his or her identity and motives to the subjects

• Although field research is generally inexpensive, it requires a sizable commitment of time

Content Analysis and Secondary Analysis

• Content analysis involves the examination of written sources that provide data (e.g., books, newspapers, magazines) as well as photographs, movies, television programs, and other archival material

• Secondary analysis involves the analysis of data already collected by other researchers

- Although secondary analysis is quick and easy, the researcher may be unaware of possible bias or errors in the study

Responding to Social Problems: Social Policy

Social policy refers to formal strategies to shape some dimension of social life.

- Various organizations and government agencies create policy as a means to address social problems, and sociologists have helped guide the nation’s policy in dealing with a number of social issues.

- It is difficult to evaluate particular policies because of the difficulties in determining:

1) what makes a particular program “successful”
2) what are acceptable financial and social costs for the program
3) who should get the help

• Efforts to formulate social policy are guided by the political attitudes of leaders and the general public. Political attitudes can lead people to 1) define certain situations as problems in the first place and 2) to define certain kinds of policies or programs as solutions to those problems. The political spectrum is a continuum that represents a range of political attitudes:

1) Conservatives – seek to limit the scope of societal change and preserve the status quo. They tend to favor policies that treat problems as shortcomings of particular individuals.

2) Liberals – favor more sweeping change in society, but still voice support for the existing system. They are interested in reforming society.

3) Radicals – seek more fundamental change in society. Social problems are seen as evidence that the entire social system is flawed in some fundamental way.

Social and Economic Issues

Social issues are political debates involving moral judgments about how people should live (e.g., feminism, abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty).

Economic issues are political debates about how a society should distribute material resources.

• Two strong predictors of political attitudes are wealth and education--both of which are elements of social class. Those of high social class tend to be liberal on social issues but conservative on economic issues. In contrast, those of low social position take a conservative stand on social issues and a liberal stand on economic issues.