The purpose of the first unit is to
describe what conditions are necessary to define an issue a “social problem” and
to demonstrate why sociology is an essential tool in understanding and solving
What is a Social Problem?
There are some issues, such as crime or racial
discrimination, that everyone in society would agree are social problems.
But there are other issues, such as online gambling or steroid use in sports
where there is much more disagreement over whether these issues are social
problems at all. The big question then is how do we determine what is a social
problem and what is not?
C. Wright Mills made a distinction when trying to define a
social problem that looked at personal problems versus public issues. Personal
problems are things that affect individuals and those around them. If someone
in a family attempts suicide, that is a problem for the family. Public issues,
on the other hand, involve much larger numbers of people. Although some public
issues might intersect with personal problems, not all personal troubles is a
For an issue to become a
social concern, it needs to have an influential group define it as so. An
influential group is a group that can have a significant impact on public debate
and social policy. For example, some groups such as MAD (Mothers Against Drunk
Drivers) have been able to mount successful campaigns, whereas groups such as
PEATA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have not been able to
generate significant debate over the abusive treatment of animals.
Another factor that defines
an issue as a social problem is that it needs to be produced by social
conditions and it needs to be remedied by collective human action. Natural
disasters such as tornados are not social problems because they are not produced
by society and cannot be prevented by collective action.
The values and norms of a
society or culture play an important role in defining a social problem.
Values are a group’s ideas about what is acceptable or not acceptable
behavior. Norms are more specific. They are rules of conduct that guide
people’s behaviors in social situations. Taken together, values and norms serve
as a script for how to behave in society. Most people willingly adhere to their
culture’s values and norms. Thus, values and norms offer stability and order to
a society. Not everyone conforms to the values and norms of society. Some
people engage in behavior that is rejected by the larger society. This means
they are engaged in “deviant” behavior. When people engage in deviant
behavior that violates the values and norms of the larger culture, it can
create a strong reaction. Some social problems such as prostitution and drug
abuse are examples of how some people are unwilling to conform to the norms of
the larger society.
As more and more people
travel and disperse around the globe, societies become more diverse. This
diversity means that people in culturally diverse societies come in contact with
norms and behaviors that differ from their own. The values of one group may
clash with the values of another group. This means that society needs to look at
social issues and see if they meet the criteria to be labeled as a social
problem or are they just a problem to a particular subculture.
Another element to defining
an issue as a social problem is the concept of power. Power refers to the
ability of one group to realize its goals even over the resistance of other
groups. The exercise of power is related to social problems in that it is a
necessary component in either creating social problems or solving them. Which
solutions are settled on in solving social problems often depends on which
groups can utilize the power available to them.
Finally, the mass media
plays an important role in defining an issue as a social problem. The mass
media is especially influential in the modern, global world. People’s
perceptions of social problems are often fashioned and influenced by the mass
media. Groups that have access to the mass media are going to have a better
chance at influencing public opinion than groups that do not.
Check: How could I set up a test question with the information above? I could
create a multiple choice question which asks, "All of the following are
factors of a social problem EXCEPT:", or a short answer question that asks,
"Briefly describe some of the factors that define something as a social
The Four Elements of a Social Problem
If we surveyed a group of people to see what the most
important social problem is that faces us today, we would probably get many
different responses. Which ever topic we pick as a social problem should
have the following four components:
1. They cause physical or mental damage to
individuals or society.
2. They offend the values or standards of a large
segment of society.
3. They persist for an extended period of time.
4. They generate competing proposed solutions from
different groups which delays reaching consensus on how to solve the problem.
The definition of a social problem then is when an
influential group defines a social condition as threatening its values, and when
this condition affects large numbers of people, and where the condition can be
solved by collective action.
In the field of sociology there is a difference in opinion
on a definition of a social problem. Some theorists emphasize the subjective
nature of social problems. They believe that what is defined as a social
problem differs by audience and by time. For example, global warming has
not always been considered a social problem. Theorists in this camp believe that
we should look at how groups of people actively influence the definition of a
A second group of sociologists sees an objective
reality of social problems. These theorists believe there are
structural conditions in society such as poverty, racism, sexism that
cause material or psychological suffering for parts of the population. They
prevent members of society from developing and using their full potential. This
sort of suffering exists regardless of personal or cultural opinion. Those
conditions are, therefore, social problems in any social setting.
The difference in opinion between the subjective and
objective between sociologists demonstrates that it is difficult to escape
making value judgments and that the study of social problems cannot be value
The GMO and "Natural"
As was discussed above, one
of the elements of defining a social problem is if it requires collective
action. But who makes up this collective action? There are many different
groups of people that advocate for a solution. They include:
An interest group is a group whose members share distinct and common
concerns and who benefit from similar social policies and practices.
Examples of formal interest groups would be the National Rifle Association
(NRA), the Sierra Club, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Examples of informal interest groups would be senior citizens and travelers.
Politicians at the local, state, and federal level who are aware of a problem
may try to pass legislation to solve a problem. In addition, judges
may make rulings that have an impact on a social problem.
Different types of groups, from private corporations to foundations develop
programs to solve a problem. Examples would be the Heritage Foundation and
the Economic Policy Institute.
People Directly Affected by
the Social Problem: For example, farmers themselves might develop a
solution to a farming problem, such as the disposal of animal waste.
College students: College
students have historically been involved in a variety of social issues, from
ending American participation in the Vietnam War, to boycotting products made by
Who Do We Blame for Social Problems?
a sociologist or a lay person, people will use one of two explanations in
assessing blame for a social problem. One viewpoint is the person-blame
approach. This in an individualistic perspective or micro view. Someone
who believes in the person-blame approach will blame a poor person for their
poverty without regard to the unequal distribution of wealth, will blame the
dropout for leaving school without looking at how the educational system is
failing, or will blame an unemployed person for not having a job without
looking at the economic affects of globalization. To sum up, those who believe
in the person-blame approach have a strong tendency to blame social problems on
individuals rather than on the social system. A consequence of a
person-blame approach is that it promotes the idea that anything that happens to
someone is due to a control individuals have over their own fate. It
justifies Social Darwinism, the placement of people in a stratification system
based on their ability and effort.
Another viewpoint is the system-blame
approach. This viewpoint believes social problems develop from the
existing social structure. System-blamers will lay blame on the
shortcomings of social institutions that are dysfunctional. For example, a
person-blamer when looking at the issue of inner city poverty will blame the
individual for pathologies such as teenage pregnancy, illegitimacy, and
crime, whereas the system-blamer will find fault with the social institutions
(the economy not providing enough jobs, the schools under funded, the government
uninterested in solving problems, the lack of access to health care).
The reality that we should recognize is
that social problems are highly complex phenomena that possess both individual
and systemic factors. Although it is
likely that it is desirable to avoid the extremes, system-blame will be
emphasized in the course. Since most people tend to interpret social problems
from an person-blame or individualistic perspective, a balance is
needed and so attention to looking at the how the social structure influences
social problems will be emphasized.
Should We Solve the
Once a social problem has
been identified, the search for solutions begins. In formulating a
solution, there are a few considerations that need to be addressed.
1. What are the
costs to a solution? When choosing a solution, economic costs must be
considered. If money is used to solve social problem "x", there will be less
money to solve social problem "Y".
2. Does solving one
problem lead to the creation of another problem. For example, if we
declare a "war on drugs" will it have the effect of creating overcrowded
3. Is a particular
solution possible/feasible? When looking for a solution, it is important
to look at the social and political climate to see if solving the problem is
possible. Because of strong anti-drug sentiment in the United States, it would
be difficult to legalize drugs such as marijuana.
Check: How could I set up a test question with the information above? I could
create a multiple choice question which asks, "Which of the following IS
NOT a consideration for solving a social problem?", or a short answer question that asks,
"Briefly describe some of the different groups that provide solutions to
Stages of Social Problems
Herbert Blumer (1971) suggested that
social problems develop in stages. First, social problems pass through the stage
of "societal recognition"--the process by which a social problem, for
example, drunk driving, is "born." Second, "social legitimation" takes
place when the social problem achieves recognition by the larger community,
including the media, schools, and churches. As the visibility of traffic
fatalities associated with alcohol increased, so the the legitimation of drunk
driving as a social problem. The next stage in the development of a social
problem involves "mobilization for action," which occurs when individuals
and groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, become concerned about how to
respond to the social condition. This mobilization leads to the "development
and implementation of an official plan" for dealing with the problem,
involving, for example, highway checkpoints, lower legal blood-alcohol levels,
and tougher drunk driving regulations.
With Solving Social Problems
It is often
easier to identify a social problem than it is to solve it. Designing and
implementing solutions to social problems could take years while the needs of
groups of people are immediate.
One of the first
problems in trying to solve a social problem is dealing with the difference
between ideal solutions and practical solutions. Sometimes the
ideal solution to a problem requires very high expenditures. This means that
many times, a social problem only receives a fraction of the money necessary to
solve it. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, engineers, the media and community
members asked for a large sum of money to use for storm protection. They only
received a small portion of the amount they requested and what was needed to
prevent massive flooding in New Orleans.
Rather than using
preventive measures to deal with social problems, societies rely on
after-the-fact measures (trying to fix a problem after its effects have
occurred). Billions more were spent rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina than
were spent before to prevent flooding and damage.
Another issue is
in defining a social problem versus fixing it. Sometimes there is a
disagreement over defining what the problem is and what efforts should be made
to reduce or eliminate it. For example, there is wide spread agreement in the
scientific community that human activity has contributed to climate change. Yet
there are those in the government (who often receive campaign donations from
energy companies) who don’t see a problem that needs fixing.
Macro Level Solutions
social problems focus on how individuals working in small groups try to remedy a
problem. Micro solutions can range from an individual who is jobless seeking out
education and training to get a “better” job, to a small group of people who
build a home for someone who can’t afford it on their own (Habitat for
Humanity). There are limitations to the micro approach. If the problem is
widespread in the larger society, individualized efforts may be ineffective in
eliminating the problem. Although individuals should be responsible for their
own behavior and must make decisions that help solve their own problems, there
are limitations to the assumption that social problems can be solved one person
at a time.
solutions to social problems focus on how large-scale social institutions such
as the government and the media can be persuaded to become involved in fixing
social problems. Individuals view themselves as powerless will bind together in
organizations to put pressure on decision makers at the national and global
level. Individuals will push for a social objective, for example universal
health care, which benefits them while also benefiting all those similarly
situated. At the national level, those seeking macrolevel solutions to social
problems may become members of a special interest group. Macrolevel solutions
such as interest groups are attractive to those looking for change because it is
possible to combine resources because of working with larger numbers. Those who
advocate for issues such as school prayer or an increase in the minimum wage
believe their chance for success is increased if they take a macrolevel
observers believe the macrolevel approach has shortcomings. Macrolevel
approaches might deemphasize the importance of individual responsibility.
Individuals may believe that the larger organization will solve the social
problem and that their individual efforts are not needed. For example, reducing
the availability of drugs does not resolve the problem of the individual drug
abuser who still needs a means to eliminate the problem in his or her personal
behavior and social movements are ways in which people seek to resolve social
problems. Collective behavior involves a large number of people, is
unplanned, voluntary, sometimes dangerous, and violates dominant group norms and
values. Collective behavior involves a wide range of human activities and can
vary in its form. Below is a brief examination of various forms of collective
Crowds are a temporary gathering of people who share a common focus and who
influence one another. People who attend a rock concert, sporting event, or a
political demonstration are part of a crowd. Some crowds may have people who
have low levels of interaction and minimal awareness of each other (people at a
beach on a hot summer day) or can have an emotional connection and high levels
of energy such as at a protest or a strike.
A mob is a highly emotional crowd that pursues a violent or destructive
goal. Because of their intense emotions, mobs tend to dissipate quickly after
the goal has been met. An example of mob behavior would be the lynchings that
occurred in the United States following the Civil War. Lynch mobs would quickly
attract hundreds of spectators/participants. Shortly after the violent outcome
had been reached (the person was lynched and killed) the mob would disperse.
Riots are a social eruption that is highly emotional, violent, and
undirected. A mob action usually ends with the accomplishment of a specific,
violent goal. Riots tend to go on until participants run out of steam or police
and community leaders bring participants under control. Throughout or nation’s
history, riots have been sparked by social injustice. Examples would be the
Haymarket Riot, prison riots, and the riot in Los Angeles in 1992 following the
acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Is there anything
that is accomplished through a riot? One answer may be the demonstration of
power. Ordinary people can gain power when they act collectively. The power of a
crowd has the power to challenge the status quo and to sometimes force social
change. The riots in New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati have brought national
attention to the claim of racial bias on the part of police.
Civil disobedience is non-violent action by a group of people that seeks
to change a policy or law by refusing to comply with it. Examples would be
sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and strikes. Mass civil disobedience differs from
mobs and riots in that the group seeking change are committed to non-violence.
The crowd disperses voluntarily after the activity is over. If violence occurs,
it is done by the security forces which are present.
If enough people
get involved with a social issue or problem, it can then lead to a social
movement. A social movement is an organized activity that either
encourages or discourages social change. Social movements often start off and
are organized at the grass roots level. Social movements are common in the
modern world. Almost every important public issue give rise to a social movement
that favors change, and an opposing counter movement resisting it. The political
life of our society is based largely on the claims and counterclaims of social
movements are longer lasting than mob behavior, sociologists have been able to
study them. There are several theories that try to explain social movements.
This theory holds that social movements arise among people who feel deprived.
Expectations, rather than absolute measures, are the key to whether or not
people feel deprived. The slight (or perceived slight) may be a range of
situations from poor working conditions to standard of living to racial
preferences. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States would be an
example. Critics point out that deprivation theory cannot fully explain social
movements because there is no perfect society that satisfies all its citizens.
is the key to mass-society theory. Proponents of this perspective argue
that modern society is alienating, immoral, apathetic, and discourages
individuality, and that in this context, socially isolated people are attracted
to social movements for personal reasons. Joining gives them a sense of
importance and intent. This makes them easily manipulated and easily influenced
to join movements.
developed a different approach to understanding social movements that draws from
our understanding of both collective action and organizations.
Resource-mobilization theory recognizes that social movements need to
generate adequate, and often substantial, resources to achieve their goals
The resources they need to muster are extensive. They include money, membership,
office facilities and equipment, communication processes, political influence,
and a skill base with expertise in organization, leadership, and marketing the
cause. Successes and limits are set by the resources a movement is able to
important resource to social movements is technology. The internet and the cell
phone have become important resources that help organizations link hundreds of
thousands of people across the country or the globe. The protests in Egypt
during the Arab Spring showed how important these new technologies were. Using
resources available online, even a small number of people can plan and carry out
an effective political event.
this theory says societies operating under a capitalist economic system will
fail to meet the needs of the majority of the people. Millions of people living
in capitalist systems are unable to find good paying jobs, live below the
poverty line, or are unable to access health care. Because of this, workers
organize to demand higher wages, safer working conditions, or health care that
Types of Social
are classified based on “who” is changed and “how much” change has occurred.
There are a number of different types of social movements which are examined
These are the least threatening to the status quo. They seek limited change in
only a part of the population. Their aim is to help a certain group of people
alter their lives. An example would be Promise Keepers, which is a movement that
encourages men to live more spiritual lives and be more supportive of their
families. Another example would be the movement to get drivers not to text while
This type of social movement targets specific groups but they seek radical
change. Their aim is to help certain people redeem their lives. The redemption
aspect can be very specific or it can be more general. An example of a specific
redemptive social movement would be Alcoholics Anonymous, which is an
organization that helps people with an alcohol addiction achieve a sober life.
An example of a more general redemptive social movement is the spread of
Christianity in South America.
This type of movement aims for only limited social change, but targets everyone.
Reformative movements generally work inside the existing political system. They
can be progressive in nature seeking a new social pattern (same sex marriage) or
reactionary, seeking to preserve the status quo (white supremacy).
These are the most extreme of all. These movements seek to transform an entire
society. These movements reject existing social institutions as flawed in favor
of a radically new alternative. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian
Revolution of 1917 would be examples.
exist to encourage or to resist social change. The political life of our society
is based on the claims and counterclaims of social movements about what the
problems are and which are the right solutions. There is little doubt that
social movements have changed our way of life.
Sociological Theories Which Form the Basis For Understanding Social Problems
theoretical approaches to analyzing social problems can bring us to a variety of
conclusions. Below is a brief examination of the three major sociological
theories views on social problems.
From this perspective, society is a stable, orderly stem that is composed of a
number of interrelated parts, each of which performs a function the contributes
to the overall stability of the society. Social problems arise when social
institutions do not fulfill the functions they are supposed to perform. In other
words, social institutions become dysfunctional. For example, in the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina, all levels of government were severely criticized for the
excessive amount of time it took to get military personnel and emergency crews
to disaster sites and to provide food, water, sanitation and transportation for
those who were displaced by the storm. According to this approach, dysfunctions
create social disorganization, which in turn causes a breakdown in the
traditional values and norms that serve as social cohesion. The structural
functionalist approach to reducing social problems has as central factors the
prevention of rapid social changes, the maintenance of the status quo, and the
restoration of order.
According to conflict theory, groups are engaged in a continuous power struggle
for control of scarce resources. Because of the unjust use of political,
economic, or social power, certain groups of people are privileged while others
are disadvantaged. This means that social problems arise out of major
contradictions that exist in society. This perspective claims the root causes of
social problems are to be found in patriarchy, capitalism, and massive spending
on non-social issues like military spending. Any solutions to social problems
by this approach would require radical changes in society and thus are not
always viewed positively. Reducing or eliminating social problems are found in
focusing on racial, class , and gender inequalities.
This theory looks at social problems by analyzing how a behavior is defined as a
social problem and how individuals and groups come to engage in activities that
a significant number of people view as major social concerns. This theory
analyzes how people label behavior, how they respond to people engaged in such
behavior, and the consequences of their behavior. For example, fear of potential
terrorism can affect how people think and behave (not travel on a plane,
distrust anyone who is Muslim), whether or not they are actually in harm’s way
and have real cause to modify their daily routines.
Each of the
sociological perspectives suggest ways in which social problems may be
identified and solutions that might reduce or eliminate social problems.
Problems in Film
Below are a list of movies that exhibit
sociological concepts learned in this unit.
The Blair Witch Project. This film examines the use of research,
through the use of interviews, in understanding a local legend.
Social Problems in Books
Below are a list of books that exhibit
sociological concepts learned in this unit.
From: Robert K. Merton  Social Theory and Social Structure.
Glencoe, IL: Free Press
Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca
2006 Social Problems (Tenth Edition)
Boston: Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)
Social Problems In a Diverse Society (4th Edition) Boston: Pearson (Allyn
Macionis, John J.
Sociology (13th Edition) Boston: Prentice Hall
Sullivan, Thomas J.
2006 Introduction to Social
Problems (7th Edition) Boston: Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)
Copyright ©2006, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved