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Social problems have formed a specialized field within sociology, especially in the USA, at least since the end of the nineteenth century. The European context has always been marked by the concept of the ”social question,” which was one of the principal sources for the development of sociology as a scientific discipline apart from philosophy, history, political science, and political economy. Unlike US sociology, in the European tradition the concept of social problems was not disseminated in the sociological literature until the end of the 1960s, when it appeared first in books and articles about social work. While the concept today is institutionalized in special sections of sociological associations and in some journals and textbooks, and its use has been spread in public and political discourse, European sociology has always privileged the concept of the social question, with greater emphasis on social inequality and exclusion.
The term social problem” is used in public and political discussions and refers to very different social situations, conditions, and forms of behavior, like crime, racism, drug use, unemployment, poverty, exclusion, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and madness. However, especially in textbooks and journal articles, it also refers to premenstrual syndrome, ecological problems, stalking, exploitation of natural resources, traffic accidents, or even war, terrorism, and genocide.
This diversity has been a challenge for sociological definitions and invites the question of identifying the feature that justifies classifying such phenomena under a common topic or theoretical perspective.
A quite formal and simple definition of social problems has been proposed by Merton (1976: 7): social problems are a discrepancy between cultural standards, norms, or values and the actual conditions of social life, a discrepancy between what should be and what is.” One of the main problems for a sociology of social problems arose from the question who decide about the standards in society, the actual social condition and the discrepancy and whether such a decision is even possible.
While typologies of theoretical positions are arbitrary and misleading, very often there can be found a differentiation between objective” or realist” approaches and constructionist” perspectives. These labels are misleading because, on the one hand, they involve the danger of misinterpreting constructions of social problems as not being real social problems, and, on the other hand, they lead to the misinterpretation of objectivist” approaches in assuming that there is still a methodological position of naive objectivism in sociology. But these approaches signify two different sets of research questions, one starting with social problems as harm, asking about causes, epidemiology and social control, the other starting with social problems as constructions asking about the problematic character and the establishment of public discourses.
Social Problems as Social Harm and Social Disorder
An early version of describing social problems as harm and social disorder are social pathology and social disorganization. These perspectives, still very common in political and popular discourse, are based on the idea of society as an organism. Social problems are indicators of a pathological state of society, caused by pathological individuals, or of disorganized social systems. The identification of social problems is not a problem, because the criteria underlying society as a well-functioning organism are seen as evident and based on common-sense normative and moral ideas, marking a normative or ideological perspective that nevertheless corresponds with applied sociology, where the problematic character of the issue has to be taken for granted. Beyond criticisms of its normative base, the social disorganization perspective has been criticized for failing to specify the difference between cultural conflict and social disorganization. Also, the problem of separating normal” or even necessary and disorganizing social change is not solved.
With the supremacy of structural functionalism, the idea of anomic developments became one of the leading sociological perspectives on social problems in the 1950s and 1960s. The functioning of social systems and their stable reproduction became the central point of reference for identifying social problems as a technical” analysis of the possibility of a better functioning of a social system, allowing criticisms of existing public definitions of issues as being ideological misconceptions, or diagnosing social developments as resulting in latent social problems” not yet defined as social problems in public. But this concept has not been able to provide technical” criteria for the healthy functioning of a social system without reference to values, interests, and power apart from the absence of conflict and deviant behavior. Implicit in this view is the misconception of social problems as being conditions that could and should be solved. Obviously, societies survive quite well even if they leave unsolved their major social problems, and typically the treatment or solution of one social problem means the creation of social problems in other fields of modern societies and they could fulfill important stabilizing functions for societies inasmuch as they provide sources of solidarity, mark limits of morality, symbolize examples of misconduct, or indicate necessary social change. This approach loses much of its power of persuasion when we ask why certain social harms or discriminations last over a long period without being identified as social problems by the public, or why definitions or interpretations of social problems change over time even if the social conditions seem to remain nearly unchanged.
Social Problems as Social Construction
Whereas sociological perspectives that define and analyze social problems as social harm insist on the fact that social structures and developments could result in problematic life conditions and behavior, for constructionist perspectives these social conditions are merely putative” and a more or less rhetorical means of claims-making activities”: social problems are constructions that successfully attract public and political attention. As a consequence, the main questions to be analyzed are no longer about causes and social conditions that might explain the existence and affection of specific groups, but concern the processes of how social problems are successful in attracting public attention and become public issues. The sociology of social problems consists in the reconstruction of activities and processes that explain the public mobilization for specific definitions of issues and themes within society and the establishment of social problem discourses. In its radical form, this approach is limited to the analysis of rhetoric and counter-rhetoric in public discourses. Today, especially in the US context, the sociology of social problems is identified with this constructionist perspective, and a vast amount of social problem research is devoted to case studies of many different issues that at one time or another attracted public attention.
Even if social problems are social constructions they are no less real in their consequences and effects; it makes no sense to talk about social problems as social constructions in opposition to real” social problems. The central question within this perspective is nowadays whether and how the constructions are based on cultural and social resources that are rooted in social structures and embedded in social change in modern societies, i.e. whether constructionism rests in the scope of microsociological perspectives or can be earthed by macrosociological contexts.
- Best, J. (2008) Social Problems. W. W. Norton & Co., New York.
- Merton, R. K. (1976) The sociology of social problems. In: Merton, R. K. & Nisbet, R. A. (eds.) Contemporary Social Problems, 4th edn. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, pp. 3-43.
- Ritzer, G. (ed.) (2004) Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
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