Defining Social Problems

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I.     We have addressed the historical involvement of Sociology in the definition and study of social problems and noted that early studies were done with the ultimate purpose of making the world a better place to live in. We also conducted a brief review of the theoretical perspectives involved in viewing social problems. We now turn to some of the conditions which must be met for a social problem to exist.

II.     Not all social conditions become elevated to the status of "social problem." For example, here are some "objective conditions" which existtoday, and as you will see, not all of them are considered to be social problems.

Environmental Pollution
Resource Depletion
Limited Energy Supplies
Corporate Corruption
Drug Abuse
Family Decline, (Increased Divorce, Family Abuse, etc.)
Nuclear War
Racial/Ethnic/Sexual Discrimination
Health Care
Moral Decline
Weakening Institution of Religion

Each of the above represents an existing condition which threatens the well-being of the United States and, in some cases, the entire world. Also all are objective conditions that really exist! But we all realize that many of them draw relatively little public concern-- Why?

III.     If you review a variety of social problems texts, you find that there is general agreement that four conditions must be met before an objective reality in the greater society becomes elevated to the special status of "social problem." They are:

1. The objective condition must be perceived to be a social problem publicly. That is, there must be some public outcry. People must become actively involved in discussing the problem. Public attention becomes directed toward that social condition.

2 The condition must involve a gap between social ideals and social reality. That is, the condition must run counter to the values of the larger society. At the beginning of the 20th century alcohol abuse was perceived to be a very serious social problem, responsible for family breakdown, abandonment of children, accidental death at work, and violence in society. A "Temperance Movement" emerged that further consolidated public opinion to a point that people wanted to do something about it.

3. A significant proportion of the population must be involved in defining the problem. (A large proportion of the population must be concerned about the condition… It must have national attention. If only a small segment of the population gets involved you have an interest group pushing for the general public to do something about the condition-- not a social problem).

4. The condition must be capable of solution through collective action by people. If no solution is perceived possible, people will resign themselves to their fate. A good example is government bureaucracy-- If everyone takes the attitude that "you can't fight city hall", government bureaucracy doesn't emerge as a social problem. Rather, it is a part of life that everyone must live with. 

  IV.     OK, so lets say that a certain objective reality exists. Also, lets, agree that each of the above conditions is met. There are still other factors which will determine the degree to which something comes to be perceived as a social problem. These are all very logical--
  1.     If people affected by a condition are influential, or powerful, the condition is more likely to be considered a social problem than if those affected are not influential.  When a condition begins to affect the white middle class, particularly those able to influence government policy, or the content of the mass media, the chances of it being considered a social problem increase substantially.  
Example:  Hard drug addiction had been a lower class, black problem for some time before it reached the suburban white middle class. But when it began to affect middle class kids, we see the emergence of a new social problem!

2.     A condition affecting a relatively small segment of the population is less likely to be considered a social problem than if it has adverse effects on a much larger segment of society.  
Example:  The poverty of Native Americans has received much less attention than the poverty of Black Americans. Why? Native Americans are a relatively small and isolated segment of the U.S. population. African Americans are a much larger minority and are much more visible. The poverty of African Americans also has a greater impact on the middle classes than that of Native Americans.

3.     A rapid increase in the number of people affected by a social condition is also important-- perhaps even as important as the number of people affected!  
Example:  People become accustomed to the prevailing levels of crime, pollution, and urban congestion-- But a sharp increase in the intensity of any of these leads to elevated public concern. One airline crash every year is grounds for concern, but not for the definition of a social problem. But, five crashes in one month will get the public's attention!

4.     The mass media also plays an important role in the selection and definition of social problems. It gives selective attention to certain conditions. The liberal press will highlight certain issues while the conservative press will select others.
Example:  A good example is the controversy over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The liberal press lamented it, but maintained that the larger issue was the quality of the job that the President was doing. The conservative press saw it as a basic flaw in the moral fabric of the presidency and counter to the values of the larger society. On this issue, the general public seems to have sided with the liberal position if public opinion ratings of the President's job performance are to be believed.

5.     Finally, ideology plays an important role in determining which conditions are singled out as social problems.
Example:  If the general population has adopted a Marxist ideology, then such things as corporate power, militarism, imperialism, etc. will be perceived as serious social problems in the U.S. However, if the public, as a whole, holds conservative values then "big government," "national defense," and "declining morality" will be perceived as social problems.

          Ideology also determines how a social problem is defined. Conservatives and liberals agree that America has a poverty problem-- but they do not agree on a specific definition of the problem, nor do they agree on how the problem should be solved.  
Example:  Conservatives will perceive poverty as being caused by lack of intelligence, lack of motivation, lack of the ability to delay gratification, and other personal characteristics of those who are poor. Thus, they will tend to defend the system, or in the case of radical conservatives, will argue for a dismantling of the "welfare state" and a return to the free market system.

Liberals emphasize the lack of opportunity and structural factors in the system. The system must be adjusted to open up opportunity. Radical liberals will advocate overthrowing the current system of government and establishing something entirely new.

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