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Social Problems

"Smashing a mirror is no way to make any ugly person beautiful, nor is it a way to make social problems evaporate."

Liu Binyan (1925 - )
Chinese writer.
People or Monsters, "Listen Carefully to the Voice of the People" (Perry Link (ed.))

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 valueneutral 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.

The Traditional Paradigm

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.

The Emergent Paradigm

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).

The Current Intellectual State of Affairs

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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This Aricle was Written by
ARMAND L. MAUSS
VALERIE JENNESS

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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