Unit One: The Sociology of Social Problems

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 problems.


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?

demonstration1C. 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 public issue.

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.

newscastFinally, 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.


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 social problem.

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 free.

1.  The GMO and “Natural” Food Movement


Who Provides Solutions?

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:

nraInterest Groups:  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.

Government:  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.

Private Groups:  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 sweatshop labor.


Who Do We Blame for Social Problems?

Whether 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.

HomelessAnother 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 Problem?

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 prisons?

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.


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.

The Difficulty 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.

Micro Versus Macro Level Solutions

Microlevel solutions to 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.

Macrolevel 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 approach.

Some social 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 life.


Studying Collective Behavior

Collective 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 behavior.

Crowds.  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.

Mobs.  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.

RiotsRiots 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.

civildisobedience1Mass Civil DisobedienceCivil 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.

Social Movements

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.

Because 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.

Deprivation Theory: 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.

Social isolation 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.

Sociologists have 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 mobilize.

Another 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.

Political-Economy Theory:  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 covers everyone.


Types of Social Movements

Social movements 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 below.

types-of-social-movementsAlternative Social Movements: 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 driving.

Redemptive Social Movements:  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.

Reformative Social Movement:  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).

Revolutionary Social movements:  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.

Social movements 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

Different 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.

Structural-Functionalism:  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.

Conflict Theory:  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.

Symbolic Interactionism:  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.



  action Social 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.



books03 Social Problems in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

Manifest and Latent Functions From: Robert K. Merton [1957] 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)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2006  Introduction to Social Problems   (7th Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)



Copyright ©2006, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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