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- Definitions And Perspectives Of Social Problems
- The European ‘‘Social Question’’ and American ‘‘Social Problems’’
- Theoretical Issues
- Social Problems as Social Harm and Social Disorder
- Social Problems as Social Construction
‘‘Social problems’’ have formed a specialized field within sociology, especially in the US, 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 macrosociological reasoning and theory building. As a consequence, most of the literature using social problems as a theoretical concept is of US origin (Ritzer 2004; for handbooks in German and French, see Albrecht et al. 1999; Dorvil & Mayer 2001).
Definitions And Perspectives Of Social Problems
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.
As a consequence, the scientific value of having the concept of social problem within sociology is contested, as it seems to be too vague and too broad to be useful for guiding the development of theories. Assessments such as those of Spector and Kitsuse (1987 ) that ‘‘there is not and never has been a sociology of social problems’’ (p. 1) and of Best (2004) that the ‘‘social problem has not proved to be a particularly useful concept for sociological analysis’’ (p. 15) could find some justification.
The sociological use of the concept of social problems is connected with at least five different perspectives, outlined below.
Textbook eclecticism of social problems. The vagueness of the term is reflected in sociological textbooks and journals on social problems that offer a nearly endless list of various topics. These articles are the product of a vast amount of specialized sociological research on social problems that very often form special fields within (but also apart from) sociology, for example criminology, public health, or the sociology of poverty. In this textbook context, the concept of social problems is used as an umbrella for a wide range of situations and forms of behavior reflecting the public and political meaning of what is problematic within society and what should be treated, ameliorated, or controlled. The problematic character of such phenomena is taken for granted. Definitions of social problems, at least implicitly, follow various kinds of formulations that refer to everything that is defined in public (or by a certain number of people) as social problems: ‘‘social problem are what people think they are.’’ This meaning of social problems is closely linked to the production of applied knowledge for public policy.
Sociology of social problems as applied sociology. Since its origin in American reform oriented sociology at the beginning of the twentieth century and its connection to policy, the sociology of social problems is often treated as a field of applied sociology. This perspective is closely tied to the specialized fields of sociology, where the problematic character of social problems is the starting point for the production of knowledge about causes and forms of existing social evils and their social and political control. This is without doubt an important field of research within the sociology of social problems, but there is no common theoretical ground on which a theoretical concept of social problems could be justified. Nevertheless, social problems are the base for political programs, actions, and institutions evoking the fundamental problem of the relation between theory and policy and demanding a discussion of the role of values and normative theory within sociology.
Social problems as social harm and social disorganization. Whereas in these perspectives the problematic character of social problems is taken for granted or defined by public opinion, there have always been attempts to define the object of the sociology of social problems on the basis of theoretical knowledge about the functioning of society. Social problems are those conditions and forms of behavior that undermine the functioning of important social institutions and cause harm to individuals and social groups. In this perspective – often labeled as ‘‘objectivist’’ – the common character of different social problems is seen in their common social structural sources, defined as social pathology, social disorganization, alienation and exploitation, unequal distribution of resources and power, or anomie. The discrepancy between cultural standards, norms, or values and the actual conditions of social life – Merton’s (1976: 7) famous, quite formal definition of social problems – should be identified and analyzed by sociological inquiry, in principle without reference to ‘‘what people think’’ and as a ‘‘technical judgment’’ about the possibility of a better functioning social system.
Social problems as the social question. In the context of European sociology, the concept of social problems has never had a prominent place. Its use is very often limited to problems seen as associated with social inequality and social integration or inclusion. In the European tradition of the social question, social problems are those behaviors and conditions that should be treated by the welfare state through social policy and social work. Unlike the American perspective of social disorganization, the tradition of the analysis of social problems related to the social question privileged a perspective of conflicts rooted in the social structure of modern societies (cf. Castel 2002 ). In this sense the term social problem in the singular was introduced into US sociology in the nineteenth century, but very soon changed its meaning in a plurality of unconnected ‘‘social problems.’’
Social problems as social constructions. While in these perspectives social problems are treated as special objects of sociological inquiry, a constructionist perspective of social problems insists that social problems are not necessarily rooted in harmful social conditions and that the only thing the various phenomena have in common is that they are labeled as social problems. Social problems exist only as cultural definitions of public activities of grievances and claims (Spector & Kitsuse 1987 ). Social conditions are dismissed as merely ‘‘putative,’’ and sociological research focuses on the claims making activities through which social problems become public concerns and political issues. Whereas in sociological research on causes, careers, and control of social problems their problematic character is often taken for granted, the constructionist perspective makes this question its central concern. The sociology of social problems adopts a sociology of knowledge perspective to analyze the strategies and discourses used by collective actors to bring issues onto the public and political agenda. In this perspective, sociology and scientific knowledge in general no longer have special status; their role is reduced to that of one claims maker among others. As a consequence of this radical reformulation and change of paradigm, the ‘‘social problems approach’’ is identified no longer by its research objects but by its theoretical and methodological perspective.
The European ‘‘Social Question’’ and American ‘‘Social Problems’’
The history of sociological reasoning has its starting point in the problematization of social conditions linked to the capitalist industrial revolution in Western Europe. In this context, social problems such as poverty, alcohol consumption, disease, and violence were seen as direct indicators of disorder of the social structure and crises of development. The central points of reference were social movements and ideas of social justice to assure national social inclusion and integration of modern societies. Social problems as social crises or social pathologies had been linked directly to questions of social inequality, and sociological reasoning of social problems formed a privileged way to uncover the central mechanisms of functioning and development of modern societies. These ideas are best expounded in the work of the founding fathers of sociology, Marx and Durkheim.
Nevertheless, the ‘‘social question’’ has always been a political question of social reform or social revolution, linked to the three dominant ideological streams: liberalism, conservatism, and socialism. Based on ideas of social justice, social integration, and social inclusion, national and collective political projects of the welfare state emerged to solve the conflicts of disintegrating capitalist economies.
This European tradition of welfare state orientation still marks an important difference from American sociological reasoning on social problems. Unlike the European tradition, American sociology was not confronted in the same way with fundamental social movements and their ideological orientations. Existing social movements were short lived and concentrated more on single issues without problematizing the social structure as a whole. As a consequence, American sociology at the end of the nineteenth century adopted a reform oriented perspective on isolated social problems (in the plural) and ideas of applied sociology to produce knowledge for treating these problems against the back ground of pragmatic philosophy.
The adoption of the concept of social problem and its rapid dissemination in European sociology in the 1970s from the US social con text reflects a social change after World War II, marked by a rapid and extensive expansion of the welfare state and social services. In this context of economic prosperity, remaining social problems were individualized as deviant behavior to be treated by social work. The social question seemed to be solved and the idea of social problems seemed to be more appropriate for developing specialized sociological and professional knowledge to guide political reforms and interventions.
On the one hand, cultural pluralization and the development of new social movements in the 1960s and 1970s could explain the popularity of cultural relativism expressed by radical constructivist and postmodern perspectives in Europe. On the other hand, processes of globalization and internationalization, economic crises, and the spread of new poverty and growing social inequality from the 1980s on, together with an expansion of migration processes, brought back questions of social integration and exclusion to the sociological research agenda and strengthened the idea of a ‘‘new social question’’ as new challenges for the welfare state (Bourdieu 1993; Castel 2002 ).
Despite marked differences between the socio logical traditions of understanding social pro blems, there are common theoretical and conceptual perspectives and problems (for an overview, see Rubington & Weinberg 1995). 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.
Social Problems as Social Harm and Social Disorder
An early version of describing social problems as harm and social disorder is social pathology. This perspective, still very common in political and popular discourse, is based on the idea of society as an organism. Social problems are indicators of a pathological state of society and/or are caused by pathological individuals. This idea found its roots in nineteenth century sociology, where the success of medical treatment and hygiene formed the model for sociology as a medical profession of society. In this analogy, social problems are seen as deviance from a normal and healthily functioning society, in which there is harmonious coordination between specialized subsystems. The identification of social problems is not a problem, because the criteria underlying society as a well functioning organ ism are seen as evident and based on common sense normative and moral ideas (fundamentally criticized as a backward conservatism by Mills 1943). However, the central arguments against the idea of social pathology are that values and norms in society are changing and have to be different for different groups in differentiated societies. Beyond this it is clear that many social conditions that mark ‘‘social health’’ in one field of society automatically cause harm to other fields, which also means that the pathological functioning of one sector has to be analyzed as the condition for the healthy functioning of another sector (Rosenquist 1995).
Nevertheless, the sociology of social problems is always confronted by the question of how to analyze values and norms that inevitably form the base for constructing and identifying social problems in public as well as in sociology. Inasmuch as the sociology of social problems takes existing definitions from public and political definitions of social harm as its starting point, it runs the risk of being normative. In a vast proportion of research in special fields of the sociology of social problems, the problematic character of the issue in this sense is taken for granted. This position very often corresponds with a perspective of applied sociology, where the problematic character of the issue has to be the starting point from which to develop and analyze political programs and interventions of social control.
A similar critique confronts the perspective of social disorganization, which was developed in the context of the Chicago School for analyzing deviant behavior and its spatial distribution in cities. Social problems are seen as indicators of, or as a result of, a breakdown of rules and social control in poor neighborhoods, caused mainly by processes of migration and rapid social change. Beyond criticisms of its normative base, the social disorganization perspective has been criticized for failing to specify the difference between deviance and social disorganization. Very often deviance is not a sign of disorganized neighborhoods or of a breakdown of norms and social control but is a result of a cultural conflict between local subcultures and the values of a majority society able to define common norms and values for the whole society. Within this perspective also, the problem of separating ‘‘normal’’ or even necessary and disorganizing social change is not solved.
The general form of argumentation with social disorganization also forms the base for the concept of anomie, developed by Durkheim (1902 ). Here the disintegrating consequences of division of work and social differentiation in the processes of modernization result in ‘‘pathological’’ consequences, indicated by an extraordinarily high level of crime or suicides in modern societies. These perspectives of social disorganization and anomie experienced a renaissance after the 1980s in European sociology, especially for analyzing conflicts and social problems in relation to processes of migration and growing social inequality.
With the supremacy of structural functional ism, the idea of anomic developments became one of the leading sociological perspectives on social problems in US sociology in the 1950s and 1960s. Social problems are seen as functional disturbances of social systems and as a problem of social disintegration. The functioning of social systems and their stable reproduction became the central point of reference for identifying social problems. In Merton’s (1971, 1976) classic formulation of this program, this identification is seen as a ‘‘technical’’ analysis of the possibility of a better functioning of a social system and not one of a political or normative judgment. In principle, social problems could be identified by sociological research without depending on their public or political definitions. This allows criticisms of existing public definitions of issues and claims as being ideological misconceptions of what in effect does not result in social harm, or diagnosing social developments as resulting in ‘‘latent social problems’’ not yet defined as social problems in public. The separation of problematic social conditions and of publicly recognized social problems thus defines, in principle, a critical program for a sociology of social problems, even if the idea of a ‘‘technical judgment’’ of social dysfunctions seems to present a perspective oriented by an organic view of a normally harmonious and well functioning society already criticized in the approach of social pathology.
The differentiation of social problems as ‘‘social disorganization’’ and ‘‘deviant behavior’’ as different types of social problems has been developed in this context (Merton 1976). Social disorganization refers to the malfunction ing of the internal organization of a social system in providing stable role orientations, statuses, rules, and valid norms for the participant actors; it refers to the diagnosis of an absence or a breakdown of norms, whereas deviant behavior depends on the existence of a stable and accepted system of social norms and of actors motivated to obey them (Cohen 1959).
In the functional perspective, social disorganization is a consequence of rapid social change caused by technological, demographic, or cultural change to which some social systems react more easily than others. It could be interpreted as a cause of deviant behavior if a state of normlessness, contradictory, or conflicting expectations in a social system results in strain for individuals. But deviant behavior could also lead to social disorganization if mechanisms of social control and exclusion fail to reestablish social order. Very often social contexts described as disorganized have developed sub cultural systems of values and norms that provide members with stable orientations, but are interpreted as deviant in relation to the social environment and the dominant system of values and norms in the society. In these cases, social systems could not be interpreted as disorganized; in a functional perspective, they could be described as disintegrated since subcultural social systems result in dysfunctional conflict for the system as a whole.
This concept seems to be too vague since it 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, faulty socialization, and deviant behavior. As a consequence, this perspective has been criticized for failing to provide criteria to judge conflicts in pluralistic societies as disorganizing or as leading to necessary social change. The idea of social disorganization follows a utopian view of a society in harmonious balance. 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. Beyond this, Durkheim is known for his functional argumentation of social problems. Social problems and deviant behavior fulfill important functions for societies inasmuch as they provide sources of solidarity, mark limits of morality, symbolize examples of misconduct, or indicate necessary social change.
Whereas in perspectives based on the diagnostic of social harm the difference between social disorganization and deviant behavior is often interpreted as a difference between ‘‘structurally’’ and ‘‘behaviorally’’ caused social problems, it seems appropriate to interpret them as different kinds of social problem definition. For example, unemployment could be defined as a social problem related to the malfunctioning of the labor market, but it is also very widely seen as the malfunctioning of individuals who are either unwilling or unable to integrate into the labor market.
One central problem in the definition of social problems proposed by Merton is the identification of a ‘‘substantial discrepancy between widely shared social standards and actual conditions’’ (Merton 1971: 799). Even if Merton insists on identifying social problems on the basis of a ‘‘technical judgment’’ about the functioning of social systems, the identification of ‘‘social standards’’ and the diagnostic of a ‘‘substantial discrepancy’’ are finally based on the empirical registration of public opinion (Manis 1974). This could result in the problematic con sequence of being unable to identify a social problem sociologically, for instance, if racial discrimination is found in a racist society, since in this case there is no ‘‘substantial discrepancy’’ between the shared racist standards and the actual racist conditions. We face the problem of having no standard beyond empirically measured public opinion to decide whether shared values in society are in fact ideological manifestations. This problem could only be resolved by stating the validity of a system of values – for instance, human rights – independently of publicly (and politically) shared social standards (Manis 1974). On this basis, the identification of ‘‘latent social problems’’ and the sociological critique of existing definitions of social problems remain important questions for the sociology of social problems.
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 remain nearly unchanged. Beyond this, the guidance of public interpretations of and attention to social problems fulfills important political functions and could be used as a means of achieving success in elections or to attract resources for public agencies or professional institutions. In this sense, social problems do not always have their origins in social developments but are rooted in political strategies of symbolic policy (Edelman 1977).
Social Problems as Social Construction
The ‘‘cultural turn’’ in sociology of the 1970s was caused at least partly by the adoption of ideas of symbolic interactionism and other microsociological approaches as criticisms of structural functionalism. This first happened in the field of sociology of deviance and social problems in the 1960s with the development of perspectives insisting on the idea that deviance and social problems in general are not qualities of social conditions or specific forms of behavior, but instead have to be analyzed as results of interactive processes of social definition and labeling. This idea was then radicalized in constructivist approaches based on the idea that social problems exist only as public ‘‘activities of individuals or groups making assertions of grievances and claims with respect to some putative conditions’’ (Spector & Kitsuse 1987 : 75). This has been a radical reformulation of the problem of defining and analyzing social problems.
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 with a special quality.
The approaches that follow ideas of social structure and social change as analytical bases for defining social problems – now labeled as ‘‘objectivist’’ – always had to face the problem of justifying a general concept of social problems that could unify very different social phenomena. With the new formulation of constructionist perspectives, this problem was solved in that different phenomena labeled as social problems could analytically be unified under the common question of what (and who) made them problematic and how they became 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. Social problems are specific forms of collective behavior which explain the significance given to the analysis of media representations, moral entrepreneurs, and social movements.
Whereas in so called ‘‘objective’’ approaches scientific, especially sociological, knowledge has given an outstanding position to the analysis of social problems and their developments, in constructionist approaches this role is limited to that of one ‘‘claims maker’’ among others. Constructionist perspectives insist that the role of sociology cannot be seen as criticizing existing constructions and their forms of public definition. Its role is reduced to that of a reconstruction of the processes by which such constructions became convincing for the public, and not to analyze their structural and social historical bases. In its radical form, this approach is limited to the analysis of rhetoric and counter rhetoric on public issues.
Today, especially in the US context, the sociology of social problems is identified with the 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 (see, e.g., Best 1989, 2001; Loseke & Best 2003). But, while it is very often identified as the only valuable perspective and forms the mainstream of social problem analysis, the constructionist perspective has its critics.
The most important criticisms from within constructionism have been developed by Woolgar and Pawluch (1985). In reconstructing constructionist case studies on social problems, they argue that the underlying argumentation of these analyses is marked by a contradictory use of the perspective of social construction. In framing their question, these case studies assume that the social conditions or the behavior in question remained more or less unchanged, while the social constructions of the problem in public have been changed. On the one hand they insist on the idea that social problems are social constructions, while on the other they base their argumentation on some ‘‘true’’ social conditions, what Woolgar and Pawluch criticize as ‘‘ontological gerrymandering.’’
Since then constructionist approaches have become highly differentiated (Holstein & Miller 2003; Loseke & Best 2003), but at the same time the idea of constructivism has become less clear and is very often reduced to the perspective that social problems are the result of the active behavior of interested groups and collective actors, who define and produce certain issues in a specific form. This is nowadays common sense within sociology; the main point of discussion is whether these ‘‘productions’’ are based on cultural and social resources that are rooted in social structures and embedded in social change in modern societies. But even if social problems are social constructions – as actually all objects of socio logical research are – 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. In this sense, the opposition of ‘‘objectivist’’ and ‘‘constructivist’’ approaches within the sociology of social problems is misleading, as it assumes that ‘‘objectivist’’ approaches are not able to analyze social problems as processes of cultural production.
As a reaction to the sociological hegemony of structural functionalism in the 1950s and 1960s, the constructionist perspective has been developed on the microsociological grounds of symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and phenomenology. The European tradition of the social question as sociopolitical and macro sociological projects concerning social conditions and processes of social integration and social inclusion seems to have been completely dismissed from the American sociology of social problems.
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