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Defining Social Problems

A distinction is made between the definition of a social problem and sociological problem by Peter Worsley (1972). The latter refers to the problem of explaining social behaviour in terms of a sociological theory, whilst the former is some piece of social behaviour that causes public friction and or private misery and calls for collective action to solve it.

The study of social problems is a complex and very controversial undertaking.

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Broadly speaking, this is not understandable to the average layman whose concepts of what constitutes a social problem is firmly established by the rhetoric of his/hers everyday social discourse and indeed the classification of acts or situations as social problems seem to be a relatively simple exercise.

It is becoming more and more evident by present day sociologists and social scientists alike the complexities involved in defining, identifying and classifying a social situation as a social problem. This process has far-reaching implications on the focus, scope and projected recommendations of studies conducted of a particular social situation. There are two major conceptualizations of defining a social situation as a social problem. The first is centered around the self-explanatory phase “public opinion approach”.

This approach contends that a “social problem cannot exist for a society unless it is recognized by that society to exist” (Blumer, 1971) the inference here is that it is the members of the society that define and construct their social reality and that via socialization these interpretations of societal phenomena and value consensus is conveyed to the offspring. Individuals and social situations that do not conform to the norms and values of society are often viewed as social problems.

In Blumer’s definition of social problem he uses a broad concept of society but fails to further refine his definition. Merton writing in Contemporary Social Problems also utilizes in his definition of what is a social problem the broad and in my opinion ambiguous term “people”. His definition of social problems is as follows “a social definition exists when there is a sizeable discrepancy between what is and what people think ought to be”. One discovers that each society has their own conceptualizations and interpretations of their social world and furthermore as contemporary sociologists, namely M.

G. Smith and his pluralist model of society (adapted from the research of J. Furnival of Burma), have suggested different fractions of society have competing and contrasting ideologies. The use of such terms suggests social union and cohesion of meanings and oversimplifies the above mentioned complexities of societies. A branching school of thought emerging from the public-opinion approach in the defining of social problems is in my opinion the quantitative approach.

Perhaps realizing the aforementioned pitfalls of the definition proposed by Blumer and Merton some sociologist have attempted to further refine their definitions by assigning a seemingly quantitative value to them. Sheppard and Voss’s definition is critiqued by Manis [Contemporary Social Problems] They define a social problem as “a social condition which a large proportion of society … see as undesirable or in need of attention” Here the quantitative term “large proportion of society” refines the initial term “society” and “people” utilized in the definition of Blumer and Merton respectively.

Julian writing in Social Problems, 10th edition, too in his definition utilizes the term ” significant proportion of people”, Kornblum includes the term “most people” and likewise Fuller and Myers in their book The Natural History of a social problem, “American Sociological Review’ quantifies his definition by added the term ” a considerable number of people”. Though the inclusion of some additional factor concentrates the overall definition of what is a social problem it still does not give a full representation of the other forces at work that lead to a social condition being classified as a social problem.

We have moved from the ambiguity of the term “society” to saying that it’s the majority who decide or define social problems. The supporters of the public opinion approach contend that this approach limits the subjectivity of the researcher. Turner and Beeghley believe that by relying on the public’s conceptualization of what constitutes a social problem that the sociologist remain neutral and value-free thereby playing a passive rather than active role in the process of defining social problems, since he/she is unable to impose his values, morals and ethnics.

Gross dismisses the proposed objective rational proposed by the supporters of the public-opinon approach. He believes that for the sociologist even to interpret a public response to a social situation as negative or positive, good or bad is in itself a value judgment! This method of defining social problems is not as value free and objective as Beeghley and Tuner insinuate. If one is to speak of the majority, then what of the minority. In all fairness some public-opinion supporters have attempted to address this aspect of the debate around the definition of social problems.

Sheppard and Voss have included in their definition the point that not only is a social problem defined by the “large proportion of society” but by “powerful elements of it” who see a social condition as undesirable and in need of attention. Julian makes an intuitive juxtaposition of the words to further develop this point. In his definition he contends that a social problem is so defined when “a significant number of people or a number of significant people” … agree that the condition violates an accepted value or standard….

It confuses the definition somewhat since one is unable to determine whether the values of the majority are the ones violated by the social condition and it is thus defined as a social problem or if a social problem is so defined because the accepted values of the powerful (assumption here is that individuals who share the same social status or class have the same values) have been threatened. In the book, Defining Social Problems, there is considerable evidence to suggest that power groups play a significant role in the defining of social problems.

Here the writer contends, and correctly so, that a social problem can exist for a number of years and still not be classified or acknowledged as a social problem! A social problem is said to ‘exist when an influential group asserts that a certain social condition affecting a large group of people is a problem that may be remedied by collective action. ‘ This introduces the concept that social problems are ‘subjective, value-laden and culturally informed’ a point contested by Manis.

Furthermore it’s the influence of the power groups derived from their ‘strength, status or sheer number of people’ that have significantly impacted on social policy at the national level. The example given was centered around the hysteria of the milk cartoon kids. There arose in the 1950’s in the USA an outcry against the seemingly stark increase in the number of kidnappings. This caused a mass hysteria and this ‘social problem’ was deemed acute and severe enough to warrant an increase in police surveillance at schools. The situation was not a real social condition but it was considered as such.

This is one of the primary concerns of Manis whereby subjectivity in the definition of a social problem may lead to falsehoods. He suggests rather an objective approach which he labels the ‘knowledge values of science’. He links social facts to values and devises an approach to defining social problems based on: intrinsic values, contextual values and social responsibility values. By utilizing his method, he contends, ensures objective results by the sociologist. Though not part of the Marx theory, the labeling theory in this case exists alongside and supports the theory that power groups play a significant role in defining social problems.

Howard Becker was instrumental in the development of the labeling theory. Pierre Bordeaux, a Marxist, studied the education system extensively and acknowledges the ability of the powerful to impose their definition of reality on others. The controversy surrounding the definition of social problems is still going strong. Some may ask why is it important to understand how a social situation is classified as a social problem. The implementation of social policies affects everyone and some policies may not always be to our benefit.

For example the Mass Marriage Movement in Jamaica looked to encourage couples to marry because some British sociologists thought that single-parent families were having adverse effects on their children and this was considered a problem. Through the research of dedicated Caribbean sociologist we know differently. In conclusion, I adapt the view points of Merton and Roberts, Contempory Social Problems, that social problems ‘vary among societies and it varies in the same society among social groups and from time to time, since both the social realities and the social norms differ and change. Fuller and Myers to develop a rather accommodating definition of a social problem. They wrote ‘Every social problem thus consists of an objective and a subjective definition. The objective condition is a verifiable condition which can be checked as to the existence and magnitude by impartial and trained observers…. The subjective definition is the awareness of certain individuals that the condition is a threat to cherished values. ‘