Sociology and the Scientific Study of Social Problems

  1. What is a social problem?
    1. Simple definition-A social condition that contradicts the values of a culture creating a discrepancy between cultural ideals and reality.
      1. Values as things held to be important or worth while.
      2. Values as goals to be achieved, things to strive for.
    2. Problems with the simple definition.
      1. Assumes universal agreement regarding values.
        1. Fails to acknowledge that cultures often contain contradictory and conflicting values.
        2. Fails to acknowledge that different groups within a culture may emphasize different values.
      2. Ignores the role of power.
        1. Some groups and people in society have more power and influence than others.  They are better able to assert and attain their goals and values.
        2. Competition, conflict, and struggle.
        3. Stratification and inequality.
          1. Differential access to wealth, power, and prestige.
          2. Class, race, gender, and age.
      3. Ignores subjective perceptions and definitions.
        1. People’s feelings and actions are based on how they see and perceive the world around them, not on objective conditions or circumstances. 
        2. It is important to understand how people come to see and perceive a condition as a social problem.
          1. Why are some things seen as problem while others are not?
          2. Changing definitions and perceptions.
          3. Example:  child abuse.
    3. A modified definition-A social problem exists when a significant number of people or a number of significant people come to perceive a social condition as contradicting their values or limiting their ability to achieve their goals.

  2. Sociology and the Study of Social Problems.
    1. What is sociology?
      1. Sociology is the scientific study of human social organization and behavior.  The central question of sociology is how do humans organize and coordinate their activities.
      2. Sociology sees individuals and interactions as shaped and influenced by the social, historical, and cultural contexts in which they exist. We cannot understand why things are the way they are, or why people do the things they do, without putting them in their broader social context.  Sociology emphasizes the “big picture,” the group and societal level, rather than the individual level. 
        1. Mills “the intersection of biography and history.”
        2. Weber’s “verstehen.”
        3. Durkheim’s analysis of suicide.
        4. Other examples:  crime and anorexia nervosa.
      3. Sociology also seeks to see beyond the obvious, to try to see what is really going on.  It often questions and challenges commonly accepted or officially sanctioned views.
        1. Berger-seeing beyond the façade.
        2. Marx’s view of religion.
        3. Domhoff’s “Who rules America?”
        4. Another example:  terrorism.
      4. In sum, sociology focuses on the often ignored social, historical, and cultural contexts of behaviors, events and conditions, which frequently results in their questioning and challenging commonly accepted or officially sanctioned views.
    2. Sociology as a science.
      1. The scientific method
        1. Sociology seeks to be empirical, systematic, objective, logical, and critical/skeptical.
        2. The importance of theory and research.
          1. What is theory?
          2. What is research?
          3. The relationship between theory and research.
      2. Classic sociological theory.
        1. Structural-functionalism.
          1. Society as organized and stable.
          2. Structures and functions.
          3. Manifest and latent functions.
          4. Dysfunctions and change.
          5. The functionalist approach to social problems.
        2. Conflict theory.
          1. Conflict, competition, struggle and change.
          2. Competing classes and groups.
          3. Power, exploitation and oppression.
          4. Social structure and ideology.
          5. The conflict approach to social problems.
        3. Symbolic interactionism/social constructionism.
          1. Humans as symbol users living in symbolic worlds.
          2. Interaction, meaning assignment, and behavior.
          3. The self as a social entity.
          4. Social order as collective agreement.
          5. The interactionist/constructionist approach to social problems.
        4. Other theories.
      3. Sociological research methods.
        1. Quantitative methods--Social phenomena are quantified and measured numerically then analyzed statistically to test hypotheses derived from theory.
          1. Deductive logic and hypothesis testing.
          2. Methods of data collection that produce quantitative data include
            • Surveys.
            • Experiments.
            • Analysis of existing statistical data.
            • Content analysis.
        2. Qualitative methods--Data are observed and coded categorically, often with categories emerging from data analysis and being used to generate theory rather than test hypotheses.
          1. Inductive logic and theory building.
          2. Methods of data collection that produce qualitative data.
            • Ethnographic field research.
            • In depth interviewing.
            • Case studies and biographical methods.
            • Content analysis.
            • Historical/comparative analysis.
    3. Sociology’s approach to social problems.
      1. Emphasis on social, historical, and cultural context.
      2. Explaining social problems theoretically.
      3. Using research and empirical data.

A Sociological Framework for the Analysis of Social Problems


I.      Conflict and Competition.

A.    Society is composed of many different groups, organizations, categories, and classes of people.  These groups, categories, and classes intersect and overlap such that people belong to and are a part of many different groups and classes. 

B.     While these groups and classes generally share a core set of cultural goals and values, there can be a lot of variation across groups in terms of which values are emphasized or seen as most important.  Thus, the groups and classes that make up a society can have different goals, values, priorities, and interests.

C.     As these groups pursue their own goals and interests, they may, and often do, come in conflict with each other.

D.    As groups and classes compete with each other in pursuit of their goals and interests, those with greater resources such as wealth, power, and prestige, may come dominate, exploit, manipulate and control those with fewer resources, thus creating and reinforcing inequality between groups.

E.     It is not uncommon for dominant groups to use their power to define the actions, behaviors, attitudes, organizations, and arrangements of less powerful groups as “problems,” which allows them to create mechanism to try to control and address these problems, thereby controlling and manipulating the less powerful group.

F.      However, when competing groups are more equally matched in terms of resources, it can lead to a more protracted and less predictable political and social struggle, with the groups competing to define various social conditions and circumstances that violate their values or prevent them from achieving their goals as social problems.

II.      American Social and Political Values.

A.    Since values play a vital role in this process, it is important to identify and recognize our culture’s core values.

B.     Some core American values.

1.      Democracy, liberty, freedom, independence, autonomy, and individualism.

2.      Capitalism, competition, hard work, and success.

3.      Wealth, materialism, and consumerism.

4.      Strength and power.

5.      Equality of opportunity, equity, and justice.

6.      Love, compassion, humanitarianism, charity, service, tolerance, forgiveness, and acceptance.

7.      Faith, religion, family, and respect for others.

8.      Community, nationalism, patriotism, and loyalty.

9.      Health, happiness, and life.

10.  Science, technology, and innovation.

C.     Complimentary and conflicting values.

D.    Social problems as value conflict.

1.      Abortion.

2.      Healthcare.

3.      Sexually explicit material on the internet

E.     Value alignment, polarization, and American politics.

1.      Similar and dissimilar values.

2.      Value alignment and polarization.

a.       The liberal/conservative continuum.

b.      Individualistic/particularistic/capitalistic vs. collectivistic/universal/socialistic values.

c.       Economic conservatives/liberals and social conservatives/liberals.

3.      The two-party system-Democrats and Republicans.

4.      The politics of social problems.

III.      Social Movements and the Construction of Social Problems

A.    When groups encounter social conditions that they perceive as contradicting their values or preventing them from achieving their goals they often organize social movements in an attempt to get political leaders and/or the public to take actions to correct the condition.

1.      Social movements are organized and deliberate attempts to change some aspect of society.

2.      Social movements typically seek to change laws, policies, public opinion, and/or public behavior.

3.      In a sense, social movements transform personal troubles into social problems by bringing them to the public’s attention.

B.     The progression of social movements.

1.      Individuals or groups encounter social conditions that they perceive as contradicting their values or preventing them from achieving their goals.  As these individuals gripe and complain about the situation, they may seek out and discover others with the same complaint.  Misery loves company.

2.      Sometimes, though not always, these individuals or groups may decide to organize in an effort to change the offending social condition. 

a.       They may elect or appoint leaders and create an organizational structure.

b.      They may clearly identify and define goals.

c.       They may divide up the work and assign tasks.

d.      If and when groups organize to try to bring about change, they become a social movement.

3.      Propagandizing and publicizing the problem.

a.       To be successful, a social movement must bring their concerns to the public and convince the public or political leaders that a problem exists and that change is necessary.  In so doing, they transform their concerns into social problems.

b.      Claims-making.

i.        Empirical claims.

·         Facts, data, and statistics.

·         Scientific evidence.

·         Evidence from experts.

ii.      Motivational claims.

·         Appeals to values.

·         Appeals to emotions.

iii.    Calls to action.

·         You can make a difference.

·         Here’s what to do.

c.       Addressing counter claims.

d.      Using the mass media.

i.        Print and broadcast media.

ii.      Mass mailings.

iii.    The internet.

iv.    Advertisements and news stories.

e.       Insiders and outsiders.

i.        Techniques and tactics used by movements with significant resources.

ii.      Techniques and tactics used by movements with few resources.

4.      Resolution and outcomes.

a.       Acknowledgement and action.

b.      Co-optation.

c.       Failure followed by dissolution or restructuring.

d.      Success followed by dissolution, restructuring, or bureaucratization and institutionalization.

C.     Factors affecting the success of social movements.

1.      Mobilization of resources.

a.       Economic resources.

b.      People.

c.       Political support.

2.      Organization and leadership.

3.      Strength of convictions and tenacity

4.      Strength of opposition and competition.

5.      Success at persuading others.

D.    Evaluating the claims of social movements.

1.      Questions to ask when evaluating claims.

2.      Recognizing propaganda.

IV.      Analyzing Social Problems

A.    What individuals, groups, categories, or classes are claiming a social problem exists?  What beliefs, values, goals, or interests are motivating these claims?

B.     What individuals, groups, categories, or classes are opposing such claims?  What beliefs, values, goals, or interests motivate this opposition?

C.     Where on the political spectrum do the individuals, groups, categories, or classes claiming a social problem exists fall?  Are they liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between?  What about those who oppose their claim?

D.    What are the major claims and arguments made by the groups seeking to have the condition defined as social problem and those who oppose them?  What facts do they present?  How do they seek to motivate people to take action?  What actions are they seeking?  What rhetorical and propaganda techniques do they use?  Overall, do their arguments seem valid?

E.     What tactics and techniques do the groups involved employ?  How do they get their message out?  How do they make use of the mass media?  What resources do they have at their disposal to help in getting their message out?

F.      What were the outcomes or what are the outcomes likely to be?  Who won?  What changed?  What are the likely long-term consequences of this social and political event?