Studying Social Problems

Understanding Social Problems

- Because any issue affects various segments of our population differently, almost nothing is harmful to everyone.

- The reality of a social problem is partly a matter of objective facts and partly a matter of how individuals subjectively interpret these facts.

The Sociological Imagination

C. Wright Mills (1916-1962)

The ability to see the link between individual circumstances and the structure of society

Elements of the Sociological Imagination:

The Person-Blame Approach

System-Blame Approach

The Sociological Paradox: Structure and Agency

The Persistence of Social Problems

Social Movements

Important Considerations about Social Problems

  1. Social problems result from how society operates, and are not caused by bad people
  2. Social problems are not abnormal; instead, they are structural in nature (i.e., built into a way of life). In some cases, what is considered a problem may actually help society to operate.
  3. Solving social problems requires change.
  4. People see problems differently. What is viewed as a problem to some people may not be seen as a problem to others.
  5. Definitions of problems change over time
  6. Problems involve values as well as facts
  7. Various social problems are related
  8. Solving one problem can create a new problem

Problems in the Consideration of Social Problems

  1. Objectivity/Bias - Is it possible/desirable to be "value-neutral"?
  2. Generalization/Sampling - Failure of personal experience and anecdotal evidence
  3. Use of aphorisms to explain social occurrences
  4. Use of quasi-theories, pseudoscientific explanations, and nonfalsifiable claims

Non-scientific Ways of Knowing

Major Sociological Perspectives

  1. Structural-functionalism views society as a complex system of interrelated parts that work together to maintain social order and stability
    • Sociologists use the term social institutions to describe the major spheres of social life, or societal subsystems, that are organized to meet basic human needs.
      • a) Early Functionalist Thought: Problems as Social Pathology
        • The social pathology approach examined social problems in terms of a "medical model" that was applied to society as though it was a living organism. Functionalists saw society as good and healthy, and they assumed that social pathologies stemmed from deficient people (e.g., Herbert Spencer's view of the poor).
      • b) Early Functionalist Thought: "Problems" as Functional
        • Some functionalists viewed "social problems" as a necessary part of society that provide beneficial functions for society (e.g., Emile Durkheim's view of deviance).
      • c) The "Chicago School": Problems as Disorganization
        • Social disorganization theory holds that social problems arise when rapid change overwhelms society's institutions (e.g., the rapid economic and urban expansion associated with the Industrial Revolution disrupted established social patterns)
      • d) More Recent Functionalism: Problems as Dysfunctions
        • Many contemporary sociologists have changed their emphasis from the activism associated with the Chicago School to scientific analysis. These sociologists distinguish functions from dysfunctions.

  2. The Conflict Perspective views conflict, competition, and disagreement over scarce resources (e.g., power, wealth, and prestige) as an unnecessary and undesirable reality of social life.
    • Karl Marx examined the conflict between the bourgeoisie or capitalists - those who own the means of production (e.g., the factories, land, raw materials, warehouses, machines, and tools) - and those who do not own and must necessarily labor (i.e., the proletariat). Business owners are able to produce enough food and material goods for everyone and thus have the power to end human suffering; however, capitalists are concerned with profit rather than the needs of people.
    • Society is structured in ways to benefit a few at the expense of the majority. Social stratification is linked to such factors as class, race, sex, and age.

  3. According to the symbolic interactionist perspective, society arises from the ongoing interaction of individuals; people's perceptions of reality are variable and changing
    • Symbolic interactionists examine how people learn attitudes and behavior, as well as how people come to define situations as problems.
    • The process by which people creatively shape reality through symbolic interaction is referred to as the social construction of reality. Determining whether a social problem exists often depends on which audience is watching, who the actor is, where the action takes place, and when the action occurs.

Research Methods

  1. Experiment
    • The experiment is unique in its control over variables; it is useful for determining cause and effect.
    • Types of variables:
      • Independent variables - those variables that are thought to produce a change in some variable (e.g., teasing).
      • Dependent variables - those variables that are influenced by independent variables (e.g., anger in a person).
    • Experimental group - the group of subjects exposed to the independent variable
    • Control group - the group of subjects not exposed to the independent variable
    • Steps in the experimental method:
      1. Randomly assign participants to the experimental and control groups
      2. Measure the dependent variable for the experimental and control groups
      3. Apply the independent variable to the experimental group only
      4. Measure the dependent variable for the experimental and control groups

  2. Survey
    • In a survey, data is collected by having people answer a series of questions
    • It is important to properly sample the population (the target group to be studied) in order to ensure that the research can be generalized to the population of interest.
    • There are two main ways to conduct survey research:
      1. Questionnaires - respondents answer questions on their own (e.g., mail surveys)
      2. Interviews - respondents are directly questioned by researchers (e.g., telephone surveys, face-to-face/in-person interviews)
    • in the construction of survey questions:
      1. Leading questions
      2. Double-barreled questions
      3. Vague terminology
      4. Response categories that are overlapping or are not all-inclusive

  3. Field Research/Participant Observation
    • In participant observation the researcher participates in a research setting while observing what is happening in that setting.
    • Field researchers must balance the demands of being a participant, one who is involved in the setting, with the demands of being an observer, one who adopts a more detached position in order to assess a setting or situation more objectively.
    • The researcher may choose whether or not to disclose his or her identity and motives to those who are being studied.
    • Although field research is generally inexpensive, it requires a sizable commitment of time.

  4. Content analysis
    • Content analysis involves the examination of written sources that provide data (e.g., books, newspapers, magazines) as well as photographs, movies, television programs, and other archival material.

  5. Secondary analysis
    • Secondary analysis involves the analysis of data already collected by other researchers.
    • Although secondary analysis is quick and easy, the researcher may be unaware of possible bias or errors in the study.

  6. Unobtrusive measures
    • Unobtrusive measures involve various ways of examining the lives of people without their awareness that they are being studied.