What is a Social Problem? Contrasting Definitions

Objectivist Definition : "Social problems are those social conditions identified by scientific inquiry and values as detrimental to human well-being." Jerome G. Manis, Analyzing Social Problems (1976), p. 25.
As exemplified in Manis's definition, the objectivist approach to social problems focuses on threatening or harmful conditions in the empirical world. From this perspective, "social problems" exist independently of public awareness or social concern about these conditions. This means that social scientists are capable of identifying and measuring social problems even though the public or policy makers do not view these conditions as problematic.
Constructionist Definition : "[W]e define social problems as the activities of individuals or groups making assertions of grievances and claims with respect to some putative conditions." Malcolm Spector and John I. Kitsuse, Constructing Social Problems (1977), p. 75.
In contrast to Manis, Spector and Kitsuse's constructionist approach views "social problems" as claims-making activity--i.e., speeches, news coverage, protests, or other social activity that defines putative (alleged) conditions as threats or crises. An important implication of this conception is that conditions do not necessarily have to be "real" to be defined as problems. Therefore, the constructionist approach argues that social problems research should focus on the definitional activities of politicians, journalists, and other claims-makers instead of studying allegedly harmful conditions.
Mixed Definition: "[A] social problem is an aspect of society that people are concerned about and would like changed. Social problems begin with an objective condition, some aspect of society that can be measured or experienced.... The second key element of a social problem is subjective concern, the concern that a significant number of people (or a number of significant people) have about the condition." James M. Henslin, Social Problems (2003), p. 3.
Like many textbook writers, Henslin proposes a definition of "social problems" that combines aspects of both the objectivist and constructionist approaches. However, there are problems with this "mixed" approach. On the one hand, Manis and other objectivists would argue that the definition of a condition as a "problem" should rest on solid scientific evidence rather than on public opinion. On the other hand, constructionists like Spector and Kitsuse would point out that people may become concerned about a "problem" in cases where the alleged condition is not objectively real (e.g., witches in colonial Salem, Mass.). Also, the phrase "subjective concern" is misleading, because organized claims-making activity and collective definitions of "problems" are shared, social accomplishments rather than individualistic, subjective phenomena.
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