is a Social Problem? Contrasting Definitions
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.