Analytical Concerns of the Sociology of Social Problems

The following are various concerns or issues involved in the sociological analysis of social problems. Each of these points refers to features of social reality that theorists and researchers have considered to be important in defining, describing, and explaining the phenomenon of "social problems." Few sociological approaches to social problems attempt to take into account all of these concerns, and different perspectives--such as the Objectivist or Constructionist viewpoints--will tend to emphasize different analytical concerns.

  1. Objective Conditions in the Empirical World: Conditions, events, or states of the "real world" that confront members of society. These conditions and their scientific measurement are central concerns of the "Objectivist" perspective on social problems.
  1. Perceptions of Conditions: A condition in the empirical world can become a "social problem" only if people, including scientists, perceive it and become aware of it. Cultural knowledge and beliefs as well as the mass media are bases for commonsense perceptions of empirical conditions. In addition to these sources, empirical research serves as a means by which scientific observers perceive social conditions.
  1. Values and Interests: A condition becomes problematic only if it is defined as undesirable or costly. Social values (shared ideals or moral preferences) and interests (material stakes or investments) are necessary standards for judging certain conditions to be "problems."
  1. Gaps between Conditions and Values or Interests: Inconsistency--real or perceived--between empirical conditions and social values or interests is a key element in public definitions of social problems. For instance, the ideology of social movements or the grievances of claims-makers stress that conditions in the world are not what they "should be."
  1. Assessment of Causal Responsibility: When a condition is defined as problematic, social actors and social scientists tend to be concerned with the causes of this problem. The process of determining who or what is responsible for the problem involves claims-making activity, theoretical inquiry, and, often, controversy about competing causal explanations.
  1. Assignment of Corrective Responsibility: Closely related to the question of causal responsibility is the question of who or what will be assigned responsibility for correcting or solving the problematic condition. That is, commonsense or scientific views about the causes of a problem will typically affect claims or decisions about who should be responsible for dealing with the problem.
  1. Application of Solutions: An important part of the study of social problems is the analysis and evaluation of programs designed to solve problems. Social scientists are concerned not only with the effectiveness of various solutions, but they are also concerned with why certain solutions are selected and with how they are actually applied by members or agencies of society.
  1. Group Power and Organization: The relative power and organization of groups involved in problematic conditions, claims-making activity, and public debates about problems is a concern that runs through all aspects of the sociological study of social problems. More powerful and better organized groups generally control or influence the various phases of problem definition and policy formation.
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