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
- 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.
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.
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."
- 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."
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
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.
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.
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.