Social problems are general conditions in society that are harmful to a significant number of people. Social practices facilitated by power structures create, perpetuate, reinforce, or resolve economic, social, cultural, or environmental harms. As social problems often are felt most keenly by disadvantaged groups, powerful groups may not even be aware that a problem exists. Members of a society are willing to devote social and cultural resources to resolve problems only if they are aware of a problem that has been framed as having a solution. The social problems process highlights the ways powerful groups become aware of and are pressured to address social problems.
Are social problems subjective?
The introduction above considers social problems to be objective – that is, we can analyze the extent to which a social pattern is causing harm to a significant number of people. However, social problems are also subjective. While it may seem easy to define “harm,” “a significant number,” or even “social practices/general conditions,” each of these may have different definitions in different contexts. For this reason, many sociologists argue that social problems are socially constructed – that is an issue needs to be identified, framed as a social problem in need of change, and have policy or practice change as a result.
Proponents of the social constructivist/subjective approach to social problems point out that social problems may also result from the violation of taken for granted norms in a society. That is, when large groups of people have an expectation (such opportunities for education, health care, and work) that is systematically not met, a social problem results. Powerful groups in society define the norm, so the most disadvantaged groups in society may need to mobilize to define their structurally disadvantageous position as a social problem.
The social constructionist approach can be taken too far, however. From this perspective, any social issue could become a social problem, provided there were enough people willing to frame it as a social problem and work towards implementing policy and practice change. For that reason, keeping the idea of harm in mind is helpful. Even if a group of people define some pattern as a social problem, if we can not determine the social injury, the claim for that issue as a social problem is questionable.
What Counts as Harm?
What counts as harm in a social problems context? Max Weber uses the term life chances to discuss the opportunities individuals have to satisfy their needs and achieve what a society defines as the “good life.” Clearly, this definition requires an acknowledgement of the cross-cultural differences in the world society.
Importantly, in defining harm, we must think about social harm. To that extent, it is necessary to explore what rights individuals have merely by existing. We could look at the rights that are granted to individuals by their nation-state – when those rights are systematically violated, a social problem exists. But what if the nation-state does not grant certain rights to individuals. Does that mean no harm has occurred?
One place to start when exploring “inalienable” or “universal” rights is the International Bill of Human Rights.
And yet, the rights listed in the International Bill of Rights often reflect a Western value system. Therefore, the International Bill of Human Rights can be a starting point to define harm, but that cannot be the ending point. More analysis and discussion is necessary to unpack those rights that are most contentious outside Western countries – not because those rights are not universal, but because exploring the rationale from non-Western countries may help us better diagnose the harms experienced by citizens around the world.
In sum, harms are conditions “which are deleterious to people’s welfare from the cradle to the grave” (Hillyard and Tombs 2007, p 16). can be physical, economic or financial, emotional or psychological, social, cultural, or environmental.
How Many is Significant?
Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues….Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations.
C.W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination (1959)
In a social problems context, the exact number of people harmed is less important than the notion that the harmful social condition is built into the power structure and harms the least powerful members of society. Powerful members of a society have the influence to improve their conditions and achieve better life conditions, whereas less powerful members of a society have fewer opportunities to do so.
A personal trouble can affect an individual, or even many individuals, deeply, but if the cause and consequences of the personal trouble primarily affect or are caused by the individual, it is not a social problem. For example, a person who can’t find a job is experiencing a personal trouble. If, however, this individual cannot find a job along with thousands of others because of economic recession, this is a social problem.
For an example that students might relate to, see the following article –. In this article, Karen Sternheimer discusses how students sometimes experience “personal troubles” during a course that might actually be linked to “public issues.”
How Do Power and Social Structures Feature in Social Problems?
Social institutions are complex patterns of behavior that create and maintain social order by defining what is “normal” and “good,” particularly in terms of kinship, the legitimate use of power, how goods and services are distributed, how and what knowledge is transmitted to future generations.
Jonathan Turner (1997, p. 6) defines a social institution as “a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organising relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment.”
Examples of social institutions include the family, government and political structures, educational organizations, the media, the economy, and so on. These social institutions have the power to create, perpetuate, reinforce, or resolve economic, social, cultural, or environmental harms. Therefore, because social institutions create social problems, it is the responsibility of these social institutions to ameliorate social problems. That is, because social problems work on a collective scale, not at the individual level, the solution for social problems must also be at the social level.
From this discussion, we can conclude that social problems:
- are conditions that are harmful or injurious
- exist outside the individual
- are caused by pathological social conditions
- are interconnected to society, social institutions, and other social problems
- affect many people, although the affected groups may be the most disenfranchised in society
- require a social response to ameliorate
Hillyard, P., & Tombs, S. (2007). From ‘crime’ to social harm? Crime, law and social change, 48(1-2), 9-25.
Turner, Jonathan, 1997, The Institutional Order, New York: Longman.