Social Problem

Chapter 1: Thinking about Social Problems

―Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to be better. It’s not.‖

– Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Week 1

Learning Objectives

1. Define a social problem.

2. Discuss the elements of the social structure and culture of society.

3. Understand the connections between private troubles and public issues, and how they relate to the sociological imagination.

4. Summarize structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism and their respective theories of social problems.

What Is a Social Problem?

Objective Elements of Social Problems

• Existence of a social condition.

• Awareness of social conditions arise through life experiences and through reports in the media.

Subjective Elements of Social Problems

• The belief that a particular social condition is harmful to society or to a segment of society and that it should and can be changed.

Objective and Subjective Elements of Social Problems • By combining the subjective and objective elements, we arrive

at the following definition:

• A social problem is a social condition that a segment of society views as harmful to members of society and in need of remedy.

What Do You Think? 1

For a condition to be defined as a social problem, there must be public awareness of the condition.

• How do you think the widespread use of communication technology—such as smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—has affected public awareness of problematic social conditions?

• Can you think of social problems that you became aware of through communication technology that you probably would not have been aware of if such technology were not accessible?

Elements of Social Structure and Culture

Elements of Social Structure (1 of 7)

• The structure of a society refers to the way society is organized.

• Society is organized into

o Institutions

o Social groups

o Statuses

o Roles

• Social Institutions

• Social Groups

• Statuses & Roles

Elements of Social Structure (2 of 7)

• An institution is an established and enduring pattern of social relationships.

• The five traditional institutions are:

o Family

o Religion

o Politics

o Economics

o Education

Elements of Social Structure (3 of 7)

• A social group is defined as two or more people who have a common identity, interact, and form a social relationship.

o Primary groups are characterized by intimate and informal interaction.

o Secondary groups are task oriented and characterized by impersonal and formal interaction.

Elements of Social Structure (4 of 7)

• Statuses: A status is a position that a person occupies within a social group.

• The statuses in a family may consist of mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, wife, husband and child.

• Statuses can be either ascribed or achieved.

Elements of Social Structure (5 of 7)

• Ascribed Statuses: An ascribed status is one that society assigns to an individual on the basis of factors over which the individual has no control.

o Examples: child, teenager, senior citizen.

o Characteristics like age and race are ascribed statuses.

Elements of Social Structure (6 of 7)

• Achieved Statuses: An achieved status is assigned on the basis of some characteristic or behavior over which the individual has some control.

o Examples: college graduate, spouse, parent, bank president, convicted criminal

Elements of Social Structure (7 of 7)

• Roles: The set of rights, obligations, and expectations associated with a status.

• Roles guide our behavior and allow us to predict the behavior of others.

Elements of Culture (1 of 5)

• Culture is defined as the meanings and ways of life that characterize a society, including beliefs, values, norms, sanctions, and symbols.

Elements of Culture (2 of 5)

• Beliefs are definitions and explanations about what is assumed to be true.

o Is second-hand smoke dangerous?

• Values are social agreements about what is considered good and bad, right and wrong, desirable and undesirable.

o Racism, sexism and heterosexism violate the values of equality and fairness.

Elements of Culture (3 of 5)

• Norms

o Socially defined rules of behavior. There are three types of norms.

• Folkways – customs, habits, and manners of society.

• Laws – formal norms backed by authority.

• Mores – norms with a moral basis.

Elements of Culture (4 of 5)

• Sanctions

o Consequences for conforming to or violating norms.

Elements of Culture (5 of 5)

• Symbols

o Something that represents something else.

o Language, gestures, and objects whose meaning is commonly understood by the members of a society.

The Sociological Imagination

• The sociological imagination:

o a term C. Wright Mills (1959) developed, refers to the ability to see the connections between our personal lives and the social world in which we live.

• When we use our sociological imagination, we are able to distinguish between ―private troubles‖ and ―public issues‖ and to see connections between the events and conditions of our lives and the social and historical context in which we live.


Please use the sociological imagination to help us understand the

topic assigned to your group. Write your response down

individually before you discuss it with your group.

The Student Loan Crisis

Racial Inequality



Gender Disparities

Theoretical Perspectives

Structural-Functionalist Perspective

• Society is composed of parts that work together to maintain a state of balance.

• Two types of functions:

o latent – Consequences that are unintended and often hidden.

o manifest – Intended and commonly recognized

What Do You Think? 2

• In viewing society as a set of interrelated parts, structural functionalists argue that proposed solutions to social problems may lead to other social problems.

• For example, urban renewal projects displace residents and break up community cohesion. Racial imbalance in schools led to forced integration, which in turn generated violence and increased hostility between the races.

o What are some other ―solutions‖ that lead to social problems?

o Do all solutions come with a price to pay?

o Can you think of a solution to a social problem that has no negative consequences?

Structural-Functionalist Theories of Social

Problems • Social pathology – Social problems result from ―sickness‖ in society.

• Social disorganization – Rapid social change disrupts norms in society.

o When norms become weak, unclear, or are in conflict with each other, society is in a state of anomie, or normlessness.

Conflict Perspective (1 of 2)

• Views society as composed of groups and interests competing for power and resources.

• Explains various aspects of our social world by looking at which groups have power and benefit from a particular social arrangement.

Conflict Perspective (2 of 2)

• Karl Marx

o The origins of the conflict perspective can be traced to the works of Karl Marx.

o Marx suggested that all societies go through stages of economic development.

o Industrialization leads to two classes: the bourgeoisie, the owners of the means of production; and the proletariat, the workers who earn wages.

o The bourgeoisie use their power to control the institutions of society to their advantage.

Conflict Theories of Social Problems (1 of 3)

• There are two general types of conflict theories of social problems:

o Marxist Conflict Theories focus on social conflict that results from economic inequalities.

o Non-Marxist Conflict Theories focus on social conflict that results from competing values and interests among social groups.

Conflict Theories of Social Problems (2 of 3)

• Marxist Conflict Theories:

o According to Marxist theorists, social problems result from class inequality inherent in a capitalistic system.

o Marxist conflict theories also focus on the problem of alienation, or powerlessness and meaninglessness in people’s lives.

Conflict Theories of Social Problems (3 of 3)

• Non-Marxist Conflict Theories:

o Concerned with conflict that arises when groups have opposing values and interests.

• Antiabortion activists value the life of unborn embryos; pro-choice activists value the right of women to control their reproductive decisions.

• These value positions reflect different subjective interpretations of what constitutes a social problem.

Levels of Analysis

• Macrosociology – Looks at the “big picture” of society and suggests how social problems are affected at the institutional level.

o Structural-functionalism and Conflict theory

• Microsociology – Concerned with the social psychological dynamics of individuals interacting in small groups.

o Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

• A basic premise is that a condition must be defined or recognized as a social problem for it to be a social problem.

o Three types:

• Blumer’s Stages of a Social Problem

• Labeling theory

• Social constructionism

Symbolic Interactionist Theories of Social Problems (1 of 2)

• Blumer’s Stages of a Social Problem: Herbert Blumer suggested social problems develop in stages:

1. Societal recognition is the process by which a social problem, is ―born.‖

2. Social legitimation takes place when the social problem is recognized by the larger community.

3. Mobilization for action that leads to the development and implementation of a plan for dealing with the problem.

Symbolic Interactionist Theories of Social Problems (2 of 2)

• Labeling theory: A social condition or group is viewed as problematic if it is labeled as such.

• Social constructionism: Argues that reality is socially constructed by individuals who interpret the social world around them.

Social Problems Research

Stages of Conducting a Research Study (1 of 4)

1. Formulating a research question.

2. Reviewing the literature.

3. Defining variables.

4. Formulating a hypothesis.

Stages of Conducting a Research Study (2 of 4)

• Formulating a Research Question – A research study usually begins with a research question.

• Reviewing the Literature – After a research question is formulated, researchers review the published material on the topic to find out what is already known about it.

Stages of Conducting a Research Study (3 of 4)

• Defining Variables:

o A variable is any measurable event, characteristic, or property that varies or is subject to change.

o Researchers must operationally define the variables they study.

• Specifies how a variable is to be measured.

o Operational definitions are particularly important for defining variables that cannot be directly observed.

Stages of Conducting a Research Study (4 of 4)

• Formulating a Hypothesis:

o A hypothesis is a prediction about how one variable is related to another variable.

o The dependent variable is the variable that the researcher wants to explain.

o The independent variable is the variable that is expected to explain change in the dependent variable.

What Do You Think? 3

• In a free society, there must be freedom of information. That is why the U.S. Constitution and, more specifically, the First Amendment protect journalists’ sources.

• If journalists are compelled to reveal their sources, their sources may be unwilling to share information, which would jeopardize the public’s right to know. A journalist cannot reveal information given in confidence without permission from the source or a court order.

• Do you think sociologists should be granted the same protections as journalists?

• If a reporter at your school newspaper uncovered a scandal at your university, should he or she be protected by the First Amendment?

Methods of Data Collection (1 of 8)

• Experiments

• Surveys

• Field research

• Secondary data research

Methods of Data Collection (2 of 8)

• Experiments are a research method that involves manipulating the independent variable to determine how it affects the dependent variable.

Methods of Data Collection (3 of 8)

• Surveys:

o Survey research involves eliciting information from respondents through questions.

o An important part of survey research is selecting a sample of those to be questioned.

o A sample is a portion of the population, selected to be representative so that the information from the sample can be generalized to a larger population.

Methods of Data Collection (4 of 8)

• Interviews:

o In interview survey research, trained interviewers ask respondents questions and make written notes about or tape-record the answers.

o One advantage of interview research is that researchers are able to clarify questions for the respondent and follow up on answers to particular questions.

Methods of Data Collection (5 of 8)

• Questionnaires:

o Researchers may develop questionnaires that they mail or give to a sample of respondents.

o Questionnaire research is less expensive and less time consuming than surveys and provides privacy to research participants.

o The disadvantage of mail questionnaires is that it is difficult to obtain an adequate response rate.

Methods of Data Collection (6 of 8)

• Web-based surveys:

o Web-based surveys are growing in popularity and are thought to reduce many of the problems associated with traditional survey research.

Methods of Data Collection (7 of 8)

• Field Research:

o Field research involves observing social behavior in settings in which it occurs naturally.

o In participant observation the researcher participates in the phenomenon being studied to obtain an insider’s perspective.

o In nonparticipant observation the researcher observes the phenomenon being studied without actively participating.

Methods of Data Collection (8 of 8)

• Secondary Data Research:

o Secondary data are data that have already been collected by other researchers or government agencies or that exist as historical documents.

o An advantage of using secondary data in studying social problems is that the data are readily accessible, so researchers avoid the time and expense of collecting their own data.

o The disadvantage is that the researcher is limited to the data already collected.

What Do You Think? 4

• Some colleges and universities have instituted policies that require students to take one or more global courses—courses with a global or international focus—in order to graduate.

• Do you think colleges and universities should require some minimum number of global courses for undergraduates? Why or why not??

Define a social problem.


There are a lot of ways to think about social problems, but in this post we will be using the framework developed by Amnesty International. This framework helps us identify how a problem occurs and what can be done about it.

Define the problem.

The first step in defining a social problem is to identify the problem. Think about what your audience would most likely consider as an issue, concern or question relating to the topic at hand. For example, if you were writing an article about racism in America and wanted to define what racism actually is, then this would be one of those terms that could help inform your article’s content and make it more engaging for readers.

You can also look at other types of issues or concerns within society such as healthcare costs or education rates among others – these are all relevant factors when trying to understand how problems arise in our society today so why not use them as inspiration?

Identify the population you are working with.

You should identify the population you are working with.

This is important because it allows you to understand the needs and wants of your audience, as well as how best to reach them. For example, if you are writing an article about how to lose weight, it’s important for readers to know which type of person they are so that they can get started on their journey towards better health.

What is the problem?

You can use a problem statement to understand the scope of the social problem. In other words, it describes what you want to know about. For example:

  • “I want to know why people are not getting enough sleep at night.”
  • “I am interested in learning more about how our society is changing as we become more connected.”

What are its causes?

Now that you have a better understanding of what a social problem is, it’s time to define its causes. The best way to do this is by asking yourself: “What are the underlying causes of this problem?” Asking this question will help you identify the various factors that contribute to the occurrence of social problems.

  • Causes can be identified in many different ways; however, there are two main methods used by psychologists: Functionalism and conflict theory.
  • A functionalist approach would look at how individuals interact with one another within society or society as whole (e.g., people may cause harm because they have no other choice). Conflict theorists would focus on interpersonal relationships between groups/individuals within society which leads them into conflictual situations where individuals feel powerless against others who hold power over them (e g., race riots).

How are these effects currently being experienced?

The next step is to define the problem. What are people experiencing? How do they feel about it? What are their reactions to this issue, or what needs to be done in order for them to feel better?

The first step is identifying the problem: “People don’t know how they can get involved with improving their communities.”

Once you have identified a social issue or problem, there are many ways that you can define it. You could ask yourself: “What would make me feel better?” Or maybe: “What would improve my life?” Or maybe: “What makes me angry?”

You can use this framework to identify a social problem and think about how you can solve it.

You can use this framework to identify a social problem and think about how you can solve it.

  • Define the Problem: This is where you define what the problem is, why it matters and who should be involved in solving it.
  • Integrate Resources: If there are multiple stakeholders with different interests, consider how they could work together to help solve the issue at hand.
  • Identify Solutions: Once you have identified solutions that help solve this particular issue, consider ways in which these solutions might be implemented or adapted into different contexts so as not only address current situations but also prevent future problems from occurring again down the road


In this article, we’ve looked at how to define a social problem and think about how you can solve it. We discussed the four steps involved in creating a social problem statement: identifying the population you are working with, defining what is causing the problem, identifying its causes and effects, and finally describing the current experience of these issues. These steps will help you identify areas where your organization might be able to make an impact on society as well as areas where they already have expertise or resources that would benefit others by offering solutions to their problems.

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