I: Introduction to the Human Rights Perspective [of social problems]
We live in a turbulent, dramatic time. In many parts of the globe, the world is quite literally being remade before our very eyes. Human rights is one of the forces motivating these changes. For instance, when we learn that while indigenous people in Bolivia (who make up a majority of that nation’s 10 million people) have for centuries lived as second -class citizens in their own land, but have recently ushered into office an indigenous president who has transformed the nation’s government, we can interpret this as, in part, an issue of human rights.

Likewise, the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia, also has something to do with human rights. When he set himself on fire in protest at the routine abuse he suffered at the hands of corrupt officials looking for bribes on December 17 , 2010, he sparked an uprising in his own country, which then spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East in what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. This wave of unrest was then followed by the Occupy Movement in North America and Europe. This unexpected and remarkable series of events demonstrated again that human rights were an issue of international significance. But human rights stories do not simply happen elsewhere. Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady and wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933– 1945) and one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, once asked, “Where do human rights begin?” The answer, she said, is “in small places, close to home— so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person.”

Human rights begin when people across the world, including those living in the United States, expect to live with justice and dignity, and to have the opportunity to develop and grow as individuals. Human rights are one way to measure progress in human societies. They are a way of knowing when things are going as we might hope. When, for instance, an unemployed parent receives temporary government support in the form of checks that can help pay the mortgage on her family’s house until she is able to find another job, this can be considered a issue of human rights. When a low-income parent who is under-paid receives nutritional assistance in the form of food stamps to help feed his children, this can also be defined as a human rights issue. And it also has something to do with human rights when a graduating high school senior who shows great academic promise, but whose family does not have the financial resources to pay for college, receives a grant from the federal government to help pay her way.

As the above examples indicate, we can use a human rights framework to assess our society in terms of our shared values, but this applies not only when things are going well, but also when our society fails to live up to our collective expectations . When justice is lacking, dignity is denied, and when the futures of young people are being deflated by the absence of socially meaningful employment and huge student loan debts, rather than being filled with all the opportunities and hope young people deserve, then concerns about human rights should be brought to the fore. In this book I will employ the notion of human rights as a way to indicate that there is a “social problem,” for instance when children grow up in poverty, when police use racial profiling, or when some racial groups are profoundly overrepresented in our nation’s jails . By defining a social problem as the denial of the human rights of a group, this approach clarifies (in an era in which we are constantly being bombarded with “problems”) whether a social problem is real, and is not simply some aspect of the world that has been sensationalized to catch our attention.

The Social Construction of Social Problems It is important to note that some things that are often defined as “problems” may not really be so troublesome after close inspection. For instance, not too long ago my inbox was filled up over a period of a couple of weeks by several professors at the university where I teach. These professors were sending numerous emails out to the faculty email list complaining to one another about what they collectively saw as the dismal academic performance of their students, compared to cohorts in years passed. These professors were bemoaning that students, according to what they believed, were less well prepared for college than those from earlier generations, having lower reading, writing, and math skills. Now, we could take these complaints on face value and change our class structures and provide more remedial services at our colleges and universities, or we could put these claims within their historical context and think about them critically. This is what sociologist Joel Best (2011) advocates, when he argues that “stupidity epidemics” are recurring crises that happen in American society. The thing is, according to Best, there is actually no evidence that recent generations have been less well educated by our public schools. Rather, schools are constantly being reformed in American society. And reformers who would like to implement new educational policies may seek to grab our attention by telling us what dire straits our schools are in (as they hope, of course, to convince us of the need for their new program).

This claims-making influences how Americans in general think about education and the intelligence of young people. So going back to that flurry of email complaints from professors at my university, there probably is not much reason to believe that students are any less well prepared for college than other generations, even if the situation has been widely defined as such. But this defining process is critical, to Best (2011) and to other sociologists, because definitions of the world can have real consequences . In this case , maybe it resulted in professors changing their classes to make them less challenging, or maybe professors altered their grading practices by scoring tests and assignments either more strictly or in a more relaxed manner compared to the time when they were sure that students were , supposedly, better prepared for college work. Beyond the “stupidity epidemic,” Best gives us another great example of a “non-problem” social problem in his study of Halloween candy sabotage (Best and Horiuchi 1985). We’ve all heard about the dangers some strangers may pose when they place razor blades or poison in the candy that they randomly give out to the children who are trick- or-treating in the neighborhood. Best points out, however, that there are no actual instances when this happened, at least in regard to the children of strangers. But the perceptions, even though based on false or exaggerated claims, have real consequences.

When I was growing up, Halloween was a kind of neighborhood candy free- for-all. But for my children it’s a much more closely monitored affair, and probably something a little less fun. The examples of Halloween and “stupidity epidemics” help us understand the social construction of social problems. Social constructionism draws from a long intellectual tradition that asserts that people do not act based upon the world itself, but rather based upon interpretations or definitions of that world. Early American sociologist W. I. Thomas perhaps summed up the social constructionist position best when he said, “if men (or people) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (quoted in Merton 1995). To social constructionists studying social problems, nothing in the world is inherently problematic. Some things simply get defined that way (Spector and Kitsuse 1977).

Social constructionists argue that a tremendous amount of evidence can be used to bolster this point, because what is defined as a problem in one particular society at one particular point in time may not be defined as such in others. These definitions, though, become consequential because they provide motivations for human action. In the case of Halloween, our collective definition of the situation makes us more reluctant to send our children out to gather candy from neighbors, and in the case of “stupidity epidemics,” we perpetually change our educational policies and practices to— hopefully— produce smarter kids.

A social constructionist perspective is invaluable to the study of many phenomena defined as social problems because it gives us some intellectual tools that can help us think critically. We are perpetually being told to be concerned about “social problems” out there in the world. For instance, we might hear about the supposed problem of “internet addiction,” which is allegedly altering the brains of young people and making them mentally dependent upon their digital worlds, something akin to, and potentially just as debilitating as, alcoholism or drug addiction (Fox News 2012). Or we might hear about “sex addiction epidemics” in which a supposedly increasing number of people, fueled by the availability of online porn, are risking their physical and emotional wellbeing by seeking frequent sexual encounters (Lee 2011). Such news reporting of “social problems” has much to do with the social organization of major media outlets in America.

Today in the United States, most news media organizations are businesses that ensure their profitability by doing two main things: pushing costs down and attracting viewers’ attention to keep advertising revenue up. By giving us sensational stories about “epidemics” and by warning us about new “addictions” sweeping across the nation, news organizations can accomplish both goals: they give us an entertaining story that costs practically nothing to produce. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon and declaring these things to be “real” problems, the perspective of social constructionism allows us to study the careers of social problems as claims-making processes, which begin when writers, experts, or activists first define something as problematic (Best 2013; Spector and Kitsuse 1977). News organizations may pick up these claims , but with little money to pay investigative reporters to subject them to any real scrutiny. On the contrary, reporters might instead sensationalize the stories— overgeneralizing from a few isolated incidents and exaggerating consequences —in order to attract readers and viewers.

These claims might then be picked up by members of the public as appropriate definitions of reality, and politicians looking to score points with constituents may act to craft policies in order to address such so called “problems” (see Best 2013 for one elaboration of this process). While coverage of such social “problems” likely does little to advance the public interest, it does make sense when we understand news organizations as businesses that are working to keep and attract audiences with limited budgets for in-depth reporting.

Such “problems,” of course, may not really be so bad after all when subjected to some scrutiny and critical thinking. But to social constructionists, this is hardly the point . After all, when certain aspects of the world become defined as problems, people change their behavior accordingly, sometimes in very significant ways. The Human Rights Approach Social constructionism holds powerful analytic insights and can teach some important lessons about the world in which we live, but it is not in itself sufficient for a fully developed study of social problems.

Social constructionism emphasizes the relativity of social problems. What is taken as a problem in one historic time and place may not be treated as such in another. After all, we can look to see that while child abuse and neglect are treated as grievous social problems today , this was not always the case . In American society, these concepts have a relatively recent history; 100 years ago such behavior was not deemed illegal. We might also consider the practice of slavery, which today we hold as an abomination, but was once a common and, at least for some, a taken-for-granted feature of American society.

But are we really comfortable with this position of moral relativism, which holds that no condition is inherently problematic? One difficulty with this position is that while we might observe that society-at-large may not seem to interpret certain conditions as problematic, for instance slavery or child abuse in 19th-century America, this does not mean they were not experienced as deeply troubling by the individuals who lived under these conditions. In other words, it’s not that these conditions weren’t problematic for slaves or for children living in abusive homes, it’s just that for the most part these individuals lacked the social power necessary to express their suffering in terms that would be recognized and deemed legitimate by the rest of America.

So how can we reconcile the academic perspective of social constructionism — which holds that nothing is inherently problematic— along with an acknowledgment that human suffering is real, and has an objective reality? Social theorist Bryan Turner (2006) argues that this might be done through human rights. At least three conditions may be deemed objectively problematic because, whenever they are experienced, they cause suffering: pain, indignity, and insecurity. Although pain and suffering is a universal experience that practically all people who live long enough feel, this does not mean it is universally tolerated (Turner 2006). Rather, we work to protect ourselves and others (but typically not animals) from pain, and once experienced, we seek its amelioration. Indignity, we might say, is social pain, experienced when one is unable to fulfill the conditions that constitute normal personhood within any given society. Insecurity, on the other hand, occurs when one’s existence, or the continued existence of one’s family, is threatened . This may mean living at serious risk of physical attack, but also might mean living day to day without knowing where one will find the next meal, or how one will house and clothe one’s children. Suffering, in other words, is real. Human rights, according to Turner (2006), are the means by which contemporary societies acknowledge our shared vulnerability to pain and suffering and act to ameliorate it.

Other theorists have sought to justify human rights not just based on our shared capacity to suffer, as Turner (2006) does, but also on a shared recognition that all persons have the potential to contribute to the development of the societies in which they are born (Sen 1999). Some sociologists think of human rights in a different way, as claims upon social power arrangements that are required to promote human life and dignity in the aftermath of the cataclysmic wars in the early half of the twentieth century (Sjoberg, Gill, and Williams 2001 ). Regardless of how sociologists theorize the basis of human rights, all agree that they are not “natural.” They are not “inalienable,” nor are they timeless. Rather human rights, from a sociological perspective, must be viewed as common agreements about the treatment of persons within particular historic contexts. Human rights, then, are social constructions, which we will simply define as broadly shared agreements, codified through some widely recognized deliberative body, about what every person deserves and should be protected from in life simply on account of being born into our contemporary global society.

While human rights are social constructions, there is also something special
about them. They are widely agreed upon norms and ethical guidelines with centuries-long histories of conflict and consensus, forged through grassroots advocacy, the development of governments, and globalization (see Blau and Moncado 2009; Tilly 1990; Wallerstein 2011). While there is no one definitive list of human rights, a very good place to start is with the Universal Declaration.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being drafted between 1947 and 1948, it’s no exaggeration to say that the world had just been shattered by events in the preceding 40 years. Both World War I and World War II rank among the deadliest sprees of violence in human history , the first war claiming 37 million lives. The Second World War killed over 60 million persons, devastating practically all of Europe, Japan, and significant areas elsewhere in Asia and North Africa. The moral consciousness of the world was roused not only by the scale of these catastrophes, but also by the particular horror of the Nazi genocide, involving the systematic murder of 6 million Jews along with millions of individuals, part of the Roma ethnic group, prisoners of war, and homosexuals. In between these two terrible periods of violence was a global economic depression in the 1930s. The global economic slowdown was so severe— driving unemployment up to 25 percent in the United States, for instance— that many levelheaded people wondered if capitalism, as a form of social organization, would survive. In this international context, the newly formed United Nations responded to pressure from civil society groups and national governments by establishing a committee to write an “international bill of rights” (Morsink 1999).

The Declaration is an international document, having been drafted by representatives from eight different nations, and having been adopted by the United Nations with 48 votes. Importantly, while eight countries abstained from voting either up or down, no nation in the world cast a vote against the adoption of the Universal Declaration 1 (Morsink 1999). The document states, in its preamble:
Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

All this is to say that the drafters of this document —living in the wake of a terrible global economic depression, two devastating world wars, and the Nazi Holocaust— hoped to establish an international framework that could help secure a more hopeful future. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been immensely significant in our particular era. While it is not, of course, a legally binding treaty, it did provide the framework for subsequent international agreements, like the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention Against Torture (Blau and Moncado 2009).

But perhaps the moral power of the document, rather than the subsequent treaties that it helped generate, is more important. Indeed, the Universal Declaration has been awarded the Guinness Record for being the most translated document in the world, having been transcribed into 370 different languages and dialects (Guinness Records 2014). And it has provided a catalyst for human rights activism and advocacy around the world , from both large organizations with a global reach like Amnesty International, which specifically references the Universal Declaration in its mission statement, but also from smaller grassroots campaigns in particular countries around the world. The rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration (please read in the Appendix) will be our starting place for a human rights approach to social problems. But when using the document, we will also be cognizant that the declaration is by no means a perfect or complete expression of human rights.

As a social construction, it is a product of its time, and it is limited accordingly. Most importantly, when the Declaration was being drafted in 1948, much of Africa, Southeast Asia, and some of the Caribbean was still claimed as colonial territory by European nations. In this regard, colonialism structured who possessed human rights and who didn’t. It is a striking limitation that, when being drafted, many people of Asian, African, and indigenous ancestry were excluded. Moreover, people then considered sexual dissidents (gays, lesbians, bisexuals) and impoverished rural peoples were also left out. And given that the Declaration was written before the environmental movement awakened people’s awareness about the dire consequences of pollution and unrestrained resource use, rights to clean air, water, and other natural amenities were never considered.

Additionally, it is worth pointing out that rights may be contradictory, in that the complete granting of rights to one group of persons might be perceived as violating the rights of others. But the Declaration gives little advice on how such dilemmas may be resolved. For instance, some activists in the United States and Europe have campaigned against circumcising male infants, arguing that because it poses unnecessary health risks to babies, has few-to- no health benefits, and causes pain, it is a violation to the rights of children (Sardi 2011). On the other hand, circumcision is an important religious rite in both the Jewish and Islamic faiths. So when a German court recently placed restrictions on infant circumcision in the name of protecting the rights of children, it caused an uproar and raised concerns that the rights of groups to practice their own religion were being trammeled (Poggolio 2012).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of course, provides no instructions on how conflicting rights such as these might be negotiated. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an imperfect and incomplete document. But it was never intended to be the final decree on all rights that any human group may claim. Rather, when it was written within its particular historic context, as the preamble of the document itself explains, it was intended to be a powerful call to action to make the world a better place for all of us who call it home. It was intended as a Common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance ...

Human rights, in other words, are the global framework by which contemporary individuals can evaluate their own society. By providing this framework, human rights become a basis from which individuals and groups can work to advance the human condition. So, while many people simply think of “human rights” as a set of international and often quite toothless treaties, we will think of them in a more expansive way, as a set of normative expectations that provide an impetus for social action for people around the world . But more than that, we will use an international human rights framework as a means to evaluate U.S. society.

When undertaking our evaluation, we will use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a starting place, while also recognizing that the document is necessarily incomplete and that human rights themselves are a project always “in the making.” As we move forward, we will also consider what happens when rights are perceived to be contradictory, and how inequality and differences in power influence whose rights prevail over others. Finally, we will recognize that there is a utopian aspect to thinking about human rights, in the sense that the full granting of all the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration is likely impossibly far away for all the world’s people. While this is true, it is certainly within our nation’s capacity to fulfill rights much further for many more people than exists today. This is the work at hand for our particular historical era, there for us, if we should choose to take it up.


1. Can you identify and describe examples of things you have been told are terrible problems, only to later realize that they weren’t so bad after all? How might a constructionist perspective help us understand how this example of a “non-problem” social problem came into existence and gained popularity as a way to interpret the world?

2. Social constructionists take the position that no set of conditions is inherently problematic. Anything could potentially be interpreted as such, but this depends upon cultural and historical context. Do you agree? In contrast to social constructionism, can you think of any conditions that might be inherently problematic? When thinking about your example, how do you know that you are not simply applying your own normative framework, which is specific to your own time and place?

3. Do you believe that the rights expressed in the Universal Declaration are an adequate articulation of our shared expectations of the things all people deserve and should be protected from in life? When looking over the document, are you personally willing to forgo any of these expectations for your own life? If you are personally unwilling to forgo any of these expectations, is it fair to say that others should be denied these rights?

4. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is very much a product of its time . From our historical vantage point, do you think any of the rights it pronounces should be removed? Can you think of any rights that should be included if the member countries of the United Nations were, hypothetically, to update the document?

Note 1 The eight countries that abstained from voting were the Soviet Union and five aligned communist nations (the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia), along with South Africa and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Morsink 1999).

Bonds, Eric (2014-06-05). Social Problems: A Human Rights Perspective (Framing 21st Century Social Issues) (Kindle Locations 396-399). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.