SOCIAL PROBLEMS DEFINED
John C. Alessio (2013-01-28). EXCERPT: Social Problems and Inequality (Solving Social Problems) (Kindle Locations 200-201). Ashgate. Kindle Edition.


Perhaps the most often cited work when defining the concept “social problems” is that of C. Wright Mills’ “The Sociological Imagination,” originally published in 1959. In “The Sociological Imagination,” among other goals, Mills endeavored to draw a distinction between personal troubles and public issues. Some social problems authors have used Mills’ arguments and examples to make the point that social problems are not to be confused with personal troubles. Others have used Mills’ writings to emphasize the idea that personal troubles and social problems are inextricably connected. Indeed, when we look at “The Sociological Imagination ,” we find evidence to support both positions. Support for the former position can be seen in the following quote: Troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others; they have to do with his self and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and personally aware

Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieu [sic] into the institutions of an historical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieu [sic] overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life. (Mills 1993: 51) As an example of a personal trouble, Mills identifies one person in a city of 100,000 being unemployed. Under these circumstances we are permitted to examine the person’s character and skills for possible explanations of their unemployment. As an example of a public issue, he identifies 15 million people being unemployed out of a population of 50 million. Here we are permitted to examine the political and economic institutions of society for the sources of unemployment. Support for the latter interpretation of Mills, i.e., that the personal and public are inextricably connected, can be seen in the next quote. What we experience in various and specific milieu [sic], I have noted, is often caused by structural changes. Accordingly, to understand the changes of many personal milieu [sic ] we are required to look beyond them. (Mills 1993: 52) The above quote is preceded by examples

The above quote is preceded by examples of large numbers of individuals experiencing hardships because of broader social structural problems. Regardless of which interpretation one chooses to give Mills’ work, it seems clear that a purported

fundamental distinction between personal troubles and public issues is the number of people involved. The importance of having a lot of people involved to constitute a public issue continues to be reflected in many of the text book definitions of social problems. Some examples are as follows: A social problem exists when an influential group asserts that a certain social condition affecting a large number of people is a problem … (Zastrow 1996: 3) Social Problems can be defined as situations, policies, or trends that are (1) distressing or threatening to large numbers of people … (Glynn et al. 1996: 3) A social problem is a condition affecting a significant number of people in ways considered undesirable … (Horton et al. 1997: 2) Sociologically, a social problem is a phenomenon regarded as bad or undesirable by a significant number of people or a number of significant people who mobilize to remedy it. (Heiner 2010: 5) And most recently: … an alleged situation that is incompatible with the values of a significant number of people who agree that action is needed to alter the situation. (Rubington and Weinberg 2011: 3) A version of Heiner’s approach is the definition offered by Joel Best: “That is, the study of social problems should focus on how and why particular conditions come to be constructed as social problems” (2008: 14). A constructionist approach

presumes a public awareness of a problem, which implies someone with a claim goes through a process of making others see reality in the same manner as the claim-maker. According to these definitions there are no true external benchmarks for social problems analysts to study— only the process by which events come to be seen as social problems. Under this approach there are no social problems until there is a certain level of social consciousness of a problem, which can only emerge through an effective social construction of that problem. One could, however, work backward from Best’s model to discuss what the common events are that provoke individuals to engage in the process of making a claim, or what conditions prevent a claim from being effectively made when serious harm is being done to someone or some group of people. Indeed, from a social constructionist point of view, the more relevant question might be how social reality is effectively controlled to publicly deny the “existence” of social problems. Therein lie the serious social problems, and that is the focus of the definition of a social problem in this book. A Definition of Social Problem If there are conditions and circumstances under which individuals cannot be held responsible for their negative predicament, however undesirable or

seemingly isolated that predicament, it would seem to be important to recognize such predicaments as part of what constitute a social problem. We look to causal sequences of events to understand how the individual’s behavior or negative situation is part of a broader social fabric and not simply the outcome of a personal decision. A definition of “Social Problem” should reflect the important issues discussed in the middle chapters of this book. The definition I use may have been influenced by a combination of definitions I have encountered over the years. If it is influenced by an existing particular definition, I am unaware of the source: A social problem is a condition that involves harm to one or more individuals and/ or one or more social entities, has at least one social cause and/ or at least one social effect, and consequently has one or more social remedies. The actual reason for the importance placed on large numbers by some authors is not clear. While on the surface, as sociologists, it makes intuitive sense that we would be dealing with large numbers of people, Mills’ seems to fall short of a logical explanation. Others tend not to address the matter. Since I raised this issue in a paper I presented at a conference a few years before writing this book, I have noticed some changes in the definitions of a social problem. It seems there is a movement toward greater inclusion, but texts still fall short of a clear explanation of why a single individual cannot experience a social problem. Leon-Guerrero

(2009) is somewhat of an exception and comes close to seeing social problems in the same manner as presented in this text. Framework of the Definition On the one hand Mills indicated that personal troubles are a function of characteristics in the individual or local milieu. On the other hand he allowed public issues to consist of aggregated personal troubles. The argument seems to be that when a lot of people have a particular negative experience, it is a function of something happening in society. When few people have the same experience, it is a function of something wrong with the individual or the individual’s immediate circumstances. Understanding blaming the victim From the above discussion we are cast into an interesting and challenging debate surrounding the concept of “blaming the victim.” As stated by Ryan, “Blaming the victim is an ideological process, which is to say that it is a set of ideas and concepts deriving from systematically motivated, but unintended, distortions of reality” (1996: 61). The blaming the victim ideology (BVI), in its least harmful form, essentially identifies people who are different from mainstream normative standards, and asks the question, “how can we fix these

individuals so they can be like everyone else?” That question implies two assumptions: 1) that the difference is intrinsically undesirable or problematic; and 2) that the difference is a result of something that is wrong with the individual. Ryan’s formulation of the BVI does not include identification of genetic or innate qualities. He suggests that belief in the importance of “innate” qualities is from an earlier conservative era. His original work on this issue was in 1976. I would argue that BVI today includes the belief in genetic and innate qualities as determinants of an individual’s behavioral and corresponding social characteristics. The “bell curve” research is perhaps one of the most evident examples of attributing social status to genetically based qualities. The bell curve research refers to scientifically flawed research that was conducted and published to demonstrate the superior intelligence of some social groups and the inferior intelligence of others. This type of research is conducted and published every few years to assert White superiority over most other racial and ethnic groups. Whose intelligence? Suppose you want to be the most intelligent person in the world. What can you do to accomplish that goal? Your first thought might be that you could read and study everyday all day long until the day

you die. Would you be successful? What would you choose to read? What would you choose to study? Could you possibly even come close to covering everything there is to know? Then how would you know if you covered the right topics that qualify as intelligent subject matter? Who would you ask? There is a much easier way to achieve the status of most intelligent being on the planet. Sit down for a couple hours, with a refreshing beverage of your choice if you like, and write up a test that measures intelligence. If you are serious about your goal, you will be sure to ask only questions you can answer. If it is a good test, it will contain many questions that Research Methodologists call highly discriminating questions. That is, questions that most other people will not know how to answer because they are not you and consequently have not had the exact same experiences you have had. You may want to label this test “The Final IQ Exam” in order to maintain your preeminence as the most intelligent person in the world. As you administer your IQ test to others, which people are most likely to do well and which people are most likely to do poorly? If you have done your job, as instructed above, the people most like yourself are the people who will tend to do the best on the exam. These are the people who grew up in your hometown, went to your schools, participated in the same activities, read the same books, traveled to the same places, and so on. As you continue to administer the test, and the population circle using

the exam widens to include greater numbers of people from backgrounds increasingly more different than yours, your test will successfully ferret out the truly dumb people— that is, those people who happened to grow up in an extremely different social and physical environment.

John C. Alessio (2013-01-28). Social Problems and Inequality (Solving Social Problems) (Kindle Locations 243-245). Ashgate. Kindle Edition.