Competency (what you're going to learn):

Learning Objectives (how you're going to learn it):

Why Study Social Problems?

Before we can even begin to understand and study problems as socially constructed (created), we have to craft a sociological point of view which helps us to "see" the world as not of our own creation, but as something bigger than ourselves—something that's outside of our own personal control.

While there will be a PDF textbook for you to use when you begin studying about social problems in earnest, this lesson will help you to set the stage for the semester, and will introduce you to my favorite approach to how to study social problems. This approach, called the "four questions approach" is not in the textbook (the textbook you're going to use is FREE, but does not include information about the four questions), thus, it is essential that you use this lesson to your advantage.

Listen as sociologist Sam Richards explains how sociology has changed his way of looking at the world:

As you can see, Dr. Richards clearly argues in support of notion that we are not alone, and we don't have complete autonomy over our decision making process. He also easily shows (through suicide rates over time) that what we think of as personal decisions are often embedded in the fabric of society (what we will learn to think of as "culture" in a later lesson). As Professor Richards wraps up his discussion, he states. "I am humanity. We are humanity." This is the crux of sociological thinking, and also sets the foundation for thinking of our singular problems as social problems.

Sociologists Joel M. Charon and Lee Garth Vigilant say that one of the attractions to studying sociology is our passion to make the world a better place. Sociologists combine this passion with the use of the scientific process as a means of understanding and explaining social phenomena.

The results of scientific research are used to suggest (and in some cases, craft) social policies that will help us to ease the negative consequences of problems that plague contemporary societies. American university and college courses in social problems describe social problems facing the United States today and identify how these problems affect and are affected by our institutions and culture. Sociologists who study social problems help us understand social problems within the context of sociological theory, which sometimes yields surprising insights into how American society really works. Sociologists who specialize in social problems also help us to understand government policy and help us to be better informed about what we do and how to ease the negative consequences of social problems.

And still, we have opposing views about what exactly constitutes a social problem. Nonetheless, we could construct a basic list of social problems (which would be extremely long), but the list would be daunting and wouldn't prove very practical. In fact, you can google the phrase "social problems" and you'll find many sites which devote lots of space to listing out the problems we face in the US (and around the world). But, what does this list do for us? And, how did this list get created?

You can just imagine how problematic it might be to try to work on these kinds of issues! Enter the sociologists—it is their job to untangle these problems so that we can better understand them and work toward equitable solutions.

Principles for Studying Social Problems

Sociology is the scientific study of human populations. The components below describe the principles of the sociological perspective. This perspective provides a way of viewing the world that helps social scientists to understand society and to improve the well-being of the people who live in that society. This is clearly not the only way to view society—the other social sciences (political science, anthropology, economics, and psychology) also provide frames of reference for improving society and the health and well-being of its members. However, these are the basic principles of sociology:

  1. People behave differently in groups than they do while on their own.
  2. People tend to obey rules that are socially constructed.
  3. People in society have the ability to socially construct the rules.
  4. Some people have more power than others to make the rules.
  5. There are positive sanctions for following the rules and negative sanctions for breaking the rules.
  6. Using the scientific process, the rules of society can be studied scientifically.

Responsibilities of Sociologists who Study Social Problems

What are the responsibilities of sociologists who specialize in and study social problems? What do citizens expect of sociologists?

The fundamental task assigned to sociologists who study social problems is to evaluate the conditions of society, interpret these conditions, suggest potential changes to improve society, and help implement and evaluate these changes.

There are four basic responsibilities to consider when studying social problems. It is important to note that this is a process, meaning that while we start by monitoring societal change and conditions through research, once we arrive at the implementation of changes, we again proceed to monitoring the problem. It is not the job of the sociologist to find the "one true answer," rather it is the job of the sociologist to try to ease the problems of the most people possible by implementing changes which help the most people:

The Four Steps of the Social Change Process

Personal Troubles or Public Issues?

When does a problem stop being a personal trouble and start being a social issue? Can we pinpoint what these differences are?

First, READ C. Wright Mills' The Promise, which provides us with one way of deciding what a personal problem is and when that problem might also be a public issue. If you've had a course with me before, it's likely you've already read this important essay, but for this class, we will delve deeper into the main points that Mills makes. We will also learn to put the Sociological Imagination to practical use by seeing the world through the eyes of people and groups who experience social problems and issues that may or may not align with our own (closed captioning is available if you need it).

Sociologists define personal troubles as those for which the causes and solutions rest with the individual. Public issues therefore are those which have causes and solutions which lie outside of the individual and the immediate environment (Lauer and Lauer 2006). It is the difference between "personal troubles" and "public issues of social structure" (Mills 1959:8-9).

Individual problems (personal troubles) can be defined as things that are part of YOU which make it difficult for YOU to function in society. Examples of these include personality issues, deficit in job skills or ability to get a job, family difficulties, addictions, or other complaints which may consume much of your time.

Social problems (public issues of the social structure) are those which are problems which are not solely a part of YOU.

So, now we find we have to have an understanding of what social structure is. READ this short paper about social structure, which will help you to understand this sociological concept.

SOCIAL STRUCTURE: an organized set of social institutions and patterns of institutionalized relationships that together compose society

For example, if you are looking for a job, and there are none available for which you are qualified, then this is a social problem. If there are one million people just like you who are looking for work, but the society only has 500 thousand jobs available, then this is due to no fault of YOUR own, rather it is something that the society has created and will have to deal with. Even if you had no personal problems, you still may not be able to find employment, and this is through no fault of your own. So, you decide that you will go back to school, and you enroll at the local community college to get some more education so that you can be qualified for more jobs. But you realize that college costs money that you don't have. Again, while it is your personal issue, the idea that we have to pay to be educated is a social problem. In many industrialized nations, one would not personally pay to be educated—the funds for education would come from taxes.

Another example we might define as a social problem is the phenomenon of divorce. While divorce rates have generally held constant for a long time, we still have a rate which hovers around the 20% mark. And while we might say that individuals who are married may have personal problems, we also have to ask what is going on in a society where divorce rates are so high? Could the divorce rate be a product of our social structures? The answer for sociologists is a definite yes.

Looking at issues from a social problems perspective does not mean that the individual is absolved of any responsibility for their own life. We all have to try to do the best we can. But when oppressive structures of society are too great to overcome, it is our job to recognize this and to try to fix it for the betterment of society. So, how YOU view problems, as either personal or public, has something to do with how you perceive the causes of the problem, the consequences of the problem, and the appropriate ways to cope with the problem (Lauer and Lauer: 2006).

I want to caution you, however. Not all problems are social problems and this course is not an argument for that case. It is often not the case that problems are either personal or public. Rather, it is often the case that problems are BOTH personal and public. If you don't look past one view, however, you will have a distorted view of reality, and so for you personally, the best approach is to look at both sides of the issue. Since this is a sociology course, we will spend most of our time on the public part of the issue of social problems, but is is helpful for us to compare and contrast the "macro" and "micro" approaches to looking at the social world, and in a future lesson will delve more deeply into these two important levels of analysis.

How to Approach the Study of Social Problems

How to use Sociological Theory to Study Social Problems

There are several approaches (theoretical orientations) to the study of social problems. These approaches are different, and each offers a unique perspective to how we define and examine social problems. for this course, we will be using the Four Questions Approach however, before you proceed to learn about the Four Questions Approach, please read the first chapter of your textbook: A Primer on Social Problems, by Sociologist Steve Barkan. The text will give you informtion about the primary sociological theories, and will set the stage for the approach we are going to take: the Four Questions approach.

Joel Charon's Four Questions Approach to Studying Social Problems

The Four Questions Approach

Joel Charon makes a simple case for justifying the use of public expenditures to identify, understand, and suggests policies to reduce social problems.

He proposes that we should ask four questions about social problems:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What makes a problem a social problem? A social problem is said to exist:
  3. What causes a social problem?
  4. What can be done about a social problem?

The above four questions illustrate the approach we take to analyze social problems in this course.


Charon states that social problems are socially constructed—their causes are social, their identification depends upon culturally defined beliefs and values, and policies aimed at reducing their negative effects reflect consensus within the population.

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY: is a sociological theory that asserts that people create shared understandings of the world and that we analyze our own experiences by creating what we think of as "real." We are able to construct reality by sharing a foundation for communicating with each other (language, either verbal or non-verbal).

You can see that social construction theory along with the Four Questions approach add a useful method for studying problems in contemporary society. Joel Charon gives us a working definition of social problems and a process to follow that helps us to understand them—this allows us to see that problems are not always personal in origin—rather, society creates many problems for the individual. Social contstruction theory allows us to see how problems are created and understood by people in society.

While the Four Questions (4Q from this point forward) and social construction theory are not the only ways to identify and work on social problems, they are very commonly used and they give us a good place to begin our studies this semester.