Competency: (what you're going to learn):

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

The Role of Structure

As we can now see, there are many aspects of our individualistic social structure which serve to exacerbate (and create!) social problems. This does not absolve the individual from taking responsibility for their actions (as we learned in the first lesson), but it does give us a fresh perspective with which we can conduct research on social problems.

Karl Marx

From a western viewpoint, no historical sociological figure had more to say about social inequality than Karl Marx. His paramount concern was that of the place of the working class (the proletariat) in early industrialized societies of the West. He saw the proletariat as being pitted against the wealthy owners of factories and businesses (the bourgeoisie) that were springing up in urban centers.

PROLETARIAT: (AKA proletarian) the group of workers within a society who depend on the bourgeoisie for their jobs; the proletariat may have steady jobs and good incomes in developed societies, but they do not own factories and businesses, they are employed by others and depend on others for their incomes. Marx referred to the proletarian as those who do not control the means of production.

BOURGEOISIE: the group of industrialists and capitalists who own the means of production and who employ others. In the US today, we might commonly refer to this group by class as the "upper class." This group essentially controls the economic welfare of other groups in society. According to Marx, this group has the potential to usurp more than their share of economic and social resources by exploiting the proletariat's labor.

MEANS OF PRODUCTION: Everything it takes to make a product or supply a service to others. The means of production includes two broad categories of objects: instruments of labor (tools, factories infrastructure, etc.) and subjects of labor (natural resources and raw materials). In an industrial/manufacturing society (such as ours used to be) the means of production include factories and mines. In a knowledge/information based economy (such as ours is now), computers and networks are means of production.

Marx was so concerned about the new system of capitalism (which to him, was just as bad a system as the feudal system it replaced) that he was considered a troublesome force in society. He was against capitalism to the point that he practically made it his life's work to try to convince workers to overthrow this system. He viewed capitalism as so much a danger to the well-being of everyday people that he wrote The Communist Manifesto, a short booklet that explained his way of viewing the place of common workers in relation to the wealthy owners of the factories that employed them.

Take some time now to read Marx's most important work, The Communist Manifesto.

What's most important for you to understand from the reading is that workers (the proletarian) have power when they work together to confront the bourgeoisie and demand that their labor be paid for fairly and equitably. Marx essentially makes this point: since the Bourgeoisie (the owners) are using the labor of the Proletarian (the working class), they could not make profits without you. Thus, in Marx's estimation, you should be able to earn as much as your labor is worth. Since this will never happen unless you are both the owner and the worker (for example, you own your own business and also supply the labor), Marx asserted that the system of capitalism was exploitative and eventually would strip everyone but the very rich of the social resources that he felt should be more fairly distributed amongst those who are actually doing the work.

This lesson will be devoted to some of the primary social problems we have in the US today. As stated earlier this semester, making a list of problems doesn't prove to be very practical, and it doesn't move us any closer to solving social problems. The issues I've chosen for examination below are ones that I feel contribute significantly to the social problems we have in our society today—we simply don't have time to get to them all in a semester.

Race, Class and Gender (RCG): The "Big Three"

RCG as Social Structures

RCG organize society as a whole. In the US today, this creates a variety of contexts for unequal distribution of opportunities and resources. RCG are also forms of stratification that foster group-based inequalities and Impact a person’s LIFE CHANCES. These are relational systems of power and subordination, meaning they are interconnected.

LIFE CHANCES: the structural opportunities you have to improve your life. Opportunities refers to the amount of access you have to social resources. These resources may be obvious and tangible: food, clothing and shelter, of hidden and intangible, such as access to education and health care.

If you have a lot of access to good life chances, meaning that you have access to social resources that are both tangible and intangible, you have good odds (better than average chances) of access to a good career, life satisfaction, and the ability to satisfy your needs. Having good access to social resources will allow you to propel yourself farther than a person with less than average access to social resources. Thus, it is reasonable to say that the higher you are in the class structure of society, the more good resources you'll have access to, and the more variety you'll have to make decisions that will increase the quality of your life.

LIFE CHOICES: the decisions we make in our lives. We like to think that the decisions we make are made solely on the merits of what is good for us, avoiding what it bad for us. But, if we believe that there may be some truth to how resources are limited or abundant depending on our social standing, then we can really begin to see how the choices that most of us make are constrained by the structural elements such as race, gender, social class and other structured elements.

When our choices are defined by unequal distribution of social resources, then we end up with a society which has significant levels of inequality built into it. This is commonly referred to as social stratification:

SOCIAL STRATIFICATION: structured (socially patterned) inequality in which groups are socially defined and treated unequally.

Class Structure

When we talk about class structure we are defining a group of people who occupy the same relative economic ranking. This forms a social class.

SOCIAL CLASS: A group of people who occupy about the same economic ranking in a society. Class systems are systems of economic inequality.

The above definition is certainly a simple way to understand class in the United States, and using the Four Questions approach helps us to further grasp why sociologists are concerned about the class structure in the US today.

This section of the course takes most closely a conflict perspective, and is heavily rooted in the work of Karl Marx. As you will see, the problems of modern western society are very closely linked to his work.

Three versus Five Classes

Commonly, when we think of class in the US, we consider a three class system:

But, this does not allow us to paint an accurate picture of class in America today. Perhaps in the past it was sufficient, but there is too much economic variation in the US today to fit all of us into only three categories. Thus, most sociologists instead prefer a 5-class system:

There are striking differences in income and a growing gap between top fifth (the upper class) and the lower fifth (the working poor). You might be saying, "of course there are differences! There should be!" And, sociologists agree—if we don't reward those at the top for innovating and working hard, then why would they do so? But, that doesn't really get to the heart of this matter. Today in the US, the gap between the top and the bottom is growing at an alarming rate. Watch this video for an explanation of what's happening in today's economy:

Cultural Explanations of Class

In the US, each class is viewed as having a distinctive culture. Unfortunately, for some, comparisons between the classes usually turn out to be “deficit” accounts of the working class—in other words, it is through their own fault (not working hard enough, not taking advantage of opportunities, etc). that they have gotten to where they are on the class structure ladder. This way of thinking returns us to the individualistic perspective that is a part of American culture, but is not very useful when studying problems as socially manufactured.

Cultural deficit explanations obscure and ignore the social and material realities of class, and ignore STRUCTURAL contributions to class standing. This type of understanding is a viewpoint that sociologists seldom acknowledge as the core issue. Instead (of course) sociologists look to the social structure when trying to explain problems related to social class.

Structural Explanations of Class

Structural explanations of class examine the ways in which social class shapes the networks of relationships between individuals and institutions. It focuses on relationships of power between class groups. In this viewpoint, the explanation for why some people are at the top of the ladder while other people are at the bottom has less to do with culture, and more to do with power and control—the ability to control other people by use of institutionalized power. For example, if you have a job which puts you in a position of authority over others, you have control over the work of others, you may also shape how others are perceived on the job. In other words, you have autonomy to make decisions about the fates of others. Class privileges (advantages, prerogatives, options available to the upper-middle and upper classes) shape relationships.

Additonally, the class structure organizes groups differently. Poverty, wage earning, affluent salaries, and inherited wealth all create different material advantages, create differences in the amount of control we have over others, create differences in how groups are shaped and create differences in how they operate with each other and with other groups.

Visit the USDA's webpage on the geography of poverty. After reading this information, ask yourself the following questions:

Before you proceed, please read Chapter 12: Work and the Economy from the course text, A Primer on Social Problems, by Professor Steve Barkan.

Now, watch the following documentary (closed captioning available):

Class-Based Family Differences

One area in which class differences are great is within the family. Some feminist theorists assert that the family can be the single most powerful source of teaching and reinforcing antiquated ideas about gender roles. These roles often get passed along into the work sphere, and are passed on generation to generation without a thought of the intent or meaning of such strictly defined gender assumptions.

The family also shows the daily stressors of work and education, of raising children, and of trying to make economic progress. Moreover, the family can be an enforcing cultural and social institution when it comes to maintaining class differences via the status quo.

The Working Poor

While you may also hear this group referred to as "the lower class," sociologists like to use the label of "working poor."

WORKING POOR: used to describe individuals and families who remain as poor even though they have regular employment. The working poor are distinct from other groups of poor people who are supported by government aid or charity. In the US, the working poor have incomes which fall below the official poverty level. Often, those defined as working poor accrue debts and lack the ability to escape personal and economic issues that crop up during the course of living their lives.

For this group, a lack of opportunities make the nuclear family difficult to sustain. Thus, the working poor are more likely to expand family boundaries and use larger network of kin (both real and fictive kin) than the non-poor to sustain their housholds. Raising children is not only the responsibility of the parents, but often other relatives pitch in to help, and child care may be accomplished by having children from several related families at one parent's home, to be watched on an adult's day off.

Blue-Collar (Working Class or Lower Middle)

This is the largest single class group in the US. Economic changes are causing increased vulnerability in this group. Whereas in the past, workers could aspire to move up the social ladder from this position, today, that's more an exception than a rule. This group might be considered pioneers of new family patterns, who tend to interact more with kin than middle class families do. These interactions are likely the result of the need to rely on others, much like the working poor, where dependence on non-nuclear kin (real and fictive) is standard rather than the exception.

Middle Class Families

When we think of the middle class, we are likely thinking of an idealized family form from the “Golden Era” of the ‘40s and ‘50s—the "Leave it to Beaver" model of American family life. But this view of the middle-class is largely a figment of our imaginations. As we look back nostagically, we often forget that life in the US in the '40s and '50s was not pleasant for many groups of people (women, children, ethnic and racial minorites, immigrants, and so on).

Today, the middle class model is only sustainable under certain conditions:

  1. When there are two parents AND both parents work outside the home
  2. When the parents are able to rely on non-familial institutions (rather than kin)
  3. When there is good employer provided medical coverage for the family members
  4. When the parents have the ability to get credit at banks
  5. When there is extra money to purchase goods and services, such as housekeeping, child care, etc.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for middle-class American families to maintain their middle class standing. Unfortunately, for many, this means taking the ladder of class down a rung or two, rather than upwards.

Professionals (Upper Middle Class)

Upper middle class families are more likely to merge spheres of work and family than other groups. For this class, leisure activities revolve around jobs and co-workers, and often, family life is second to husband-father’s occupation. The autonomy of these lucky families is strengthened by strong economic resources (such as good-paying jobs) and built-in ties with supportive institutions (such as employer provided health care, child care, and educational benefits). While income is still important, accumulation of wealth is an expected part of being in the upper middle class.

INCOME: The money you use to keep your bills and household expenses paid. This is generally thought of as "money in-money out." If you are middle or working class, your paycheck is probably in this category, with very little left over.

WEALTH: This is the accumulation of excess income over time. Wealth allows you to invest in the stock market, to purchase goods that will help your family in a tough economy (owning a home rather than renting or paying a mortgage is one example). The upper-middle and upper classes enjoy enough accumulation of wealth to act as an insulator if the economy is unstable. There is often enough money in a savings account, or stocks, to help a family with wealth over any rough economic patches.

Wealthy (Upper Class)

For this fortunate group, economic power is based on wealth (not income). These families rely on money that's a product of investments, such as stocks and bonds. They are often executives of family businesses, and have accumulated significant wealth over many generations. This group could be referred to as Marx's Bourgeoisie.

Being a member of the upper class provides opportunities not available to other families. Not only is this group insulated from the rest of us, they also have the ability to generate additional resources through accumulation of wealth and through business and educational networking. Many in this group have earned their standing by controlling the labor of others over many generations.

Class boundaries for the upper class are quite rigid. This group tends to marry people from the same class, and the marriage market is restricted to a small (but national) pool of eligible partners linked by exclusive schools, businesses, clubs, and resorts. For this group, marriage is more than legal-emotional commitment—it is a means for concentrating capital and maintaining in-group solidarity.


First, read Chapter 3 from your textbook: A Primer on Social Problems by Professor Steve Barkan.

Many people refuse to acknowledge that race is a socially defined reality, not a biological reality. However, DNA evidence from Human Genome Project is able to easily defeat the arguments of those who refute this claim. The HGP shows us, by scientific evidence, that humans share 99.9% of our genetic make-up. Thus, in the context of sociology, we refer to race (just like gender) as a social construction.

Race is historically defined as a category or group of people having hereditary traits that set them apart. While race revolves around the idea of biological traits, ethnicity is based on a shared cultural heritage. Sociologists and other social scientists believe that race is a socially constructed concept—an idea that was created in society to justify inequality.

RACE: a concept that sociologists use to signify different types of human bodies

ETHNICITY: shared culture and way of life, which could be reflected in language, religion, material culture such as clothing and food, and cultural products such as music and art; ethnicity is often a major source of social cohesion and social conflict

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY: Reality is comprised of a taken-for-granted world which is the product of powerful people shaping and re-shaping the social environment to their advantage.

Watch the following documentary on red-lining, a practice that used to be very common, and is still (unfortuately) happening today. This will help to put into perspective how certain racial and ethnic groups have become concentrated in specific geographic areas (closed captioning is available for those who need it):

Race is also a modern concept. In ancient times, people were divided by language and culture rather than physical differences. Foreigners were accepted into a new culture and society as long as they adopted the customs and language ofthe place they were going.

So where does the idea of race originate? In the 16th century, Europeans used three different categories to classify the different groups of people they encountered when they explored other places in the world. The racial categories used at this time were: Mongoloid (Asians), Caucasoid (European) and Negroid (African). Throughout the centuries to follow, the concept of race was used as a means of justifying superiority and colonization.

COLONIZATION: the process by which a central system of power (mostly foreign governments or entities) dominate another group, using labor and natural resource exploitation.

What makes us appear physically different is determined by one-tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up and even these differences are not well defined. While it is true that some people have different skin color, geneticists point out that the physical traits used to classify people into different races (skin color, eye color, hair texture, facial features) are more varied within a race than between races. In other words, if you were to look at a group of people who are considered Caucasian, you would find more physical differences within that group than you would between a group of Caucasians and a group of African Americans (who ALL belong to the group called humans). Using skin color as a means of classification can be confusing. Some Caucasians, for instance, have darker skin than people who are considered African American. Some Hispanics, who consider themselves white, have skin color that is darker than African Americans. But race is not always determined by the color of a person’s skin. Usually, we consider ancestry as a means of classification. However, as researchers have pointed out, this can also be inaccurate—humans have been interbreeding for so many years that it is clearly impossible for a pure race to exist.

Considering this, most sociologists point out that race is something we have made up. It simply has no foundation in reality. People may look different from one another, but that has more to do with geography than it does biology.

Race in America

The idea of race in the United States has changed somewhat over time. The one-drop rule (from the deep South) was eventually adopted by the entire nation; it stated that if a person had one drop of African blood in their ancestry, they were African American. And we still tend to classify race along the same lines today. For example, most people think Tiger Woods is African American but his father is Native American, African American, and Chinese. His mother is from Thailand. And Woods himself has rejected the classification system that has been used in the U.S.

One way that race perpetuates itself in US society is through stereotypes.

STEREOTYPE: an oversimplified set of beliefs about people from a certain group in society.

There are numerous stereotypes for people of all racial and ethnic categories. While most of these stereotypes are negative, the stereotypes for some groups are much more damaging than others.

Racial categories are one basis for gatekeeping and for allocating social resources in the US (and globally). This allows and encourages differential distribution of power, privilege, and prestige. Society is continually creating and transforming racial categories and we continue to racially separate humans based on perceived physical differences. Thus, diverse racial groups are subject to social subordination within the US.

Laissez-Faire Racism

Sociologists and researchers Bobo and Smith have used the term “laissez-faire racism” iin their research on race issues in contemporary America. They assert that contemporary racism in the United States is quite different from racism in past eras in the United States. Gone are the days of overt, Jim Crow style laws and discrimination. Instead, Bobo and Smith assert that this new type of “laissez-faire racism” has replaced the racism of the past.

LAISSEZ-FAIRE: a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course without interfering or abstention by governments from interfering.

Note that the term "laissez-faire" has traditionally been used to explain the style of capitalism we have in the US, a style of hands-off governing which has generally been meant to apply to the relationship between government and industry, meaning that the government should not interfere in economic matters, instead letting the economy take its own course of action.

Laissez-faire racism is not like former iterations of racism in the US; it is a subtler form of racism, making it much more difficult to pin down. This means that the causes and results of racism today may be more difficult to capture in research. In the past, we could point to specific structural issues as the causes of racism—discrimination, segregation, separate and unequal, Jim Crow and the like; these were all obvious structural manifestations of racism. If Bobo and Smith are right, laissez-faire racism is much more difficult for us to define as being caused by social structure. Instead, the main point of laissez-faire racism is to instead insinuate that something is culturally wrong with African-American groups. In this interpretation, the structure of society no longer bears responsibility for the occurrence of racism. Instead, in some twisted way, Blacks themselves are responsible for racism visited upon them.

A good example of laissez-faire racism can be expressed by viewing the Trayvon Martin case. The case left many Americans wondering how our justice system could allow George Zimmerman to go completely unpunished for killing an unarmed black teenager. Bobo and Smith assert that laissez-faire racism is at the root of this kind of decision. Because our current criminal justice system allows for dangerous stereotyping of African-Americans to occur, Bobo and Smith state that we should not be surprised at the outcome of the Martin case. While we like to believe that our criminal justice system is colorblind, it is not. Myriad studies support that, even with circumstances being equal, non-white racial and ethnic groups are stopped by police at higher rates, go to trial at higher rates, are sentenced to prison at higher rates, serve longer terms than their white counterparts, and so on.

Another example of laissez-faire racism can be found in the lack of reaction to some recent political events in the US:

Examples like the above show how laissez-faire racism can exist (and even be fostered) within our social systems, which makes it extremely difficult to combat. How do we fight against this kind of racism?

What is interesting about research on racism in American society is that when asked, whites will say they want to live in a society that is absent of racial discrimination. However, whites are also not willing to “force” equality by law. It is as if white America is simply paying “lip service” to equality. What becomes most problematic when we discuss racism in society today is that many whites feel personally that they are not the subject of racist attitudes, beliefs or feelings. And longitudinal research shows that Americans have become increasingly more egalitarian in their racial attitudes. Yet we have been slow to implement legislation and reluctant to support policies to fully reduce racial barriers.

Bobo and Smith assert that relative "group position" helps explain why shifts in racial attitudes have not fully reduced barriers against blacks. They state that whites favor changing society to allow blacks greater opportunities, but still do not want to yield their relative dominance or social standing over blacks: in other words, without accepting it as fact, whites want to maintain their dominant group position relative to blacks.

When whites blame blacks for their relative lack of social mobility, rather than accept responsibility for erecting barriers to mobility, they foster opposition to affirmative action and other social policies that might alleviate race-based inequalities.

For you, this may be a completely new way of thinking about racism in America. Grasping the main points of laissez-faire racism means that as a society, WE must begin to think about racism as a social problem that WE all must work toward fixing. For Bobo and Smith, the answers to racism clearly reside in the individual (the micro level) and can only be fixed by micro-level interactions. This idea is very closely aligned to a concept called “contact hypothesis.”

Contact Hypothesis

For many years we have studied ways to reduce prejudice. Prejudice occurs when a person judges another person because of a group they belong to. Often, prejudice refers to racial or gender groups. One theory about reducing feelings of discrimination is the contact hypothesis. The contact hypothesis says that bringing members from different groups together will reduce prejudice. The idea is that exposure to others of different groups will reduce your prejudice for those groups.

PREJUDICE: preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience; judgement of a person because of the group they belong to.

According to the contact hypothesis, prejudice can be reduced by having people of different (races, ethnicities, etc.) spend time together. This is what the Supreme Court tried to do in 1954 when they banned segregation in schools. The idea was that, through contact in schools, racism would be reduced.

Some initial studies however did not support the reduction of prejudice after desegregation. Studies found that, following desegregation, racism actually increased. It seemed that mere contact was not enough to do away with racism.

Psychologist Muzafer Sherif decided to find out why contact didn't work. In 1961, he took a group of boys and set up a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys were divided into teams: the Rattlers and the Eagles. Each team participated in team-building activities and then competed with the other team. The boys on one team were hostile to the other team, and vice versa. Prejudice against the other team became the norm, and violence and name-calling began.

Then Sherif put the teams together, offering them lots of opportunities to come in contact with each other with events like watching a movie or firecrackers. But, as with integration in schools, mere contact did not work. The hostilities continued.

But, Sherif didn't stop there. He gave the groups problems that they had to solve: the water supply had been vandalized; they had to raise money to go to a movie. The groups were forced to work together towards the larger goal. It was while working together that the hostilities between the Rattlers and the Eagles finally subsided.

Why did working together towards a goal work when mere contact didn't? Another psychologist, Gordon Allport, believed that there are specific requirements that must be met in order to reduce prejudice. Sherif's experiment met Allport’s requirements, which may be why the hostilities were reduced, and this is how the contact hypothesis came to be.

Allport's conditions:

The reduction of prejudice through group contact is best explained as a reconceptualization of group categories. In other words, once the members of the groups get to know each other as individuals, group differences start to dissapear—individuals begin to see other individuals for who they are, not for what group they belong to. Allport claims that prejudice is a direct result of generalizations and oversimplifications made about an entire group of people based on incomplete or mistaken information. The basic rationale is that prejudice may be reduced as one learns more about individuals.

In sociology, the contact hypothesis has been described as one of the best ways to improve relations among groups that are experiencing conflict. Allport is often credited with the development of the contact hypothesis.

CONTACT HYPOTHESIS: a theory which asserts that under certain conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between group.

If we have the opportunity to communicate with others, we are able to understand and appreciate different points of views involving different way of life. As a result of new appreciation and understanding, prejudice should diminish.

Contact fails to cure conflict when contact situations create anxiety for those who take part. Contact situations need to be long enough to allow anxiety to decrease and for the individual members of the conflicting groups to feel comfortable with one another. Additionally if the members of the two groups use this contact situation to trade insults, argue with each other, resort to physical violence, and discriminate against each other, then contact will not reduce conflict. To obtain beneficial effects, the situation must include positive contact.


Now, read Chapter 4 from your textbook: A Primer on Social Problems by Professor Steve Barkan.

Many sociologists and others who work with human populations believe that gender should be thought of as a continuum rather than in two clear and distinct categories. We also believe that gender (as Barkan asserts) is a social construction, a product of what we think is "right" or "normal" behavior for the genders into which we are sorted.

Like race and class, gender is a basic organizing principle of society. Social and cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity are the basis for treating men and women differently, dividing labor, assigning roles, and allocating social rewards. Our current gender system denies both women and men the full range of human and social possibilities.

Two Ways to Think about Gender

How do you think of gender? Do you see gender roles as being neatly divided among men and women? Perhaps for your grandparents, gender may have been a clearly defined idea which was unchallenged during their lives. In the past, the "Traditional Gender Roles Approach" was probably the way that most people in the US thought about gender:

The Traditional Gender Roles Approach (AKA Gendered Division of Labor Theory)

This approach supports biology, history, and the needs of society as naturally separating women and men into clear, distinctive roles. Men are tasked with social roles, such as earning the primary income in the home, and establishing the family within the social strcture. Women's primary roles under this traditional approach fall to the home—taking care of the children, housework and establishing ties in the neighborhood.

Of course, this view ignores any non-traditional, non-heteronormative family structures. And, with the diversity we have in our society, this is problematic. Still, this type of thinking persists. For those who agree with this theory, gender inequality is a normal consequence of behavior learned by individual women and men—in other words, there is nothing wrong with women being subservient and men being dominant in the social scheme of our society.

The biggest problem however is that this approach ignores what is most important about these two distinct gender roles—that they are unequal in power, resources, and opportunities and this means that women will always be subservient to men. Alongside the traditional approach above, we also have what we refer to as the "Gendered Institution Approach."

The Gendered Institution Approach

This theory asserts that gender is a primary factor in the assumptions, practices, and power dynamics of US institutions. It relies on the concept of patriarchy.

PATRIARCHY: social organization marked by the supremacy of the father or male in the clan or family, and the legal dependence of others in the family upon him. This is a basic form of social organization in which men are dominant over women.

Patriarchy shapes our social institutions, shapes private male-dominated hierarchies in the home, and public male-dominated hierarchies in the workplace, government, education, religion, and so on.

This kind of structured gender inequality interacts with other inequalities such as race, class, and sexuality to sort women and men differently. In general, this theory says that men gain privileges at the expense of women in the home, in public settings and institutions, and in society in general.

Why Don't we just DO AWAY with the Notion of Gender?

This is a good question! And, on the surface, it might seem like a good idea to do away with the concept of gender (on employment and college applications, for sports teams, in occupations, and so forth). We also often have this same question about the concept of race—why not simply stop using race as a criterion for categorizing people?

I think most sociologists would agree that the traditional ideas of race and gender are loaded with bad assumptions. But, we would also assert that doing away with these sorts of demographics can mask the unique issues that groups face within the structures of society.

For example, if we don't use race as a demographic category on the US Census, how can we know what are the particular issues that groups in our society experience? How would we research, for example, poverty and how poverty impacts certain demographics more than others?

Likewise with gender. If we don't use gender to classify people into groups, how can we expose discrimination? If we don't count and organize society into gender categories, how do we research, for example, wage parity? Or, sexual harrassment in the workplace?

There are a few things I'd like to say about race and gender classification:

  1. If all things were equal, I believe sociologists would say, "go for it! Let's get rid of these antiquated notions of gender and race." But, all things aren't equal, and for now, we need to keep track of groups (by race, gender, and so on) in order to be able to research and highlight the issues and social problems that are unique to specific groups.
  2. I think sociologists recognize that these types of classifications are problematic for myriad reasons. And, perhaps the future will bring us better ways to keep track of groups in society. But for now, this is the way that we have, and as flawed as it is, we must continue to use these demographics to keep up with what's going on in society.

Most people, when asked, want to be able to identify with their gender (or race). It is a part of a person's identity to be able to do so. Expanding categories of gender in particular could help us to keep ways of counting and tracking the experiences of people based on gender while also allowing for people to decide for themselves into which category they might fit.

Current ideas about gender are changing, likewise with race. But, the worst thing I think we could do is completely erase these notions. Instead, moving toward more inclusive definitions and expanded categories might be a good solution.

This part of this lesson (as with the general direction of this course on social problems) just gives you (a student of sociology) a taste of what sociology is about. If these kinds of ideas (what we've already learned and what we're going to learn in future lessons) are interesting to you, I hope you consider taking more sociology courses.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Read Chapter 7 of your text, A Primer on Social Problems, by Professor Steve Barkan. Note that there is no accompanying lesson for this part of the course. Test questions for drug and alcohol abuse will come straight from the text.

Crime and Violence

Read Chapter 8 of your text, A Primer on Social Problems, by Professor Steve Barkan. Note that there is no accompanying lesson for this part of the course. Test questions for crime and violence will come straight from the text.

Urban and Environmental Problems

Read Chapters 14 and 15 of your text, A Primer on Social Problems, by Professor Steve Barkan. Note that there is no accompanying lesson for this part of the course. Test questions for urban and environmental problems will come straight from the text.


Perhaps no social issue is more on our minds today than health care. First, read Chapter 13 from your textbook: A Primer on Social Problems by Professor Steve Barkan.

The biggest political and social debate we have in our society today—whether it be social, cultural, political or personal—is about access to health care. There are some in our society who suggest that health care is something that should not be managed by the government and should not be universally distributed, and others who suggest that health care in a well-developed society such as ours is a human right and basic health care (access to regular check-ups, routine dental and vision care) should be distributed regardless of a person's ability to pay or their social class.

I have included below three interesting articles for you to read which will help to bring our issues with health care in the US today into sharper focus:

This may be the most timely topic this semester. With the Affordable Care Act (AKA "Obamacare") having been passed into law, and now, with repeated attempts at its repeal, our healthcare system seems to be in for significant change over the coming years.

Sociologists are interested in what we call the "Social Determinants of Health." Watch as Dr. Claire Pomeroy explains how a person's place within the structures of society society and their intimate social interactions influence health outcomes, for the better or the worse (closed captioning available):

Dr. Pomeroy's discussion definitely makes the case for keeping those demographic categories so that we can see and research what's happening for specific demographic groups in our society.

In viewing the States' Health Care Rankings (linked above) are there any correlations that you can see between the rankings of the states and the political leanings of the state's governing structure? For example, why do Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Hampshire rank at the top, while Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arkansas rank at the bottom? These kinds of questions should lead you toward seeing issues of access to health care as structurally controlled.


I want you to think about social issues and consider what can be done to ease them. We cannot simply say,” well, don’t be racist!” to try to combat racism, for example. A better approach would be to state “How can I support a society which does not condone racism?” This kind of statement will allow you to come to concrete solutions to social problems, both from a micro and a macro perspective.