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CHAPTER 1: STUDYING SOCIAL PROBLEMS IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
The first chapter introduces the reader to an overview of what constitutes a social problem. This includes using sociological insights to study social problems, a subjective and an objective awareness if a problem exists, a theoretical analysis of social problems, and the use of social research methods to study social problems.
A social problem is a social condition, such as poverty, or a pattern of behavior, such as substance abuse, that harms some individuals or all people in a society. In addition, a sufficient number of people believe this social condition warrants public concern and collective action to bring about change. The study of social problems is most aligned with sociology, the academic and scholarly discipline that engages in the systematic study of human society and social interaction.
Some social problems such as violence and crime are commonly viewed as conditions that affect all members of the population. Other social problems, such as racial discrimination and hate crimes, target a specific population. When personal problems and social problems are linked so the individual has the ability to see the relationship between their individual experiences and the larger society it is referred to as the sociological imagination. The examination of personal and public issues can also be viewed as being either microlevel analysis or macrolevel analysis. Microlevel analysis focuses on small group relations and social interactions among individuals. Macrolevel analysis focuses on social processes occurring at the societal level, especially in large-scale organizations and major social institutions. A key to the examination of social problems for sociologists is to do so objectively. This objective analysis requires the ability of the individual examining the problem to see the world as others see it. This capability was addressed by Max Weber. Weber referred to it as verstehen, meaning “understanding” or insight.
In analyzing social problems, sociologists refer to three theoretical perspectives to develop theories to explain societal events. These three perspectives are the functionalist, conflict, and interactionist perspective. The functionalist perspective views society as a basically stable and orderly entity. The conflict perspective views society as an arena of competition and conflict. The interactionist perspective focuses on everyday, routine interactions among individuals. Some sociologists are dedicated to advocating one of the three perspectives to explain social problems. Others use a more eclectic method to choose the perspective that best fits a given situation. Still others mix key ingredients of each perspective in an integrated view.
The functionalist perspective requires an understanding of the manifest and latent functions of a social institution, both of which are beneficial to society. Dysfunction, however, leads to social disorganization and is a negative consequence. The conflict perspective is based on the premise there is a continuous power struggle among groups to control scarce resources. Classic conflict theory is based on the work of Karl Marx. According to Marx, this struggle is based on one’s access to the means of production. Marx identified only two classes, those who controlled the means of production and the workers who sold their labor to those who controlled these means. He called these two groups the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and proletariat (workers). The conflict perspective can be extended to any social institution where there is a discrepancy in power and privilege. For example, critical-conflict theorists who use a feminist approach focus on patriarchy to explain why males are privileged and women oppressed.
The symbolic interactionist perspective focuses on how people act toward one another and how they make sense of their daily lives. It views society as the sum of the interactions of individuals and groups. Unlike the functionalist and conflict perspectives that utilize a macrolevel of analysis, the symbolic interactionist approach utilizes a microlevel of analysis. Labeling theory and the social construction of reality are two applications of symbolic interactionism.
Because sociology is a science, there are strategies and techniques sociologists must follow when systematically collecting data and analyzing social problems. These techniques and strategies are referred to as research methods. Sociologists use three major research methods: field research, survey research, and secondary analysis of existing data. Field research is the study of social life in its natural setting. Survey research is a poll in which researchers ask respondents a series of questions about a specific topic and record their responses. The secondary analysis of existing data is a research method in which the investigators analyze data that originally were collected by others for the same purpose.
In sum, sociologists view social problems from a variety of perspectives. But no matter what perspectives sociologists employ, they use research to support their ideas. All research methods have certain strengths and weaknesses. When employed together, they go far beyond common sense knowledge and provide valuable insights to social problems and the stereotypes people form.