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Social Problems

One of the more commonly used phrases in

sociological inquiry is that of social problems.
However,in common parlance its meaning is
somewhat ambiguous.
According to Earl Rubington and Martin S.
Weinberg in The Study of Social Problems (2002:
4), a social problem is 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.
For example, racism and discrimination remain
social problems in the modern-day United States.
How social problems are defined is dependent upon the
sociological perspective from which they are analyzed. For example,
functionalism views society as a system of interrelated parts whose
activities have consequences for survival implications for the whole.
If the activity promotes survival, it is considered functional,
whereas if the activity lessens survival, it is dysfunctional.
Within functionalism, there are three vantage points from which to
analyze the concept of social problems: social pathology; social
disorganization; and cultural-lag perspective.
According to the perspective of social pathology, social problems
occur as a result of unintentional actions by ill-advised people.
Social disorganization theorists view the existence of social
problems as being attributed to an imbalance among the
interrelated parts of the system.
The solution of any social problem would be to find a way
back to equilibrium. Norms and values guide the cultural
lag perspective.
There exists a coherent view of the world because of a
shared sense of culture and meaning.
Social problems evolve when technological changes proffer
new opportunities for behavior at a time when the cultural
norms have not yet evolved or adopted an acceptable way
of behaving, given the new circumstance.
The main criticism of the structural- functionalist school of
thought is that the status quo is seemingly the preferred
state of being. Consensus is taken for granted as the way to
keep the entire system operating in balance

The second perspective is that of conflict theory, which
views social problems as emanating from a power
differential between social classes or other social groups.
Societies are not orderly systems designed to promote the
balance of the collectivity. Rather, society is a collection of
different groups of people who have differing interests,
which necessitate a struggle for resources and power.
From the perspective of Marxism, capitalism and its
consequences constitute the heart of these struggles,
hence they are the underlying causes of social problems.
The only solution
The only solution to these social ills is to
overthrow the capitalist system and to inaugurate
a communist state, in which all people would
share equally in wealth and prosperity.
Conflict theorists such as Ralph Dahrendorf
believe that the struggle for power is evident in
society and thus the cause of socialproblems.
However, the struggle is less about economic
imbalances and more about differentials of power
and authority.
Symbolic interactionism conceptualizes social problems in terms of the
processes by which the subjective meaning of problems is created.

Conditions of social life shape peoples perceptions and interpretations.
Social problems are, therefore, social constructs. They are neither good
nor bad, neither desirable nor undesirable until and unless someone
assigns the situation some meaning.

In the study of social problems, the main condition of concern is the
process by which some social conditions become social problems while
others do not. For example, child abuse prior to the 1970s no doubt
occurred; however,
it was not until a group of physicians brought attention to it as an
emergency room phenomenon that social policymakers and practitioners
began attending to the issue.