What are Social Problems?

The Sociological Imagination

Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues….Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations.

C.W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination (1959)

A trouble, something that bothers us, affects us personally. An issue, something that bothers a group, community, or society, affects us socially. Troubles and issues are intricately connected. If I’m overweight; it’s a personal trouble. Fifty-eight percent of adult Americans are overweight; it’s a social issue. This course examines social problems that are linked to broader social, cultural, and historical patterns. The social problems discussed do not represent all of society’s problems. Indeed not. But they do represent a cross-section of them.

As we have come to learn in recent years, all social problems in the twenty-first century are global in nature. We live in a global social web where local events have international consequences and macro-structural forces affect individual everyday experiences. In this course we will tackle many topics: stratification, gender inequality, poverty, health and disease, demographic shifts, hyper-urbanization, race/ethnic conflicts, etc. The selected online readings and other media sources you will read will present these topics as a series of case studies of recent domestic and international events that have implications at a societal level. Throughout the course we will observe how complex these social issues really are. Rather than presenting them as two-dimensional problems (x causes y) with simple policy solutions (just fix x), the course will emphasize how these issues are highly correlated with one another and have an impact on our global society. Thus this course will demonstrate the linkages between the micro and macro as well as the local and the global.

For example, I live in North Carolina. In the past twenty years major shifts in the global division of labor have led to the outsourcing of furniture and textile jobs to Mexico andChina. This in turn has led to unemployment, underemployment, and poverty among workers here. The “deskilling” of the workforce has resulted in the movement of many into the retail and service industries impacting the quality of their healthcare, the education of their children, and their overall life course (NAFTA’s Impact on North Carolina). The downward pressure on earnings has reduced the overall income and sales tax received by the state, and thus reduced services that the state is able to provide to its residents. Yet, globalization has also reduced the cost of shipping bringing cheaper products to these workers and introducing US products to new markets. Recent increases in sales of NC tobacco abroad is an example of this phenomenon (see Big Opportunities in Tobacco), but not without creating new social problems such as a rise in cardiovascular disease in India (see India lost 9.2 million) and more than a million deaths a year in China where there are 300 million smokers (see Chinese Smoking Deaths Seen Doubling in 10 Years).

Globalization has also led to the movement of people and the influx of newcomers, many who came to NC from Mexico where their families were economically displaced by cheap corn as a result of NAFTA (Displaced People: NAFTA’s Most Important Product). The 400% increase in the Latino population from 1990 to 2000 altered traditional black/white relations in NC and has created new issues of ethnic inequalities and competition for housing, jobs, etc. (NC Latinos). NC policy makers wrestle with decisions such as how to fund schools where 90% of the children come from families that do not speak English or whether to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented migrants. These seemingly local social problems (unemployment, outsourcing, healthcare, economic troubles) are obviously global problems as well.

Before we go any further, go to Blackboard and introduce yourself under the Discussion Board Tab. Find the “Ice Breaker” discussion thread. Tell us a bit about yourself and why you are taking this class.

Just What is a Social Problem?

In his famous study of suicide, originally published in 1897 (and still in print), Emile Durkheim argued that something as personal and private as taking your own life was in fact influenced if not caused by social forces and pressures. Durkheim made an impassioned plea for a sociology that focused its analytic eye on a compelling idea: societies are always more complex and powerful than the sum of the individuals that make them up. Simply put, he thought the whole (society) was greater than the sum of its parts (individuals). To test Durkheim’s assumption, reflect for a moment on your family. Isn’t your family more complex and authoritative than any one family member?

Do social problems originate in nature?

Clearly, if the solitary act of suicide could be said to have social origins, problems such as gender and race discrimination, poverty, and crime must be rooted in society. Indeed, they are. But doesn’t this mean that only socially caused difficulties qualify as social problems?No. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and other violent expressions of nature greatly affect people’s lives. These are cases of nonsocial events resulting in social severe disruption. There is a substantial literature on the sociology of disaster that discusses the many problems people, communities and governments encounter in coping with natural catastrophes.

The problem with statements like “They’re a problem for society” assumes that there is something big, systemic, and easy to see called “society.” I hear the word a lot, but I must admit I’ve never seen a society. . . . and I’m a sociologist!   Of course there are organizations that use the word society in their names, like the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” or the “Temperance Society.” But these are really groups made up of members and rules for participating.   Society is an abstraction, an idea, and a concept. Indeed, the word itself did not enter the English language until the 16 th century to describe a certain way of getting a long–as in “civil society”–in an increasingly urbanized world.

Let’s not think of social problems as problems for society, but as problems for a particular social class, or group, or organization, or political party. Let’s think, in other words, of social problems as expressing and promoting the interests and concerns of some but not all people in society.

Considering the following example. – The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the Hispanic population in North Carolina increased a whopping 129% between 1990 and 1999.   In 1990 the Bureau estimated that 76,745 Hispanics lived in North Carolina; by 1999 that number increased to 175,707.   Preliminary numbers from the 2000 Census suggest even more substantial immigration to North Carolina.   Is this unprecedented growth of Hispanics in North Carolina a social problem? For most of the tens of thousands of immigrants the answer is an unqualified “No.”   Immigrating to North Carolina from Mexico and Central America is perceived by them as an “opportunity” to find meaningful employment, decent education, and increase their chances to live a “decent” life. For many white or Anglo people already living in North Carolina, however, this immigrant population poses a risk to their traditional way of life, to scarce jobs, and to state and federal programs. Indeed, there are some who worry aloud that this influx of Hispanics is a threat to the primacy of the English language.

The lesson here is important: one group’s social problem might be another group’s social solution, just as, sequentially, one group’s solution could be defined as another group’s problem. It is these kind of unexpected observations and dynamics that make sociology interesting.

NOW read Peterson Wunder and Mueller Chapter 1


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