Introduction to the Study of Social Problems

Joel M. Charon

Charon makes a simple case for justifying the use of public expenditures to identify, understand, and suggest policies to reduce social problems: He proposes that we should ask four questions about social problems:
  1. What makes a problem a social problem?

    A social problem is said to exist:
    • to the extent that some "malfunction" is observed in society. This malfunction might be an inequality (e.g., with the same education and experience women earn only about 80% of what men earn in the labor force), a poor allocation of resources (e.g., poor environmental stewardship), violence (e.g., domestic violence, rape, violent crime), or an inefficient organizational system (e.g., too much or too little being spent on social services).
    • to the extent that the cause of this malfunction is social,
    • to the extent that the problem seriously harms a large number of people in the society,
    • to the extent that the problem threatens the continuation of the society,
    • and to the extent there is widespread agreement that the condition is wrong and must be changed.

    Sociologists can identify many aspects of society that might be considered to be social problems (e.g., In most states in the U.S., same-sex marriage is not allowed). It is the values held by the majority of citizens (in a democracy) that define what is a social problem (e.g., Is denial of same-sex marriages a problem?). Social problems are identified as such partly with respect to their perceived effect on the productive functioning of society (e.g., Does same-sex marriage threaten the productivity and efficiency of American industry, politics, education, etc.?). Social problems can be difficult to identify (e.g., What is the scientific evidence that same-sex marriages or the prohibition of them will harm society?). Sociologists use the consensus, conflict, and interactionist perspectives to examine these conditions of potential social problems (see: The Sociological Perspective).

  2. What causes a social problem?

    • Do personal choices cause social problems?
    • Do evil people cause social problems?
    • Are social problems caused by biological, physical, or psychological phenomena?
    • From the sociological perspective, social problems are caused by the nature of society. Structure and culture create the conditions for social problems and establish the belief and value systems that define situations and events as problems. Personal choices, biology, psychology, and so forth cause individual problems, but not social problems.

  3. What can be done about a social problem?

    • Believing that social problems can be solved is a myth and the myth sometimes is harmful if we become discouraged by our inability to make problems go away entirely.
    • The definitions of problems change as we learn more about them.
    • Society is always changing, bringing about new problems to be addressed.
    • Social problems are highly complex.
    • There is no societal consensus about what constitutes a social problem and its solution.
In summary, 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. The purposes of this book are to describe the social conditions of American society, discuss conditions identified as social problems, and provide a way of approaching social problems so we can better understand and deal with them.