How Do We Decide What are Social Problems?

Joseph R. Gusfield


The concept of "social problem" is a claim that some condition, set of events, or group of persons constitutes a troublesome situation that needs to be changed or ameliorated. Having defined a condition as a social problem there then is a legitimate basis for bringing public resources to bear upon it.

Defining a condition as a social problem, gaining acceptance of that definition among a significant proportion of the population, and garnering public resources to address the problem in a certain manner usually are not easy tasks to accomplish. A condition is not a social problem unless it is seen as violating certain fundamental values and beliefs about how society should operate. Achieving widespread consensus about whether a condition contradicts these values and beliefs can be difficult to obtain.

All human problems do not become public ones. A social problem is a socially constructed way of seeing certain conditions that provides a claim to change through public actions. Thus, a social problem is not separate from everyday interactions of citizens in a society. Nor is it separate from the operations, goals, and objectives of social institutions.

The process of constructing the idea of a "social problem" also defines and reinforces what is considered to be a standard for behavior or social conditions. That is, defining a condition as a social problem also defines what society considers to be the "right" way to do things.

To give a name to a problem is to suggest a structure developed to deal with it or the need for the creation of new laws and public entities. New professions and new rights are continuously emerging.

The Social Problem Culture and the Welfare State

Both as a feature of contemporary culture and as a matter of social structure, the conceptualization of situations as social problems is embedded in the development of the welfare state. By welfare state, Gusfield means the use of publicly-funded facilities to directly enhance the welfare of citizens as a matter of right rather than as charity. Thus, "welfare" means the commitment of public funds to ameliorate social problems rather than as a handout to individual citizens. The development of the welfare state entails: 1) a benevolent attitude toward victims of crime and less fortunate persons, and 2) the establishment of a minimum standard of living within the free market.

Welfare societies create industries to address social problems. The "troubled persons" industries consist of professions that bestow benevolence upon people defined as in need. Such occupations include counselors, social workers, clinical psychologists, foundation administrators, and others whose task it is to bring people viewed as in trouble to themselves or to others into the stream of "adjusted" citizens.

The key term within these industries is "treatment." Treatment can be considered within two alternative forms of understanding: that of sin and that of institutional organization. The former places the onus for the problem on the choice of the "troubled person." Persons defined as such are subject to criminalization and/or institutionalization within facilities specializing in mental defects. These troubled persons are treated in the hope they can be "returned" to society and function in an acceptable manner. The drug addict who behaves in an inappropriate manner, for example, might be treated in a variety of ways within or outside confinement facilities with the hope that this person will return to society and behave in an acceptable manner.

If the understanding of the social problem is framed within institutional organization, then societies seek changes to institutions that will reduce the incidence of the problem. Although the burden for engaging in inappropriate behavior might still lie eventually with the individual, it is within this framing that citizens recognize that the structure of society might facilitate the rate of inappropriate behavior. A society might, for example, establish programs aimed at young persons to inform them of the negative health and legal consequences of using illegal drugs. It might recognize also, that drug abuse occurs more often within segments of the population that experience systematic discrimination in the workplace and thereby devise programs aimed at reducing this discrimination. It is this domain of societal definition of the problem, the framing of the problem as related to institutional arrangements, that concerns the sociologist.

Consensus and Conflict: The Public Status of the Social Problem

Societies must place the burden for inappropriate behavior upon the individual. An interpretation of a social problem as entirely related to individual deficiencies, however, runs the risk of diverting attention away from institutional arrangements that contribute to the rate of individual malfeasance. Recognizing institutional/cultural determinants of troubled behavior requires the development of consensus that social institutions and/or culture are flawed in some manner. Claims about "social problems" must be supported by citizen consensus that existing social arrangements are inadequate.

Across time, conditions might pass into or out or the realm of "social problems." The gay rights movement has succeeded in turning the deviant status of homosexual from a "social problem" (i.e., What can we do about these deviants?) to a matter of political conflict (i.e., Why do homosexuals not have the same legal rights as do others?). It is the socially constructed definitions of citizens that defines social problems and frames their interpretation. Aid to farmers, for example, is called "parity," aid to corporations is called "economic incentives" and aid to poor persons is called "welfare" or "handouts." A word can be worth a thousand pictures of the entity receiving aid.

Consensus about what constitutes a social problem sometimes can be difficult to achieve among those persons wishing to do so. It would be difficult to argue that consensus exists in America about whether gun control or abortion constitute social problems. Sometimes, debates about defining social problems become social problems themselves if these debates become overly acrimonious (e.g., community conflict regarding public control over large-scale hog confinement operations in Iowa).

Contested and Uncontested Meanings and Their Transformations

The definitions of conditions are themselves open to conflict and change. The gay rights movement, for example, rejected the designation of homosexuality as deviant. The movement thus far has been successful in gaining support from a significant segment of the American population to transform the definition of the situation to from focusing on deviant sexual practices to addressing inadequacies in social institutions. Understandably, as the movement has gained support, those who believe homosexuality represents deviant sexual behavior have mobilized to resist changes in social institutions and cultural definitions. Thus, at the same time as the "social problem" of homosexuality is undergoing public scrutiny, American society faces the concurrent social problem of resolving this "social problem" in a manner that preserves the social fabric of society. That is, we must learn to discuss our differences in opinion in a manner that preserves our sense of belonging to one society.

At the same time, societies must recognize how "social problems" can be defined in such a manner as to serve political interests. In some cases, arguments for decriminalization of inappropriate behavior are made with an eye toward reducing state budgets rather than out of a sincere benevolence toward people with troubles. Thus, social problems are defined as individual problems for the purpose of reducing societal responsibility.

Knowledge, Policy, and Cultural Authority

In analyzing social problems, we must attend to the conflict underlying the definition of the problem. Even regarding situations with widespread societal consensus of deviant behavior (e.g., murder), conflict can emerge regarding the causes and conditions of the behavior (e.g., Is it murder when a severely abused woman kills her husband?). The moral of this essay, states Gusfield, is a plea to move the study of social problems closer to the study of how social movements and institutions affect and are affected by the interpretations, the language, and the symbols that constitute seeing a situation as a social problem. It is a plea to see social problems as a process of designation and not only a recognition of a given situation.