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In a minimum of 2-4 pages, using your critical thinking skills,

In a minimum of 2-4 pages, using your critical thinking skills,


In a minimum of 2-4 pages, using your critical thinking skills, provide at least three examples of ethnic inequality in the United States past or present and why you think each one is a racial inequality. 

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Social Problems


Social Problems

Continuity and Change [Author removed at request of original publisher]

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing edition, 2015. This edition adapted from a work originally produced in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that it not receive attribution.

Minneapolis, MN


Social Problems by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons At- tribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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Publisher Information Chapter 1: Understanding Social Problems 1.1 What Is a Social Problem? 1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems 1.3 Continuity and Change in Social Problems 1.4 Doing Research on Social Problems 1.5 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 2: Poverty 2.1 The Measurement and Extent of Poverty 2.2 Who the Poor Are: Social Patterns of Poverty 2.3 Explaining Poverty 2.4 The Consequences of Poverty 2.5 Global Poverty 2.6 Reducing Poverty 2.7 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 3: Racial and Ethnic Inequality 3.1 Racial and Ethnic Inequality: A Historical Prelude 3.2 The Meaning of Race and Ethnicity 3.3 Prejudice 3.4 Discrimination 3.5 Dimensions of Racial and Ethnic Inequality 3.6 Explaining Racial and Ethnic Inequality 3.7 Reducing Racial and Ethnic Inequality 3.8 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 4: Gender Inequality 4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 4.2 Feminism and Sexism 4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 4.4 Violence against Women: Rape and Sexual Assault 4.5 The Benefits and Costs of Being Male 4.6 Reducing Gender Inequality 4.7 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 5: Sexual Orientation and Inequality


5.1 Understanding Sexual Orientation 5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation 5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation 5.4 Improving the Lives of the LGBT Community 5.5 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 6: Aging and Ageism 6.1 The Concept and Experience of Aging 6.2 Perspectives on Aging 6.3 Life Expectancy and the Graying of Society 6.4 Biological and Psychological Aspects of Aging 6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 6.6 Reducing Ageism and Helping Older Americans 6.7 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 7: Alcohol and Other Drugs 7.1 Drug Use in History 7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 7.3 Social Patterning of Drug Use 7.4 Explaining Drug Use 7.5 Drug Policy and the War on Illegal Drugs 7.6 Addressing the Drug Problem and Reducing Drug Use 7.7 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 8: Crime and Criminal Justice 8.1 The Problem of Crime 8.2 Types of Crime 8.3 Who Commits Crime? 8.4 Explaining Crime 8.5 The Criminal Justice System 8.6 Reducing Crime 8.7 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 9: Sexual Behavior 9.1 An Overview of Heterosexuality 9.2 Teenage Sex and Pregnancy 9.3 Abortion 9.4 Prostitution 9.5 Pornography 9.6 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 10: The Changing Family 10.1 Overview of the Family 10.2 Sociological Perspectives on the Family 10.3 Changes and Problems in American Families 10.4 Families in the Future 10.5 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 11: Schools and Education 11.1 An Overview of Education in the United States


11.2 Sociological Perspectives on Education 11.3 Issues and Problems in Elementary and Secondary Education 11.4 Issues and Problems in Higher Education 11.5 Improving Schools and Education 11.6 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 12: Work and the Economy 12.1 Overview of the Economy 12.2 Sociological Perspectives on Work and the Economy 12.3 Problems in Work and the Economy 12.4 Improving Work and the Economy 12.5 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 13: Health and Health Care 13.1 Sociological Perspectives on Health and Health Care 13.2 Global Aspects of Health and Health Care 13.3 Problems of Health in the United States 13.4 Problems of Health Care in the United States 13.5 Improving Health and Health Care 13.6 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 14: Urban and Rural Problems 14.1 A Brief History of Urbanization 14.2 Sociological Perspectives on Urbanization 14.3 Problems of Urban Life 14.4 Problems of Rural Life 14.5 Improving Urban and Rural Life 14.6 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 15: Population and the Environment 15.1 Sociological Perspectives on Population and the Environment 15.2 Population 15.3 The Environment 15.4 Addressing Population Problems and Improving the Environment 15.5 End-of-Chapter Material Chapter 16: War and Terrorism 16.1 Sociological Perspectives on War and Terrorism 16.2 War 16.3 Terrorism 16.4 Preventing War and Stopping Terrorism 16.5 End-of-Chapter Material Supplementary materials


Publisher Information

Social Problems: Continuity and Change is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has re- quested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is pro- duced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support In- itiative.

This adaptation has reformatted the original text, and replaced some images and figures to make the resulting whole more shareable. This adaptation has not significantly altered or up- dated the original 2010 text. This work is made available under the terms of a Creative Com- mons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

For questions about this textbook please contact [email protected]

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Chapter 1: Understanding Social Prob- lems

1.1 What Is a Social Problem? 1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems 1.3 Continuity and Change in Social Problems 1.4 Doing Research on Social Problems 1.5 End-of-Chapter Material


Chapter 1

1.1 What Is a Social Problem?


Learning Objectives

1. Define “social problem.” 2. Explain the objective and subjective components of the definition of a social problem. 3. Understand the social constructionist view of social problems. 4. List the stages of the natural history of social problems.

A social problem is any condition or behavior that has negative consequences for large numbers of people and that is generally recognized as a condition or behavior that needs to be addressed. This definition has both an objective component and a subjective component.

The objective component is this: For any condition or behavior to be considered a social problem, it must have negative consequences for large numbers of people, as each chapter of this book discusses. How do we know if a social problem has negative consequences? Rea- sonable people can and do disagree on whether such consequences exist and, if so, on their extent and seriousness, but ordinarily a body of data accumulates—from work by academic researchers, government agencies, and other sources—that strongly points to extensive and serious consequences. The reasons for these consequences are often hotly debated, and some- times, as we shall see in certain chapters in this book, sometimes the very existence of these consequences is disputed. A current example is climate change: Although the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that climate change (changes in the earth’s climate due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is real and serious, fewer than two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) in a 2011 poll said they “think that global warming is happen- ing”(Leiserowitz, et. al., 2011).

This type of dispute points to the subjective component of the definition of social prob- lems: There must be a perception that a condition or behavior needs to be addressed for it to be considered a social problem. This component lies at the heart of the social constructionist view of social problems (Rubington & Weinberg, 2010). In this view, many types of negative conditions and behaviors exist. Many of these are considered sufficiently negative to acquire the status of a social problem; some do not receive this consideration and thus do not become a social problem; and some become considered a social problem only if citizens, policymak- ers, or other parties call attention to the condition or behavior.


Sometimes disputes occur over whether a particular condition or behavior has negative consequences and is thus a social problem. A current example is climate change: although al- most all climate scientists think climate change is real and serious, more than one-third of the American public thinks that climate change is not happening.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

The history of attention given to rape and sexual assault in the United States before and after the 1970s provides an example of this latter situation. These acts of sexual violence against women have probably occurred from the beginning of humanity and certainly were very common in the United States before the 1970s. Although men were sometimes arrested and prosecuted for rape and sexual assault, sexual violence was otherwise ignored by legal policymakers and received little attention in college textbooks and the news media, and many people thought that rape and sexual assault were just something that happened (Allison & Wrightsman, 1993). Thus although sexual violence existed, it was not considered a social problem. When the contemporary women’s movement began in the late 1970s, it soon fo- cused on rape and sexual assault as serious crimes and as manifestations of women’s inequal- ity. Thanks to this focus, rape and sexual assault eventually entered the public consciousness,


views of these crimes began to change, and legal policymakers began to give them more at- tention. In short, sexual violence against women became a social problem.

Before the 1970s, rape and sexual assault certainly existed and were very common, but they were generally ignored and not considered a social problem. When the contemporary women’s movement arose during the 1970s, it focused on sexual violence against women and turned this behavior into a social problem.

Women’s e News – Placards at the Rally To Take Rape Seriously – CC BY 2.0.

The social constructionist view raises an interesting question: When is a social problem a social problem? According to some sociologists who adopt this view, negative conditions and behaviors are not a social problem unless they are recognized as such by policymakers, large numbers of lay citizens, or other segments of our society; these sociologists would thus say that rape and sexual assault before the 1970s were not a social problem because our society as a whole paid them little attention. Other sociologists say that negative conditions and behav- iors should be considered a social problem even if they receive little or no attention; these so- ciologists would thus say that rape and sexual assault before the 1970s were a social problem.


This type of debate is probably akin to the age-old question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, is a sound made? As such, it is not easy to answer, but it does rein- force one of the key beliefs of the social constructionist view: Perception matters at least as much as reality, and sometimes more so. In line with this belief, social constructionism em- phasizes that citizens, interest groups, policymakers, and other parties often compete to influ- ence popular perceptions of many types of conditions and behaviors. They try to influence news media coverage and popular views of the nature and extent of any negative conse- quences that may be occurring, the reasons underlying the condition or behavior in question, and possible solutions to the problem.

Sometimes a condition or behavior becomes a social problem even if there is little or no basis for this perception. A historical example involves women in college. During the late 1800s, medical authorities and other experts warned women not to go to college for two rea- sons: they feared that the stress of college would disrupt women’s menstrual cycles, and they thought that women would not do well on exams while they were menstruating.

CollegeDegrees360 – College Girls – CC BY-SA 2.0.


Social constructionism’s emphasis on perception has a provocative implication: Just as a condition or behavior may not be considered a social problem even if there is strong basis for this perception, so may a condition or behavior be considered a social problem even if there is little or no basis for this perception. The “issue” of women in college provides a historical example of this latter possibility. In the late 1800s, leading physicians and medical research- ers in the United States wrote journal articles, textbooks, and newspaper columns in which they warned women not to go to college. The reason? They feared that the stress of college would disrupt women’s menstrual cycles, and they also feared that women would not do well in exams during “that time of the month” (Ehrenreich & English, 2005)! We now know bet- ter, of course, but the sexist beliefs of these writers turned the idea of women going to college into a social problem and helped to reinforce restrictions by colleges and universities on the admission of women.

In a related dynamic, various parties can distort certain aspects of a social problem that does exist: politicians can give speeches, the news media can use scary headlines and heavy coverage to capture readers’ or viewers’ interest, businesses can use advertising and influence news coverage. News media coverage of violent crime provides many examples of this dy- namic (Robinson, 2011; Surette, 2011). The news media overdramatize violent crime, which is far less common than property crime like burglary and larceny, by featuring so many sto- ries about it, and this coverage contributes to public fear of crime. Media stories about violent crime also tend to be more common when the accused offender is black and the victim is white and when the offender is a juvenile. This type of coverage is thought to heighten the public’s prejudice toward African Americans and to contribute to negative views about teen- agers.


The Natural History of a Social Problem

We have just discussed some of the difficulties in defining a social problem and the fact that various parties often try to influence public perceptions of social problems. These issues aside, most social problems go through a natural history consisting of several stages of their development (Spector & Kitsuse, 2001).


Stage 1: Emergence and Claims Making

A social problem emerges when a social entity (such as a social change group, the news media, or influential politicians) begins to call attention to a condition or behavior that it per- ceives to be undesirable and in need of remedy. As part of this process, it tries to influence public perceptions of the problem, the reasons for it, and possible solutions to it. Because the social entity is making claims about all these matters, this aspect of Stage 1 is termed the claims-making process. Not all efforts to turn a condition or behavior into a social problem succeed, and if they do not succeed, a social problem does not emerge. Because of the re- sources they have or do not have, some social entities are more likely than others to succeed at this stage. A few ordinary individuals have little influence in the public sphere, but masses of individuals who engage in protest or other political activity have greater ability to help a social problem emerge. Because politicians have the ear of the news media and other types of influence, their views about social problems are often very influential. Most studies of this stage of a social problem focus on the efforts of social change groups and the larger social movement to which they may belong, as most social problems begin with bottom-up efforts from such groups.


A social problem emerges when a social change group successfully calls attention to a condition or behavior that it considers serious. Protests like the one depicted here have raised the environmental consciousness of Americans and helped put pressure on businesses to be environmentally responsible.

ItzaFineDay – Financing Climate Change – CC BY 2.0.


Stage 2: Legitimacy

Once a social group succeeds in turning a condition or behavior into a social problem, it usually tries to persuade the government (local, state, and/or federal) to take some action— spending and policymaking—to address the problem. As part of this effort, it tries to con- vince the government that its claims about the problem are legitimate—that they make sense and are supported by empirical (research-based) evidence. To the extent that the group suc- ceeds in convincing the government of the legitimacy of its claims, government action is that much more likely to occur.


Stage 3: Renewed Claims Making

Even if government action does occur, social change groups often conclude that the action is too limited in goals or scope to be able to successfully address the social problem. If they reach this conclusion, they often decide to press their demands anew. They do so by reassert- ing their claims and by criticizing the official response they have received from the govern- ment or other established interests, such as big businesses. This stage may involve a fair amount of tension between the social change groups and these targets of their claims.


Stage 4: Development of Alternative Strategies

Despite the renewed claims making, social change groups often conclude that the govern- ment and established interests are not responding adequately to their claims. Although the groups may continue to press their claims, they nonetheless realize that these claims may fail to win an adequate response from established interests. This realization leads them to develop their own strategies for addressing the social problem.


Key Takeaways The definition of a social problem has both an objective component and a subjective compo- nent. The objective component involves empirical evidence of the negative consequences of a social condition or behavior, while the subjective component involves the perception that the condition or behavior is indeed a problem that needs to be addressed. The social constructionist view emphasizes that a condition or behavior does not become a social problem unless there is a perception that it should be considered a social problem. The natural history of a social problem consists of four stages: emergence and claims making, legitimacy, renewed claims making, and alternative strategies.


For Your Review

1. What do you think is the most important social problem facing our nation right now? Explain your answer.

2. Do you agree with the social constructionist view that a negative social condition or behavior is not a social problem unless there is a perception that it should be consid- ered a social problem? Why or why not?


Allison, J. A., & Wrightsman, L. S. (1993). Rape: The misunderstood crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ehrenreich, B., & English, D. (2005). For her own good: Two centuries of the experts’ ad- vice to women (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Smith, N. (2011). Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in May 2011. New Ha- ven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Robinson, M. B. (2011). Media coverage of crime and criminal justice. Durham, NC: Car- olina Academic Press.

Rubington, E., & Weinberg, M. S. (2010). The study of social problems: Seven perspec- tives (7th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Spector, M., & Kitsuse, J. I. (2001). Constructing social problems. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Surette, R. (2011). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


Chapter 2

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Prob- lems


Learning Objectives

1. Define the sociological imagination. 2. Explain what is meant by the blaming-the-victim belief. 3. Summarize the most important beliefs and assumptions of functionalism and conflict

theory. 4. Summarize the most important beliefs and assumptions of symbolic interactionism

and exchange theory.

The sociological understanding of social problems rests heavily on the concept of the soci- ological imagination. We discuss this concept in some detail before turning to various theo- retical perspectives that provide a further context for understanding social problems.


The Sociological Imagination

Many individuals experience one or more social problems personally. For example, many people are poor and unemployed, many are in poor health, and many have family problems, drink too much alcohol, or commit crime. When we hear about these individuals, it is easy to think that their problems are theirs alone, and that they and other individuals with the same problems are entirely to blame for their difficulties.

Sociology takes a different approach, as it stresses that individual problems are often rooted in problems stemming from aspects of society itself. This key insight informed C. Wright Mills’s (1959) (Mills, 1959) classic distinction between personal troubles and public issues. Personal troubles refer to a problem affecting individuals that the affected individual, as well as other members of society, typically blame on the individual’s own personal and moral failings. Examples include such different problems as eating disorders, divorce, and unemployment. Public issues, whose source lies in the social structure and culture of a soci- ety, refer to social problems affecting many individuals. Problems in society thus help ac- count for problems that individuals experience. Mills felt that many problems ordinarily con- sidered private troubles are best understood as public issues, and he coined the term sociolog- ical imagination to refer to the ability to appreciate the structural basis for individual prob- lems.

To illustrate Mills’s viewpoint, let’s use our sociological imaginations to understand some contemporary social problems. We will start with unemployment, which Mills himself dis- cussed. If only a few people were unemployed, Mills wrote, we could reasonably explain their unemployment by saying they were lazy, lacked good work habits, and so forth. If so, their unemployment would be their own personal trouble. But when millions of people are out of work, unemployment is best understood as a public issue because, as Mills (Mills, 1959) put it, “the very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and polit- ical institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.”


When only a few people are out of work, it is fair to say that their unemployment is their personal trouble. However, when millions of people are out of work, as has been true since the economic downturn began in 2008, this massive unemployment is more accurately viewed as a public issue. As such, its causes lie not in the unemployed individuals but rather in our society’s economic and social systems.

Rawle C. Jackman – The line of hope… – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The high US unemployment rate stemming from the severe economic downturn that began in 2008 provides a telling example of the point Mills was making. Millions of people lost their jobs through no fault of their own. While some individuals are undoubtedly unemployed because they are lazy or lack good work habits, a more structural explanation focusing on lack of opportunity is needed to explain why so many people were out of work. If so, unem- ployment is best understood as a public issue rather than a personal trouble.

Another social problem is eating disorders. We usually consider a person’s eating disorder to be a personal trouble that stems from a lack of control, low self-esteem, or another per- sonal problem. This explanation may be OK as far as it goes, but it does not help us under- stand why so many people have the personal problems that lead to eating disorders. Perhaps


more important, this belief also neglects the larger social and cultural forces that help explain such disorders. For example, most Americans with eating disorders are women, not men. This gender difference forces us to ask what it is about being a woman in American society that makes eating disorders so much more common. To begin to answer this question, we need to look to the standard of beauty for women that emphasizes a slender body (Boyd, et. al., 2011). If this cultural standard did not exist, far fewer American women would suffer from eating disorders than do now. Because it does exist, even if every girl and woman with an eating disorder were cured, others would take their places unless we could somehow change this standard. Viewed in this way, eating disorders are best understood as a public is- sue, not just as a personal trouble.

Picking up on Mills’s insights, William Ryan (1976) (Ryan, 1976) pointed out that Ameri- cans typically think that social problems such as poverty and unemployment stem from per- sonal failings of the people experiencing these problems, not from structural problems in the larger society. Using Mills’s terms, Americans tend to think of social problems as personal troubles rather than public issues. As Ryan put it, they tend to believe in

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