Social Probnlems

Chapter 1
The Sociological Approach
to Social Problems

Summary by Russ Long
August 21, 2017


Warning:  Critical Thinking Ahead

Students may find some of the material from Eitzen highly controversial.  They may, in fact, vehemently disagree with some of the points raised.  This is GOOD!  You don't have to agree with the material.  It is, after all, only a perspective -- a way of looking at the social world -- and we all have perspectives.  I would hope that, in the process, students share their points of view.  I would also hope that students will be open to understanding the perspectives encountered.  There are seldom right or wrong answers in Sociology -- only perspectives.  The trick in a class like this is to be open to multiple perspectives.


"Focusing on the poor and ignoring the system of power, privilege, and profit which makes them poor, is a little like blaming the corpse for the murder"

Michael Parenti (in Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 2000)

I.     Review of General Theory

A.     Functionalist Theory

Understanding society from a functionalist perspective is to visualize society as a system where all the parts act together even though each part may be doing different things.

Associated with the system is structure. In society, institutions, such as family, education, and religion are the parts of the social system. They are structures in society that social activity is organized around. 

The overall goal of the various structures (parts) is to maintain order in society. 

The structures in society promote integration, stability, consensus, and balance in society.

B.     Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is a theoretical framework which sees society as divided by inequality and conflict. 

Conflict theorists see society less as a cohesive system and more an arena of conflict and power struggles.

Instead of people working together to further the goals of the "social system," people are seen achieving their will at the expense of others.

C.     Symbolic Interactionist Theory

Symbolic Interactionist theory is a theoretical framework that sees society as the product of individuals interacting with one another

The scope of investigation for these sociologists is very small. Interaction is generally face-to-face and addresses "everyday" activities.

They are interested in the way individuals act toward, respond to, and influence one another in society.

These kinds of sociologists are not interested in nation-states.  They don't consider social institutions like the economy or government. 

Interactionists prefer to explore the interaction of individuals or groups of individuals. Each communication produces new perspectives, expectations, and boundaries that individuals use to assure continual interactions in the future. Society occurs as a result of interaction between individuals and small groups of individuals.

II.   History of Social Problems Theory

A.     The Medical Model

The medical model argues that there are "universal criteria for normality" and tended to assume that social problems were linked to "bad people."  They were viewed as "abnormal because of mental deficiency, mental disorder, lack or education, or incomplete socialization (Eitzen et al. 2009: 6-7) .

B.     Absolutist Approach to Understanding Social Problems

In the 1920s and 1930's some sociologists focused on condition in society that fostered social problems.  They investigated the process of migration, urbanization, and industrialization (Eitzen et al. 2009:7).  They looked for "pockets of social disorganization" (e.g., areas of the city that have high rates of in and out migration also have high rates of crime). 

C.     Modern Studies of Deviance

In the recent past, sociologists have returned to "the study of problem individuals" (Eitzen et al. 2009:7).  Eitzen et al (2009) point out two variations in the study of modern deviance.

1.     Merton - Social Strain Theory

Society provides goals and means to achieve those goals.  Deviance occurs when people recognize the goals, but don't have sufficient means to achieve those goals.

2.     Labeling Theory

Others explore the role of society in "creating and sustaining deviance through labeling those people viewed as abnormal.   Social reactions are viewed as the key in determining what a social problem is and who is deviant" (Eitzen et al. 2009:7).

D.The Subjective Nature of Social Problems

Some argue that what is considered a social problems is dependent on time and audience (Eitzen et al. 2009:8).  Unemployment is not a problem for everyone.  Nor is racism and sexism.  Pollution is not viewed the same by everyone.

Example:  Global warming is not a problem if you live in Greenland.

III.     Toward A Definition of Social Problems

A.     Objective Reality to Social Problems

Eitzen et al. (2009:8) argue that some social conditions are detrimental in any situation.  In this sense, they have an objective character (e.g., disease, flu, ebola). 

There are also conditions in society such as poverty, racism and sexism that cause material or psychological suffering for parts of the population.  They prevent members of society from developing and using their full potential.  This sort of suffering exists regardless of personal or cultural opinion. Those conditions are, therefore, social problems in any social setting.

1.     Bias

Bias is a preference or an inclination for something.   Bias can inhibit impartial judgment.  Realizing that we have biases is important. We have feelings and values. Such feelings and values determine what we study. However, once we have acknowledged our biases, we cannot only report facts that we discover that support our point of view.

B.     All Social Research is Political

Regarding the study of anything social, the research is either going to look at the characteristics of the individual or the social system within which a "problem" occurs. 

One approach accepts the definition of deviance and the other "undermines" that accepted definition

Both approaches are political, "yet there is a tendency to label as political only the research that challenges the system" (Eitzen et al. 2009:9).  When research does point to systemic issues that harm the position of the poor, often the charge of Bias is raised. 

C.     Official Definitions of Social Problems

We must not automatically accept only those definitions that define social problems from the point of view of those in power.

Eitzen et al. (2009:9) warns against accepting definitions of social problems provided by those in power.  "The powerful can define social reality in a way that manipulates public opinion."

D.     Public Opinion and the Media.

The mass-media is a primary source that defines social problems for many of us.

1.The Powerful Control the Media

Powerful interests control the mass media and, therefore, control public opinion. Often "relevant issues" are defined by those who wield power through the mass media.

The powerful, through the mass media, can set the agenda.

2.Conditions that Affect the Powerless are Ignored

The media may overlook conditions that are detrimental to the relatively powerless segments of society.

Attention is diverted to specific social instances and away from the cause of many social problems. There is a tendency to focus on the characteristics of individuals. As Skolnick and Currie  notes: "conventional social problem writing invariable returns to the symptoms of social ills rather than to the source" of those ills (Eitzen, 2000:7). 

By focusing on those who deviate, we often overlook the role of society's powerful. 

IV.     Types of Social Problems

A.     Norm Violations

Norm violations assume that a standard of behavior exists.  

People who study norm violations are interested in society's failures like the criminal, the mentally ill, or the school dropout. 

B.     Social Conditions

Eitzen et al. (2009:10) contends that norm violations are symptoms of social problems rather that the problem itself

Eitzen et al. (2009: 11) suggest that a second type of social problem involves conditions that cause psychic and material suffering for some category of people.  The focus is on how society operates and who benefits and who doesn't benefit under existing social arrangements. 

As people withdraw from the system that fails to meet their needs, they will be defined by that society as "bad people, but this is so because they live in bad societies"  (Eitzen et al. 2009:12).

V.     Sociological Imagination

The sociological imagination refers to the ability to see the relationship between individual experiences and the larger society (Kendall, 1998:7). 

As opposed to looking at isolated events (like slavery or drug abuse) by themselves, the student of social problems is encouraged to look at social problems in relation to other aspects of society like the economy, culture or religion

According to Mills (in Eitzen et al, 2009:14) "the task of sociology is to realize that individual circumstances are inextricably linked to the structure of society." 

To paraphrase C. Wright Mills (1959), people do not usually define their personal problems in terms of historical change and institutional contradictions. People do not usually think of the connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history.

People live out biographies in the context of world events that are in turn determined by historically specified conditions. Both the lives of individuals and the course of world history is understood simultaneously.

The Cause of Homelessness: Individual pathology or public policy

VI.     Social Structure As The Basic Unit of Analysis

A.     Person-Blame Approach

People generally understand social problems as some sort of pathology experienced by individuals.   This approaches to understanding social problems is what Eitzen calls the person-blame approach.

This approach tends to assume that universal norms exist.  Behavior is deviant depending on how much it strays from these norms.

Most people define a social problem as behavior that deviates from the norms and standards of society.

The system is not only taken for granted; it has, for most people, an aura of sacredness because of traditions and customs they associate with the system.

From the person-blame approach, those who deviate are seen as the source of trouble. The obvious question observers ask is, why do these people deviate from norms? Because most people view themselves as law abiding, they feel those who deviate do so because of some kind of unusual circumstances: accidents, illness, personal defect, character flaw, or maladjustment. For example, a person-blamer might argue that a poor person is poor because he or she is not bright enough to succeed.  In other words, the deviant is the cause of his or her own problem.

The following are examples of perspectives that  replay on person-blame approaches.

1.     Cultural Deprivation

Eitzen et al. (2009:16) contends that people who blame the victim often cite cultural deprivation as the "cause" of social problems.  Culture is seen as the "cause" of the problem.  In other words, people who blame the victims see the culture of the group with the problem as inferior and deficient when compared to the culture of the dominant group in society.

For example, kids who don't do well is school have parents who don't speak proper English or who are uneducated. 

2.     Recidivism

How successful are Prisons in rehabilitating criminals? Not VERY! Three-fourths of the released criminals are re-arrested within four years.  Recidivism refers to ex-offenders who are arrested for another criminal offense once they have been released from jail .

Why are recidivism rates so high?  The person-blame approach might argue that the fault lies in the characteristics of the individual.  Maybe they are greedy.  Perhaps they have higher than usual levels of aggression.  Person-blamers may also point out the ex-criminals lack of social controls (in Eitzen et al. 2009:16).

3.     Social Darwinism

The discoveries of Charles Darwin had a profound impact on other branches of scientific inquiry. Charles Darwin, of course, is famous for his Theory of Evolution. In the world of biology the species most fit survived while those less fit eventually became extinct.

Social Darwinism is a distorted view of Darwin's theory.   Many social scientists, most notably Herbert Spencer, attempted to apply the logic of Charles Darwin to the social world. The essence of the social Darwinist perspective is that races or cultures, who occupied a "superior position" in the social world, deserved that position because they were the most socially fit (Eitzen et al. 2009:18).

According to Spencer "the poor are poor because they are unfit." The poor are poor because they do not have the intellectual ability to be wealthy. 

Spencer argued that "poverty is nature's way of 'excreting ... unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members' of society in order to make room for the fit" (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:170). 

Social Darwinists, therefore, oppose social programs because, they argue, social programs perpetuate the existence of the unfit group who would probably disappear in the absence of social welfare.

B.     The Consequence of Blaming the Individual

1.     Person-Blame Distracts Attention Away from Institutions

When one uses only the person blame approach, it frees the government, the economy, and the educational system (among other institutions) from blame.  The person blame approach ignores the strains that are caused by inequalities within the system.

2.     Person-Blame Makes it More Difficult to Institute Systemic Change

Excluding the existing order from blame makes it that much more difficult to initiate change in economic, social, or political institutions. By replying on a personal-blame approach, societal conditions such as norms that are racist, sexist, or homophobic go unchallenged.

3.     Person-Blame Allows the Powerful to Control Dissidents

Blaming the individual allows the government to "control" dissidents more easily. Deviants are sent to prisons or hospitals for rehabilitation.

Replying on a personal-blame approach legitimizes social programs aimed at individuals.  It encourages treatment of the individual in terms of counseling, behavior modification, or psychotherapy.

4.     Person-Blame Reinforces Stereotypes

Person blame also has the potential to reinforce stereotypes. (e.g., the poor are poor because they are lazy.)

The person-blame approach tends to support the Social Darwinist position that people are placed in the system according to their ability or inability.

C.     The System-Blame Approach

This course often advocates a system-blame approach.

System-blamers argue that societal conditions are the primary source of social problems.

System-blamers suggest that the key to understanding social problems is understanding the distribution of power in society.

Example:  Student Failures --  System-blamers argue that student failure in school is linked to the failure of the education system to meet the needs of the students. 

Solutions to social problems are going to involve manipulating those structures which generate the problems.

Example:  Crime - The solution to crime might involve the establishment of education programs in prisons in order to improve literacy rates of those who are incarcerated.

D.     Problems with The System-blame Approach

1.     Sometimes Individuals are the Problem

Blaming the system also presents problems for social scientists as well. Ultimately the system is made up of people. Society results from the interaction of individuals. Individuals are sometimes aggressive, means, and nasty (Eitzen, 2000:14).   Systemic explanations for social problems is only part of the truth.  The system-blame approach may, therefore, absolve individuals from responsibility for their actions.


When a robber breaks into your house, damn the problems with the system. You have problems with that particular individual.

2.     System-Blame:  A Dogmatic Approach?

Blaming the system is only part of the truth.  Blaming the system tends to assume a very rigid dogmatic approach to the understanding of society. It tends to present a picture that people have no free will (Eitzen, 2000:15).

E.     Why I Use the System-Blame Approach?

I tend to use the system-blame approach for a couple of reasons.

VII.     The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a systematic, organized series of steps that ensures maximum objectivity and consistency in researching a problem (Schaefer and Lamm, 1992:35). The following are some components of the scientific method.

A.     Test Ideas

Don't take assumptions for granted. Don't rely on common sense. Don't rely on traditional authority figures.

B.     Evidence must Be Observable

Evidence should be observable because other Sociologists might want to perform the same study in order to verify or refute findings.

C.     Describe How Evidence is Gathered

Any study of society should specify the methods the researcher used to obtain his or her information, the setting (where the researcher conducted the study), and the population (whom they studied). This is done so that other social scientists may test your findings. Social scientists are cautious in accepting the findings of other. Studies are often replicated to verify findings of initial studies.

D.     Theory

A theory is a set of ideas [generalizations] supported by facts. Theories try to make sense out of those facts. Social scientists seldom accept theories as laws. Often they are not considered totally true. Furthermore, the subjects they attempt to explain (i.e., people and social institutions) are variable. Gergen (1982:12) in D'Andrade (p 27) states:

"It may be ventured that with all its attempts to emulate natural science inquiry, the past century of sociobehavioral research and theory has failed to yield a principle as reliable as Archimedes principle of hydrostatics or Galileo's Law of uniformly accelerated motion."

E.     Hypothesis

Because theories are general ideas, social scientists do not test them directly. A hypothesis is a speculative (or tentative) statement that predicts the relationship between two or more variables. It is, in essence, an educated guess. It specifies what the researcher expects to find. To be considered meaningful, a hypothesis must be testable; that is, capable of being evaluated (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 38).

VIII.     Basic Statistical Concepts

A.     Measures of Central Tendency: Mean and Median

1.     Mean

The mean, or average, is a number calculated by adding a series of values and then dividing by the number of values. For example, to find the mean of the numbers 5, 19, and 27, we add them and divide by the number of values (3). The mean would then be 17 (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 36).

2.     Median

The median is the midpoint or number that divides a series of values (which are ranked in ascending or descending order) (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 36).

B.     Rates & Percentages

A percentage is a portion based on 100. Use of percentages allows one to compare groups of different sizes.

Example: Comparing Populations of Different Sizes

If we are comparing contributors to a town's Baptist and Roman Catholic churches, the absolute numbers of contributors could be misleading if there were many more Baptists than Catholics living in the town. With percentages, we can obtain a more meaningful comparison, showing the proportion of persons in each group who contribute to their respective churches (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 36).

C.     Target Populations and Samples

The target population refers to everyone in a group that is studies.   For example, if one wants to know how people will vote in an election, the target population is everyone who is eligible to vote.  How can a researcher study a population as large as that of the United States? The answer is that one cannot study entire populations. Large populations are simply too big. The researcher, therefore, needs to look at a small subset of the population. We call this subset a sample. The trick is to make sure that your sample closely parallels the characteristics of the larger population.

1.     Random Sample

Henslin (1999:126) contends that a random sample is one in which everyone in a population has the same chance of being included in a study. A random sample is necessary if one is going to attempt to generalize the findings in a study to the larger population.

D.     Variables

A hypothesis poses a relationship between two or more aspects of   social relationships.  These aspects are called variables. A variable is a measurable trait or characteristic that is subject to change under different conditions.  Income, gender, occupation, and religion are variables.   Variables may be independent or dependent.

1.     Independent Variables

Independent variables in a hypothesis are those that influence or cause changes in another variable.  In other words, an independent variable is something that is chosen by the researcher to cause a change in another variable.

2.     Dependent Variables

The dependent variables are those variables are believed to be influenced by the independent variable (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992:38).

Example: Independent and Dependent Variables

Higher levels of education produce greater earnings. Education is the independent variable (it causes the change in income levels). Income level is the dependent variable. The income an individual earns "depends" or is determined by the influence of education.

E.     Correlation

A correlation exists when a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable.  The fact that a correlation exists means that the two variables are associated statistically with one another.  However, the mere fact that associations exist, does not necessarily mean that a change in one variable causes a change in another variable. Correlations are an indication that causality may be present.   They do not necessarily indicate causation (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 38).

One of the most common research mistakes is to assume that a high correlation between two variables means that one variable (independent) causes some change in another variable (dependent).

IX.     Methods of Gathering Data

Weber suggested that sociology needs several methods of investigation. The following material provides various benefits and problems associated with four methods of gathering data.

A.     Case Studies (field study)

1.     Description

2.     Advantages

3.     Disadvantages

B.     Participant Observation

1.     Description

  • Social scientists would use participant observation gain a close and intimate familiarity with a group of individuals and their practices.  Participant observation involves an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment, usually over an extended period of time.
  • Example:  A researcher conducting research on the homeless would live among the homeless day and night, sleeping on the street or at a shelter, and engaging in the same activities as the population he is studying. By doing so, the researcher would gather a broad understanding of the homeless, their needs, and characteristics.

2.     Advantages

  • Its advantages are that the researcher can study individuals in their natural setting (e.g., at home, at work, playing, etc.). Case studies provided volumes of information such that at the end of the study the researcher has a thorough understanding of the individuals involved in the study.

3.     Disadvantages

  • Drawbacks to the participant observation may be related to the fact that one does not merely observe.  The researcher must find a role within the group observed.  Overt participant-observation, therefore, is limited to contexts where the community under study understands and permits it. Participant observation is, therefore, restricted to the public events the observed group engages in. The researcher seldom is able to explore what happens "behind the scenes" in the group under investigation.

C.     The Survey (Interviews)

1.     Description

2.     Advantages

3.     Disadvantages

D.     Experiment

1.     Description

Kendall (1998:26) describes an experiment as a "carefully designed situation (often taking place in a laboratory) in which the researcher studies the impact of certain factors on subjects' attitudes or behaviors."

2.     Advantages

3.     Disadvantages

E.     Secondary Data Analysis (Existing data)

1.     Description

2.     Advantages

3.     Disadvantages


Eitzen, D. Stanley and Maxine Baca-Zinn

1986  Social Problems. (3rd Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

1994  Social Problems. (6th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2000  Social Problems. (8th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2003  Social Problems. (9th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Eitzen, D. Stanley, Maxine Baca-Zinn, and Kelly Eitzen Smith

2009  Social Problems. (11th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kendall, Diana

1998 Social Problems in a Diverse Society. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.