Why are social problems everybodys problem



■ Why are social problems everybody’s problem?

■ How does sociology differ from “common sense” in explaining social problems?

■ Do you agree with this statement: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”? Is this sound sociological thinking?

Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

Chapter 1



shooting started. The gravity of the situation did not hit me until later, when I picked up my boy from preschool and showed my wife where the shooting was in relation to my office—literally around the corner. The full extent of it did not dawn on me until the next morning, when all of the news outlets were still talking about it. Then I looked at myself in the mirror and realized: Students were shot and killed at my university.

—Joseph Flynn, a Northern Illinois University professor, explains his reaction to the violence that occurred on his campus when a person opened fire inside a lecture hall, killed five students and wounded 20 others, and then took his own life. (Flynn, Kemp, and Madrid, 2008:C1)


For those of us who spend our days in a college setting, few things scare us more thanthe thought that violence might shatter our “protected” social environment in a lecture hall or other campus facility. Sadly, however, such shootings are becoming an all- too-common occurrence in educational settings, from elementary and secondary schools to colleges and universities, across the United States. And schools are only one of the many settings in which seemingly random acts of violence, typically involving guns and multiple injuries or deaths, take place. Violence has also become all too common in locations such as shopping malls, workplaces, hospitals, and other public spaces. Regardless of where the violence occurs, it leaves behind shock and anguish. Violence is the use of physical force to cause pain, injury, or death to another or damage to property. On an almost daily ba- sis, the Internet and global television news channels quickly spread word of the latest bombing, the latest massacre, or the latest murder. In the United States today, gunfire is one of the leading causes of death—only vehicular accidents take a higher toll on the lives of young people in this country. Indeed, this country has the highest homicide rate of any high-income nation. In this chapter, we explore what we can learn from sociology about social problems such as this.

None of us thought it was gunshots. [The shooter] didn’t say a single word the whole time. He didn’t say get down. He didn’t say anything. He just came in and started shooting. . . . I’m not sure how long it lasted. It felt like a really long time but was probably only a minute or so. He looked like, I guess you could say, serious. He didn’t look frightened at all. He didn’t look angry. Just a straight face. . . .

—Trey Perkins, a Virginia Tech University student, describes a scene of violence in the lecture hall where his German class met. Before the lone gun- man ended his shooting spree, 33 people were dead and more than two dozen others were wounded. (MSNBC.com, 2007)

I was in my office in Northern Illinois’s Department of Teaching and Learning when the




Sociologists who specialize in the study of social problems often focus on violence as a pressing social issue because it inflicts harm not only on victims and their families but also on entire communities and the nation. The study of social problems is one area of inquiry within sociology— the academic discipline that engages in the systematic study of human society and social interactions. A socio- logical examination of social problems focuses primarily on issues that affect an entire society—a large number of individuals who share the same geographical territory and are subject to the same political authority and dom- inant cultural expectations—and the groups and organizations that make up that society. Culture refers to the knowledge, language, values, customs, and material objects that are passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society. Culture helps us to define what we think is right or wrong and to identify the kinds of behavior we believe should be identified as a social problem.

What Is a Social Problem?

A social problem is a social condition (such as poverty) or a pattern of behavior (such as substance abuse) that harms some individuals or all people in a society and that a sufficient number of people believe warrants public concern and collective action to bring about change. Social conditions or certain patterns of behavior are defined as social problems when they systematically disadvantage or harm a significant number of people or when they are seen as harmful by many of the people who wield power, wealth, and influence in a group or society. Problems that disadvantage or harm a signifi- cant number of people include violence, fear of crime, environmental pollution, and inadequate access to health care. Problems that may be viewed as harmful to people who have power, wealth, and influence are condi- tions that adversely affect their economic livelihood and social well-being, such as a weakening economy, inade- quate schools that do not produce the quality of workers that employers need, and high rates of crime that threaten their safety and security. To put it an- other way, social problems are social in their causes, consequences, and sources of possible resolution. Because social problems are social in their causes, public perceptions of what constitutes a social problem change

over time (see Table 1.1 on page 4). It is no surprise, for example, that concerns about war and terrorism are important to people in the United States today, whereas in times of peace concerns focus on issues such as drug abuse, poverty, and homelessness.

Sociologists apply theoretical perspectives and use a variety of research methods to examine social problems. Some social problems—such as violence and crime—are commonly viewed as conditions that affect all members of a population. Other social problems—such as racial discrimination—may be viewed (correctly or incor- rectly) as a condition that affects some members of a population more than others. However, all social prob- lems may be harmful to all members in a society whether they realize it or not. Sociological research, for example, has documented the extent to which racial dis- crimination by whites against African Americans and other people of color wastes the energies and resources of those individuals who engage in such racist actions as well as harming the targets of their actions (see Feagin and Sikes, 1994; Feagin and Vera, 1995).

Social problems often involve significant discrep- ancies between the ideals of a society and their actual achievement. For example, the United States was founded on basic democratic principles that include the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. The rights of individuals are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which also provides the legal basis for remedying injus- tices. Significant discrepancies exist, however, between the democratic ideal and its achievement. One such dis- crepancy is discrimination—actions or practices of dominant group members (or their representatives) that have a harmful impact on members of subordi- nate groups. Discrimination may be directed along class, racial, gender, and age lines. It also may be di- rected against subordinate group members whose sex- ual orientation, religion, nationality, or other attributes are devalued by those who discriminate against them. Sometimes, discrimination is acted out in the form of violence. This type of violent act is referred to as a hate crime—a physical attack against a person be- cause of assumptions regarding his or her racial group, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orienta- tion, national origin, or ancestry. Hate crime laws have been adopted on the federal and state level that increase the penalties for crimes committed when the perpetra- tor is motivated by the race, color, national origin, reli- gion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability of the victim. However, these laws vary widely, and seven states have no hate crime laws. Among those states that

Using Sociological Insights to Study Social Problems 3



have passed hate crime laws, some of the laws do not protect sexual orientation, which has been the most hotly debated issue regarding hate crime legislation. For many people, hate crimes are a personal problem because they believe that they have been the victim of violent attacks based on their race, sexual orientation, or both. Some analysts believe that people of color in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) community are at greater risk of violence. As a Human Rights Campaign activist explained, “When a GLBT person of color is targeted for hate violence, it is difficult—if not impossible—to separate out race, sex- ual orientation, or gender identity discrimination in the treatment of the victim and the victim’s family and loved ones” (Human Rights Campaign, 2003).

When hate crimes have been reported prominently by the news media, some political leaders have taken a stronger stand against such violence, thus moving the problem from the personal to the social level. For exam- ple, when an African-American man in New York City was attacked with a baseball bat, leaving him with a fractured skull, the city’s mayor made public appear- ances around the city to show that the city would actively confront racial violence and would not tolerate it. As Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stated, “I cannot stress it enough: We are going to live together, and no-

body, nobody, should ever feel that they will be attacked because of their ethnicity, their orientation, their reli- gion, where they live, their documented status, or any- thing else. Period. End of story” (quoted in Rutenberg and Kilgannon, 2005:A15). Public statements such as this and corresponding changes in social policy and law are the point at which personal problems and social issues begin to connect. Sociologists use a perspective known as the sociological imagination to explain this phenomenon.

The Sociological Imagination: Bringing Together the Personal

and the Social

How do our personal problems relate to the larger social problems in our society and around the world? Although each of us has numerous personal problems, ranging from how to pay our college tuition and where to find a job to more general concerns about safety, health, and war, we are not alone in these problems, and there are larger societal and global patterns that we can identify that are related to these issues. In one of the most popular phrases in the social sciences, the sociologist C. Wright Mills uniquely captured the

TABLE 1.1 Changing Perceptions of What Constitutes a Social Problem, 1950–2008

Nationwide polls taken over the last half century reflect dramatic changes in how people view social problems. Notice how responses to the question “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” have changed over the years.

1950 1965 1975

War 40% Civil rights 52% High cost of living 60%

The economy 15% Vietnam War 22% Unemployment 20%

Unemployment 10% Other international problems

14% Dissatisfaction with government


Communism 8% Racial strife 13% Energy crisis 7%

1990 2005 2008

Budget deficit 21% War in Iraq 19% The economy 35%

Drug abuse 18% The economy/jobs 18% Situation in Iraq/War 21%

Poverty, homelessness 7% Terrorism (general) 6% Health care 8%

The economy 7% Health care 5% Fuel/oil prices 8%

Social Security 4% Immigration/Illegal aliens 6%

Moral/family values 4% Unemployment/jobs 5%

Sources: New York Times, 1996b; The Polling Report, 2005; Gallup, 2008.

4 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century



essence of how our personal troubles are related to the larger social issues in society. According to Mills, the sociological imagination is the ability to see the rela- tionship between individual experiences and the larger society. The sociological imagination enables us to connect the private problems of individuals to public issues. Public issues (or social problems) are matters beyond a person’s control that originate at the regional or national level and can be resolved only by collective action. Mills (1959b) used unemployment as an exam- ple of how people may erroneously separate personal troubles from public issues in their thinking. The unemployed individual may view his or her unemploy- ment as a personal trouble concerning only the individual, other family members, and friends. However, widespread unemployment resulting from economic changes, corporate decisions (downsizing or relocating a

plant abroad), or technological innovations (computers and advanced telecommunications systems displacing workers) is a public issue. The sociological imagination helps us to shift our focus to the larger social context and see how personal troubles may be related to public is- sues. For example, it is easy for the victims of violent crimes and their families to see themselves as individual victims rather than placing such attacks within the larger, collective context of a society that often tolerates violence.

Sociologists make connections between personal and public issues in society through microlevel and macrolevel analysis. Microlevel analysis focuses on small-group relations and social interaction among individuals. Using microlevel analysis, a sociologist might investigate how fear of unemployment affects workers and their immediate families. In contrast, macrolevel analysis focuses on social processes occurring at the societal level, especially in large-scale organizations and major social institutions such as politics, government, and the economy. Using macrolevel analysis, a sociologist might examine how the loss of millions of jobs in recent decades has affected the U.S. economy. As Mills suggested, a systematic study of a social problem such as unemployment gives us a clearer picture of the relationship between macrolevel structures such as the U.S. economy and microlevel social interactions among people in their homes, work- places, and communities.

What can we gain by using a sociological per- spective to study social problems? A sociological examination of social problems enables us to move beyond myths and common-sense notions, to gain new insights into ourselves, and to develop an aware- ness of the connection between our own world and the worlds of other people. According to sociologist Peter Berger (1963:23), a sociological examination al- lows us to realize that “things are not what they seem.” Indeed, most social problems are multifaceted. When we recognize this, we can approach pressing national and global concerns in new ways and make better decisions about those concerns. By taking a global perspective on social problems, we soon realize that the lives of all people are closely intertwined and that any one nation’s problems are part of a larger global problem. Examining violence as a social prob- lem, for example, makes it possible for us to look at the causes and consequences of this type of behavior on a global basis. It also makes it possible for us to look more closely at our own society to see how we respond to such problems through social policy.

■ Although some people think that being unemployed is a personal problem, widespread unemployment is a public issue. These laid-off employees are only a few of the thousands of U.S. workers who have lost their jobs in recent years. What can we gain by applying a sociological perspective to social problems such as un- employment?

Using Sociological Insights to Study Social Problems 5



An example is the renewed call by many members of society for gun control in the aftermath of each new episode of gun-related violence and the contradictory assertion from organizations such as the National Rifle Association that gun-control laws are neither needed nor effective (see Box 1.1). As this example shows, what constitutes a social problem and what should be done about that problem is often a contro- versial topic.



A subjective awareness that a social problem exists usu- ally emerges before the objective reality of the problem is acknowledged. Subjective awareness tends to be

It’s not that I run around scared all day long, but if something happens to me, I do want to be prepared.

—Brent Tenney describes why he carries a loaded 9 mm semiautomatic with him to class at the University of Utah (MSNBC.com, 2007).

I don’t see the need for [a gun] here, so that could only lead to trouble.

—Timmy Allin, another University of Utah student, believes that guns on campus might create more problems than they solve (MSNBC.com, 2007).

Although Utah is the only state (as of 2008) that has enacted a law expressly allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons on public college campuses, the issue of whether students, fac- ulty, and staff (in addition to public safety personnel) should be allowed to possess guns or other concealed weapons on campuses comes up each time another shooting occurs at a U.S. college or university (Archibold, 2008). Although social policy questions regarding this issue typically are framed in terms of “concealed weapons,” the focus of these discussions is primarily on guns. As Katherine S. Newman and her associ- ates found in a study of public school violence, gun availabil- ity is a key reason why many school shootings are so deadly: “Mass murders tend not to happen—in school or anywhere else—when knives are the only weapon available” (Newman,

Fox, Harding, Mehta, and Roth, 2005:69). As the number of guns in the United States has doubled over the past four decades, to more than 200 million today, young people’s access to guns has also increased rapidly. To curb the high number of deaths related to firearms in this nation, pro-gun control advocates believe that we need social policies that reg- ulate the gun industry and gun ownership. However, oppo- nents of gun-control measures argue that regulation will not curb random violence perpetrated by a few disturbed or frus- trated individuals.

What is social policy and how is it supposed to alleviate such

problems as violence in society? Social scientists use the term

social policy to refer to a written set of ideas and goals that are for-

mally adopted by a relevant decision-making body, for example, a

government bureaucracy, a state legislature, or the U.S. Congress.

According to the sociologist Joel Best (1999:143), we often think

of social policy as a means of “declaring war” on a social problem.

Social policy discussions on gun-related violence at the state and

federal levels have focused on how to win the “war” on guns.

However, as Best (1999:147) notes,“Warfare presumes that fight-

ing the enemy is a common cause for the entire society; individu-

als should set aside their doubts and reservations and join in

the larger struggle. . . . Declaring war, then, is a call for a united,

committed campaign against a social problem.”

In the case of gun-related violence, there is a profound

lack of societal consensus on the causes of the problem and

what should be done about it. Some favor regulation of the

gun industry and gun ownership; others believe that regula-

tion will not curb random violence perpetrated by frustrated

individuals. Underlying the arguments for and against gun

control are these words from the Second Amendment to the

Social Problems and Social Policy “Packing Heat”: Should College Students Be Allowed to Carry Guns on Campus?

Box 1.1

6 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century



Do We Have a Problem? Subjective Awareness and Objective Reality 7

expressed as a feeling of uneasiness or skepticism about something, but the feeling is not founded on any con- crete evidence that a problem actually exists. A subjec- tive awareness that there is potential for violent acts in public settings such as schools, day-care centers, businesses, and churches exists even when there has been no recent violence in one of these settings. However, when new killings take place, our subjective awareness shifts to being an objective reality.

Consider, for example, the differences in subjective awareness and objective reality when it comes to vio- lence in the media. Many people feel uncomfortable with the increasingly graphic nature of portrayals of

violence on television and in films and video games. Initially, parents have a subjective awareness that these depictions might be harmful for their children and perhaps for the larger society. However, it is only when we have facts to support our beliefs that there is a link between media violence and actual behavior that we move beyond a subjective awareness of the issue. Indeed, recent studies show that media violence may in- fluence how people think and act. According to one study, boys and girls who watch a lot of violence on television have a heightened risk of aggressive adult behavior including spousal abuse and criminal offenses (Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, and Eron, 2003).

U.S. Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to

the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and

bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Those in favor of legislation

to regulate the gun industry and gun ownership argue that the

Second Amendment does not guarantee an individual’s right

to own guns: The right “to keep and bear Arms” applies only to

those citizens who do so as part of an official state militia

(Lazare, 1999:57). However, in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court

ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s

right to own a gun for personal use. In other words, people

have a constitutionally protected right to keep a loaded hand-

gun at home for self-defense. This is in keeping with an argu-

ment long made by spokespersons for the National Rifle

Association (NRA), a powerful group with about 4 million

members nationwide and a $20 to $30 million lobbying

budget, which has stated that gun control regulations violate

the individual’s constitutional right to own a gun (Schwartz,

2008) and would not be an effective means of curbing random

acts of violence on school campuses and elsewhere.

What solutions exist for the quandary over gun regula-

tions? Best notes that declaring war on a social problem such

as gun-related violence is difficult for several reasons. First,

social problems are not simple issues: Most problems have

multiple causes and a variety of possible solutions. Second, it

is difficult to determine what constitutes victory in such a war.

Third, it takes a long time to see the outcome of changes in

social policies, and efforts to produce change may receive

reduced funding or be eliminated before significant changes

actually occur. Finally, it is impossible to rally everyone be-

hind a single policy, and much time is therefore spent arguing

over how to proceed, how much money to spend, and who or

what is the real enemy (Best, 1999). In the final analysis, the

problem of gun violence is a chronic problem in the United

States that has yet to be successfully addressed by social policy

and its implementation.

In the meantime, we return to the question we initially

raised about students possessing guns at college. Those per-

sons who believe that students should be allowed to carry

guns on campus for self-defense assert that no acts of violence

have occurred at universities where students are legally

allowed to carry concealed handguns. They also note that

many states set the legal age limit at 21 for obtaining a con-

cealed handgun license, which means that the students who

obtain such a license typically are juniors or seniors, not

beginning college students. By contrast, those individuals and

organizations that strongly object to non–law enforcement

personnel “packing heat” on college campuses argue that

when guns are readily available, there is a greater likelihood of

lethal outcomes because people have violent force right at

their fingertips when they fear for their safety or become

involved in an emotionally volatile situation.

What will be the future of guns on college campuses? If

the past is any indication, people will let the issue drop during

the time period when no violence occurs, but when the next

episode of violence transpires, there will be new demands

from state lawmakers, gun-control advocates, and gun rights

lobbyists to turn their specific point of view into legislation,

perhaps including a law granting students the right to carry

firearms at their college or university. How do you feel about

this very polarizing social policy issue? Would you feel

more—or less—safe if you knew that more people were carry-

ing concealed weapons on your campus?

Box 1.1 (continued)



8 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

Moreover, the American Psychological Association has concluded that viewing violence on television and in other media does promote aggressive behavior in chil- dren as well as in adults (Ritter, 2003). Children’s identi- fication with television characters and the perceived realism of television violence may be linked to aggres- sion in adulthood, regardless of a child’s intellectual ability or his or her family income level. The more that children watch media violence, the more likely they are to participate in rough play and eventually to engage in violence as adults (Zimring and Hawkins, 1997; Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, and Eron, 2003). As researchers gather additional data to support their arguments, the link between extensive media watching and the potential for violence grows stronger, moving into the realm of objective reality rather than being merely a subjective awareness of isolated individuals.

However, even the gathering of objective facts does not always result in consensus on social issues. Individuals and groups may question the validity of the facts, or they may dispute the facts by using other data that they hope demonstrate a different perspective. Examples of objective conditions that may or may not be considered by every- one to be social problems include environmental pollu- tion and resource depletion, war, health care, and changes in moral values. Religious and political views influence how people define social problems and what they think the possible solutions might be. Often, one person’s solu- tion to a problem is viewed as a problem by another person. For example, some people see abortion as a solu- tion to an unwanted pregnancy, whereas others believe that abortion is a serious social problem. Abortion and end-of-life decisions (such as assisted suicide and “right to die” cases) are only two of the many issues that are strongly influenced by religion and politics in the United States. To analyze the conditions that must be met before an objective reality becomes identified as a social prob- lem, see Box 1.2.

Just like other people, sociologists usually have strong opinions about what is “good” and “bad” in society and what might be done to improve conditions. However, so- ciologists know their opinions are often subjective. Thus, they use theory and systematic research techniques and report their findings to other social scientists for consider- ation. In other words, sociologists strive to view social problems objectively. Of course, complete objectivity may not be an attainable—or desirable—goal in studying hu- man behavior. Max Weber, an early German sociologist, acknowledged that complete objectivity might be impos- sible but pointed out that verstehen (“understanding” or “insight”) was critical to any analysis of social problems.

According to Weber, verstehen enables individuals to see the world as others see it and to empathize with them. Verstehen, in turn, enables us to use the sociological imag- ination and employ social theory rather than our own opinions to analyze social problems.


To determine how social life is organized, sociologists de- velop theories and conduct research. A theory is a set of logically related statements that attempt to describe, ex- plain, or predict social events. Theories are useful for explaining relationships between social concepts or phe- nomena, such as age and unemployment. They also help us to interpret social reality in a distinct way by giving us a framework for organizing our observations. Sociologists refer to this theoretical framework as a perspective—an overall approach or viewpoint toward some subject. Three major theoretical perspectives have emerged in sociology: the functionalist perspective, which views soci- ety as a basically stable and orderly entity; the conflict per- spective, which views society as an arena of competition and conflict; and the interactionist perspective, which focuses on the everyday, routine interactions among indi- viduals. The functionalist and conflict perspectives are based on macrolevel analysis because they focus on social processes occurring at the societal level. The interactionist perspective is based on microlevel analysis because it fo- cuses on small-group relations and social interaction.

The Functionalist Perspective

The functionalist perspective grew out of the works of early social thinkers such as Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the founder of sociology. Comte com- pared society to a living organism. Just as muscles, tissues, and organs of the human body perform specific functions that maintain the body as a whole, the various parts of society contribute to its maintenance and preservation. According to the functionalist perspective, society is a stable, orderly system composed of a num- ber of interrelated parts, each of which performs a function that contributes to the overall stability of so- ciety (Parsons, 1951). These interrelated parts are social institutions (such as families, the economy, education, and the government) that a society develops to organize its main concerns and activities so that social needs are



Which of the following is defined as a major social problem in the United States?

• Driving a motor vehicle, which results in approximately 43,000 U.S. deaths each year

• Playing contact sports in school, which results in many injuries and deaths among young people

• Hunting for wild game, which results in numerous injuries and deaths among hunters and bystanders

If you answered, “None of the above,” you are correct. Although driving a motor vehicle, playing contact sports, and hunting may have hazardous potential consequences, few people view these actions in and of themselves as being a so- cial problem. In other words, not all behavior that may result in violence or even death is classified as a social problem.

What questions should we ask to determine if something is a social problem? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Is there a public outcry about this conduct or this condi- tion? Are people actively discussing the issue and demand- ing that a resolution be found?

2. Does the conduct or condition reflect a gap between so- cial ideals and social reality? What social ideals are in- volved? What is the social reality about the situation?

3. Are a large number of people involved in defining the problem and demanding that a solution be found? Does the matter have national attention? If not, is a special- interest group the primary source of demands that some- thing be done about the condition?

4. Can a solution be found for the problem? If not, can we reduce the problem or alleviate the suffering of some victims of the problem?

Based on these questions, what pressing social issues are we overlooking in our nation or on a global basis that should be considered as social problems requiring immediate action? What issues receive too much attention from the media and the public? How do culture, religion, and politics influence our definition of what constitutes a social problem?

met. Each institution performs a unique function, con- tributing to the overall stability of society and the well- being of individuals (Merton, 1968). For example, the functions of the economy are producing and distribut- ing goods (such as food, clothing, and shelter) and serv- ices (such as health care and dry cleaning), whereas the government is responsible for coordinating activities of other institutions, maintaining law and order, dealing with unmet social needs, and handling international relations and warfare.

Manifest and Latent Functions

Though the functions of the economy and the govern- ment seem fairly clear-cut, functionalists suggest that not all the functions of social institutions are intended and overtly recognized. In fact, according to the func- tionalist perspective, social institutions perform two different types of societal functions: manifest and latent. Manifest functions are intended and recognized consequences of an activity or social process. A mani- fest function of education, for example, is to provide

students with knowledge, skills, and cultural values. In contrast, latent functions are the unintended conse- quences of an activity or social process that are hidden and remain unacknowledged by participants (Merton, 1968). The latent functions of education include the babysitter function of keeping young people off the street and out of the full-time job market and the matchmaking function whereby schools provide opportunities for students to meet and socialize with potential marriage partners. These functions are latent because schools were not created for babysitting or matchmaking, and most organizational participants do not acknowledge that these activities take place.

Dysfunctions and Social Disorganization

From the functionalist perspective, social problems arise when social institutions do not fulfill their func- tions or when dysfunctions occur. Dysfunctions are the undesirable consequences of an activity or social process that inhibit a society’s ability to adapt or adjust (Merton, 1968). For example, a function of education is

Determining What Constitutes a Social Problem

Using Social Theory to Analyze Social Problems 9

Critical Thinking and You Box 1.2



10 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

urbanization, the process by which an increasing pro- portion of a population lives in cities rather than in rural areas. During this period of rapid technological and social change, a sharp increase occurred in urban social problems such as poverty, crime, child labor, inad- equate housing, unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and environmental pollution.

Applying the Functionalist Perspective to Problems of Violence

Some functionalists believe that violence arises from a condition of anomie, in which many individuals have a feeling of helplessness, normlessness, or alienation. Others believe that violence increases when social institutions such as the family, schools, and religious organizations weaken and the main mechanisms of social control in people’s everyday lives are external (i.e., law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system).

One functionalist explanation of violence, known as the subculture of violence hypothesis, states that vio- lence is part of the normative expectations governing everyday behavior among young males in the lower classes (Wolfgang and Ferracuti, 1967). Violence is con- sidered a by-product of their culture, which idealizes toughness and even brutality in the name of masculinity. According to criminologists Marvin E. Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti (1967), violent subcul- tures (for example, violent juvenile gangs, neo-Nazi skinhead groups, and some organized crime groups) are most likely to develop when young people, particu- larly males, have few legitimate opportunities available in their segment of society and when subcultural values accept and encourage violent behavior. In this context, young people come to consider aggression or violence a natural response to certain situations. However, this explanation has been criticized for exclusively focusing on violence among young males in the lower classes but providing no explanation regarding violence perpe- trated by people in the middle or upper classes.

Still other functionalist explanations of violence focus on how changes in social institutions put some people at greater risk of being victims of violent crime than others. According to the lifestyle-routine activity approach, the patterns and timing of people’s daily movements and activities as they go about obtaining the necessities of life—such as food, shelter, compan- ionship, and entertainment—are the keys to under- standing violent personal crimes and other types of crime in our society (Cohen and Felson, 1979). Among the changes over the past fifty years that have increased violent crime in the United States are more families in

to prepare students for jobs, but if schools fail to do so, then students have problems finding jobs, employers have to spend millions of dollars on employee training programs, and consumers have to pay higher prices for goods and services to offset worker training costs. In other words, dysfunctions in education threaten other social institutions, especially families and the economy.

Dysfunctions can occur in society as a whole or in a part of society (a social institution). According to func- tionalists, dysfunctions in social institutions create social disorganization in the entire society. Social disor- ganization refers to the conditions in society that undermine the ability of traditional social institu- tions to govern human behavior. Early in the twentieth century, sociologists Robert E. Park (1864–1944) and Ernest W. Burgess (1886–1966) developed a social dis- organization theory to explain why some areas of Chicago had higher rates of social deviance, which they defined as a pattern of rule violation, than other areas had. Social disorganization causes a breakdown in the traditional values and norms that serve as social control mechanisms, which, under normal circumstances, keep people from engaging in nonconforming behavior. Values are collective ideas about what is right or wrong, good or bad, and desirable or undesirable in a specific society (Williams, 1970). Although values pro- vide ideas about behavior, they do not state explicitly how we should behave. Norms, on the other hand, have specific behavioral expectations. Norms are established rules of behavior or standards of conduct. French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) suggested that social problems arise when people no longer agree on societal values and norms. According to Durkheim, periods of rapid social change produce anomie—a loss of shared values and sense of purpose in society. During these periods, social bonds grow weaker, social control is diminished, and people are more likely to engage in nonconforming patterns of behavior such as crime.

Early sociologists, examining the relationship be- tween social problems and rapid industrialization and urbanization in Britain, western Europe, and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen- turies, noted that rapid social change intensifies social disorganization. Industrialization is the process by which societies are transformed from a dependence on agriculture and handmade products to an emphasis on manufacturing and related industries. At the begin- ning of the Industrial Revolution, thousands of people migrated from rural communities to large urban centers to find employment in factories and offices. New social problems emerged as a result of industrialization and



which both parents (or the sole parent) work outside the home, more people living by themselves, shopping hours extended into the night, and more people eating outside the home (Parker, 1995). Social structure may also put constraints on behavior, thus making certain people more vulnerable to violent attack (e.g., people who are required to work at night). The lifestyle-routine activity approach suggests that people who willingly put themselves in situations that expose them to the poten- tial for violent crime should modify their behavior or that society should provide greater protection for people whose lifestyle routine leaves them vulnerable to attack- ers. The lifestyle-routine activity approach is good as far as it goes, but it does not address the issue of violence in the home and other supposedly safe havens in society.

How would a functionalist approach the problem of violence? Most functionalists emphasize shared moral values and social bonds. They believe that when rapid social change or other disruptions occur, moral values may erode and problems such as school violence or hate crimes are likely to occur. Functionalists believe that to reduce violence, families, schools, religious or- ganizations, and other social institutions should be strengthened so that they can regenerate shared values and morality. Most functionalists also believe that those who engage in violent criminal behavior should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The functional approach to social problems has been criticized for its acceptance of the status quo and for its lack of appreciation of how problems in society are associated with vast economic and social inequality, racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimina- tion that keep our society from being an equal playing field for everyone.

The Conflict Perspective

The conflict perspective is based on the assumption that groups in society are engaged in a continuous power struggle for control of scarce resources. Unlike func- tionalist theorists, who emphasize the degree to which society is held together by a consensus on values, conflict theorists emphasize the degree to which society is charac- terized by conflict and discrimination. According to some conflict theorists, certain groups of people are priv- ileged while others are disadvantaged through the unjust use of political, economic, or social power. Not all con- flict theorists hold the same views about what constitutes the most important form of conflict. We will examine two principal perspectives: the value conflict perspective and the critical-conflict perspective.

The Value Conflict Perspective

According to value conflict theorists, social problems are conditions that are incompatible with group values. From this perspective, value clashes are ordinary occur- rences in families, communities, and the larger society, in which individuals commonly hold many divergent values. Although individuals may share certain core val- ues, they do not share all values or a common culture. As previously stated, culture refers to the knowledge, language, values, customs, and material objects that are passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society.

Discrepancies between ideal and real culture are a source of social problems in all societies. Ideal culture refers to the values and beliefs that people claim they hold; real culture refers to the values and beliefs that they actually follow. In the United States, for example, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), La Raza, the Ku Klux Klan, and the White Aryan Resistance all claim to adhere to ideal cultural values of equality, freedom, and liberty; however, these ideal cultural values come into direct conflict with real cultural val- ues when issues of racial-ethnic relations arise. Urban marches and protest rallies held by members of the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan on Martin Luther King Day, which celebrates the birthday of the African- American minister and civil rights activist who was murdered in 1968, are a concrete example of the clash between ideal and real cultural values. The value con- flict perspective has been criticized by critical-conflict theorists, who argue that it overlooks the deeper social problems of inequality and oppression based on class, race, and gender.

Critical-Conflict Perspective

Unlike the value conflict approach, critical-conflict theo- rists suggest that social problems arise out of the major contradictions inherent in the way societies are organ- ized. Some critical-conflict perspectives focus on class inequalities in the capitalist economic system; others focus on inequalities based on race, ethnicity, or gender.

Most class perspectives on inequality have been strongly influenced by Karl Marx (1818–1883), a German economist and activist, who recognized that the emergence of capitalism had produced dramatic and irreversible changes in social life. Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private ownership of the means of production, from which personal profits can be derived through market competition

Using Social Theory to Analyze Social Problems 11



12 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

and without government intervention. In contempo- rary capitalist economies, businesses are privately owned and operated for the profit of owners and cor- porate shareholders. According to Marx, members of the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie), who own and con- trol the means of production (e.g., the land, tools, factories, and money for investment), are at the top of a system of social stratification that affords them different lifestyles and life chances from those of the members of the working class (the proletariat), who must sell their labor power (their potential ability to work) to capitalists. In selling their labor power, members of the working class forfeit control over their work, and the capitalists derive excessive profit from the workers’ labor.

Marx believed that capitalism led workers to experi- ence increased levels of impoverishment and alienation— a feeling of powerlessness and estrangement from other people and from oneself (Marx and Engels, 1847/1971:96). He predicted that the working class would eventually overthrow the capitalist economic system. Although Marx’s prediction has not come about, Erik Olin Wright (1997) and other social scientists have modi- fied and adapted his perspective to apply to contemporary capitalist nations. In today’s capitalist nations, according to Wright, ownership of the means of production is only one way in which people gain the ability to exploit others.

Two other ways in which indi- viduals gain control are through control of property and control over other people’s labor. In this view, upper-level managers and others in positions of authority gain control over societal resources and other individuals’ time, knowledge, and skills in such a manner that members of the upper classes are able to maintain their dominance (Wright, 1997).

Some critical-conflict per- spectives focus on racial and gender subordination instead of class-based inequalities. Critical-conflict theorists who emphasize discrimination and inequality based on race or ethnicity note that many social problems are rooted in the continuing exploitation and subordination of people of color by white people. For example, some scholars suggest

that Native Americans have the highest rates of poverty in the United States because of extended periods of racial subordination and exploitation throughout this country’s history (see Feagin and Feagin, 2008).

Critical-conflict theorists who use a feminist approach focus on patriarchy, a system of male domi- nance in which males are privileged and women are oppressed. According to a feminist approach, male domination in society contributes not only to domestic violence, child abuse, and rape but also to poverty and crimes such as prostitution. Feminist scholars state that gender inequality will not be eliminated in the home, school, and workplace until patriarchy is abolished and women and men are treated equally.

Finally, there are some critical-conflict theorists who note that race, class, and gender are interlocking systems of privilege and oppression that result in social problems. For example, black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins (1990) has pointed out that race, class, and gender are simultaneous forces of oppression for women of color, especially African-American women. Critical- conflict analysts focusing on these intersections believe that equality can come about only when women across lines of race and class receive equal treatment (Andersen and Collins, 2001; Collins, 1995). Throughout this text,

■ Business scandals such as the one involving Enron Corporation show the wide gap between those corporate executives who made millions of dollars from questionable business practices that eventually brought down their companies and the employees who lost their jobs and benefits when those companies folded.



we will use critical-conflict theory (rather than the value conflict approach) to highlight the power relations that result in social problems.

Applying the Conflict Perspective to Problems of Violence

Conflict theorists who focus on class-based inequali- ties believe that the potential for violence is inherent in capitalist societies. In fact, say these theorists, the wealthy engage in one form of violence, and the poor engage in another. They note that the wealthy often use third parties to protect themselves and their fami- lies from bodily harm as well as to secure their prop- erty and investments in this country and elsewhere in the world. For example, the wealthy who live in the United States or other high-income nations and own factories (or own stock in factories) in middle- and low-income nations use the governments and police of those nations—third parties—to control workers who threaten to strike. The wealthy also influence U.S. government policy. For instance, they are likely to support U.S. military intervention—and thus vio- lence—in nations where they have large investments at stake. However, sometimes the wealthy want the U.S. government to look the other way and not

intervene in these nations in order to protect invest- ments in countries in which dictators have made their investments profitable.

In contrast, these theorists say, when the poor en- gage in violence, the violence is typically committed by the individual and is a reaction to the unjust social and economic conditions he or she experiences daily on the bottom rung of a capitalist society. The eco- nomic exploitation of the poor, these theorists note, dramatically affects all aspects of the individual’s life, including how the person reacts to daily injustices, stress, and other threatening situations. In violent street crimes, the vast majority of offenders—as well as victims—are poor, unemployed, or working in low-level, low-paying jobs. In fact, most violent street crime is an intraclass phenomenon: Poor and work- ing-class people typically victimize others who are like themselves.

The conflict perspective argues that the criminal justice system is biased in favor of the middle and upper classes. Because it is, its definition of violence depends on where a person’s race, class, and gender locate him or her in the system of stratification. In this way, violent crimes are but one part of a larger system of inequality and oppression. Sexism and racism are reinforced by the overarching class structure that bene- fits the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Exploitation of people of color and the poor creates a sense of hopelessness, frustration, and hostility in them that may boil over into violent acts such as rape or murder. At the same time, it is important to note that violent acts, including murder, occur across all class and racial-ethnic categories in the United States.

The conflict perspective that focuses on feminist issues specifically examines violence against women, for example, rape and most spousal abuse. One femi- nist perspective suggests that violence against women is a means of reinforcing patriarchy. According to the feminist perspective, in a patriarchal system, the sexual marketplace is characterized by unequal bar- gaining power, making transactions between men and women potentially coercive in nature. Gender stratifi- cation is reinforced by powerful physical, psycholog- ical, and social mechanisms of control, including force or the threat of force. Fear of violence forces women to change their ways of living, acting, and dressing and thus deprives them of many basic free- doms (see Gardner, 1995).

The conflict perspective that focuses on racial-ethnic inequalities points out that racism is an important factor in explaining such violent acts as hate crimes. Some

Using Social Theory to Analyze Social Problems 13

■ Low-income African American women are dispro- portionately affected by flooding, property damage, and housing displacement that occur as a result of hurricanes and other natural disasters. Feminist critical-conflict theorists believe that African American women face a system of interlocking oppression of race, class, and gender that intensifies this problem.



14 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

analysts trace contemporary brutality against African Americans, particularly men, to earlier periods when hanging or dragging was used to punish slave insurrections and to keep African Americans subservient during the Reconstruction and the subsequent years of legal racial segregation in the South (see Feagin and Feagin, 2008).

No matter what approach conflict theorists take, they all agree on one thing: Violence is unlikely to diminish significantly unless inequalities based on class, gender, and race are reduced at the macrolevel in society. However, social problems must also be exam- ined at the microlevel, where individuals actually live their daily lives.

The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

Unlike the conflict perspective, which focuses on macrolevel inequalities in society, the symbolic inter- actionist perspective focuses on a microlevel analysis of how people act toward one another and how they make sense of their daily lives. The symbolic interac- tionist perspective views society as the sum of the in- teractions of individuals and groups. Most symbolic interactionists study social problems by analyzing how certain behavior comes to be defined as a social problem and how individuals and groups come to en- gage in activities that a significant number of people and/or a number of significant people view as a major social concern.

What is the relationship between individuals and the society in which they live? One early sociologist attempted to answer this question. German sociolo- gist Georg Simmel (1858–1918), a founder of the interactionist approach, investigated the impact of industrialization and urbanization on people’s values and behavior within small social units. Simmel (1902/1950) noted that rapid changes in technology and dramatic urban growth produced new social problems by breaking up the “geometry of social life,” which he described as the web of patterned social interactions among the people who constitute a soci- ety. According to Simmel, alienation is brought about by a decline in personal and emotional contacts. How people interpret the subjective messages that they receive from others and the situations that they encounter in their daily life greatly influences their behavior and their perceptions of what constitutes a social problem.

Labeling Theory and the Social Construction of Reality

While Simmel focused on how people interpret their own situations, other symbolic interactionists have ex- amined how people impose their shared meanings on others. According to sociologist Howard Becker (1963), moral entrepreneurs are people who use their own views of right and wrong to establish rules and label others as deviant (nonconforming). Labeling theory, as this perspective is called, suggests that behavior that deviates from established norms is deviant because it has been labeled as such by others. According to this theory, deviants (nonconformists) are people who have been successfully labeled as such by others. Labeling theory raises questions about why certain individuals and certain types of behavior are labeled as deviant but others are not.

According to some symbolic interaction theorists, many social problems can be linked to the social con- struction of reality—the process by which people’s per- ception of reality is shaped largely by the subjective meaning that they give to an experience (Berger and Luckmann, 1967). From this perspective, little shared reality exists beyond that which people socially create. It is, however, this social construction of reality that influ- ences people’s beliefs and actions.

Other symbolic interactionists suggest that how we initially define a situation affects our future actions. According to sociologist W. I. Thomas (1863–1947), when people define situations as real, the situations become real in their consequences. Elaborating on Thomas’s idea, sociologist Robert Merton (1968) has suggested that when people perceive a situation in a cer- tain way and act according to their perceptions, the end result may be a self-fulfilling prophecy—the process by which an unsubstantiated belief or prediction results in behavior that makes the original false conception come true. For example, a teenager who is labeled a “juvenile delinquent” may accept the label and adopt the full-blown image of a juvenile delinquent as por- trayed in television programs and films: wearing gang colors, dropping out of school, and participating in gang violence or other behavior that is labeled as deviant. If the teenager subsequently is arrested, the ini- tial label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Applying Symbolic Interactionist Perspectives to Problems of Violence

Symbolic interactionist explanations of violence begin by noting that human behavior is learned through



social interaction. Violence, they state, is a learned re- sponse, not an inherent characteristic, in the individual. Some of the most interesting support for this point of view comes from studies done by social psychologist Albert Bandura, who studied aggression in children (1973). Showing children a film of a person beating, kicking, and hacking an inflatable doll produced a violent response in the children, who, when they were placed in a room with a similar doll, duplicated the per- son’s behavior and engaged in additional aggressive behavior. Others have noted that people tend to repeat their behavior if they feel rewarded for it. Thus, when people learn that they can get their way by inflicting violence or the threat of violence on others, their aggressive behavior is reinforced.

Symbolic interactionists also look at the types of social interactions that commonly lead to violence. According to the situational approach, violence results from a specific interaction process, termed a “situa- tional transaction.” Criminologist David Luckenbill (1977) has identified six stages in the situational trans- action between victim and offender. In the first stage, the future victim does something behavioral or verbal that is considered an affront by the other (e.g., a glare or an insult). In the second, the offended individual veri- fies that the action was directed at him or her person- ally. In the third, the offended individual decides how to respond to the affront and might issue a verbal or behavioral challenge (e.g., a threat or a raised fist). If the problem escalates at this point, injury or death might occur in this stage; if not, the participants enter into the fourth stage. In this stage, the future victim further escalates the transaction, often prodded on by onlook- ers siding with one party or the other. In the fifth stage, actual violence occurs when neither party is able to back down without losing face. At this point, one or both parties produce weapons, which may range from guns and knives to bottles, pool cues, or other bludg- eoning devices, if they have not already appeared, and the offender kills the victim. The sixth and final stage involves the offender’s actions after the crime; some flee the scene, others are detained by onlookers, and still others call the police themselves.

The situational approach is based, first, on the as- sumption that many victims are active participants in the violence perpetrated against them and, second, on the idea that confrontation does not inevitably lead to violence or death. As Robert Nash Parker (1995) has noted, in the first four stages of the transaction, either the victim or the offender can decide to pursue another course of action.

According to symbolic interactionists, reducing vio- lence requires changing those societal values that encour- age excessive competition and violence. At the macrolevel, how the media report on violence may influ- ence our thinking about the appropriateness of certain kinds of aggressive behavior (see Box 1.3 on page 16). However, change must occur at the microlevel, which means that agents of socialization must transmit differ- ent attitudes and values toward violence. The next generation must learn that it is an individual’s right— regardless of gender, race, class, religion, or other attrib- utes or characteristics—to live free from violence and the devastating impact it has on individuals, groups, and the social fabric of society.


Sociologists use a variety of research methods to study social problems such as violence. Research methods are strategies or techniques for systematically collect- ing data. Some methods produce quantitative data that can be measured numerically and lend themselves to statistical analysis. For example, the Uniform Crime Report (UCR), published annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, provides crime statistics that sociologists and others can use to learn more about the nature and extent of violent crime in the United States. Other research methods produce qualitative data that are reported in the form of interpretive de- scriptions (words) rather than numbers. For example, qualitative data on violence in the United States might provide new insights on how the victims or their fami- lies and friends cope in the aftermath of a violent attack such as school shootings or terrorist bombings.

Sociologists use three major types of research methods: field research, survey research, and secondary analysis of existing data. Although our discussion fo- cuses on each separately, many researchers use a combi- nation of methods to enhance their understanding of social issues.

Field Research

Field research is the study of social life in its natural setting: observing and interviewing people where they live, work, and play. When sociologists want firsthand information about a social problem, they

Using Social Research Methods to Study Social Problems 15



16 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

Social Problems in the Media Box 1.3

“If It Bleeds, It Leads”? News Reporting on Violence

More than 140 killed and dozens of others seriously in- jured in new violence in Tibet.

Local man shoots his wife and two children, and then turns the gun on himself.

Animal control officers confiscate 23 neglected dogs and cats at a local residence.

Will it rain anytime soon? Stay tuned and we’ll tell you all about it.

Anyone who has watched the evening news on local television has heard “teasers” such as these. On both local and national news, the lead story is often about war- or terror-related vio- lence, followed by violence in the United States or the local com- munity. Then a human interest story follows to grab viewers’ attention and give them a feeling of revulsion about the brutal mistreatment of children or animals. Frequent viewers are aware that stations use routine formulas for putting together the nightly news; however, many are less aware of how stories are written and presented. For this reason, sociologists with an in- terest in the media study how journalists, pro- ducers, and others frame news stories about events and social problems. Members of the me- dia have the power to determine what makes the news, including which stories get covered, what news items get the most attention, how journal- ists organize and present their stories, and what effects a particular story might have on viewers. To study social problems effectively we must be aware of how both politics and media processes shape popular understanding and policy re- sponses to pressing social issues such as violence.

In an analysis of media processes, we use the term media framing to describe the process by which information and entertainment is pack- aged by the media (newspapers, magazines, radio and television networks and stations, and the Internet) before being presented to an audience. How the media frame stories about social prob- lems influences how we ourselves view the causes, effects, and possible solutions to the problem.

In the process of framing a news story, journalists engage in frame amplification, meaning that they highlight some issues, events, or beliefs while downplaying or neglecting other seem- ingly less important concerns. When news frames highlight some key details or privilege certain stories over others, we say that the highlighted factors are elevated in salience—they are made more noticeable, meaningful, or memorable to audiences. One way in which the reporting of violence is given salience, for example, is the extent to which a few stories garner most of the media coverage, and, in the most widely publicized cases, gain twenty-four-hour coverage of the “latest breaking news.” Sensational murder trials are covered around the clock, even when journalists have nothing new to report.

Another way in which the reporting of violence is given salience is through episodic news framing, which focuses on the role of the individual while discounting societal factors. Episodic framing tells a news story in terms of personal experience, focus- ing on the part that individuals play in a situation. As one report concluded, “Generally speaking, newspaper and television jour- nalists report a small percentage of individual violent incidents at great length and with great precision” (Stevens, 2001:7); how- ever, this approach typically neglects the bigger picture of factors that may increase the risk of violence. These factors include “the ready availability of firearms and alcohol, racial discrimination,

■ This commuter, waiting at a station in London for a train to get him home on the evening of July 7, 2005, reads a newspaper whose front- page headline tells of the deadly bombings earlier in the day that rocked the city’s subway system and tore apart a double-decker bus.




Using Social Research Methods to Study Social Problems 17

often use participant observation—field research in which researchers collect systematic observations while participating in the activities of the group they are studying. Field research on social problems can take place in many settings, ranging from schools and neighborhoods to universities, prisons, and large corporations.

Field research is valuable because some kinds of behavior and social problems can be studied best by being there; a more complete understanding can be developed through observations, face-to-face discus- sions, and participation in events than through other research methods. For example, field research on gang violence led sociologist Martin Sánchez Jankowski (1991) to conclude that most gang members do not like violence and fear that they might be injured or killed in violent encounters. As a result, gang members engage in collective violence only to accomplish spe- cific objectives such as asserting authority or punishing violations by their own members who are incompetent or who break the gang’s code. Violence against other gangs occurs primarily when gang members feel

unemployment, violence in the media, lack of education, abuse as a child, witnessing violence in the home or neighborhood, isolation of the nuclear family, and belief in male dominance over females” (Stevens, 2001:8). Episodic framing highlights the importance of individual responsibility for acts of violence and reinforces the dominant ideology that individuals must be held accountable for their actions. This type of framing suggests to media audiences that public officials, business leaders, and other influential people are not accountable for any part that they may have played in creating a situation that produced the violence. For example, lobbyists who pressure legislators to pass lenient gun-control legislation (or none at all) are seldom held account- able for gun-related deaths, nor are the legislators and politicians who control the political process.

Standing in sharp contrast to episodic framing is the- matic framing, which provides a more impersonal view of what the nature of the social problem is. Journalists using thematic framing often tell the story through the use of sta- tistics and discussions of trends (“Is the problem growing worse?” “Should we fear for our safety?”). Thematic framing emphasizes “facts” based on statistical data, such as the

number of people killed in drive-by shootings or school vi- olence in recent years. Thematic framing does not focus on the human tragedy of social problems such as violence or poverty, and when bombarded by continuous coverage of this sort, television viewers may conclude that little can be done about the problem. Rather than hearing from the vic- tims of gun violence or poverty, for example, media reports typically emphasize “expert opinion” from “talking heads” who provide information that often supports the reporter’s own point of view.

Would you like to more closely study how the media frame stories about social problems? Select one or more of these problems and identify recurring framing patterns you can find in media coverage:

War in Iraq Social Security

Economy/Jobs Terrorism

Health care Education

Based on Kendall, 2005; Iyengar, 1990, 1991.

Box 1.3 (continued)

■ Using field research, sociologists have studied gang violence and found that gang members are not all alike. Some do not approve of violence; others engage in violence only to assert authority; still others may engage in violence only when they feel threatened or want to maintain their territory.



Secondary Analysis of Existing Data

Whereas the NCVS is primary data—data that researchers collected specifically for that study—sociologists often rely on secondary analysis of existing data—a research method in which investigators analyze data that origi- nally were collected by others for some other purpose. This method is also known as unobtrusive research because data can be gathered without the researcher’s having to interview or observe research subjects. Data used for secondary analysis include public records such as birth and death records, official reports of organizations or governmental agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau, and information from large databases such as the general social surveys, which are administered by the National Opinion Research Center.

Secondary analysis often involves content analy- sis, a systematic examination of cultural artifacts or written documents to extract thematic data and draw conclusions about some aspect of social life. For example, for the National Television Violence Study, researchers at several universities conducted content analyses of violence in television programming. During a nine-month period each year from October 1994 to June 1997, researchers selected a variety of programs, including drama, comedy, movies, music videos, reality programs, and children’s shows on twenty-three television channels, thus creating a com- posite of the content in a week of television viewing. The viewing hours were from 6:00 A.M. until 11:00 P.M., for a total of seventeen hours a day across the seven days of the week (National Television Violence Study, 1998). Although the study’s findings are too numerous to list all of them, here are a few (NTVS, 1998: 26–31):

• Much of television violence is glamorized, sanitized, and trivialized. Characters seldom show remorse for their actions, and there is no criticism or penalty for the violence at the time that it occurs.

• Across the three years of the study, violence was found in 60 percent of the television programs taped—only a few of which carried anti- violence themes—and the networks and basic cable stations increased the proportion of programs con- taining violence during prime time (the three-hour period each night that draws the most viewers).

• “High-risk” depictions (those that may encourage ag- gressive attitudes and behaviors) often involve: (1) “a

threatened or need to maintain or expand their opera- tions in a certain area. According to Jankowski, gang members use collective violence to achieve the goals of gang membership (proving their masculinity and toughness, providing excitement, and maintaining their reputation) mainly when they are provoked by others or when they are fearful.

Sociologists who use field research must have good interpersonal skills. They must be able to gain and keep the trust of the people they want to observe or inter- view. They also must be skilled interviewers who can keep systematic notes on their observations and conver- sations. Above all, they must treat research subjects fairly and ethically. The Code of Ethics of the American Sociological Association provides professional stan- dards for sociologists to follow when conducting social science research.

Survey Research

Survey research is probably the research method that is most frequently used by social scientists. Survey re- search is a poll in which researchers ask respondents a series of questions about a specific topic and record their responses. Survey research is based on the use of a sample of people who are thought to represent the attributes of the larger population from which they are selected. Survey data are collected by using self- administered questionnaires or by interviewers who ask questions of people in person or by mail, tele- phone, or the Internet.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, for example, con- ducts survey research every year with its national crime victimization survey (NCVS), which fills in some of the gaps in the UCR data. The NCVS interviews 100,000 randomly selected households to identify crime vic- tims, whether the crime has been reported or not. These surveys indicate that the number of crimes committed is substantially higher than the number reported in the UCR.

Survey research allows sociologists to study a large population without having to interview everyone in that population. It also yields numerical data that may be compared between groups and over periods of time. However, this type of research does have certain limitations. The use of standardized questions limits the types of information researchers can obtain from respondents. Also, because data can be reported numerically, survey research may be misused to over- estimate or underestimate the extent of a specific problem such as violence.

18 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century



Is There a Solution to a Problem Such as Gun Violence? 19

perpetrator who is an attractive role model”; (2) “vio- lence that seems justified”; (3) “violence that goes un- punished”; (4) “minimal consequences to the victim”; and (5) “violence that seems realistic to the viewer.”

• The typical preschool child who watches cartoons regularly will come into contact with more than 500 high-risk portrayals of violence each year. For preschoolers who watch television for two to three hours a day, there will be, on average, about one high-risk portrayal of violence per hour in cartoons.

Clearly, researchers can learn much from content analy- sis that they could not learn through other research methods because it allows them to look in more depth at a specific topic of concern and to systematically ana- lyze what they find.

A strength of secondary analysis is its unobtrusive nature and the fact that it can be used when subjects refuse to be interviewed or the researcher does not have the opportunity to observe research subjects firsthand. However, secondary analysis also has inherent problems. Because the data originally were gathered for some other purpose, they might not fit the exact needs of the researcher, and they might be incomplete or inaccurate.


Sociologists view social problems from a variety of per- spectives. As shown in Table 1.2 on page 20, each socio- logical perspective is rooted in different assumptions, identifies differing causes of a problem, and suggests a variety of possible solutions for reducing or eliminating a social problem such as gun violence.

Functionalists, who emphasize social cohesion and order in society, commonly view social problems as the result of institutional and societal dysfunctions, social disorganization, or cultural lag, among other things. Conflict theorists, who focus on value conflict or on structural inequalities based on class, race, gen- der, or other socially constructed attributes, suggest that social problems arise either from disputes over divergent values or from exploitative relations in soci- ety, such as those between capitalists and workers or between women and men. In contrast, symbolic interactionists focus on individuals’ interactions and on the social construction of reality. For symbolic interactionists, social problems occur when social interaction is disrupted and people are dehumanized,

when people are labeled deviant, or when the individ- ual’s definition of a situation causes him or her to act in a way that produces a detrimental outcome.

No matter what perspectives sociologists employ, they use research to support their ideas. All research methods have certain strengths and weaknesses, but taken together, they provide us with valuable insights that go beyond commonsense knowledge about social problems and stereotypes of people. Using multiple methods and approaches, sociologists can broaden their knowledge of social problems such as violence in the United States and other nations.

In this chapter, we have looked at violence from these sociological perspectives. Like many other social problems, people do not always agree on the extent to which gun violence really is a major social problem in the United States or if the media tend to overblow each isolated incident because it can easily be sensa- tionalized by tying it to other, previous occurrences. For example, how was the shooting at Virginia Tech similar to, or different from, the one that occurred at Northern Illinois University? Just as people do not share a consensus on what constitutes a social prob- lem, they often do not agree on how to reduce or solve problems such as gun violence.

Functionalist/Conservative Solutions

Those who adhere to a functionalist approach argue that violence can be reduced by strengthening major social in- stitutions (such as the family, education, and religion) so that agents (such as parents, teachers, and spiritual lead- ers) can be effective in instructing children and young adults and thereby repressing negative attitudes and anti- social behaviors that might otherwise result in violent behavior, such as school and mall shootings.

Some people who embrace a functionalist theoret- ical perspective on violence also view themselves as be- ing aligned with conservative political sectors that are comprised of individuals who believe that people should be free of government intervention and control when it comes to their “fundamental” rights, including the right to bear arms. From this side of the political arena, social policy solutions to reducing violence, such as passing and enforcing more stringent gun-control measures, are unacceptable means of trying to reduce the number of acts of violence that take place each year. Some political conservatives argue that gun con- trol constitutes an aggressive disarmament strategy that violates the individual’s constitutional rights while



be tolerated because these contribute to larger societal problems of violence and crime.

Conflict/Liberal Solutions

Unlike functionalist sociological perspectives and con- servative political approaches to solving the problem of violence, conflict theorists and liberal political ana- lysts generally view increasing social inequality and unresolved discrimination as major factors that con- tribute to violence in societies. Some conflict theorists highlight the ways in which social problems are linked to the lack of agreement on values in our society. Critical-conflict theorists emphasize that oppression, based on class, race, gender, and other social divisions, is a major factor that contributes to social problems such as gun violence. In the political arena, liberal analysts similarly emphasize how a lack of economic

20 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

undermining the nation’s overall well-being as a demo- cratic and “free” society.

To reduce violence in the United States, the func- tionalist approach would suggest that it is important to maintain and preserve traditional moral and social val- ues. Functionalists and political conservatives also believe that we should reinforce the importance of conformity to society’s rules and laws through effective use of the criminal justice system, including the pas- sage of tougher laws, more aggressive policing, and the imposition of more severe penalties in the courtroom. Conservative political viewpoints tend to reaffirm this approach by suggesting that positive social behavior, as well as violent behavior, is passed down from genera- tion to generation through families. As a result, positive behavior must be reinforced through positive family life. Child abuse, domestic violence, and other anti- social behavioral problems within the family must not

TABLE 1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems

Perspective Analysis Level

Nature of Society and Origins of Social Problems

Causes and Solutions to Violence

Functionalism Macrolevel Society is composed of interrelated parts that work together to maintain stability within society. Social problems result from dysfunctional acts and institutions.

The weakening of social institutions such as schools, families, and religion has produced an increase in violent behavior. Social institutions must be strengthened, and individuals should be taught to conform to society’s rules, which must be reinforced by the criminal justice system.

Conflict Theory Macrolevel Society is characterized by conflict and inequality. Value conflict theory attributes social problems to lack of agreement on values. Critical-conflict theory focuses on oppression due to class, race, gender, and other social divisions.

Factors such as sharp divisions on values, increasing social inequality, and unresolved discrimination contribute to violence in capitalist societies. To significantly reduce violence, fundamental changes are needed in political and economic institutions to bring about greater equality.

Symbolic Interactionism

Microlevel Society is the sum of the interactions of people and groups. Social problems are based on the behavior people learn from others; how people define a social problem is based on subjective factors.

Violence is learned behavior, and children must be taught attitudes and values that discourage such behavior. At the societal level, we must change those societal values that encourage excessive competition and violence.



opportunities encourages violence in a society. Based on these viewpoints, if we are to significantly reduce violence in our society, we must push for major changes in our nation’s political and economic insti- tutions. From this approach, one factor contributing to gun violence is poverty and growing inequality. Research has shown, for example, that the risk of sus- taining a firearm injury is greatest for young males who have already been involved in the criminal justice system and who have few opportunities for legitimate jobs. Although functionalist theorists might view this situation as being one in which behavioral interven- tions should occur that target these high-risk people and those individuals who supply them with guns and other contraband items, conflict analysts argue that the problem can only be solved if underlying prob- lems such as poverty, racism, and chronic unemployment are systematically addressed rather than focusing on the people who commit gun-related violence or on suppressing the availability of firearms throughout the nation. From this approach, ways to eventually reduce gun-related violence might include passing legislation that requires that workers be paid a wage high enough that they can adequately support their families, improving public schools so that young people will receive a better education and be able to find decent jobs, and having community, state, and national economic development programs that create good jobs and benefit all people, not just a small percentage of the world’s wealthiest people. This approach is most useful in explaining violence in low- income urban areas and other communities where few legitimate opportunities exist for individuals and most economic opportunities are of an illegal nature. It does not explain, however, why recent gun violence has been perpetrated by middle- and upper-middle- class high school students living in the suburbs and by college students with good academic records who ap- pear to have a bright future in front of them.

Symbolic Interactionist Solutions

Finally, symbolic interactionist perspectives focus on how violence is learned behavior that comes from peo- ple’s interactions in their daily lives. As a result, if we are to prevent violence, we must teach children the attitudes and values that discourage such behavior. If children are exposed to aggressive behavior or violence in their own homes, they may come to view such behavior as the

norm rather than the exception to the norm. Some ana- lysts believe that those children who spend large amounts of unsupervised time watching violence in films and on television or playing violent video games will demonstrate more violent behavior themselves. However, other analysts disagree with this assessment, claiming that violence in the media and gaming worlds provides people with an opportunity to vicariously vent their frustrations and feelings without ever actually en- gaging in violence themselves. Since peer groups are an important source of social learning for children and young people, some symbolic interactionists might sug- gest that parents, teachers, and other adult caregivers must become aware of the friends and acquaintances of the children for whom they are responsible.

Based on symbolic interactionist perspectives, one way to reduce violence is to teach people of all ages to engage in nonviolent conflict resolution where they learn how to deal with frustrating situations, such as when tensions are running high among individuals or social relationships are breaking down. The focus on competition in nations such as ours encourages people to think of everyone else as their competitors and that, in all situations, what one individual gains is another person’s loss. Beliefs such as this tend to foster conflict rather than cooperation, and individuals who think that they have been marginalized (and thus taken out of the competition for friends, material possessions, or other valued goods, services, or relationships) may act out toward their perceived enemies in an aggressive or vio- lent manner. If people learn socially acceptable ways of responding to conflict and intense competition, they may be less likely to engage in violent behavior. However, according to symbolic interactionists and other theorists who use a microlevel approach, we must first recognize as a community or nation that violence is a problem that must be solved, and then we must work collectively to reduce the problem. Although the sym- bolic interactionist approach is a microlevel perspective, some advocates suggest that changes must also be made at the societal level if we hope to change those societal values that encourage excessive competition and may contribute to negative behavior including gun violence.

Critique of Our Efforts to Find Solutions

How successful are our attempts to solve the problem of gun violence? The answer to this question is mixed. The United States has been somewhat successful in reducing

Is There a Solution to a Problem Such as Gun Violence? 21



22 CHAPTER 1 Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

certain types of violence, at least for several years run- ning; however, most of our efforts have focused on par- ticular types of violence or particular populations or categories of people, rather than on bringing about sys- temic change throughout the nation. Unless our nation and its political leaders face up to the fact that violence in this country is a major social problem that may lie dormant for a period of time but then rise up to leave us frightened and astonished, we are unlikely as a nation to seriously deal with the underlying causes and conse- quences of such violent actions, which is a necessary prerequisite for reaching the point where we might suc- cessfully reduce the problem. The following words in an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published ten years ago, perhaps said it best:

We know that violence is widespread, long lasting, and harmful to human health—in short, a major public

health problem. Violence prevention is a maturing dis- cipline, and there are still opportunities to character- ize poorly understood violent outcomes. However, the current state of knowledge is more than sufficient to emphasize the urgent nature of finding solutions. The problems and questions are complex, yet clear. It’s time for some real answers. (Cole and Flanagin, 1999:482)

And so it remains a decade later: When we think about the problem of gun violence or other pressing social issues that we will examine in this book, we must acknowledge that we have a long way to go in identifying real solutions to many of these problems, and that is why it is important that you are enrolled in this course and pursuing new ideas for the future. Please join me now as we explore a number of crucial problems we face in the twenty-first century.


■ How do sociologists define a social problem?

According to sociologists, a social problem is a social condi- tion (such as poverty) or a pattern of behavior (such as sub- stance abuse) that people believe warrants public concern and collective action to bring about change.

■ How do sociologists view violence?

Sociologists view violence as a social problem that involves both a subjective awareness and objective reality. We have a subjective awareness that violence can occur in such public settings as schools, day-care centers, businesses, and churches. Our subjec- tive awareness becomes an objective reality when we can meas- ure and experience the effects of violent criminal behavior.

■ How do sociologists examine social life?

Sociologists use both microlevel and macrolevel analyses to examine social life. Microlevel analysis focuses on small- group relations and social interaction among individuals; macrolevel analysis focuses on social processes occurring at the societal level, especially in large-scale organizations and major social institutions.

■ How does the functionalist perspective view society and social problems?

In the functionalist perspective, society is a stable, orderly sys- tem composed of interrelated parts, each of which performs a

function that contributes to the overall stability of society. According to functionalists, social problems such as violence arise when social institutions do not fulfill the functions that they are supposed to perform or when dysfunctions occur.

■ How does the conflict perspective view society and social prob- lems?

The conflict perspective asserts that groups in society are engaged in a continuous power struggle for control of scarce resources. This perspective views violence as a response to inequalities based on race, class, gender, and other power differentials in society.

■ How does the value conflict perspective differ from the critical- conflict perspective?

According to value conflict theorists, social problems are condi- tions that are incompatible with group values. From this per- spective, value clashes are ordinary occurrences in families, communities, and the larger society, in which people com- monly hold many divergent values. In contrast, critical-conflict theorists suggest that social problems arise out of major contradictions inherent in the way societies are organized.

■ Why are there so many different approaches in the conflict perspective?

Different conflict theorists focus on different aspects of power relations and inequality in society. Perspectives based on the



Questions for Critical Thinking 23

works of Karl Marx emphasize class-based inequalities arising from the capitalist system. Feminist perspectives focus on patriarchy—a system of male dominance in which males are privileged and women are oppressed. Other perspectives em- phasize that race, class, and gender are interlocking systems of privilege and oppression that result in social problems. However, all of these perspectives are based on the assumption that inequality and exploitation, rather than social harmony and stability, characterize contemporary societies.

■ How does the symbolic interactionist perspective view society and social problems?

Unlike the functionalist and conflict perspectives, which fo- cus on society at the macrolevel, the symbolic interactionist

perspective views society as the sum of the interactions of in- dividuals and groups. For symbolic interactionists, social problems occur when social interaction is disrupted and peo- ple are dehumanized, when people are labeled deviant, or when the individual’s definition of a situation causes him or her to act in a way that produces a detrimental outcome.

■ How do sociological research methods differ?

In field research, sociologists observe and interview people where they live, work, and play. In survey research, sociolo- gists use written questionnaires or structured interviews to ask respondents a series of questions about a specific topic. In secondary analysis of existing data, sociologists analyze data that originally were collected for some other purpose.


capitalism, p. 11 conflict perspective, p. 11 culture, p. 3 discrimination, p. 3 field research, p. 15 functionalist perspective, p. 8 hate crime, p. 3 industrialization, p. 10 lifestyle-routine activity

approach, p. 10 macrolevel analysis, p. 5

microlevel analysis, p. 5 norms, p. 10 perspective, p. 8 secondary analysis of existing

data, p. 18 self-fulfilling prophecy, p. 14 situational approach, p. 15 social disorganization, p. 10 social problem, p. 3 society, p. 3 sociological imagination, p. 5


1. The functionalist perspective focuses on the stability of society. How do acts of violence undermine stability? Can a society survive when high levels of violence exist within its borders? Do you believe that violence can be controlled in the United States?

2. Value conflict theorists suggest that social problems are conditions that are incompatible with group values. How would value conflict theorists view debates over gun-control laws?

3. Some critical-conflict theorists believe that social problems arise from the major contradictions inherent in capitalist economies. What part do guns play in a capitalist economy?

4. Using feminist and symbolic interactionist perspectives, what kind of argument can you make to explain why males are more frequently involved in acts of physical violence than females? What do your own observations tell you about the relationship between social norms and aggressive or violent behavior?

sociology, p. 3 subculture of violence

hypothesis, p. 10 survey research, p. 18 symbolic interactionist

perspective, p. 14 theory, p. 8 urbanization, p. 10 values, p. 10 violence, p. 2




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