1 The social construction of social problems
1.1 What is ‘social’ about a social problem?
In the late twentieth century a list of current social problems in the UK might include poverty, homelessness, child abuse, disaffected young people and non-attendance at school, school discipline, the treatment of vulnerable people in institutional care, vandalism, road rage, lone parenting and divorce. This brief list was drawn up from news items on television and radio and in newspapers in the month that this course was being written. As you read this course, some of these may still be issues, some may have disappeared, while new problems may have attracted attention. It is not obvious what they have in common, except that they are the subject of current concern. That fact – the capturing of public interest, anxiety or concern – is probably the best place to start this discussion, since it suggests that one answer to what is ‘social’ about a social problem is that such problems have gained a hold on the attention of a particular society at a particular time.
There is a point in stressing the word ‘particular’ here. Other societies may be preoccupied by other problems: what commands public attention in Germany, the USA or China is likely to be different in at least some respects to what is a current social problem in the UK. It is also true that if we looked back at earlier historical periods, only some of the list of current social problems would be visible then. In the late nineteenth century, for example, we would find that poverty, the maltreatment of children and divorce were being discussed as social problems, but others on the list did not attract much attention. There are two possible explanations for such differences. One is that social problems change. If in the late nineteenth century there were no homeless people, then we would not expect homelessness to have been discussed as a social problem. The second reason is that what is perceived as a social problem may change. Thus there may indeed have been people who were homeless in the late nineteenth century, but their situation was perceived not as a social problem, but rather as a ‘fact of life’ or as the consequence of mere individual misfortune – neither of which would make it a social problem.
Writing in the 1950s, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959, pp. 7–10) drew a distinction between ‘personal troubles’ and ‘public issues’. He suggested that although there were many ‘troubles’ or ‘problems’ that individuals experienced in their lives, not all of these emerged as ‘public issues’ which commanded public interest and attention or which were seen as requiring public responses (‘what can we do about X?’). Mills's use of the term ‘personal’ may be slightly misleading, since it implies that it is the difference between individual and collective experience that matters. For us, however, the important distinction is between issues that are ‘private’ (that is, to be handled within households, families or even communities) and those which are ‘public’ (that is, to be handled through forms of social intervention or regulation). One factor that may make a difference to whether things are perceived as private troubles or public issues is scale or volume. If only a few people experience some form of trouble, then it is likely to remain a private matter and not attract public concern. If, however, large numbers of people begin to experience this same trouble – or fear they might – it may become a public issue. The process can probably best be explored with the help of an example.