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Social problems: Who makes them?
Social problems: Who makes them?

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1.3 Social problems and social policy

Whether social problems emerge as issues of social justice or social order, they are usually associated with the idea that ‘something must be done’. Social problems represent conditions that should not be allowed to continue because they are perceived to be problems for society, requiring society to react to them and find remedies. Where private troubles are matters for the individuals involved to resolve, public issues or social problems demand a public response. The range of possible public responses is, of course, very wide. At one extreme we might point to interventions that are intended to suppress or control social problems: locking people up, inflicting physical punishments or deprivations on them, even – in the most severe form – killing them. Such interventions are intended to stop social problems by means of controlling the people who are seen as problems (juvenile delinquents, drug takers, thieves, terrorists). Those who seek the suppression and control of social problems are usually, but not always, associated with the view that social problems are a challenge or threat to social order. The point about ‘not always’ is important, since sometimes these types of intervention are presented not in terms of protecting society or social order, but as being in ‘the best interests’ of the person being punished or ‘treated’: they need a ‘bit of discipline’, they respect ‘toughness’, and so on.

However, other interventions are intended to remedy or improve the circumstances or social conditions that cause problems – bringing about greater social justice, enhancing social welfare, or providing a degree of social protection. Thus, the development of welfare states in most advanced industrial societies during the twentieth century was associated with attempts to remedy social problems or to provide citizens with some collective protection from dangers to their economic and social well-being. In the process, a whole range of issues moved from being private troubles to becoming matters of public concern and intervention. Between the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, these societies redefined the distinction between private and public matters. Sending children to school became a matter of public compulsion rather than the private parental choice that it had been until the middle of the nineteenth century. Health became a focus of public finance, provision and intervention rather than being left to private arrangements. For most of the nineteenth century unemployment was seen as something that people chose (by refusing to take work), while for most of the twentieth century it has been seen as something against which collective action and defence by the state was necessary. Unemployment was not a social problem in the UK for most of the nineteenth century, although the unemployed themselves were certainly seen as a threat to social order (being beggars, thieves and a bad example to other workers).

In the process, citizens in advanced industrial societies came to associate social problems with social interventions – often involving action by the state – that were intended to reform or ameliorate the conditions that created problems. Social welfare, and the welfare state in particular, was intimately linked to social problems. The attempts to remedy social problems – combating illness, poverty or homelessness – drove the growth of the welfare state during the twentieth century. But the questions of whether these issues really are social problems and whether state welfare is the best remedy have reappeared towards the end of the twentieth century (see, for example, Hughes and Lewis, 1998). There are now echoes of the nineteenth-century arguments that many social problems are ‘really’ private troubles and not public issues, and therefore should not need social intervention by public agencies. The revival of such arguments is an important reminder that one central aspect of what is ‘social’ about social problems is the way in which these problems are socially perceived, defined and comprehended.

Different private troubles become defined as social problems in particular societies and in specific periods through a complex process of social construction. Social construction implies an active process of definition and redefinition in which some issues are widely understood to be social problems, while others are not. Just because unemployment was identified as a social problem – or public trouble – in the middle of the twentieth century, that does not mean that it will always be defined in this way. Even if unemployment remains defined as a social problem, it is not necessarily the case that the nature of the problem will always be understood in the same way. A move from the notion that unemployed people have problems to the idea that unemployed people are problems has major implications for the direction of public policy. If unemployment is understood as a problem created by a wider economic failure, then an appropriate policy response might be both to attempt to revitalise the economy in order to create jobs and to provide financial support in the meantime. If, however, unemployment is perceived to arise from either a failure of the unemployed to seek employment or the lack of necessary skills among unemployed people, then an appropriate policy response might be to discourage people from relying on state-provided income support (for example by reducing levels of benefit and introducing stricter rules on entitlement) and to encourage them to participate in relevant skills training. Since the mid-1980s in the UK there has been a marked shift in emphasis from the first to the second approach.