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

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2 ‘What everybody knows’

2.1 Common sense and social problems

This concern with social construction may seem troubling or even a distraction from the real business of studying social problems. However, it is built on one of the starting points of the social scientific approach, namely that in order to study society we must distance ourselves from what we already know about it. We need to become ‘strangers’ in a world that is familiar. The defining characteristic of a ‘stranger’ is that she or he does not know those things which we take for granted. Strangers require the ‘obvious’ to be explained to them. In doing social science, then, there is a need to stand back from what we already know or believe and be distanced from, or sceptical about, those things which ‘everybody knows’. Let us go back to the list of current social problems mentioned at the start of the course and look in more detail at the issue of poverty. What is it that ‘everybody knows’ about poverty in our society?

Activity 2

Make your own list of ‘what everybody knows’ about poverty and then compare it with our ‘comment’.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Poverty in the UK today: a growing social problem, or no problem at all?


Our list of ‘what everybody knows’ is as follows:

  • There is no real poverty in Britain today.

  • There are more people living in poverty now than in the 1970s.

  • Nobody needs to be poor.

  • Some people would be poor no matter how much you helped them.

  • Poor parents produce poor children.

  • There are too many people in jobs with low wages.

  • People wouldn't be poor if they knew how to manage better.

  • Poverty acts as a spur to try hard.

  • Government polices have made the rich richer and the poor poorer.

  • People have become too dependent on state hand-outs.

  • People are stuck in poverty traps.

  • There will always be people who won't help themselves.

We have seen or heard all of these statements. Each of them has been announced with the certainty of truth. ‘What everybody knows’ turns out to be simultaneously over-simplified, complicated and contradictory. Each statement constructs the problem of poverty in a different way and implies different types of causes. One contribution that social scientists are expected to make is to say, ‘well, that may be what you think, but the real facts are these …’. It is, however, not quite so easy. One reason for this is that defining poverty is itself a contested issue – should it mean an absolute lack of resources or should it be measured relative to the standards of the particular society? Even if agreement could be found on the definition, this still leaves open the issue of how to interpret or explain those ‘facts’.

An alternative starting point is to examine how poverty is socially constructed as a problem – to scrutinise ‘what everybody knows’, alongside public, political and policy definitions of the problem and to disentangle the constructions that we find. This means that the practice of social science involves what we might call ‘systematic scepticism’ – distancing oneself from the ‘common-sense’ understandings.

Let us turn back to our list of statements about poverty and see if we can identify some of the key features of how poverty is socially constructed in the UK today. The first striking feature is that there are conflicting definitions about whether or not poverty is a current social problem. Those who view poverty as meaning an absolute lack of resources can see no problem: poverty simply does not exist in the UK (although it may do in other parts of the world). Such a view is contested by those who define poverty in relative terms and argue that poverty has, in fact, increased – for them it is a growing social problem. This suggests that ‘poverty’ is not simply a matter of academic definition but is at the centre of conflicting social understandings about whether people are ‘really’, ‘truly’ or ‘genuinely’ poor. If we believe they are not, there is no social problem which requires attention or any social response. This is the first, and simplest, split in common-sense (and political) debate about poverty: is it a social problem or not?

The second striking feature of these ‘everybody knows’ statements is that they evoke widely divergent views of poor people and the causes of poverty. This common sense about poverty is contradictory and contested. Some people look to the ‘external’ causes of poverty – the social, economic and political conditions that make some people poor. Others look to the ‘internal’ causes of poverty – the attitudes, behaviours or morals that lead some people to make themselves poor. What is noticeable is that even brief statements such as ‘nobody needs to be poor’ carry a set of unspoken assumptions about the nature of society and the nature of poverty. ‘Nobody needs to be poor’ tells us that:

  • We live in a society of opportunities for everyone.

  • There are no external conditions that force people to be poor.

  • If people are poor, then this is something to do with the choices they make.

  • Therefore poverty is the result of poor people making bad choices (in how they live, work, spend money, etc.).

A short, five-word statement contains a series of assumptions which add up to a theory of society (an ‘opportunity’ society), a theory of human behaviour (people make choices) and an explanation of poverty (some people make bad choices). It also implies how the rest of society should position itself in relation to poverty: it is not ‘our’ responsibility if ‘they’ make bad choices. Nor is there anything ‘we’ can do about it (except perhaps educate ‘them’ to make better choices). Each of the statements above could be assessed in this way, exploring the assumptions about society, behaviour and poverty that underpin them. The same approach could be applied to statements about other social problems.

Activity 3

If we were to consider discussions which focus on lone-parent families as a social problem, we would find ourselves confronted with comments like ‘the rising numbers of single mothers indicate a moral crisis’. What assumptions do you think underlie this statement?


We would list the following assumptions, but you may have noted others:

  • There is a group of people who are single mothers (rather than different types of single mothers, for example widowed, divorced, separated, never married).

  • There used to be a moral order – a system of values, norms and ideas that prevented single motherhood.

  • Something has changed to undermine that moral order (explanations of this may vary – we have become less religious; people are more concerned with individual freedom; there has been a rise in permissiveness; welfare systems have provided benefits to lone parents, making it easier to choose to be a lone parent).

  • A crisis exists, and all crises need something to be done about them (in this case, some means of restoring traditional family values or morality).

One thing that a social science approach can do, by taking the perspective of the stranger, is to examine the content of common-sense statements about social problems and question the assumptions on which they are based. In the next section we will look further at the sorts of assumptions and explanations that are put to work in the different common-sense views of poverty. However, we want now to note a few other features of such views (we shall return to these later in this course).

The statements about poverty that we started with are not just random or throwaway thoughts that people express on the spur of the moment. They are social claims, each one implying that we all share the assumptions contained within the statements (even though the assumptions are profoundly different and even contradictory). ‘Common sense’, used as a term to describe such statements of ‘what everybody knows’, directs our attention as social scientists to the underlying theories, perspectives and assumptions that are mobilised through simple statements and claims. A society's stock of common sense can therefore be seen as a repository or storeroom of bits of knowledge on which people can draw in discussing society and its problems. One task for a social science approach is therefore to make an inventory of this repository – to catalogue the bits and pieces of knowledge that people can and do draw on. If, for example, we were to go back to the issue of lone parents, we would need to take stock of the other possible elements of common sense that are available when lone parents are discussed. In addition to moral crisis, we might need to catalogue views about the irresponsibility of men, the changing pressures on family life, the causes of changes in divorce and marriage, and whether the same sorts of explanations apply to widowed, separated and never married women – as well as to lone fathers.

If we pursue this idea of common sense as a repository a little further, we can see another task for a social science analysis. The stock of this repository has been built up over time, having been deposited by previous generations and added to over time. It is not simply ‘what we think today’, but has a history. One thing we can do, then, is to look for the ‘traces’ of older ideas, to see how they are recirculated and kept alive across decades and even centuries. For example, ideas about the difference between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor are deposits from mid-nineteenth-century discussions (and policies) about the problem of poverty. They reflect anxieties of that time about how to deal with poor people, and how to ensure that social policies – the provision of benefits by the state or by charitable sources – did not go to the ‘wrong sort of people’. Such ideas, together with their assumptions about society and human behaviour, were not just dumped in a dark corner of the storeroom and left to accumulate dust, never to be seen again. Rather, they are brought out again from time to time and threaded into new issues and debates, for example about whether we should have universal benefits or ones that are targeted at the ‘most needy’ or about how to distinguish between ‘scroungers’ and those ‘genuinely’ in need. Ideas about people getting their ‘just deserts’ and the moral worth of different people have been a recurrent feature of discussions about poverty in the UK.

Finally, it is important to note that this approach to common sense is not merely an academic exercise, in the sense of being of no practical use or interest. Taking an inventory of common sense and examining the continuing traces of past ideas and the ways in which they are revived and used are an integral part of the study of social problems and social policies. There are three aspects which make an understanding of common sense an essential feature of studying social problems:

  1. Each ‘bit’ of common sense involves a claim to be the truth: for example, statements about poverty are not just different, but are contested in conflicts where each position (and its assumptions and consequences) seeks to be ‘what everybody knows’. Part of the approach to social science is not just to ‘take an inventory’ but to ask which strands are currently the dominant or most widely accepted ones, and how this pattern can be explained.

  2. Common-sense views are not just discussions or conversations that take place in idle moments. They are also connected to social and political action. Political parties address bits of common sense in their efforts to persuade people that they have the right answers and that their policies should be implemented. Indeed, one of the most potent claims made by political parties is that they are on the side of ‘common sense’ or that what they are proposing is merely ‘what everybody knows’. If we have taken an inventory of common sense, we are in a position to ask: which part of common sense is being addressed here, and what has happened to the other parts?

  3. These connections – the dominance of some ideas over others, and the political articulation of some ideas – matter, because they lead to social action. The predominant definition of poverty, explanation of its causes, or view of who is ‘deserving’, has consequences, for these shape how the society and its political institutions respond to poverty.