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

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3.5 Social science approaches

So far we have looked at three more developed discussions of some of the basic propositions about poverty that we considered in section 2. These three examples could be multiplied: there is a variety of explanations of poverty that we could have used. However, these three allow us to reflect a little on the relationship between social science discussions of social problems and common-sense understandings. It is worth starting with some of the differences.

  • Even these brief extracts from books and articles indicate that social scientists take longer to say things than the rather pithy common-sense statements that we looked at earlier. Cynics might say that this is simply evidence of social scientists being long-winded, but we believe that there is something else involved here. In each case, what is being presented is an argument, rather than an assertion. Put simply, the authors are trying to set out a series of connections which explain why one thing is connected to or causes another. They make explicit what are implicit in the common-sense statements. In particular, they make explicit causal claims about why poverty occurs.

  • On the other hand, these are still arguments. The difference between social science and common sense is not an absolute divide between ‘opinion’ and ‘science’, where science guarantees truth (and opinion is necessarily incorrect). We have here three social scientists – and we could have had many more – with very different perspectives on the problem of poverty. While each of them would like to have their explanations seen as the truth, none of them can be certified as the truth merely by virtue of their being written by a social scientist. As with common sense, social science is characterised by competing and contested perspectives.

  • Social science approaches also raise the question of evidence. Although the brief extracts that we have used above do not present statistical data or other sorts of information, they nevertheless raise the possibility in different ways. Gilder's argument that ‘to escape poverty’ the poor need to keep their families together could be tested against some sort of empirical evidence: for example, is there evidence that families with divorced or separated parents are unable to ‘escape’ poverty? We could probably all think of examples of such families. At the time of writing, parts of the British royal family are undergoing divorce and separation, and it seems unlikely that the children of these marriages will be thrust into poverty. However, one-off examples are not necessarily the same as statistical trends, where lone parenthood appears to be associated with family poverty. Such evidence might vindicate Gilder's argument, but it may also be explained by other perspectives.

In the rest of this course we want to distinguish between a social science approach and social science perspectives. There is a wide variety of different perspectives within the social sciences, providing different theories to explain social phenomena. Some of these emphasise individual characteristics or choices, some stress familial patterns, while others draw attention to structural or societal conditions and processes. These are the competing perspectives or theories. But there is also an issue about how to approach the study of social problems. Throughout this book the emphasis is on examining the diverse ways in which social problems are socially constructed – the ways in which they are defined, understood, made sense of within society. These social constructions may be in the form of common-sense knowledges, political ideologies, or social science perspectives, but they all contribute to the shaping of how social problems are constructed. A central issue for a social science approach, then, is the work of deconstructing them – making them strange rather than obvious, and examining their assumptions about society, people and problems.