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

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4.2 Levels of explanation

The distinction between the natural and the social is not the only significant one. Even the social orientation in constructions of social problems is complicated by different sorts of emphasis. The growth of social science since the late nineteenth century has ensured that a variety of competing theories, disciplines and perspectives are available to us in our attempt to make sense of social problems. Such theories have made their way into the realm of everyday or common-sense constructions – we all know bits of economic theory, bits of psychology and even bits of sociology. For the purposes of this course, the most useful way of distinguishing the differences in this approach involves considering different levels of explanation.

Constructions that stress the ‘social’ conditions and causes of social issues might begin with the level of the individual, looking at character, personality, aptitudes, etc. Others might focus on the family or kin group of the individual – how he or she is socialised, what behaviours, values, outlooks are learned or acquired in the family setting. The third level would then be the locality – patterns of social networks, peer groups and other local influences. Beyond this, one might look to constructions that deal with the culture of a particular society – its values, orientations and how these are communicated (the role of the mass media, education system, and so on). Finally, some explanations look to social structures for the causes and conditions of problems – how the society is arranged, how the resources and power are distributed, and how inequality is organised. Different perspectives are likely to emphasise different levels of explanation.

Activity 5

Let us take another social issue, unemployment. Using the grid below, write against each level of explanation the factors you think would be important in constructing social explanations of unemployment.

Figure 5
Figure 5: How is unemployment socially constructed?


We would have completed the grid as follows, but you may have had different answers.

Individual: Explanations might address either the attitudes or capabilities of unemployed individuals. Are they actively looking for work, or are they work avoiders? Have they got the sorts of technical and social skills that employers are demanding?
Familial: Has their upbringing or socialisation prepared them adequately for the world of work? Have they got the right outlook? Are there family networks that help or hinder them in obtaining work?
Locality: Are there particular possibilities or problems in the local pattern of employment? Are people part of a local culture which makes them less employable or less interested in work? Some people talk about local ‘cultures of poverty’ which pass on attitudes that make people less likely to look for or get jobs.
Cultural: Do values in the wider society stress the merits of being employed? Do they promote responsibility? Or do they encourage dependency and idleness?
Structural: Whose interests are served by unemployment? Does unemployment make labour cheaper or more manageable for employers? Why does the level or scale of unemployment change in different periods?

We do not intend this to be an exhaustive survey of all the different types of social explanations of unemployment, but we hope it illustrates the range and the way in which different levels provide a focus for such social explanations. A similar exercise could be undertaken for ‘natural’ constructions of unemployment and its causes. Are some people ‘naturally’ lazy or resistant to work? Is ‘human nature’ itself pleasure-seeking and work-avoiding? Do some people fail to respond to the sticks and carrots needed to make people work?