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

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5 Scepticism and social construction

5.1 Common sense revisited

It is worth taking a little time to reflect on what we have discovered so far. Starting from ‘what everybody knows’ about a social problem – or what are sometimes called the common-sense understandings – allows us to see a number of things if we apply the scepticism of being a stranger in our own society.

First, there is a question about whether particular issues are commonly understood to be social problems. As we have seen, there are views which say either that poverty does not exist in the UK today, or that, if it does, it is not a social problem but a natural consequence of having a competitive society.

Second, we can see that common-sense understandings are not cut from a single cloth. In the case of poverty, we have seen that there are different views of poverty and its causes which pull in different directions. We can see these both in the form of simple statements and in the more developed form of arguments about poverty. This suggests that there is no absolute or clear-cut distinction between everyday or common-sense talk about poverty and academic analyses and arguments – a point to which we will return later in this course.

Third, we have seen that these multiple perspectives are not only different but that they are contested. That is to say, they aim to establish themselves as the ‘correct’ explanation, superior to others. These different perspectives are engaged in conflict about how to define and explain poverty. We can therefore suggest that the social construction of social problems is a contested process.

Fourth, each of the brief quotations in section 3 announces its claim to be the correct or true understanding of poverty in different ways. Let us look back at how this was done. The quotation from George Gilder talks about how ‘fundamental realities’ are concealed from the poor. Anderson talks about how some suggested solutions (that is, those from other perspectives) do not address the causes that he has identified. Oppenheim talks about low-paid and poorly protected employment being a ‘hidden factor’ which is revealed by her arguments. Each of them tells us about why they are superior perspectives. We can therefore suggest that particular social constructions of social problems attempt to establish themselves as ‘true’.

The practice of systematic scepticism is an essential feature of social science in that it refuses to accept any of these self-proclaimed ‘truths’. Each of them becomes something to be studied as part of the process by which social problems are socially constructed. It is one of the most challenging aspects of studying social science, since it demands that we distance ourselves not just from ‘what everybody knows’ but also from what we ourselves ‘know’ about social issues. ‘What we know’ is also part of the ‘stock of knowledge’ in this society. It is disconcerting to take the position of being a stranger, but it is necessary if we are to understand how social problems are socially constructed.