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

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6 The question of ideology: social interests and social constructions

6.1 Legitimating the powerful

The labelling perspective associated with Berger and Luckmann focuses on the processes by which some behaviours and types of people become marked out for social disapproval – targeted by the wider society as different and requiring some form of social response. Its virtue is that it challenges conventional assumptions that social problems exist ‘out there’ as obvious and commonly understood facts. Berger and Luckmann's perspective stresses the importance of language in shaping how we define, understand and respond to social problems by drawing attention to the role of labelling. However, the perspective is less helpful in dealing with the question of why some conditions become identified as problems and why some sorts of social constructions are in widespread use. One of the ways in which the labelling perspective has been developed is through linking social construction to issues of social interests, power and ideologies.

In this view, societies are characterised by patterns of inequality between social groups, for instance between different classes, between men and women, or between different ethnic groups. Groups in dominant positions in society will try to use sets of ideas that legitimate existing arrangements – and their positions within them. For example, groups or classes who control a large share of a society's wealth are likely to spread ideas about the necessity or even desirability of these patterns of economic inequality. They may refer to the fact that wealth reflects social virtue (‘breeding’) or accomplishment (the reward for ‘risk-taking’). They may argue that inequality is necessary to encourage everyone to strive to be successful. They may argue that wealth is a responsibility held in trust for future generations. Such sets of ideas that legitimate advantageous positions tend to be called ideologies. Similar ideologies have been used to justify the inequalities between men and women (men are stronger, better at thinking abstractly; women are better at caring or need to conserve their resources for the demands of childbirth, and so on). As both these examples suggest, one common feature of such ideologies is that they claim that existing social arrangements are legitimate because they are ‘natural’ (and therefore both desirable and unavoidable). Each structural pattern of inequality is likely to create interests (in preserving or changing the existing pattern) and these interests are likely to provide the foundation for ideologies which seek to legitimate or challenge these inequalities.

This is the most simple view of ideology: as a set of ideas which attempt to legitimate (or challenge) social position and inequality. Even in this most simple form, however, we can see ways in which it can link to and develop the labelling approach to social construction.

Activity 7

Let us return to the issue of poverty. How might poverty be defined in ways which would reinforce or challenge the position of the powerful?


We suggest that it might be in the interests of those with wealth to deny that poverty is a social problem (or even that it exists). If poverty can be explained as being the result of ‘sad, bad or mad’ people – those who are workshy, feckless or incompetent – then poverty is nothing to do with the social arrangements that make some people wealthy. Alternatively, poverty can be explained as a necessary, if unfortunate, by-product of a system that creates wealth. We might even go so far as to say that the idea of poverty is itself tolerable within such an ideology because it separates out the ‘poor’ as a social problem, rather than revealing the underlying structure of inequality. In distinguishing between the normal and the deviant, the wider inequalities and differences of social interest are concealed. On the other hand, if poverty were solely blamed either on the behaviour of the rich or on the operation of an unfair or unjust economic system, it might underpin a political ideology which aimed to challenge the powerful in society.

Ideologies are also likely to be involved in defining who and what are social problems. Most obviously, those who challenge existing social arrangements are likely to be defined as troublemakers, agitators or rabble-rousers who aim to cause unnecessary social disruption and disaffection. Alternatively, such challenges may be dismissed as Utopian, unworldly or even unnatural because they claim that other ways of arranging the social world are possible. Beyond this, however, there are ways in which specific social conditions or patterns of behaviour might be identified as social problems because they run counter to the interests of dominant groups. For example, some social scientists have suggested that the interests of a capitalist class mean that it needs a healthy and reliable workforce. In the period of industrialisation, therefore, indolence and insobriety came to be defined as social problems because they threatened to disrupt patterns of work and the norm of a sober and industrious worker (see, for example, Clarke and Critcher, 1985). Equally, it has been argued that the industrialists of Britain came to take a growing interest in the ‘health of the nation’ at the end of the nineteenth century, when they became concerned that ill-health and malnutrition made the British working class less fit and less competitive by comparison with other industrialising nations. Social problems here are the result of interests being threatened, and the definitions of those problems stem from the power of dominant groups to determine what counts as a problem.

In this view ideologies are functional. That is, they are geared to legitimating social positions. In principle, one can look behind ideologies to see what interests they protect and serve. They are also intended to mystify or conceal what society is really like by explaining away inequalities. So, for example, these legitimating ideologies may celebrate forms of equality (equality before the law, for instance) which distract attention from other areas of social life where inequality is rife. Anatole France referred ironically to ‘the majestic equality of the French law, which forbids both rich and poor from sleeping under the bridges of the Seine’ (quoted in CSE/NDC, 1977, pp. 24–5).