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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Social problems: Who makes them?

7.3 Summary

The idea of discourse alerts us to a number of issues about the social construction of social problems. It suggests that we need to look beyond competing theories or perspectives to look at how knowledge is organised around central themes that allow the different theories to compete. Discourses define what the problem is, and it is because theories share the definition of the problem that they can compete and argue. Perspectives that start somewhere else – or do not share the definition of the problem – have great difficulty in making themselves heard or understood. They do not fit the terms of reference of the discourse. Thus the discourse represented by the COS rules is not one that would allow for the discussion of poverty either as a consequence of the behaviour of the rich or as a consequence of structural social inequalities.

Second, discourses shape what sorts of knowledge are meaningful, worth having and ‘truthful’. As we have seen, the discourse of poverty means that we look for, collect and use knowledge about ‘poor people’. To suggest that this category of people does not exist, or that we should not try to know more about them sounds meaningless. Of course, ‘everybody knows’ that there are poor people. They can be identified, measured and investigated (and we can only do something about the problem of poverty if we know more about it). But the category of ‘poor people’ only exists because of the discourse of poverty, and we should not assume that ‘they’ are ‘different’ because of that. Placing ‘them’ in a separate category can be seen as a means of marginalising or excluding ‘them’ from normal life.

Third, the idea of discourse points us to the importance of looking at the ways in which the poor are institutionalised in social arrangements and relations of power. The workhouse, charity organisations, benefits offices, means tests, cohabitation rules and so on are ways in which the discourse of poverty has been institutionalised (and they also reflect different sorts of theories, policies and perspectives within the discourse). They involve relations of power between groups of social actors – claimants, assessors, case workers, fraud investigators, and so on.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371