Social Work and Social Problems
One mark of your skill as a Macro Social Worker would be your ability to understand why social problems exist critique the conventional understandings of social problems and developing your own working definitions of social problems. One place to begin is with the understanding of how social problems differ from personal problems. Definition of Social Problems
Social problems have been defined in various ways, according to Lauer and Lauer (2002) a social problem ‘‘is a condition or pattern of behaviour that contradicts some other condition or pattern of behaviour and is defined as incompatible with the desired quality of life; is caused facilitated or prolonged by factors that operate at multiple levels of social life; involves intergroup conflict and requires social action to be resolved.
’’ Sullivan and Thompson assert that a ‘‘social problem exist when influential group defines a social condition as threatening its values, conditions affects a large number of people, and it can be remedied by collective action. ’’ This definition was echoed by Charles Zastrow, again Robert Merton and Robert Nisbert two influential sociologists have defined social problems as ‘‘the substantial, unwanted discrepancies between what is in a society and what a functionally significant collectivity within that society seriously desires to be in it.
’’ We can critique the conventional definition of social problem and develop a new definition that would encompass all the components of a social problem. Now the definition of social problem would be given as ‘‘a condition that is experienced collectively by an identifiable group or community of people, caused by a source external to them that harms their welfare in specific ways, and can only be resolved by the people themselves in partnership with the public and private sectors of society. ’’ Characteristics/Components of Social Problems
Many sociologists tend to agree that social problems have the following characteristics and components. 1. The problem must have social causation rather than be an issue of individual behaviour. That is, to say, the cause of the problem must lie outside the individual and his/her immediate environment. 2. The problem must have social and collective solution rather than be an issue of individual solution. That is, to say, the solution of the problem must lie outside the individual and his/her immediate environment. 3. The problem must affect a large number of people. 4.
It must be judged by influential number of people to be undesirable. 2 Characteristics/Components of Personal Problems 1. Personal problem is one whose cause lies within the individual and the individual’s immediate environment. 2. Again, its solution lies within the individual and the individual’s immediate environment. The distinction between social and personal problems is not based on the individual’s experience of suffering because a certain amount of suffering occurs in either case (Lauer and Lauer, 2002). For example, in Ghana rural farmers experience a high level of poverty.
If we viewed the problem as personal, we would blame the farmer for low production due to his personal inadequacies and the government would not feel obliged or the need to intervene and the problem would continue. If we define the problem as a social problem and state it is due in part to lack of crop diversification, poor rainfall and access to limited farm equipment, it would result in collective action taken by government. New crops irrigation schemes and equipment loaning would all be introduced. Social Change Social Change is the alteration of the basic social structures or social organisation.
We would probably always look at the human condition from the perspective of problem orientation, but there may be a better way to approach how to achieve a better social world. One way is by looking at society from the perspective of ‘‘social change. ’’Social change is a proactive approach rather than a reactive one. Instead of looking to the past to discover what went wrong, the social change approach looks ahead to see what is possible. Rather than weaknesses pathologies and problems, people are seen as having strengths, possibilities and solutions with which to build their own futures.
Instead of assuming communities are arenas of neglect, crime, and poverty, community is perceived as full of resources, assets and strengths that can be used make better a society. The social change approach/model utilises this assets-based strength approach. AnnWeick and Dennis Saleeby assert that ‘‘to examine the strength and resiliencies ofpeople in their everyday lives signals, an important shift in our thinking. ’’ When this happens, often with the help of a macro social worker, people begin to gain power. This power comes from a new way of thinking called ‘‘social thinking’’ in contrast to ‘‘rational problem solving thinking.
’’Thinking socially begins when people apply their common experiences to mutual reflection, thinking through the issues that plague them, and then arrive at a strategy of action. People who felt helpless, separated and defeated begin to think anew and act anew. They become new people and begin to conceive and construct the world out of those new perceptions of themselves and one another. What began as a problematic and even selfdefeating situation becomes transformed into an opportunity for re-birth and renewal. Macro 3
Social Workers help mobilise people to utilise their assets so they can construct their communities and build their social reality in the way they conceive best. Future Shock Future shock is the term used to describe the trauma experienced by those who are having difficulty accepting the new roles, such as women/girls. Rapid changes like urbanisation can also cause a host of new and unexpected problems like increased crime, faulty shelter and overcrowding. Social Denial Denial takes many forms. We refuse to acknowledge the existence of social problems.
When we do admit their existence, we look at them as ‘‘personal’’ problems instead of ‘‘social’’problems. We also deny their existence by excluding problem people from our lives or by rationalising about our inaction. The Objective& Subjective Elements in the Definition of Social Problems A social condition maybe defined as a social problem in two ways: (1) Objectively (2) Subjectively The objective definition recognises that a social problem exist as soon as a significant number of individuals are adversely affected by the phenomenon related to social factors, even if no one recognises it (Henshel, 1990).
The objective element makes the condition a verifiable situation which can be checked as to the existence and magnitude by impartial observers. This idea was raised by Merton and Nisbert (1971) who made the distinction between a manifest social problem and latent social problem. Latent ones, though real are unnoticed and not defined as problematic. Merton and Nisbert assert that, social problems must be manifest to be objective. This distinction is particularly important one to make in the Africa where social conditions that have historically been perceived as normative are now being redefined as problematic in the context of modernisation.
One major example is that of female genital circumcision, which is culturally normal tradition in several African societies but now being redefined as barbaric, dangerous and repressive act used to control the instincts of women. In spite of its significant recognition of the social condition as a problem, the example also highlights a fundamental issue contained in the subjective definition of social problems. The subject definition implies the awareness of certain individuals, not a significant number, that a social condition is a threat to certain cherished values.
In the example, it is not the behaviour itself or the social condition that are inherently problematic, but the perception of 4 the event (barbaric, dangerous and repressive) that define the problem. In this regard, one could say that the social problems are fundamentally products of a process of collective definition instead of existing independently as a set of objective social arrangements (Blumer, 1971). In other words, an individual or group often defines a social condition as problematic in terms of his or her own ideology and perceived self interest.
The church, the media, lobby groups and social workers, who may not necessarily be in the majority, may consider a social condition as problematic based on their own values and principles. Religious groups are the most obvious examples of those who proselytise about problem areas such as prostitution, homosexuality and drug taking. They therefore, will obviously promote legislations protecting what they consider to be threatening morality.
Indeed the role of the media in defining what is and what is acceptable as a social problem, especially to government, cannot be ignored. The process whereby social conditions become defined as a social problem then is complex and problematic in itself. The question that one must is: ‘‘to whom is the event a problem? ’’ Although we might normally state a definition of crime, for example based on specific society’s legal code, this conceptualisation has been challenged by some sociologists (Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1970).
Such a legalistic, state the definition of crime, they argue needs to be considered within a context of universal social justice, ethics, and public wrong and antisocial behaviour. Generally, in developing societies, one issue in re-defining and recognising social condition as social problems, is that this process is now likely to be carried out within an international human rights discourse and related policy documentation, declarations and covenants. However, governments of many African societies regard these developments with suspicion.
The question most of them are asking is: ‘‘To whom is the condition problematic? ’’ They argue that the very idea of individual human rights is Eurocentric and maybe foreign to African societies where traditionally, economic, political, cultural and judicial rights were more likely to be held by communities and not by individuals. Shiviji (1989) also maintains that the main human rights discourse in and on Africa, however well mentioned, has objectively been a part of the ideologies of domination.
He emphasises that human rights need to be considered within the wider context of the struggles of the African people and the central human rights are the right to self-determination and the right to organise. While considering some of the objective and subjective views inherent in defining social problems, a related issue is that of how social problems should be ranked in terms of their level of seriousness. In the ‘‘Gallup Poll Ratings’’, one sociologist compared the content of thirty-four social problems texts with public definition of social problems over a forty-year period.
He found very little similarity between the two. Of the three issues that ranked highest on sociologists’ list (crime and delinquency, marriage and family, and population), two were identified at all in public opinion polls, and one (crime and delinquency) ranked seventh in terms of the frequency with which it was mentioned by the public (Laurer, 1976). In ranking social problems on the African content, Rwomire (2001), asserts that social problems should be classified on the basis of their hypothesised influences.
Primary problems 5 as wars and discrimination are the most serious and can lead to secondary problems, which themselves can lead to tertiary problems. War has been one of the most serious and severed social problems experienced in Africa during the past forty (40) years, although paradoxically, it can also be considered a part of the solution to some social problems. One immediate example of the consequence of war in Africa is the destructive capacity of landmines often indiscriminately used over large areas of land.
Their capacity to maim and kill arbitrarily long after the wars have ended leads to unacceptable levels of human suffering. The medical care, physical and social rehabilitation of these people is a challenge and a burden to their respective societies. The severe damage caused by landmines is reflected in the ration of amputees to the total population in countries such as Angola (1:470) and Uganda (1:1,100). Wars lead deaths, physical and mental injuries as well as waste of resources. Deaths lead to bereavement, widowhood and orphanhood.
Physical and mental injuries lead to occupational handicaps, dependency and traumatic stress disorder. Waste of resources, on the other hand, in turn leads to shortage of consumer goods and increased cost of living. Part of the objective and subjective definition of any social problem, and a necessary pre-requisite for the analysis, interpretation and explanation of the problem is the nature and extent of that problem. What is the problem exactly? How do we measure it? How much of it actually exist? To whom is it a problem? These can be difficult to answer.
Individual and group efforts to provide answers to them are not devoid of their own value and principle assumption. The Sociological Study of Social Problems The conduct of human affairs is still outside science in many circles. (Millions of Americans, for example, turn to newspapers astrology for some guidance through their personal problems. In 1977 two out of every three newspapers in the United States carried daily horoscopes. And even within the social sciences there is a constant and bitter controversy about the appropriate mode of thinking about, and gathering information on, social problems.
But there is general agreement that sociological knowledge and understanding of social problems must involve two dimensions: The first of these is a systematic set of concepts; the second is that there must be a systematic pursuit of data of evidence about the real world, using these concepts. It is exactly which set of concepts and which data that is still the subjects of argument. Nevertheless, there exist some major sets of concepts, or theories or theoretical perspectives. We shall discuss these briefly because some of them are widely accepted, some are partially accepted, and all are, at the least, interesting for the fifty (50) years.
First, we shall discuss concepts from the view point of level of analysis. More simply, we shall see whether theories focus on the individual level of analysis, the cultural level of analysis, or the social structural level of analysis. Second, we shall discuss some perspectives that have been widely used in recent years for the study of social problems. These perspectives will reappear in particular discussions dealing with certain social problems. Some theories are very closely related to particular social problem, for example, individual male pathology may be related to 6
the social problem of rape. Other perspectives are relevant in a broad way to a wide range of social problems, as for example, the American cultural preoccupation with discrimination is an important factor in the social problem of race. Culturally sanctioned discrimination is also important in understanding the social problems of city and country, poverty and affluence, and yet other problems. Third, we shall discuss some of the major sources of evidence used by social scientist in the study of social problems. Sociology also has some special difficulties in the analysis of social problems.
Levels of Analysis: Individual, Cultural and Structural Analysis The very first thing that should be understood when we read the literature of sociology is that social scientist cannot search for‘‘the whole truth. ’’It is important to accept the perhaps unwelcome notion that scientific and empirical verification must be limited to a very small piece of social reality. This self-limited sociological approach differs from the manner in which most people apprehend the social realities around them. Perhaps an example will make this clearer.
Let us suppose that an average newspaper reader wishes to understand the problem of drug addiction. To help him, a newspaper journalist will write an article purporting to explain the problem. Typically (that is, a good article in a good newspaper, written by reputable and competent journalist), the scientific findings on drug addiction will be presented as a sort of zoo, offering a large collection of truths on a number of levels. The discussion may dwell on body chemistry and about ‘‘neurotransmitters that are involved in feelings of well beings.
’’ It may mention ‘‘genetic mechanisms’’and suggest that heredity may play a major role in predispositions to drug addiction. Quite possibly it will use the terms ‘‘learned behaviour,’’ ‘‘conditioning,’’‘‘personality deficiency,’’‘‘self-esteem,’’ and ‘‘ego defence. ’’ Probably it will offer information about ‘‘drug subcultures,’’ ‘‘social deviance,’’ ‘‘maturing out of drug use,’’ ‘‘social deviance,’’ ‘‘maturing out of drug use,’’ and why the absence of job opportunities in urban minority ghettoes is an important source of ‘‘frustration. ’’
For the average reader this collection of scientific ideas may offer some approximation to the whole truth, but he or she is still looking for the whole truth and is vaguely irritated by this collection of partial truths: Aren’t body chemistry and genes the most ‘‘basic’’ possible explanation of drug addiction? Why is it necessary for a group of psychiatrists and psychologists to study self esteem? Surely the whole truth is there somewhere in the basic genetic mechanisms. Surely the whole truth is there somewhere in the basic genetic mechanisms.
Or if there is a drug subculture, why isn’t it possible just to change the subculture and end the problem of drug addiction? A social scientist will look at the problem of drug addiction in quite a different way. He or she attempts to explain the problem in terms of several levels of analysis. He or she attempts to explain the problem in terms of several levels of analysis. Each level is a system of concepts, 7 or a theory. (The relationship between the levels of analysis may also be built into a theory).
On the individual level, for instance, personality theory assumes (or takes for granted) the level of body chemistry and neurotransmitters and interest itself in the level of human functioning that involves personality development, where a biologist may dismiss study of personality as secondary, derivative, or even caused by physiology. The social psychologist might be interested in the group processes that influence perception. For him or her, body chemistry and personality are only remotely related to perception. The levels of analysis offered by biology and by personality theory are much less important.
The newcomer to the analysis of such a social problem as drug addiction may find this artificial separation of possible causes strange. It is artificial, and it is strange. Yet it is only through such discipline sorting out levels of analysis that meaningful theories can be developed and tested. Without the growth of hypotheses and theories it will not be possible to obtain valid and useful insights into the problems of drug addiction. Without insights public policy on drug addiction will be nothing more useful than a series of falters and stumbles. The Individual Level of Analysis of Social Problems
As we deal with the individual level in this discussion, we will be concerned with biological and psychological theories. Such theories are particularly relevant to social problems that involve 1. Certain types of people. Good examples are the youth, the aged, women, blacks and Hispanics. Theories relating to the individual are particularly useful when the social problems involve 2. Special types of behaviour. Good examples are homosexuality and drug abuse There are important and useful biological and psychological theories about why women are different from men and why young people and old people are different from middle-aged people.
Individual explanations are useful in understanding why blacks are different from whites. In general, there are three basic grounds for the importance of the level of analysis: (a) Question about the functioning of individuals are well within the interests of sociologists working with social problems. Certain family patterns greatly affect individual development and ‘‘difficult’’ behaviour of adulthood. A significant example is the impact of an absent father on young male children. Lack of a father is supposed to produce certain personality effects. These effects (or processes) in turn are supposed to produce certain social problems.
Theories about the effect of an absent father are particularly relevant in some controversial theories that try to account for racial differences. Theories about the dominance of the mother in the home are invoked to explain homosexuality. Sociologists analyse at the level of the individual in order to clarify certain social patterns. 8 (b) The individual level of explanation (changed only slightly to accommodate large groups of people rather than a single person) is a favourite ‘‘man in the street’’approach to the‘‘true’’ explanation for many social problems.
It is important for the beginner in sociology to be able to place this particular approach in its sociological context. (c) The individual level of analysis is important in official views of what sociologists consider to be malfunctioning institutions. Usually the man in the street distrusts cultural explanations; he is even more likely to reject structural explanations; Excusing and explaining institutional malfunctions are nearly always done on individual level.
Thus the institutional failures so obvious in our society (the school dropout, the criminal who returns to prison again and again; and uncured mental patient) are usually explained by ordinary citizens in terms of individual problems: The child is not motivated to learn; the recidivist cannot learn to control himself; mental patients do not try hard enough to cure themselves. Just why this tendency to individual analysis is so strong is a special worry for sociologist who are concerned about the lack of change in institutions and is of particular importance during the last stage in the career of social problem, i.
e. ‘‘institutional criticism’’ The tendency to search for individual level explanation both inside and outside institutions in included in an important new concept. A community psychologist, William Ryan, has worked out the process in detail and somewhat sarcastically describes what amounts to a victim-blaming process: First, identify a social problem. Second, study those affected by the problem and discover in what ways they are different from the rest of usas a consequence of deprivation and injustice. Third, define the differences as the cause of the social problem itself.
Finally, of course, assign a government bureaucrat to invent humanitarian action programme to correct the differences. Blaming the victim depends on a process of identification whereby the victim of social problems is identified as strange, different, in other words as a barbarian, a savage. This is how the distressed and disinherited are redefined in order to make it possible for us to look at society’s problems and to attribute their causation to the individuals affected. In other words Ryan is really arguing for a structural analysis (which will be discussed below).
He argues further that to mix levels of analysis (explaining the strains and failures of institutions in terms of the characteristics of individuals) is bad social science. Worse yet, mixing levels are convenient and satisfying to bureaucrats inside a malfunctioning institution because it legitimates the way things are and thus deters social change. The Cultural level of Analysis of Social Problems 9 A number of social scientist have tried to describe American culture as a whole; in particular these analyst are interested in recent changes in our basic values and ‘‘designs for living.
’’ An overall description is, however, a difficult task because American culture changes constantly. A great many variations of American culture appear in different, regions, classes and ethnic groups, these are ‘‘subcultures. ’’The norms and values of an upper-middle class black physician in a large southern city probably encompass at least three sets of sub-cultural norms and values that differ from ‘‘basic normal American culture,’’ that is, class, racial and occupational sub-cultures.
We are interested in cultural analysis because this is a popular and often useful explanation for the deviations from what seems to be the norm that are in turn factors in social problems. As far as American core culture is concerned, there are some interesting speculations, despite all the difficulties. Some of the best are those done by Francis L. K. Hsu, a Chineseborn anthropologist, and Robin Williams, an important sociologist. Hsu identifies one critical core value in American culture. This is self-reliance. According to Hsu, all other important values spring from this single ideal.
Because it is really unattainable in a societal context, it breeds hostility to persons who are dependent and worse yet, a deep sense of insecurity. This insecurity appears in American competitiveness, conformity, ‘‘social climbing,’’ and submission to what Hsu calls the ‘‘tyranny of organisation. ’’Four sets of contradictory themes are linked with self-reliance: 1. Christian love and its contradiction, religious bigotry; 2. Science, progress and humanitarianism and their contradictions, parochialism, group superiority and racism;
3. Puritan ethics and its contradiction, an increasing laxity in sexual mores; 4. Ideals of equality and freedom and their contradictions, totalitarian tendencies and ‘‘witch hunting. ’’ Williams’ core values of American culture are remarkably similar. He lists fifteen of them: activity and work, achievement and success, a moral orientation, humanitarianism, efficiency and practicality, secular and rationality and science, material conformity, nationalism and patriotism, individual personality, racism and group superiority.
Both Hsu and Williams tried hard to select persistent themes that distinguish American culture from other cultures, even though some like nationalism, patriotism and group superiority may seem common to all cultures. It is only fair to say that other distinguished scholars have discovered different culture traits. In some areas the core culture maybe important in generating and sustaining social problems. This is true for the nationalism and group superiority themes noticed by Williams. It is also true that contradictions noticed by Hsu and Williams are considered by some theorists as the ultimate source of social problems.
A much more controversial view is that certain specific problems, notably drug dependency and violence are deeply rooted in some features of 10 American culture. The basic difficulty in blaming social problems on core values should be obvious. Such argument quickly becomes a kind of sermon or circular explanation: If Americans were better people, we should have less vice; if we were not so racist then then there should be less racism. In this discussion, the cultural explanations will appear in two ways: 1. when there are important changes in the definitions of social categories or types of events over the years and
2. When the subculture of certain groups is directly implicated as a cause of certain problems. The changes in cultural definitions will be particularly significant. Just as our natural history or career, approach to social problems assumes a change over time. Thus the ways in which women, the aged, children, urban life, minorities and the poor are defined have changed dramatically in our own generation and even more during the past hundred (100) years. And as we develop the idea of social problems, we shall see the changing definitions are also very important.
Some social problems simply did not exist in earlier ages. Cultural explanations are also used in this discussion when subcultures are implicated as a cause of social problems. Many of the more peripheral or ‘‘outside the mainstream’’ groups in American society might be seen as a problem in themselves. These subcultures may include adolescents, the aged, the poor and minorities. If they tend to develop an antagonistic subculture, this may in turn cause problems. (According to one theorist, many groups of teenagers have their own subcultures, which cause friction with the larger society).
We shall be careful about identifying such groups here because American institutions are likely to label sub-cultural groups on the basis of the real or alleged sub-cultural trait even if such traits do not exist. (White policemen, for example are extremely likely to tag black teenagers with certain sub-cultural characteristics, right or wrong). Finally, sub-cultures evolve among the personnel of an institution. School teachers, police and public welfare employees may develop sub-cultures that allow them and their institutions to perform in a manner that aggravates the social problem that the institution is supposed to solve.
(If school teachers serving black ghetto children assume that none of their pupils wants to learn, then the resultant lack of interest and bad teaching increase the educational failure of black ghetto children). Thus in order to understand institutional failures to solve certain problems, we must understand the values and norms of institutional occupational groups. The Structural Level of Analysis of Social Problems The approach is concerned with social relationship and the social structure inside which people must live. Sometimes structural theories are almost exclusively concerned with the larger social system.
Thus the Marxist perspective (which emphasises social relations in the work place) is 11 basically interested in the ownership of the means of production; for ultimately, according to Marxist view, the capitalist mode of production greatly affects the lives of workers. Many other theorist also emphasise the large social system. Social thinkers, both before and after Karl Marx have looked for explanation of social problems in the differing economic, political and social power of various segments of American (and European) society.
Unfortunately, the word ‘‘Marxist’’ is a label that evokes violent partisanship and in controversy it is too easy to dismiss the structural approach to analysis merely in social problems. (On the other side, some Marxists are all too ready to dismiss trivial or derivative any factors except those relating to the economy). Prejudices do not belong in a discipline sociological approach to a set of vexing social problems; to disregard such factors as class and power and the economic life chances of the individuals is to discard one of the major traditions of sociological analysis.
The Marxist perspective is a thread in the tradition. In the analysis of social problems, the structural mode is useful in four ways: 1. It is useful in understanding problems based on the inability of certain types of people to gain certain resources: political power, economic advantages, and a group of pleasant benefits that increase self esteem, prestige, deference, being taken seriously. Critical in the acquisition of such resources are the social determinants of age, sex, socioeconomic status and race. 2. Structural analysis helps us to understand some of the social problems of alcohol, drug abuse, crime, juvenile delinquency as well as some less conventional behaviours generally defined as ‘‘sex problems. ’’ 3. Structural analysis is absolutely critical in understanding the functioning (and malfunctioning) of institutions designed to solve social problems. 4. The structural level of analysis is useful in understanding the behaviour of small groups.
It is the source of one of the most famous theories explaining certain types of deviance. In developing this theory, Robert K. Merton argues that, the source of deviance is the disparity between a person’s goals held out to him or her society, history and his or her means of achieving those goals. This neatly explains why lower class boys become delinquent. They have given up identification with the conventional means to success. It can also be use