What are “social problems”?

Why are some things deemed to be social problems and how does this label limit our ability to respond? What symbolic power do social issues carry? What are the implications of the way we perceive social problems for the potential for social change?

Boundaries around the social

courtyard 2 medIn the academy, the social sciences typically include psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, geography, and history. Their broad domain is the study of societies and the relationships among individuals and groups within societies. For example, the social sciences study the way humans form and maintain groups (including looking at status differentials and hierarchies), the ways power is structured and exercised, the ways humans make decisions, the ways we form relationships, and the influence of forces like aggression, sexuality, and the need for belonging.

In popular discourses, social problems are ones that signify a disruption of the social order. Such problems occur when social relationships break down. Social problems include family violence, child abuse, substance abuse, homelessness, prostitution, mental illness, poverty, and discrimination. The realm of the social in public policy debates seems to be more narrow than in academia. For one thing, the focus is on signs of deviance and abnormality. For another, once something becomes defined as a social problem, it tends to become separated from the realms of the economy, politics, history, and geography. Social problems become de-contextualized.

As Western society becomes more oriented towards the individual and the psychological, social problems come to be seen as failures of individuals. This is curious because by definition, “social” problems are problems of the collective. Nevertheless, these problems are being removed from the larger social context. For example, homelessness is seen as the homeless person’s problem, a result of his mental illness or addiction or inability to make enough money to pay for housing. Rarely does the discussion include the influence of factors like property values, minimum wage laws, tax policies and their effect on government budget allocations, changes in the kinds of jobs available, or discrimination by landlords. Similarly, mental illness is typically seen as the mentally ill person’s problem. Only occasionally is the actual problem defined as a result of the social stigma attached to mental illness. Even more rarely is the problem of mental illness associated with larger forces. For example, there are very few people asking what the connection might be between rising rates of anxiety and depression (especially among young people) and factors like climate change.

This de-contextualization happens because it is easier to focus on signs and symptoms than causes. In addition, it is easier to see a problem as being the other person’s problem rather than our own. It is even better if the problem can be defined as the victim’s own fault.


One response to the identification of a social problem is the desire to reach out to people in need. Their suffering gives rise to compassion and altruism. Another response is to turn away. This is too often the response when the needy people are unattractive or the degree of need is high. This is the response described by one professional I met in the Downtown Eastside who stated that the neighbourhood is where all the problems people don’t want to look at are dumped. It is society’s “black hole.” This turning away happens because we do not want to look at the problem or the people who have it. Doing so would require an engagement with loss, grief, failure, guilt, aversion—emotions we tend to avoid.

What would happen if we put social problems back into their larger contexts? What if we paid more attention to the economic and historical forces that affect social problems? What if we paid attention to the unique dynamics of social problems in different places or different cultural groups? What if we examined the inherently political nature of our efforts to address social problems?

The status of social problems

In academia, the social sciences are low status disciplines. Only the humanities have a lower status in the academic hierarchy. Similarly, the domain of social problems is a low status domain in the public sphere. The domain deals with low status people—losers—people who have failed to be popular, wealthy, beautiful, and competent. The domain is surrounded by an emotional charge we do not want to engage with—loss, aversion, guilt, etc. Social problems are trivialized. For example, in lists of election issues, social problems per se rarely even make it onto the list.

bleeding hearts medThe low status of the domain of social problems can also be seen in the heroes we celebrate: actors, elite athletes, successful entrepreneurs. True, the dominant culture does occasionally show its appreciation for people like charitable donors, exemplary leaders of successful social movements, and selfless disaster relief workers. But these exceptions prove the rule. The predominant heroes of our culture are aggressive, self-centred, high-profile, wealthy individuals. The thousands of people working on the front-lines to address social problems tend to go unrecognized. People working in the social domain are often perceived as soft-hearted, fuzzy-thinking, do-gooders. Most of these workers are women. Many of them have themselves experienced the kind of problem they work to address.

What might happen if we took social problems out of the limited, denigrated box we have put them in? What if we invested time and energy in the investigation of the threads that connect social problems to other forces in society? What if we believed that the way we treat weak and vulnerable members of our communities is the primary indicator of our merit as a society? What then?

For more on these topics, see Being on the outside and the other articles in the Reflections section.