What makes something a social problem? Sociology Source explains two useful sociological theories, using a case study of gun control.
An objectivist definition of social problems focuses on the negative impact of certain behaviours or social phenomena on individuals, groups or the physical world. The limitation of this definition is that measuring the impact of a social problem depends on social context. Discrimination of social groups cannot always be equated. For example, racism is more pervasive, and cuts across several socio-economic measures. It is not useful to define this as a social problem in the same way that another, non-racial group might face social stigma. Historically, Black people have been denied rights by law. Black people also have lower life chances and poorer access to health and social services as a result of discrimination. Short people do not face the same systematic inequalities. (Plus Black people can be short, and thus face multiple stereotypes.)
The objectivist definition of social problem also does not control for how issues are perceived. Some people define poverty as a problem arising from structural inequalities (a sociological perspective) however other people may think poverty is a problem because they (erroneously) see poor people are a “drain” on society, or because they think poor people are simply “unmotivated” to succeed.
The subjectivist definition of social problems looks at why specific groups come to define certain issues as social problem. This definition helps us to see why, despite high numbers of people dying due to gun violence, including in mass shootings in the USA, politicians still have a problem challenging gun control. USA President Obama shows that there have been more people killed on American soil via gun homicide relative to terrorist events. That same fact does not lead to the same conclusion amongst gun advocates.
Using a subjective definition of a social problem, “it is not the lack of information that prevents gun regulations from being considered a social problem, but a lack of people reacting to the absence of gun regulations as a social problem.”
Read more on theory and definitions of social problems.
Image source: Sociology in Focus. My post was first published on Science on Google+.