(Mooney, Knox, & Schacht, 2000, pp. 10-16)

Mooney, L. A., Knox, D., & Schacht, C. (2000). Understanding social problems (2nd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Wadsworth. 


Theoretical Perspectives

Theories in sociology provide us with different perspectives with which to view our social world. A perspective is simply a way of looking at the world. A theory is a set of interrelated propositions or principles designed to answer a question or explain a particular phenomenon; it provides us with a perspective. Sociological theories help us to explain and predict the social world in which we live. 

Sociology includes three major theoretical perspectives: the structural-functionalist perspective, the conflict perspective, and the symbolic interactionist perspective. Each perspective offers a variety of explanations about the causes of and possible solutions for social problems (Rubington & Weinberg, 1995). 

Structural-Functionalist Perspective

The structural-functionalist perspective is largely based on the works of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton. According to structural-functionalist, society is a system of interconnected parts that work together in harmony to maintain a state of balance and social equilibrium for the whole. For example, each of the social institutions contributes important functions for society: family provides a context for reproducing, nurturing, and socializing children; education offers a way to transmit society's skills, knowledge, and culture to its youth; politics provides a means of governing members of society; economics provides for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services; and religion provides moral guidance and an outlet for worship of a higher power.

The structural-functionalist perspective emphasizes the interconnectedness of society by focusing on how each part influences and is influenced by other parts. For example, the increase in single-parent and dual-earner families has contributed to the number of children who are failing in school because parents have become less available to supervise their children's homework. Due to changes in technology, colleges are offering more technical programs, and many adults are returning to school to learn new skills that are required in the workplace. The increasing number of women in the workforce has contributed to the formation of policies against sexual harassment and job discrimination. 

Consideration
In viewing society as a set of interrelated parts, structural-functionalists also note that proposed solutions to a social problem may cause additional social problems. For example, racial imbalance in public schools led to forced integration, which in turn generated violence and increased hostility between the races. The use of plea bargaining was adopted as a means of dealing with overcrowded court dockets but resulted in "the revolving door of justice." Urban renewal projects often displaced residents and broke up community cohesion. 

Structural-functionalist use the terms "functional" and "dysfunctional" to describe the effects of social elements on society. Elements of society are functional if they contribute to social stability and dysfunctional if they disrupt social stability. Some aspects of society may be both functional and dysfunctional for society. For example, crime is dysfunctional in that it is associated with physical violence, loss of property, and fear. But, according to Durkheim and other functionalists, crime is also functional for society because it leads to heightened awareness of shared moral bonds and increased social cohesion. 

Sociologists have identified two types of functions: manifest and latent (Merton, 1968). Manifest functions are consequences that are intended and commonly recognized. Latent functions are consequences that are unintended and often hidden. For example, the manifest function of education is to transmit knowledge and skills to society's youth. but public elementary schools also serve as baby-sitters for employed parents, and college offer a place for young adults to meet potential mates. The baby-sitting and mate selection functions are not the intended or commonly recognized functions of education--hence, they are latent functions. 

Structural-Functionalist Theories of Social Problems

Two dominant theories of social problems grew out of the structural-functionalist perspective: social pathology and social disorganization. 

Social Pathology According to the social pathology model, social problems result from some "sickness" in society. Just as the human body becomes ill when our systems, organs, and cells do not function normally, society becomes "ill" when its parts  (i.e., elements of the structure and culture) no longer perform properly. For example, problems such as crime, violence, poverty, and juvenile delinquency are often attributed to the breakdown of the family institution, the decline of the religious institution, and inadequacies in our economic, educational, and political institutions. 

Social "illness" also results when members of a society are not adequately socialized to adopt its norms and values. Persons who do not value honesty, for example, are prone to dishonesties of all sorts. Early theorists attributed the failure in socialization to "sick" people who could not be socialized. Later theorists recognized that failure in the socialization process stemmed from "sick" social conditions, not "sick" people. To prevent or solve social problems, members of society must receive proper socialization and moral education, which may be accomplished in the family, schools, churches, workplace, and/or through the media.

Social Disorganization According to the social disorganization view of social problems, rapid social change disrupts the norms in a society. When norms become weak or are in conflict with each other, society is in a state of anomie or normlessness. Hence, people may steal, physically abuse their spouse or children, abuse drugs, rape or engage in other deviant behavior because the norms regarding their behaviors are weak or conflicting. According to this view, the solution to social problem lies in slowing the pace of social change and strengthening social norms. For example, although the use of alcohol by teenagers is considered a violation of a social norm in our society, this norm is weak. The media portray young people drinking alcohol, teenagers teach each other to drink alcohol and buy fake identification cards (IDs) to purchase alcohol, and parents model drinking behavior by having a few drinks after work or at a social event. Solutions to teenage drinking may involve strengthening norms against it through public education, restricting media depictions of youth and alcohol, imposing stronger sanctions against the use of fake IDs to purchase alcohol, and educating parents to model moderate and responsible drinking behavior.

Conflict Perspective

Whereas the structural-functionalist perspective views society as comprising different parts working together, the conflict perspective views society as comprising different groups and interests competing for power and resources. The conflict perspective explains various aspects of our social world by looking at which groups have power and benefit from a particular social arrangement.

The origins of the conflict perspective can be traced to the classic works of Karl Marx. Marx suggested that all societies go through stages of economic development. As societies evolve from agricultural to industrial, concern over meeting survival needs is replaced by concern over making profit, the hallmark of a capitalist system. Industrialization leads to the development of two classes of people: the bourgeoisie, or the owners of the means of production (e.g., factories, farms, businesses), and the proletariat, or the worker who earn wages. 

The division of society into two broad classes of people--the "haves" and the "have-nots"--is beneficial to the owners of the means of production. The workers, who may earn only subsistence wages, are denied access to the many resources available to the wealthy owners. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie use their power to control the institutions of society to their advantage. For example, Marx suggested that religion serves as an "opiate of the masses" in that it soothes the distress and suffering associated with the working-class lifestyle and focuses workers' attention on spirituality, God, and the afterlife rather than on such worldly concerns as living conditions. In essence, religion diverts the workers so that they concentrate on being rewarded in heaven for living a moral life rather than on questioning exploitation. 

Conflict Theories of Social Problems

There are two general types of conflict theories of social problems: Marxist and non-Marxist. Marxist theories focus on social conflict that results from economic inequalities; non-Marxist theories focus on social conflict that results form competing values and interests among social groups. [Note: Non-Marxist theories are also referred to as neo-Marxist theories--"non" and "neo" are interchangeable.] 

Marxist Conflict Theories According to contemporary Marxist theorists, social problems result from class inequality inherent in a capitalistic system. A system of "haves" and "have-nots" may be beneficial to the "haves" but often translate into poverty for the "have-nots." Many social problems, including physical and mental illness, low educational achievement, and crime are linked to poverty. 

In addition to creating an impoverished class of people, capitalism also encourages "corporate violence." Corporate violence may be defined as actual harm and/or risk of harm inflicted on consumers, workers, and the general public as a result of decisions by corporate executives or manages. Corporate violence may also result from corporate negligence, the quest for  profits at any cost, and willful violation of health, safety, and environmental laws (Hills, 1987). Our profit-motivated economy encourages individuals who are otherwise good, kind, and law-abiding to knowingly participate in the manufacturing and marketing of defective brakes on American jets, fuel tanks on automobiles, and contraceptive devices (intrauterine devices [IUDs]). The profit motive has also caused individuals to sell defective medical devices, toxic pesticides, and contaminated foods to developing countries. Blumberg (1989) suggests that "in an economic system based exclusively on motives of self-interests and profit, such behavior is inevitable" (p. 106). 

Marxist conflict theories also focus on the problem of alienation, or powerlessness and meaninglessness in people's lives. In industrialized societies, workers often have little power or control over their jobs, which fosters a sense of powerlessness in their lives. The specialized nature of work requires workers to perform limited and repetitive tasks; as a result, the workers may come to feels that their lives are meaningless. 

Alienation is bred not only in the workplace, but also in the classroom. Students have little power over their education and often find the curriculum is not meaningful to their lives. Like poverty, alienation is linked to other social problems, such as low educational achievement, violence, and suicide. 

Marxist explanations of social problems imply that the solution lies in eliminating inequality among classes of people by creating a classless society. The nature of work must also change to avoid alienation. Finally, stronger controls must be applied to corporations to ensure that corporate decisions and practices are based on safety rather than profit considerations. 

Non-Marxist Conflict Theories Non-Marxist conflict theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf are concerned with conflict that arise when groups have opposing values and interests. For example, antiabortion activists value the life of unborn embryos and fetuses; prochoice activists value the right of women to control their own body and reproductive decisions. These different value positions reflect different subjective interpretations of what constitutes a social problem. For antiabortionists, the availability of abortion is the social problem; for prochoice advocates, restrictions on abortion are the social problem. Sometimes the social problem is not the conflict itself, but rather the way that conflict is expressed. Even most  prolife advocates agree that shooting doctors who perform abortions and blowing up abortion clinics constitute unnecessary violence and lack of respect for life. Value conflicts may occur between diverse categories of people, including nonwhites versus whites, heterosexuals versus homosexuals, young versus old, Democrats versus Republicans, and environmentalists versus industrialists. 

Solutions to the problems that are generated by competing values may involve ensuring that conflicting groups understand each other's views, resolving differences through negotiation or mediation, or agreeing to disagree. Ideally, solutions should be win-win; both conflicting groups are satisfied with the solution. However, outcomes of value conflicts are often influenced by power; the group with the most power may use its position to influence the outcome of value conflicts. For example, when Congress could not get all states to voluntarily increase the legal drinking age to 21, it threatened to withdraw federal highway funds from those that would not comply. 

Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

Both the structural-functionalist and the conflict perspectives are concerned with how broad aspects of society, such as institutions and large groups, influence the social world. This level of sociological analysis is called macro sociology: It looks at the "big picture" of society and suggests how social problems are affected at the institutional level. 

Micro sociology, another level of sociological analysis, is concerned with the social psychological dynamics of individuals interacting in small groups. Symbolic interactionism reflects the micro sociological perspective and was largely influenced by the work of early sociologists and philosophers such as Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Charles Horton Cooley, George Herbert Mead, William Isaac Thomas, Erving Goffman, and Howard Becker. Symbolic interactionism emphasizes that human behavior is influenced by definitions and meanings that are created and maintained through symbolic interactions with others. 

Sociologist William Isaac Thomas ([1931] 1966) emphasized the importance of definitions and meanings in social behavior and its consequences. He suggested that humans respond to their definition of a situation rather than to the objective situation itself. Hence, Thomas noted that situations we define as real become real in their consequences.

Symbolic interactionism also suggests that our identity or sense or self is shaped by social interaction. we develop our self-concept by observing how others interact with us and label us. By observing how others view us, we see a reflection of ourselves that Cooley calls the "looking glass self."

Lastly, the symbolic interaction perspective has important implications for how social scientist conduct research. The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) argued that in order to understand the individual and group behavior, social scientists must see the world from the eyes of that individual or group. Weber called this approach Verstehen, which in German means "empathy." Verstehen implies that in conducting research, social scientists must try to understand others' view of reality and the subjective aspects of their experiences, including their symbols, values, attitudes, and beliefs. 

Symbolic Interactionist Theories of Social Problems

A basic premise of symbolic interactionist theories of social problems is that a condition must be defined or recognized as a social problem in order for it to be a social problem. Based on this premise, Herbert Blumer (1971) suggested that social problems develop in stages. First, social problems pass through the stage of "societal recognition"--the process by which a social problem, for example, drunk driving, is "born." Second, "social legitimation" takes place when the social problem achieves recognition by the larger community, including the media, schools, and churches. As the visibility of traffic fatalities associated with alcohol increased, so the the legitimation of drunk driving as a social problem. The next stage in the development of a social problem involves "mobilization for action," which occurs when individuals and groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, become concerned about how to respond to the social condition. This mobilization leads to the "development and implementation of an official plan" for dealing with the problem, involving, for example, highway checkpoints, lower legal blood-alcohol levels, and tougher drunk driving regulations. 

Blumer's stage development view of social problems is helpful in tracing the development of social problems. For example, although sexual harassment and date rape have occurred throughout this century, these issues did not begin to receive recognition as social problems until the 1970s. Social legitimation of these problems was achieved when high schools, colleges, churches, employers, and the media recognized their existence. Organized social groups mobilized to develop and implement plans to deal with these problems. For example, groups successfully lobbied for the enactment of laws against sexual harassment and the enforcement of sanctions against violators of these laws. Groups also mobilized to provide educational seminars on date rate for high school and college students and to offer support services to victims of date rape.

Some disagree with the symbolic interactionist view that social problems exist only if they are recognized. According to this view, individuals who were victims of date rape in the 1960s may be considered victims of a problem, even though date rape was not recognized at that time as a social problem. 

Labeling theory, a major symbolic interactionist theory of social problems, suggests that a social condition or group is viewed as problematic if it is labeled as such. According to labeling theory, resolving social problems sometimes involves changing the meanings and definitions that are attributed to people and situations. For example, as long as teenagers define drinking alcohol as "cool" and "fun," they will continue to abuse alcohol.