Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Two major approaches to the study of social problems have dominated the sociological literature. The first, the functionalist approach, carries over the familiar orientation and assumptions of the larger functionalist perspective in sociology. Social problems are seen as real social conditions harmful to society. The second and now more dominant approach, the subjective approach, draws on two larger perspectives in sociology, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism. From the former it takes an image of society as a collection of diverse and competing social influences with a wide array of ideas and interests; from the latter it takes an emphasis on the significant role definitions of social reality play for the understanding of social life. Social problems lie in the process by which groups come to define social conditions as problematic, not in the objective conditions themselves.
By examining the emergence of how the Love Canal, an environmental problem in Niagara Falls, New York was socially constructed into a "social" problem, it is argued that social problems and the issues associated with them are not objectively given whose existence may be taken for granted. Social problems are organized and defined within a socio-political context. The emergence of a social problem evolves around the following sequences: private recognition of the social problem; public and political recognition of the problem as an appropriate issue for policy decision and government action; public debate and social conflict about the legitimacy, seriousness, and causes of the problem. For a social problem to be transformed from a private issue to a public issue, a complex socio-political process develops around the activities of major institutional actors; the media, officialdom, experts and private interest groups. Often conflicts arise not only over what is to be a public issue, but also over how the problem is to be diagnosed and responded to. Of particular theoretical interest in the institutionalization of social problems. Institutionalizing the social problem into the social structure, legitimate, institutionalize and routinize the social problem.
Minichiello, M. Victor, "The Social Construction of Social Problems: An Empirical Example 'The Love Canal'" (1980). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 5583.
McMaster University Library