How Social Problems Are Born

By Glazer, Nathan | The Public Interest, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

How Social Problems Are Born


Glazer, Nathan, The Public Interest


HOW DO WE get more attention, more public action, for a problem we consider important? More important, how do we get the right kind of public attention and action, right in scale, and right in the kinds of solutions the public is willing to accept and fund?

Contemporary social scientists are skeptical about the possibilities of achieving such a rational ordering of things. Consider the following from the sociologist Joseph Gusfield:

Human problems do not spring up, full-blown and announced, into

the consciousness of bystanders, Even to recognize a situation as

painful requires a system for categorizing and defining events....

"Objective" conditions are seldom so compelling and so clear in

their form that they spontaneously generate a "true" consciousness.

Those committed to one or another solution to a public problem

see its genesis in the necessary consequences of events and processes;

those in opposition often point to "agitators" who impose

one or another definition of reality.

This passage is taken from Gusfield's The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order (University of Chicago Press, 1981) and he exhibits in it a common approach in today's social sciences to the issue of how we make social problems out of social conditions, which may be crudely summarized as: It's all in the head. We need a system of defining and categorizing events before we know we have a problem. When most of us agree we do have a problem--when a social condition has been changed into a problem--we interpret this as a case of the problem having become worse, or a case of increasing empathy and sympathy on the part of the public for those suffering. Paradoxically, we often recognize that we have a problem when the condition we are responding to has improved. Recall how the problem of "poverty" burst upon us in the early days of the Kennedy administration. John Kenneth Galbraith had just published The Affluent Society, and Michael Harrington had published The Other America, but as we now know poverty had been declining all through the forties and fifties.

So our first explanation of how a condition has become a problem may not hold--the problem may not have become worse. Our second, that we have become wiser or more understanding or more sympathetic to the plight of others, is flattering to us, but Gusfield does not give us that credit. It is our categories, rather than reality, that have changed. As we look further into his study of drinking-driving in the book from which I have quoted, we find it is rife with discussions of symbolism, dramaturgy, rhetoric, metaphor, and the like. "The Fiction and Drama of Public Consciousness," one chapter title announces. "The Literary Art of Science: Drama and Pathos in Drinking-Driver Research," another reads.

This is not a case of individual idiosyncrasy. Much of the writing by leading social scientists on how we fix upon social problems, on how they get on the agenda of public attention, is skeptical as to the kind of simple and direct relation we might imagine: the problem gets worse, or we become more sensitive to it. More likely, an interest group of some sort, an advocacy group, has taken it up and made it a matter of public concern. The arts of publicity are more relevant than the findings of science.

Thus, in Gusfield's The Culture of Public Problems, devoted to the problem of the drinking driver--one would think a serious enough issue to deserve direct attention--we will find rather more references to the literary critic Kenneth Burke than to any scientist or social scientist.

The issue for Gusfield is not only the social construction of public problems, which do indeed have many dimensions, among which the determination of fact, of the existing situation, is only one, but the social construction of science itself, a rather popular theme among social scientists and advanced literary critics these days. …

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