Angles of Vision: How to Understand Social Problems

Angles of Vision: How to Understand Social Problems

Angles of Vision: How to Understand Social Problems

Angles of Vision: How to Understand Social Problems


Providing students with basic information about social problems, this text also aims to teach them a strategy for understanding these issues. It explains how to distinguish between individual and structural analyses and place issues the correct context.


In his essay Sociology's Critical Irony,Joseph Gusfield tells an anecdote about four professors who come across a human body at the base of a bridge (1990:37). The physicist examines the body as matter that has been in motion from the bridge. The biologist examines it to determine if it is still alive. The psychologist speculates about the possibility of suicidal motives. The sociologist examines the pockets to find out what groups the person belonged to. All these angles of vision are useful; each can lead to valuable knowledge. But Gusfield's point, if I read him correctly, is that sociological explanations tend to focus on the context in which behavior occurs. For example, at the individual level, sociologists want to know how people are affected by and affect groups. At the structural level, sociologists want to know why so few or so many individuals are like the unfortunate person at the base of the bridge. The distinction is crucial.

In this book, I try to explain clearly and concisely the origin and nature of selected social problems, with an emphasis on distinguishing between individual and structural angles of vision. In so doing, I have tried to give readers a sense of real people struggling in a context of vast historical changes that have increased their range of choices. I argue that the key to understanding social problems involves looking at the social structure. The reason for this emphasis is that knowing why individuals with certain characteristics act as they do explains little about how the social structure encourages or discourages such behaviors. As will become clear, there is nothing vague about structural explanations; it can be shown how and why specific variables affect rates of behavior.

The book is addressed to the beginning student and also the general reader. As a look at the table of contents reveals, the book is relatively brief. My goal is not complete coverage of topics dealt with in social problems courses. It is, rather, to present a strategy for understanding such issues.

There are advantages to a brief book. It seems to me that the large coffee-table-style texts produced today are often confusing. The (frequently irrelevant) pictures, marginalia, boxes, inserts, and other trappings make it hard to find the running text and hard to follow the author's theme. So I have omitted any "filler" material and tried to write a book . . .

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