2017 Annual Meeting Program Theme
Donileen R. Loseke
University of South Florida
SSSP President (2016-2017)
Narratives in the World of Social Problems:
Power, Resistance, Transformation
Those who tell the stories rule society
Our globalized, cyber-mediated world characterized by extraordinary social, political, economic, and moral fragmentation raises a variety of questions about social problems, including: How do people who experience the consequences of social problems understand the causes of their misery? How do people not suffering understand the experiences of those who do? How do activists convince others to work toward social change? The answer to a variety of such questions is the same: Narratives, or what simply are called “stories” in daily life. Social problem narratives create meaning from the buzzing confusion of practical experience, they convey complex experiences to others, they motivate, they shape public opinion and social action.
Whether told as stories about unique people facing specific troubles or about types of people—the abused child, the terrorist, the welfare mother—in types of situations, social problem narratives are pervasive in daily life. Individuals tell stories to make sense of their troubling experiences, politicians tell stories to sell themselves and their policies; teachers, preachers and parents use stories to convey moral lessons; courts work through the telling and evaluating of stories. Narratives about social problems are pervasive because they are persuasive. Unlike statistics or research, stories can appeal to minds and to hearts: The story of the “Migrant Mother” told through the photographs of depression-era photographer, Dorothea Lange, for example, remains to this day a compelling testimony of the human tragedy created by economic collapse.
Regardless of the extent to which images in a story match indicators of empirical reality, social problem narratives can be personally, socially, and politically consequential. These narratives are about power: Those told by people in privileged positions are assumed to be believable and important, while those told by others are routinely challenged, if not completely silenced; stories whose plots, characters, and morals reflect the status quo are more likely to be positively evaluated than those challenging entrenched power and privilege. Stories become material power when they shape public opinion and social policy. Yet social actors most certainly are not cultural robots who simply accept whatever images of them circulate in the social world. On the contrary: Narratives can be a site of resistance as individuals and groups challenge the truth of those offering ideological support for oppression. Resistance, in turn, can lead to authoring and promoting new stories that foster equality and thus are transformative.
In order to understand public reactions toward social problems and, in order to do something about these conditions causing so much human misery, we need to know much more about the work of social problem narratives. In a world of countless competing stories, we need to know how some—and only some —stories achieve widespread cognitive and emotional appeal and go on to influence public opinion and social policy; how different stories appeal to people in different social positions. We need to know how stories promoting particular images of social problems reflect and challenge and/or perpetuate existing inequalities and structures of power, and how stories encourage or discourage social change. We need to more fully understand how story contents and meanings change as they circulate through particular societies and throughout the globe.
The power and workings of social problems narratives will be the focus of our conversations at the 2017 meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems to be held in the fascinating, beautiful, bi-lingual, multi-cultural city of Montreal. I look forward to seeing you there.
Donileen R. Loseke, SSSP President
University of South Florida
2017 Program Committee
Amir B. Marvasti, Chair, Penn State Altoona
Program theme photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF34-9058-C]