SOCIAL PROBLEMS THEORY

Social problems theory comes in many varieties – including, but not limited to feminist, social constructionist, critical race, and post-colonial approaches. We believe that these diverse perspectives can yield insights and knowledge useful to those who are contesting inequality and injustice. This is because all varieties of theorizing challenge commonly held and institutionally supported ideas about the causes, consequences, and potential resolutions of conditions defined as social problems.

Our theorizing scrutinizes official or taken-for-granted cultural realities and their construction by a range of everyday actors, academics, social movement advocates, mass media personnel, politicians, and policy-makers. We aim to reveal the real and practical consequences of the ways these “realities” are constructed. By critically examining and documenting the characteristics of official reality, by understanding how these realities are the result of human activity, and by offering alternative ways of seeing, social problems theory can level the political and social playing field. In turn, social problems theory can offer marginalized and socially progressive people crucial resources to engage both their allies and their foes and to move toward a just world.

Our vision of such a just world is likely compatible with others’ vision in the SSSP. We believe that the resources that our theorizing provides can help us move toward more equitable distributions of both what humans need and opportunities to achieve beyond those needs. In other words, we envision a just world as a planet in which the resources that fulfill our basic needs are available to all; where basic human dignity and rights are respected; where resources and opportunities for advancement are made available to all humans, regardless of their citizenship, gender, race/ethnicity, economic class, sexual orientation, physical abilities, or other social characteristics, and where everything on the planet, including people, animals, and the environment, are routinely treated with compassion. Given current realities, rigorous theories, which provide “alternative ways of seeing,” are a necessary resource for achieving those goals.

Our Division’s mission, then, is educational. While understandings from social problems theory have clear use on the public stages of social change, they also have the power to effect change in individual consciousness. An important mainspring of social change therefore is the college classroom. At its best, excellent teaching of social problems theory encourages students to critically examine the world they confront and influences how they will participate in our social, political, and economic life.

We can also educate outside the classroom, especially by teaching others about the public value of theoretically motivated empirical research. While justice can be affected through policy and law, it can also be brought about through the subtle and indirect influences that individuals exert as they raise children, make decisions to hire, fire and promote, write letters to editors, or debate social issues over coffee. Encouraging rigorous thinking about alternative ways of seeing and interpreting “facts” might well stop us from plunging into future wars that are not justified by those same “facts.” We should strive to educate everybody, everyday, everywhere.

OVERCOMING DIFFICULTIES IN PURSUIT OF THE DIVISION’S MISSION

The Theory Division promotes the development of empirically supported theoretical understandings of social problems. The Division aims to overcome three primary problems in pursuit of this mission. First, theory must be appreciated as something other than mere speculation or academic blather on one hand or as mere ideology or propaganda on the other hand. Instead, theory is an attempt to formulate systematically related propositions that link and explain the empirical realities of the world. We see our mission as convincing others to look carefully at what the social world actually is like, rather than as what we merely assume or wish it to be.

The second difficulty in our mission involves convincing theorists to become less insular. Theory generated within academia too often is dismissed outside academia as “merely academic and not relevant to practical concerns.” Social problems theorists themselves may encourage this dismissal when we focus our attention on issues of concern only to other theorists, when we ignore or unthinkingly criticize those who do not display a sophisticated understanding of theory, and when we write in ways understandable only to our immediate colleagues.

The third difficulty in our mission stems from the disciplinary structure of academia as well as the often-narrow interests of those exploring theoretical questions. Academics in departments of sociology, for example, tend to focus their attention on works written by and for other sociologists. The Social Problems Theory Division promotes interdisciplinary work that breaches traditional academic boundaries.

We must overcome these problems in order to fully realize the potential impact that Social Problems Theory can have on progress toward a just world.

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Social Problems Theory Division Mission Statement

Written by

J. William Spencer, Purdue University
Social Problems Theory Division Chair, 1996-1998

James Holstein, Marquette University
Social Problems Theory Division Chair, 1994-1996

Donileen Loseke, University of South Florida
Social Problems Theory Division Chair, 1992-1994

Mitch Berbrier, University of Alabama in Huntsville
Social Problems Theory Division Chair, 2006-2008

Reviewed in November 2018 by 

Arthur McLuhan, York University
Social Problems Theory Division Chair, 2018-2020

Edited in April 2016 by

Jared Del Rosso, University of Denver
Social Problems Theory Division Chair, 2014-2016

Dave Lane, University of South Dakota
Social Problems Theory Division Chair, 2016-2018