Social Problems & Role Theory

Here is an industrial strength example of role theory.

Social structures are invisible because they are, after all, nothing more than names for coordinated activities between people, and so are not available to the five senses even though they are made up of events and so are empirical. And yet people have an apperception of these structures even if they cannot give names to them because different structures do, in fact, have different “feels” to them, the job of giving specific names to distinct social structures left to professionals, the ordinary layperson knowing well enough about how the social world works so that he or she can live in it and manipulate it. Here is an example of one of those social structures, social problems, that people sense and therefore know about without needing to know about it with any precision except when a social crisis arises as happens, for instance, when there is a President of the United States who is clearly unsuited to the job and the American people have to decide how unsuited he has to be to be turned out of office.

A social issue is any matter that becomes a concern for a society. The abolition of slavery or giving women the vote is of such magnitude that it required major upheavals in society to get those matters dealt with. Some social issues, such as bullying or sexual harassment, may be so pervasive because they are so customary or innate to human psychology, that little can be done to contain them. But, then again, there is another category of social issue, which we recognize to be “social problems”, which are matters that evoke in the citizenry a sense of poignancy as well as a sense that something can be done to alleviate those who are in distress.

Strictly speaking, a social problem is a deteriorating role sequence. That means it is a sequence of roles each successive one of which has less hopeful life chances, and so seems to doom people to bad outcomes even though there are a number of steps a person goes through before what seems to be inevitable takes hold. Since any given individual can surmount hurdles and overcome the social conditions and the path he is on, this definition of a social problem applies only statistically, specifying how aggregates of people can turn out under the objective conditions in which they find themselves.

An easily recognized example of a social problem is the problem of poverty. The children of the poor start out malnourished and psychologically brutalized and less adroit in the use of language because they are exposed to fewer words and do not find that words are a way of getting what you want, which is what happens in a non-poverty household, whose byword is “use your words”. And so they arrive at school or even pre-school already behind their peers, and their failure to keep up with their peers, or being in a school of largely poverty class children that will do little to rid them of their deficits, will result, like as not, in making of them into failures at school and so education will not be a way to get out of poverty. They will join gangs or become runners for drug dealers, which further stiffles or misdirects whatever skills or smarts they may have, and then, if they are boys, they are likely to go to jail or wind up dead, and if they are girls, they are likely to choose to become pregnant at an early age so that they can shower a child with the love they do not experience in their own lives, and so begins again the cycle of poverty over the generations. Not all poor people wind up that way, but enough do to see it as a kind of doom, unless there is something dramatic that occurs, such as war or migration, that may open the opportunity for a different way of life.

That intervention that opens up opportunity can also be the result of a particularly brilliant piece of dramatization. One of the things Martin Luther King, Jr. did was to portray the conditions under which black people lived as being a social problem. Well scrubbed and well dressed and well behaved schoolgirls were marching off to school while being hounded by white segregationists. That made into a social problem--how could you deprive these clearly deserving young people of an education so that they could improve themselves?--of what had previously, to many, seemed the inevitable separation of the races that went back, so it was said, to biblical times, a clash between biologically different creatures, rather than the condemnation of little girls not that different from your own to a fate not of their own choosing. Justice favored the little girls, never mind issues of caste, which can seem irresolvable.

Once a social issue becomes recognized as a social problem, it becomes subject to organized attempts to deal with it. Social problems can be isolated,  reduced, or abolished.  Isolation means introducing programs to segregate those troubled by the problem from other people. The wave of social programs at the beginning of the nineteenth century were attempts at isolation. Criminals, mad people and the poor would be housed in special communities that were designed to either cure them or mitigate their suffering or punish them, though it seems getting them out of mind was the main purpose of prisons, asylums and workhouses because treatments proved ineffective in rehabilitating prisoners, and only late twentieth century drugs proved capable of treating the mentally ill, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the settlement house movement proved useful to the poor because it attempted to mitigate poverty by giving people skills in living ordinary lives so that at least some of them might be rescued from their ever diminishing life chances. Hospitals, in the course of the nineteenth century, became productive rather than merely isolating institutions because a higher and higher percentage of people graduated from them back into good health, while mental asylums were places that filled up because, studies show, most of the people confined there never graduated.

The mitigation model is also useful for some of the above mentioned and other social problems. You can mitigate poverty by providing more pre-school programs and raising the minimum wage, although that will not help those so mired in poverty that they find it difficult to hold down a job, though that may apply to ten percent of those on welfare, or so experts have told me. You can cut down on the number of homeless by providing more attractive shelters or supported living arrangements so that some of the homeless have a more regular round of life and so are rescued from the downward spiral that comes from mental illness, lack of employment and fractured families, these occuring in no particular order but having a snowball effect, each one leading to the others, that leaves the homeless hopeless.  But you cannot reduce the incidence of sexual assault by limiting pornography because there is no evidence that one leads to the other.

Surprisingly, abolishing a problem, which is the third way to deal with social problems, is not as utopian an ambition as social commentators may think if the right problem is dealt with the right remedy. Diseases get abolished and not just mitigated-- or, rather, mitigation is just one stage in the drive to eliminate a disease. Polio was abolished and many kinds of cancer as well as AIDS and diabetes are chronic rather than fatal illnesses, and the prospect is that some magic bullet will be found to get rid of these social problems, where people’s bodies deteriorate to ever more restricted ability and mobility levels until death ensues. Society has not yet contemplated death itself as a social problem rather than a social condition, but that too will come, as more and more diseases are conquered, just as cigarette smoking has been dramatically decreased in the most developed societies since the scientific proof of the link between smoking and cancer moved smoking into being a significant social problem fifty years ago. Other addictions, such as to fatty foods, are now recognized as a social problem but measures to mitigate the effects of fast food restaurants runs up against the fact that fast food restaurants may be the most nutritious food that some of those in poverty get.