Sociology Social Problems
by
Joel Best
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0052

Introduction

The term “social problem” is usually taken to refer to social conditions that disrupt or damage society—crime, racism, and the like. “Social Problems” is the title of an undergraduate course taught at many colleges; a typical course discusses what is known about a series of conditions considered social problems. In contrast, the sociology of social problems defines social problem differently and adopts a different analytic approach. This approach—sometimes called constructionist—defines social problem in terms of a process, rather than a type of condition. It focuses on how and why people come to understand that some condition ought to be viewed as a social problem, that is, how they socially construct social problems. Typically, the social problems process begins with claimsmakers who make claims that some condition ought to be considered a problem, that this problem should be understood in particular ways, and that it needs to be addressed. Other people respond to those claims and rework them, so that the social problem is constructed and reconstructed by the media, the general public, policymakers, the social- problems workers who implement policy, and critics to assess the policy’s effectiveness. The process is complex: some claims produce a speedy reaction, while others have difficulty finding an audience. The constructionist approach began to guide researchers in the 1970s and has generated a substantial literature that continues to develop in new directions.

Textbooks

Most introductory textbooks for social problems courses do not develop a constructionist perspective. Rather, their chapters present basic information about a set of social conditions usually understood to be social problems, such as crime and racism. Such traditional textbooks display minimal theoretical integration; that is, they do not discuss crime as a social problem, or compare social problems. Three books do adopt a consistently constructionist stance. The classic statement is Spector and Kitsuse 1977. Two more recent texts adopt rather different orientations: Loseke 2003 is more microsociological, while Best 2013 is more macrosociological.

  • Best, Joel. 2013. Social problems. 2d ed. New York: Norton.

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    Less concerned with phenomenological issues than the earlier textbooks, and more focused on integrating the constructionist literature, and making connections to other sociological research specialties, such as the sociology of social movements and political sociology. Organized around stages in the social problems process.

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  • Loseke, Donileen R. 2003. Thinking about social problems. 2d ed. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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    An accessible but relatively abstract introduction to constructionism with a strong focus on theoretical, and especially phenomenological issues. Emphasis on microsociology, and the ways in which social problems are constructed through social interaction.

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  • Spector, Malcolm, and John I. Kitsuse. 1977. Constructing social problems. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings.

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    The classic statement of the constructionist perspective. Grounded in a phenomenological perspective. Offers a history of the sociological debate over the nature of social problems, and defines the field’s subject matter in terms of claimsmaking. Challenging reading for beginning students.

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Handbooks

These two volumes illustrate the difference between a constructionist approach to social problems and a more traditional, problem-based approach. Ritzer 2004 features a more traditional organization, with chapters on different social problems. In contrast, the contributions to Holstein and Gubrium 2008 address a range of issues in constructionist theory.

  • Holstein, James A., and Jaber F. Gubrium, eds. 2008. Handbook of constructionist research. New York: Guilford.

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    The idea of social construction has spread into many sociological specialties, and beyond sociology to other disciplines. This is an ambitious overview of this broad literature, although many of the chapters are by scholars active in the sociology of social problems, and about topics relevant to social problems. Chapters summarize the literature on key topics, with bibliographies of recent literature.

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  • Ritzer, George, eds. 2004. Handbook of social problems: A comparative international perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    Adopts a more traditional, problem-based approach to organizing the field; thirty of the thirty-four chapters deal with various conditions understood to be social problems, such as population change, ecological problems, and inequality. The essays in this volume are distinctive in that they approach their topics from a comparative and/or global perspective.

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Journals

Since the constructionist approach was first developed in the 1970s, hundreds of case studies have been published in a wide array of journals, mostly in sociology, but also in such other disciplines as political science, history, and social work. However, two venues have been particularly important. Perspectives on Social Problems (no longer published) was generally focused on constructionist work, while Social Problems has been more theoretically eclectic, although it has published many of the key statements in the development of the constructionist framework.

  • Perspectives on Social Problems.

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    An annual journal, no longer being published. Twelve volumes were published by JAI Press, 1989–2000. The editors, James A. Holstein and Gale Miller, were instrumental in fostering the development of the constructionist perspective.

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    • Social Problems.

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      The official journal of the Society for the Study of Social Problems is theoretically eclectic but has published a large share of the key articles that have advanced the constructionist perspective.

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      Social Problems Theory

      Sociologists began writing about social problems as harmful social conditions at the end of the 19th century (Schwartz 1997). Almost from the beginning, critical works such as Fuller and Myers 1941 pointed to the problems with this approach. Constructionists sought to break away from the traditional, commonsense notion that equated social problems with social conditions. Works from theorists such as Blumer 1971 and Spector and Kitsuse 1977 sought to redefine social problems in terms of a process by which some conditions were defined as social problems; this reoriented the study of social problems to the study of claimsmaking. Initially, there was debate about the theoretical assumptions needed to underpin such analyses. The issue, raised by Woolgar and Pawluch 1985 and answered in various ways in Holstein and Miller 1993, was what analysts could assume: if constructionist analysts wanted to call into question the assumptions of the people making claims, what assumptions were they themselves allowed to make? This debate has been resolved, but more recent works, such as Loseke and Best 2015 and Weinberg 2014, continue to examine issues in constructionist theory.

      • Blumer, Herbert. 1971. Social problems as collective behavior. Social Problems 18.3: 298–306.

        DOI: 10.1525/sp.1971.18.3.03a00020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Early critique of the limitations of sociologists’ attempts to equate social problems with objective conditions. Written by a leading theorist of symbolic interaction who often criticized conventional sociological theorizing. Sketches a rough model of the social problems process.

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        • Fuller, Richard C., and Richard R. Myers. 1941. The natural history of a social problem. American Sociological Review 6.3: 320–329.

          DOI: 10.2307/2086189Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

          Some analysts recognized the theoretical contradictions in sociologists’ defining social problems as disruptive social conditions. This early case study sought to redefine social problems as a process, but it had relatively little influence in redirecting the research of other scholars.

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          • Holstein, James A., and Gale Miller, eds. 1993. Reconsidering social constructionism: Debates in social problems theory. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Grutyer.

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            Features an influential essay (Ibarra and Kitsuse, “Vernacular Constituents of Moral Discourse”) that attempts to address the critique of Woolgar and Pawluch 1985 by insisting that analysts can avoid making assumptions about social context. Includes two dozen reactions to that essay and reflects a broad range of constructionist theorizing.

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          • Loseke, Donileen R., and Joel Best, eds. 2015. Special issue: Constructionist futures; New directions in social problems theory. Qualitative Sociology Review 11.1.

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            Collection of fifteen essays by sociologists from North America, Europe, and Asia, suggesting ways of extending social problems theory. Several pieces note the need to move beyond ethnocentric assumptions found in the early constructionist writings by American theorists.

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            • Schwartz, Hillel. 1997. On the origin of the phrase “social problems.” Social Problems 44.2: 276–296.

              DOI: 10.1525/sp.1997.44.2.03x0226rSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

              A historian traces the emergence of the term “social problem” in the 19th-century debate surrounding industrialization and the struggle between labor and capital. Shows how the very idea of social problem is itself a social construction, with its own history and consequences.

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              • Spector, Malcolm, and John I. Kitsuse. 1977. Constructing social problems. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings.

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                The most influential statement of the constructionist perspective. Offers a history of the sociological debate over the nature of social problems, defines the field’s subject matter in terms of claimsmaking, and suggests its own model of the social problems process.

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              • Weinberg, Darin. 2014. Contemporary social constructionism: Key themes. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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                An effort to assess the state of constructionist theorizing, written from a phenomenological perspective. Contains chapters on particular topics within constructionism, including the sociology of social problems.

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              • Woolgar, Steve, and Dorothy Pawluch. 1985. Ontological gerrymandering: The anatomy of social problems explanations. Social Problems 32.3: 214–227.

                DOI: 10.1525/sp.1985.32.3.03a00020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                This critique questioned the logic of constructionist analyses. Notes that analysts invariably make assumptions about some aspects of reality, even as they insist that reality is socially constructed. Inspired considerable theoretical debate.

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                Claims

                The social problems process begins with claimsmaking, with someone arguing that some condition is troubling and ought to be addressed. Works by constructionist analysts, such as Gusfield 1981 and Best 1990, realized that claims always involve rhetoric; they are efforts to persuade. What is considered a persuasive argument varies across time and space: invoking sacred scripture may convince some audiences; others may find the results of scientific research more compelling. Hilgartner and Bosk 1988 argues that the audience’s attention is limited and claims must compete to be noticed, which requires efforts to make their rhetoric powerful. More recent analysts have focused on particular rhetorical elements in contemporary claims, including statistics (Best 2012), narratives (Davis 2005), emotions (Berns 2011, Loseke 2009), and victimization (Dunn 2010).

                • Berns, Nancy. 2011. Closure: The rush to end grief and what it costs us. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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                  Claims often feature emotional warrants; because a culture validates a relatively small set of these appeals, it is not uncommon for opposing claimsmakers to invoke similar values and justifications. Examines the very different meanings assigned to closure by advocates focused on different sorts of loss.

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                • Best, Joel. 1990. Threatened children: Rhetoric and concern about child-victims. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                  Uses the missing-children movement of the 1980s to illustrate the rhetoric of claimsmaking and considers parallel claims about other threats to children. Shows how claims evolve over time and how they disseminate through news and entertainment media, as well as popular opinion.

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                • Best, Joel. 2012. Damned lies and statistics: Untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists. Updated ed. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                  Statistics play a central role in contemporary social problems construction, in part because they are understood to be factual. Examines the rhetorical role of statistics and the processes by which they are produced and disseminated. Also catalogues a number of common errors that can be found in statistical claims.

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                • Davis, Joseph E. 2005. Accounts of innocence: Sexual abuse, trauma, and the self. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                  Traces the recent history of claims about sexual abuse, with a focus on the sorts of collective stories presented and the ways in which those narratives shape popular understandings of social problems. Also emphasizes the role of moral rhetoric in social problems claims.

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                • Dunn, Jennifer L. 2010. Judging victims: Why we stigmatize survivors, and how they reclaim respect. Social Problems, Social Constructions. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

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                  Examines victimization—a key theme in late-20th-century social problems claims. Traces shifting constructions of victims as the concept was invoked by activists opposed to rape, domestic violence, and sexual abuse during different stages in the women’s movement.

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                • Gusfield, Joseph R. 1981. The Culture of public problems: Drinking-driving and the symbolic order. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                  One of the earliest constructionist monographs, its focus is on the rhetoric of science, using scientific studies of the proportion of traffic fatalities that can be attributed to drinking drivers as its centerpiece. Also introduces the important concept of ownership—that is, how particular claimsmakers achieve a central position in constructing particular issues.

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                • Hilgartner, Stephen, and Charles L. Bosk. 1988. The rise and fall of social problems: A public arenas model. American Journal of Sociology 94.7: 53–78.

                  DOI: 10.1086/228951Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                  Important analysis of the marketplace for social problems claims. Argues that claims must compete for attention within particular arenas, and that each arena has a limited carrying capacity. Identifies features that make claims more or less competitive within particular arenas.

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                  • Loseke, Donileen R. 2009. Examining emotion as discourse: Emotion codes and presidential speeches justifying war. Sociological Quarterly 50.3: 497–524.

                    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2009.01150.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                    Emotion figures importantly in claims-making rhetoric. Examines the emotional content of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speeches in characterizing terrorism as a melodramatic issue and justifying military action as a solution to this problem, as a case study of the significance of emotion in claims.

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                    Activist Claimsmakers

                    In the aftermath of the 1960s, the sociology of social movements revived and became intellectually vibrant, with the emergence of several competing theoretical perspectives centered on concepts such as framing, resource mobilization, opportunity structures, and identity politics. Many of these concepts can be applied to the study of social problems. Activists—participants in social movement organizations—are the prototypical claimsmakers who seek to arouse the press, public, and policymakers in an effort to address what they see as troubling conditions. The frames chosen by activists determine whether claims are competitive (Benford and Hunt 2003, Johnston and Noakes 2005); effective frames can influence policymakers’ decisions (Best 2012). Movements may contain very different constructions of the same problem, even coalitions that include advocates who take opposing positions on other issues (Whittier 2014); moreover, as Whittier 2009 notes, a movement’s constructions may evolve over time. Analysts also examine other issues, such as new ways of mobilizing support (Moore 2008), or how debates between claims and counterclaims give shape to contentious issues (Gallo-Cruz 2012).

                    • Benford, Robert D., and Scott A. Hunt. 2003. Interactional dynamics in public problems marketplaces: Movements and the counterframing and reframing of public problems. In Challenges and choices: Constructionist perspectives on social problems. Edited by James A. Holstein and Gale Miller, 153–186. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                      Analyses of framing and social movements closely parallel constructionist examinations of social problems rhetoric. Seeks to integrate the two literatures by identifying common themes and identifying insights that each body of work can contribute to the other.

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                    • Best, Rachel Kahn. 2012. Disease politics and medical research funding: Three ways advocacy shapes policy. American Sociological Review 77.5: 780–803.

                      DOI: 10.1177/0003122412458509Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                      Federal funding for medical research has been transformed by advocates’ campaigns arguing that efforts to address particular diseases deserve more support. Shows how activists’ efforts and rhetoric now influence a range of policy choices that were formerly in the hands of experts.

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                      • Gallo-Cruz, Selina. 2012. Negotiating the lines of contention: Counterframing and boundary work in the School of the Americas debate. Sociological Forum 27.1: 21–45.

                        DOI: 10.1111/j.1573-7861.2011.01300.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        In contentious issues, claims and counterclaims offer competing frames for understanding what is at stake. Although opponents may have different values, this case study argues that they also may endorse the same morality, while disagreeing about what does or does not violate a moral principle.

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                        • Johnston, Hank, and John A. Noakes, eds. 2005. Frames of protest: Social movements and the framing perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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                          Collection of original chapters by social movement scholars adopting a framing approach that closely parallels the constructionist literature on social problems. Especially useful for a basis of comparison between the theoretical perspectives, suggestive for directions that social problems research might take.

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                        • Moore, Sarah E. H. 2008. Ribbon culture: Charity, compassion, and public awareness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

                          DOI: 10.1057/9780230583382Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          Examines the adoption of colored ribbons as a device for expressing symbolic participation in campaigns aimed at curing different diseases and other causes. Explores organized charity as a means for mobilizing resources. Centered on developments in Great Britain, although also relevant to the United States.

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                        • Whittier, Nancy. 2009. The politics of child sexual abuse: Emotion, social movements, and the state. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

                          DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195325102.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          A sociologist of social movements traces the history of an issue often studied by constructionists as a series of movements that not only framed the issue differently, but found themselves operating in very different political environments that affected their influence.

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                        • Whittier, Nancy. 2014. Rethinking coalitions: Anti-pornography feminists, conservatives, and relationships between collaborative adversarial movements. Social Problems 61.2: 175–193.

                          DOI: 10.1525/sp.2014.12151Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          Social movements often consist of coalitions of advocates who frame what is at issue in different ways, so that a movement may encompass views ranging from more moderate to more radical. In some cases, a coalition’s members may include activists who agree on the issue at hand, even as they take opposing positions on other issues.

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                          Expert Claimsmakers

                          Claims can also be made by experts who offer authoritative judgments, derived from their professional training or official positions. Societies acknowledge different perspectives as authoritative. In the United States, religious leaders had considerably more influence through the end of the 19th century than they do today, whereas people have become increasingly likely to defer to the judgments of medical and scientific professionals and to officials and other political actors. Whereas activists are more likely to offer moral claims about right and wrong, experts are more likely to construct social problems in terms of risks or legality.

                          Medical and Scientific Authorities

                          The ascendance of medical professionals and scientists to positions of cultural authority was a striking development of the 20th century. In particular, many social problems were medicalized, so that problems once understood in terms of sin or criminality were redefined as diseases, and discussed in terms of the medical vocabulary of symptom, treatment, and so on (Conrad 2007). Case studies focus on particular medical claims regarding mental illness (Horwitz 2002), obesity (Saguy 2013), migraine (Kempner 2014), or risk (Armstrong 2003). Similarly, a scientific perspective increasingly governed discussions of the natural world, so that scientists’ voices became especially prominent in discussions of environmental issues, ranging from day-to-day weather forecasts (Fine 2007) to risks of earthquakes (Stallings 1995) Even happiness—once considered a subject for philosophers—became the subject of scientists’ claimsmaking (Frawley 2015).

                          • Armstrong, Elizabeth M. 2003. Conceiving risk, bearing responsibility: Fetal alcohol syndrome and the diagnosis of moral disorder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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                            Uses the campaign against fetal alcohol syndrome to illustrate how medical definitions have moral dimensions (evidence that heavy drinking during pregnancy damaged the fetus led to a broad campaign to control all drinking by pregnant women). Illustrates the connections between expert and activist claimsmakers.

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                          • Conrad, Peter. 2007. The medicalization of society: On the transformation of human conditions into treatable disorders. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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                            Overview of the state of medicalization research by the concept’s leading proponent. Examines how medicine’s domain expands (so that conditions such as baldness or shortness, once viewed as normal, are redefined as diseases) and how medical judgments can be contested (such as the debate over the implications of understanding homosexuality as rooted in biology).

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                          • Fine, Gary Alan. 2007. Authors of the storm: Meteorologists and the culture of prediction. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

                            DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226249544.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                            Ethnography of the National Weather Service offices that produce storm warnings and other weather forecasts. Shows how scientists who construct the weather’s future must interpret an array of data, models, and risks to arrive at forecasts within an organization that is both bureaucratic and scientific.

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                          • Frawley, Ashley. 2015. Semiotics of happiness: Rhetorical beginnings of a public problem. London: Bloomsbury.

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                            Explores the recent campaign by psychologists to promote a science of happiness, which seeks to measure the extent of happiness and to promote policies to increase it. This campaign has become a way for professionals to identify a new emotional problem, and to argue for its importance in guiding a broad set of social policies.

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                          • Horwitz, Allan V. 2002. Creating mental illness. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                            During the early 20th century, psychotherapists campaigned to medicalize various behaviors. In recent decades, psychiatry has shifted its focus to pharmaceutical treatments, and defines its profession in terms of scientific research. Reviews the nature and implications of these shifts.

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                          • Kempner, Joanna. 2014. Not tonight: Migraine and the politics of gender and health. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

                            DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226179292.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                            Medicalization often involves alliances between medical authorities and the patients who experience a disease. Both doctors and patients have struggled to construct migraine as a widespread, debilitating disease in the face of public resistance to making too much of mere headaches.

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                          • Saguy, Abigail C.. 2013. What’s wrong with fat? New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

                            DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199857081.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                            Both eating disorders and obesity have been the subjects of medicalization; however, medical claims are reconstructed when they reach the news media. Shows how cultural understandings and media routines translate and transform medical claims for public consumption.

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                            • Stallings, Robert A. 1995. Promoting risk: Constructing the earthquake threat. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Grutyer.

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                              Earthquake scientists must warn about serious but uncertain risks, and it is easy for policymakers to delay taking action because the claims don’t seem urgent. Discusses earthquakes as a “partially constructed” social problem and considers the role of uncertainty and risk in shaping experts’ claims and their outcomes.

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                            Officials and Other Political Actors

                            Politicians, officials, and public intellectuals claim expertise regarding public policy. They figure prominently in proposals for new legislation and other policy initiatives. Although their expertise can be challenged in democratic societies, where outsiders can contend for political office and the powers to shape policy, their positions give them considerable access to media coverage, so that their claims are made available to large audiences. Political expertise encompasses a range of actors: intellectuals, such as experts asked to advise on policy (Tetlock 2005) and think tanks that adopt a range of ideological positions (Medvetz 2012); foundations that seek to steer policy through philanthropy (Bartley 2007); candidates for public office (Callaghan and Schnell 2005); and of course legislators (Markens 2007, Nelson 1984). While members of the polity may be able to affect policy without attracting much public attention, these figures are able to command media coverage when they deem this necessary. In less democratic states, officials may have far-greater control over the claims-making process (Xu 2015).

                            • Bartley, Tim. 2007. How foundations shape social movements: The construction of an organizational field and the rise of forest certification. Social Problems 54.3: 229–254.

                              DOI: 10.1525/sp.2007.54.3.229Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                              Foundations also play roles in shaping claimsmaking campaigns by providing funding to support social movement activities. Examines how foundations supported forest certification (endorsing sustainable practices) as an alternative to boycotts, thereby steering environmental movements.

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                              • Callaghan, Karen, and Frauke Schnell, eds. 2005. Framing American politics. Pittsburgh, PA: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

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                                Collection of original chapters, mostly by political scientists, examines how political candidates and officials frame issues in efforts to shape media coverage, public opinion, and policymaking. Several chapters deal with social problems, such as race, juvenile justice, and terrorism.

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                              • Markens, Susan. 2007. Surrogate motherhood and the politics of reproduction. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

                                DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520252035.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                Examines how a variety of activists and professional claimsmakers, as well as media, combine to promote policies regarding surrogate motherhood. Pays particular attention to the involvement of state legislators in framing issues in ways that advance policymaking.

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                              • Medvetz, Thomas. 2012. Think tanks in America. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

                                DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226517308.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                Think tanks bring together scholars and other thinkers (who usually share a political ideology) concerned with policy issues; think tanks provide a venue for constructing social problems and promoting particular policy solutions. Examines the assorted social forces that shape think tanks and their claims.

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                              • Nelson, Barbara J. 1984. Making an issue of child abuse: Political agenda setting for social problems. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                Classic analysis of the development of federal child-abuse policies. Highlights the role of the federal Children’s Bureau in drawing attention to the issue, and then promoting a series of legislative reforms designed to require reporting suspected abuse and provide better protective services.

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                              • Tetlock, Philip E. 2005. Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know? Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                                A political scientist examines the influence of experts on recommending and influencing the directions of social policy. While the analysis is not framed in constructionist terms, offers an overview of the nature and limits of expertise, particularly as it relates to political judgments.

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                              • Xu, Jianhua. 2015. Claims-makers versus non-issue-makers: Media and the social construction of motorcycle ban problems in China. Qualitative Sociology Review 11.2: 122–141.

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                                Most research on social problems is set in demographic states, where there is considerable competition to advance claims. In contrast, China’s authoritarian state has monopolized the social problems agenda, although more independent emerging media are sometimes able to shape official policies, as in the case of motorcycle bans.

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                                Media Coverage

                                Many claimsmakers rely upon the media to disseminate their claims to a broader audience; this attracts new supporters and also increases pressure on policymakers to take action to address the issue. The media transform confusing events into coherent narratives (Monahan 2010), by selecting the cases that typify a problem (Nichols 1997), and constructing coherent frames (D’Angelo and Kuypers 2010) or packages (Gamson and Modigliani 1989) for understanding an issue. In the process, media interact with claimsmakers. Analysts typically focus on journalism—both print (newspapers, newsmagazines) and electronic (broadcast news and commentary) (Letukas 2014). However, a broad range of media can contribute to the construction of social problems, including popular culture (that is, commercial entertainment) (Lowney 1999, Polletta and Tomlinson 2014), and a variety of Internet outlets (including websites, blogs, and chatrooms) (Maratea 2014). Typically, the media translate and transform claims to fit their conventions and constraints.

                                • D’Angelo, Paul, and Jim A. Kuypers, eds. 2010. Doing news framing analysis: Empirical and theoretical perspectives. New York: Routledge.

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                                  Collection of original chapters, most by scholars in communications, dealing with claimsmaking and public opinion, but especially media coverage. Discusses a variety of approaches to applying framing to the analysis of news media. Several chapters offer case studies of framing particular social problems.

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                                • Gamson, William A., and Andre Modigliani. 1989. Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power: A constructionist approach. American Journal of Sociology 95.1: 1–37.

                                  DOI: 10.1086/229213Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                  Argues that media coverage structures and simplifies public understanding of social issues by constructing packages of arguments, language, and symbols that come to be understood as the set of available positions. Shows how media coverage reshapes claimsmakers’ rhetoric.

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                                  • Letukas, Lynn. 2014. Primetime pundits: How cable news covers social issues. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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                                    Twenty-four-hour cable news channels fill their evening broadcasts with commentary by pundits whose treatments of social issues reflect their networks’ respective frames for an ideal society. Examines how ideology and the conventions of cable news shape coverage.

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                                  • Lowney, Kathleen S. 1999. Baring our souls: TV talk shows and the religion of recovery. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                    lllustrates how popular culture, in the form of television talk shows, can contribute to social problems construction. Argues that the talk show formula favors particular narratives in which troubling social conditions are portrayed as rooted in psychodynamics and for which therapy offers a solution.

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                                  • Maratea, Ray J.. 2014. The politics of the Internet: Political claimsmaking in cyberspace and its effect on modern political activism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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                                    The Internet is changing the media landscape: audiences and budgets for traditional print and electronic media have been shrinking, as more—particularly younger—people follow news online. This has created new forums for claimsmaking, including websites and blogs. Concludes that the Internet faces many of the same constraints as do traditional media.

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                                  • Monahan, Brian A. 2010. The shock of the news: Media coverage and the making of 9/11. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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                                    Examines how news workers quickly moved from initial confusion and ambiguity to a more coherent construction during the first hours and days following the terrorist attacks. Traces how that initial construction continued to shape news coverage, particularly of the New York firefighters, in the months that followed.

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                                  • Nichols, Lawrence T. 1997. Social problems as landmark narratives: Bank of Boston, mass media and “money laundering.” Social Problems 44.3: 324–341.

                                    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1997.44.3.03x0118nSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                    Illustrates how particular cases attract media attention and become landmark narratives that shape the coverage of a particular issue. A case’s melodramatic elements can condense a complex series of issues into a reasonably straightforward tale, easier to tell, and to follow.

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                                    • Polletta, Francesca, and Christine Tomlinson. 2014. Date rape after the afterschool special: Narrative trends in the televised depiction of social problems. Sociological Forum 29.3: 527–548.

                                      DOI: 10.1111/socf.12102Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                      Uses television entertainment programs to illustrate how treatments of social problems evolve to reflect change in media environments (e.g., the proliferation of cable channels leads to targeting segmented audiences) and those audiences’ growing familiarity with particular issues. In popular culture, claims must entertain, as well as illuminate.

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                                      Moral Panics, Crime Waves, and Drug Scares

                                      Moral panics are intense, short-lived concerns, often about threatened children or rebellious youth (Cohen 2002, Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009). They can be understood as a particular form of social-problems media coverage (Critcher, et al. 2013), in which an alarming new trend is identified, its causes are diagnosed, and there are calls for quick action. Recent commentators, such as Füredi 2006 and Waiton 2008 have noted that contemporary panics often revolve around perceptions of risk. Crime waves (Sacco 2005) and drug scares (Jenkins 1999) share similar dynamics; both involve waves of media attention that warn against some new crime or new drug that poses a grave threat to the social order. These phenomena all resemble classic episodes of collective delusion and mass hysteria (Bartholomew 2001). In retrospect, these alarms often seem exaggerated, and analysts seek to understand their emergence and largely uncritical reception.

                                      • Bartholomew, Robert E. 2001. Little green men, meowing nuns and head-hunting panics: A study of mass psychogenic illness and social delusion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

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                                        Sociologists of collective behavior study episodes of mass hysteria or collective delusion that display patterns of claimsmaking and societal reaction surrounding UFOs and other unsubstantiated phenomena. Offers an analytic framework for classifying these episodes and presents a range of case studies.

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                                      • Cohen, Stanley. 2002. Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

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                                        Monograph (first published in 1972) that drew the initial attention of moral panics through an examination of the reaction to holiday weekend scuffles between rival groups of British working-class youth. Became the exemplar for other case studies and theoretical analyses.

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                                      • Critcher, Chas, Jason Hughes, Julian Petley, and Amanda Rohloff, eds. 2013. Moral panics in the contemporary world. London: Bloomsbury.

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                                        Collection of original, contemporary case studies on concerns ranging from video nasties in England to the burqa in France, most written by European scholars. Includes a thoughtful, critical introduction that evaluates the usefulness of moral panic as an analytic concept and sketches directions for its future development.

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                                      • Füredi, Frank. 2006. Culture of fear revisited: Risk-taking and the morality of low expectation. 4th ed. New York: Continuum.

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                                        Critique of the notion of the risk society. Argues that warnings from claimsmakers and the media regarding the risks of technological change exaggerate the dangers and threaten to impede social progress. Prolific author of critical analyses of contemporary constructions of problems in Britain.

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                                      • Goode, Erich, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. 2009. Moral panics: The social construction of deviance. 2d ed. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

                                        DOI: 10.1002/9781444307924Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                        Effort to synthesize what is known about moral panics and develop a coherent theoretical position. Became influential in its own right. Second edition defends the concept from its many critics. Offers a strong bibliography of the relevant literature.

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                                      • Jenkins, Philip. 1999. Synthetic panics: The symbolic politics of designer drugs. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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                                        The invention of synthetic drugs expanded targets for claimsmakers warning about drug abuse. Traces several drug scares from recent decades (e.g., PCP, Ecstasy, methamphetamine) and considers the factors that shaped the campaigns’ relative success in arousing alarm.

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                                      • Sacco, Vincent. 2005. When crime waves. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

                                        DOI: 10.4135/9781483328799Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                        Most criminologists understand crime waves as waves in media coverage. Offers a critical synthesis of the literature on the topic, and gives an overview of the constructionist processes that produce crime waves. Very useful bibliography on the topic.

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                                      • Waiton, Stuart. 2008. The politics of antisocial behaviour: Amoral panics. Routledge Advances in Criminology 3. New York: Routledge.

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                                        Argues that British sociologists have tended to emphasize the conservative morality behind moral panics but suggests that liberals often mount parallel campaigns about risks (e.g., regarding the dangers of secondhand smoke), which Waiton terms amoral panics.

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                                      Public Reactions

                                      The general public encounters claims, sometimes directly from claimsmakers, more often via the media. In turn, people reconstruct social problems by focusing on some elements of claims and often by reworking them to fit their own worldviews. The resulting patterns of public opinion are complex, and researchers devise various methods to study public reactions. The most familiar of these is polling, which seeks to measure how a representative sample responds to particular questions (Bishop 2005). Survey research can reveal the public’s receptiveness to claims (Gauchat 2012). Focus groups give more detailed information about the reactions of small, less representative groups (Sasson 1995). Other analysts seek to interpret folklore, especially rumors (Fine, et al. 2005; Fine and Ellis 2010), contemporary legends (Best and Bogle 2014, Campion-Vincent 2005), and joke cycles (Dundes 1987), as revealing the public’s reactions to social problems.

                                      • Best, Joel, and Kathleen A. Bogle. 2014. Kids gone wild: From rainbow parties to sexting, understanding the hype over teen sex. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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                                        Examines three recent concerns about young people’s sexual behavior, including contemporary legends about sex bracelets and rainbow parties. Focuses on the legends’ dynamics—their timing and spread—and how the media adopts a largely credulous stance, while the public seems better able to challenge these tales.

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                                      • Bishop, George F. 2005. The illusion of public opinion: Fact and artifact in American public opinion polls. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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                                        Survey research has become the standard method for assessing the public’s attitudes. Discusses the uses and limitations of polling, including issues regarding sampling, questionnaire design, question wording, and broad inferences derived from limited evidence.

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                                      • Campion-Vincent, Véronique. 2005. Organ theft legends. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi.

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                                        Translation of 1997 French book. Examines a variety of contemporary legends dealing with stolen kidneys and other body parts. Compares the forms these stories take in developed and developing nations, and reveals their links to larger social issues in the various host countries.

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                                      • Dundes, Alan. 1987. Cracking jokes: Studies of sick humor cycles & stereotypes. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed.

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                                        Collection of essays about joke cycles by a leading folklorist. Although Dundes favors Freudian interpretations, he takes jokes seriously, and his analyses reveal how social issues—particularly tensions related to ethnicity and gender—can be expressed, even as they are cloaked as not serious.

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                                      • Fine, Gary Alan, Véronique Campion-Vincent, and Chip Heath, eds. 2005. Rumor mills: The social impact of rumor and legend. Social Problems and Social Issues. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

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                                        Collection by an interdisciplinary group of international scholars that explores current scholarship on rumor. Includes both theoretical essays and case studies of particular tales. Good overview of recent thinking on a classic topic in the sociology of collective behavior.

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                                      • Fine, Gary Alan, and Bill Ellis. 2010. The global grapevine: Why rumors of terrorism, immigration, and trade matter. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

                                        DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199736317.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                        Explores a theme that underpins many rumors and contemporary legends: that foreigners or foreign goods pose a threat of contamination. Shows that analogous tales can be found throughout American history, and in other countries, suggesting that popular reactions to foreignness are common.

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                                      • Gauchat, Gordon. 2012. Politicization of science in the public sphere: A study of public trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American Sociological Review 77.2: 167–187.

                                        DOI: 10.1177/0003122412438225Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                        While public opinion polls often focus on particular current issues, survey researchers are also interested in the public’s general receptivity to claims. There is a general pattern showing the public expressing lower levels of trust in social institutions, such as diminished trust in science and scientific claims among political conservatives.

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                                        • Sasson, Theodore. 1995. Crime talk: How citizens construct a social problem. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                          Analysis of urban focus groups dealing with perceptions of crime. Illustrates the diversity of public opinion, in that individuals hold distinct, parallel constructions of crime’s causes, and the sorts of policies that ought to be adopted to prevent and punish criminal behavior.

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                                        Policymaking

                                        Claimsmakers seek change; they want something done—some new policy to respond to the troubling condition. Policymakers are those with the power to launch these responses (Schneider and Ingram 2005). Often, this is equated with the creation of new laws; in democracies, by the passage of legislation in Congress or other legislative bodies (Burstein 1991, Kingdon 1984). Congress is more likely to respond to some claims than others (Burstein 2014, Gormley 2012), and in the process, often reframes the social problem to fit its own concerns (del Rosso 2015). However, there are other means of making social policies: regulatory agencies institute regulations, appellate courts can direct policy (Jenness and Grattet 2001, Staller 2006), and all sorts of other organizations can establish new rules to govern their activities. What these share is the construction of some new arrangement, intended to somehow address the social problem as policymakers have reconstructed it.

                                        • Burstein, Paul. 1991. Policy domains: Organization, culture, and policy outcomes. Annual Review of Sociology 17:327–350.

                                          DOI: 10.1146/annurev.so.17.080191.001551Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                          Political sociologists have focused on the legislative process. Because the array of issues confronting legislatures is so broad, policy domains—lawmakers, staff members, and others with special knowledge of a particular issue—emerge and use their expertise to shape the form policies actually take.

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                                          • Burstein, Paul. 2014. American public opinion, advocacy, and policy in Congress: What the public wants and what it gets. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                            Explores the role that claims from advocates, the media, and the public calling for new social policies shape legislators’ responsiveness, and describes why public opinion often fails to have a decisive influence on policy debates. Uses data on a wide-ranging sample of policy proposals before Congress.

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                                          • del Rosso, Jared. 2015. Talking about torture: How political discourse shapes the debate. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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                                            Legislators participate in framing social problems by selectively choosing to emphasize some aspects and downplay others. The Abu Ghraib scandal, which inspired a prolonged congressional debate about the nature of torture, provides a case study for analyzing how legislators construct and reconstruct social problems.

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                                          • Gormley, William T., Jr. 2012. Voices for children: Rhetoric and public policy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

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                                            Traces how the rhetoric of children’s advocates has shifted since the 1960s. Whereas early claimsmakers tended to rely on moralizing arguments, more recent claimsmakers seek to persuade policymakers by emphasizing economic reasoning by highlighting the costs of failing to address children’s needs and the benefits of doing so.

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                                          • Jenness, Valerie, and Ryken Grattet. 2001. Making hate a crime: From social movement to law enforcement. Rose Series in Sociology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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                                            Case study depicts a policy-centric social problems process: activists representing various constituencies campaign to gain coverage under hate-crime laws, state and federal legislatures expand the legislation’s domain, courts interpret the new laws’ scope, and law enforcement puts the laws into practice.

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                                          • Kingdon, John W. 1984. Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. Boston: Little, Brown.

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                                            A political scientist’s study of the processes by which policies rise on Congress’s agenda to become the focus for completed legislation. Argues that claimsmaking is necessary but insufficient, that there must also be specific policy proposals available to match the claimsmakers’ constructions, as well as a favorable political environment.

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                                          • Schneider, Ann L., and Helen M. Ingram, eds. 2005. Deserving and entitled: Social constructions and public policy. SUNY Series in Public Policy. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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                                            Most chapters in this collection are by political scientists. The constructionist framework—particularly the various ways problems can be defined, and the ways those definitions shape policymaking—has been adopted by political scientists and has served as the basis for a growing literature in that discipline.

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                                          • Staller, Karen M. 2006. Runaways: How the sixties counterculture shaped today’s practices and policies. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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                                            Traces how running away became redefined, from a delinquent act to a choice that acknowledged youth’s agency, and how new federal policies emerged to support a system of shelters and social services for youthful runaways. Shows how new policies reflected both shifts in legal thinking and social trends.

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                                          Social Problems Work

                                          Once created, policies must be enacted. Institutions employ agents—police officers, doctors, teachers, etc.—charged with applying the broad constructions that characterize policymaking to specific cases, and then evaluating whether a particular person or situation represents an instance of a social problem. This is social construction on a microsociological scale, as some individuals are labeled as cases of a social problem, while others are deemed to fall outside that category. In contemporary society, much social problems work falls into two broad categories: criminal justice (coercive social problems work); and supportive social services (therapy, social work, etc.).

                                          Criminal Justice

                                          Criminal justice agencies have coercive powers to arrest and punish. Police officers, prosecutors, and other workers in the criminal justice system are continually constructing individuals as having violated the law, having been victimized, and so on. Their investigations create legally relevant facts that are consequential in allowing actions that result in deprivations of liberty. Such coercive social problems work occurs at every stage of the criminal justice process, including policing, assembling evidence (Santos 2014), deciding whether to prosecute (Dunn 2002), and corrections (Fox 1999). In adversarial criminal trials, defense attorneys offer their own constructions (Gathings and Parrotta 2013). Coercion comes into play even when courts are used to assess mental health (Holstein 1993), rehabilitate drug offenders (Mackinem and Higgins 2008), or oversee public health (Hoppe 2013). Social problems work extends to the criminal justice system’s efforts to oversee the entire process (Haggerty 2001).

                                          • Dunn, Jennifer L. 2002. Courting disaster: Intimate stalking, culture, and criminal justice. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                            Explores the emergence of stalking as a crime recognized by the criminal law. Particularly useful for its analysis of victims’ interactions in a domestic violence unit charged with investigating stalking complaints and determining which cases ought to lead to criminal prosecution.

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                                          • Fox, Kathryn J. 1999. Changing violent minds: Discursive correction and resistance in the cognitive treatment of violent offenders in prison. Social Problems 46.1: 88–103.

                                            DOI: 10.1525/sp.1999.46.1.03x0243iSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                            Social problems work continues even during imprisonment. Examines interaction in group sessions for imprisoned violent offenders, in which social problems workers strive both to get prisoners to reconstruct their identities and to assess the progress being made.

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                                            • Gathings, M. J., and Kylie Parrotta. 2013. The use of gendered narratives in the courtroom: Constructing an identity worthy of leniency. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 42.6: 668–689.

                                              DOI: 10.1177/0891241613497748Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                              Criminal trials construct the nature, not only of the crimes, but also of the offenders. While prosecutors present offenders as deserving punishment, defense attorneys offer distinctive portraits of male and female defendants as good workers and good mothers, respectively, in order to claim that they merit receiving leniency from the court.

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                                              • Haggerty, Kevin D. 2001. Making crime count. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

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                                                Recordkeeping is an important product of social problems work: bureaucrats, policymakers, and the media use records to assess social problems workers’ performance. Examines the production of Canadian crime statistics, and the sorts of negotiations that produce the factual record of criminal justice agencies.

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                                              • Holstein, James A. 1993. Court-ordered insanity: Interpretive practice and involuntary commitment. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                                Ethnography of courtrooms where individuals are deemed to be sufficiently mentally ill to merit involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Examining the verbal interchanges among judges, lawyers, psychiatrists, and patients reveals the malleable definitions used to categorize some people as requiring coercion to receive therapeutic services.

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                                              • Hoppe, Trevor. 2013. Controlling sex in the name of “public health”: Social control and Michigan HIV law. Social Problems 60.1: 27–49.

                                                DOI: 10.1525/sp.2013.60.1.27Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                Social control can operate in agencies outside the formal criminal justice system. Michigan law requires HIV-positive individuals to report their status to partners before engaging in sexual contacts, and assigns public health authorities the task of policing this behavior through formally identifying HIV-positive individuals who may have sought to avoid testing.

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                                                • Mackinem, Mitchell B., and Paul Higgins. 2008. Drug court: Constructing the moral identity of drug offenders. Springfield, IL: Thomas.

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                                                  Dissatisfaction with social control policies that construct drug users as criminals led to the establishment of drug courts that track offenders’ progress through drug treatment programs. This ethnography focuses on the courtroom interactions involving judges, offenders, and drug counselors.

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                                                • Santos, Filipe. 2014. Making sense of the story: The dialogues between the police and forensic laboratories in the construction of DNA evidence. New Genetics and Society 33.2: 181–203.

                                                  DOI: 10.1080/14636778.2014.916186Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                  Scientific evidence, such as DNA technologies, plays a growing role in supporting criminal cases. This Portuguese study examines the negotiations between police who are seeking testimony that will strengthen their cases, and the forensic experts in laboratories who struggle to maintain their scientific integrity.

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                                                  Social Services

                                                  Supportive social problems work deals with clients who seek assistance; this includes most medical care, most education, and a host of other social services, such as shelters for battered women (Loseke 1992, Mann 2000), welfare programs, and various forms of therapy (Miller 1997). At times, new policies can create whole social problems work industries, such as employee urine testing (Tunnell 2004). Social problems workers often must struggle to convince individuals that their idiosyncratic experiences are best understood as instances of some broader social problem (Loseke 1992, Maynard 2003, Gubrium and Järvinen 2014). These individuals must learn to reconstruct themselves (Harris 2006), to accept the categorizations (and the associated treatments) being recommended by the social problems workers. In turn, this social problems work must be supervised and regulated (Horowitz 2013)

                                                  • Gubrium, Jaber F., and Margaretha Järvinen, eds. 2014. Turning troubles into problems: Clientization in human services. New York: Routledge.

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                                                    Collection of original chapters by North American and European scholars about human-services professionals addressing a range of issues, from child abuse and elder care, to sexual assault and unemployment. In each case, the social-problems worker must help troubled individuals to reconstruct their personal troubles into cases of social problems.

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                                                  • Harris, Scott R. 2006. The meanings of marital equality. SUNY Series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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                                                    Social problems work need not be done by professionals. Examines how societal constructions of equality as a desirable characteristic of marriage are applied by individuals to their understandings of their own marriages. Illustrates the ways that social problems work is a component of everyday life.

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                                                  • Horowitz, Ruth. 2013. In the public interest: Medical licensing and the disciplinary process. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

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                                                    All professions face the need to constrain and discipline the behavior of their members. As medicine becomes an increasingly important and sophisticated social institution, discipline is in the hands of medical licensing boards, which have become an increasing target for criticism by the law and the media.

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                                                  • Loseke, Donileen R. 1992. The battered woman and shelters: The social construction of wife abuse. SUNY Series in Deviance and Social Control. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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                                                    Classic ethnography of a shelter for battered women. Examines interactions between shelter workers and their clients; each client tends to view her presence in the shelter as a product of idiosyncratic personalities and events, whereas the workers must teach her to understand her experience as an instance of the larger problem of battering.

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                                                  • Mann, Ruth M. 2000. Who owns domestic abuse? The local politics of a social problem. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

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                                                    Examines the controversies surrounding the operation of a local shelter for battered women. The feminist activists who campaigned to establish the shelter analyzed the clients’ needs differently than did the social service workers who came to staff the agency. Useful example of localized social problems work.

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                                                  • Maynard, Douglas W. 2003. Bad news, good news: Conversational order in everyday talk and clinical settings. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                                    Social services often serve as a research setting for conversational analysts, precisely because the interactions involve constructions of clients’ situations. This book is a microsociological examination of conversations at a clinic for developmental disabilities, where relatives are guided in reconstructing their loved ones’ conditions.

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                                                  • Miller, Gale. 1997. Becoming miracle workers: Language and meaning in brief therapy. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                                    Examines the rise of brief therapy, itself guided by constructionist principles. As the name suggests, brief therapy offers relatively quick responses to psychological issues through encouraging clients to understand their troubles as social constructions that can be resolved through substituting different stories.

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                                                  • Tunnell, Kenneth D. 2004. Pissing on demand: Workplace drug testing and the rise of the detox industry. Alternative Criminology Series. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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                                                    Social policies can create business opportunities for commercial social problems work. Analyzes the emergence during the War on Drugs of private firms specializing in employee drug testing. Considers some of the policy issues that arise when social problems work is done on a for-profit basis.

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                                                  Policy Outcomes

                                                  The implementation of social policies often leads to critiques that a policy is excessive, insufficient, or misguided. Often those who advocated for the policy claim partial success and push to strengthen the policy, while those who were initially opposed often call for restricting it, or for adopting a very different approach. These competing constructions that the policy is a success or a failure are supported by different evidence, including measurements of the amount of social problems work done on behalf of the policy (such as the number of clients assisted), evaluation research designed to measure the policy’s costs and benefits, and authoritative commissions charged with assessing the policy’s impact (as in Hawkins and Zimring 1988). These discussions may focus on types of policies (Lipsky and Smith 1989), particular institutions (Sloan and Fisher 2011), or the assessments of particular actors (Dobbins 2009). Policy outcomes often are shaped by both politics in the form of political ideologies and policy debates (Collins 2011) and law via legal scholarship (Malloy 2010) or court rulings (Welch 2000). Often, these constructions inspire a new round of claimsmaking, launching another social problems cycle. (Best and Best 2014).

                                                  • Best, Joel, and Eric Best. 2014. The student loan mess: How good intentions created a trillion-dollar problem. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                    Traces how the federal student loan policies evolved since the 1950s through a series of reconstructions. The cycle begins with claims that lead people to focus on and devise policies to address particular aspects of student loans, until other aspects that those policies neglect eventually become the focus for a new round of claimsmaking.

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                                                  • Collins, Jeremy W. 2011. Sending a message: Ecstasy, equasy and the media politics of drug classification. Health, Risk & Society 13.3: 221–237.

                                                    DOI: 10.1080/13698575.2011.558622Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                    Case study of the British debate over a government panel’s recommendation to reclassify MDMA (ecstasy) as a less serious drug. In the face of media criticism and a debate about the nature and scale of risks from drug use, the government decided against reclassification, rejecting a recommendation by experts in the face of popular outrage.

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                                                    • Dobbin, Frank. 2009. Inventing equal opportunity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

                                                      DOI: 10.1515/9781400830893Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                      Reveals the roles of social problems workers—in this case, corporate personnel experts—in shaping policy outcomes. Corporations became the arena where fair employment legislation had to be implemented, and personnel experts became the figures that officials and courts turned to, to learn how the policy should work, and what changes were needed.

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                                                    • Hawkins, Gordon, and Franklin E. Zimring. 1988. Pornography in a free society. Earl Warren Legal Institute Study. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                      Examines how the two federal commissions on pornography (from the 1960s and the 1980s) that came to opposing conclusions about the nature of the problem and the sorts of policies needed. Illustrates the uses—and limitations—of authoritative commissions as a way of resolving disputes over existing social policy.

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                                                    • Lipsky, Michael, and Steven Rathgeb Smith. 1989. When social problems are treated as emergencies. Social Service Review 63.1: 5–25.

                                                      DOI: 10.1086/603675Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                      Policymakers often construct policies as temporary responses to emergencies. Argues that this approach may circumvent critics who might oppose the policy, but has a variety of troubling consequences, in that emergency solutions tend to be costly and often fail to address the underlying conditions, so that further emergencies are likely in the future.

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                                                      • Malloy, Timothy F. 2010. The social construction of regulation: Lessons from the war against command and control. Buffalo Law Review 58.2: 267–355.

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                                                        One of the most active arenas for policy outcome claims is legal scholarship, in which policies are critiqued both for their legal rationales and for their practical failures. This article uses legal scholarship on the limitations of regulatory policy to demonstrate the relevance of a constructionist approach to such analyses.

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                                                        • Sloan, John J., and Bonnie S. Fisher. 2011. The dark side of the ivory tower: Campus crime as a social problem. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                          Traces recent campaigns criticizing colleges’ and universities’ policies for failures to protect students from violent crime, sexual assault, and alcohol abuse. Illustrates how policy critiques inspire new claimsmaking campaigns, so that the social problems process becomes a cycle.

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                                                        • Welch, Michael. 2000. Flag burning: Moral panic and the criminalization of protest. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                                          Appellate courts play an important role in policy outcomes by ruling on the constitutionality of policies. Examines repeated campaigns to ban flag burning by legislators and to show how the courts have consistently forbidden such restrictions because they limit free speech.

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                                                        Comparative Research

                                                        Because constructionists have understood social problems as a process, most of their research has involved case studies. Because most analysts have been sociologists based in the United States, they have tended to study the contemporary United States. And because national sources have been more accessible to researchers, the typical constructionist analysis has been a case study of a national issue in contemporary America. If social structure and culture shape claimsmaking, then much of what constructionists know reflects the fact that they tend to draw on a single research setting. As the perspective has matured, there has been increasing interest in providing a comparative context by studying social problems construction in other places (that is, using geography as a basis for comparison) and times (via historical analyses).

                                                        Geography

                                                        Geographic comparisons, most often between nations, but sometimes between smaller entities, such as cities, reveal that a particular social problem is constructed according to where that construction is occurring. Geographic location provides a structural and cultural context for claimsmaking; claims that may be compelling under one set of circumstances go unheard elsewhere. Bogard 2003 illustrates how cities may differ in their constructions of an issue. However, most analysts conduct cross-cultural or cross-national comparisons of issues such as immigration (Benson 2013), cellular phones (Burgess 2004), abortion (Lee 2003), or sexual harassment (Saguy 2003). Other analysts focus on diffusion as the process by which claims spread (Best 2001), and on the rhetoric of international claims (Andreas and Greenhill 2010). Recent theories of globalization are reflected in studies of international efforts to construct global social problems and policies (Dandoy and Perouse de Montclos 2013)

                                                        • Andreas, Peter, and Kelly M. Greenhill, eds. 2010. Sex, drugs, and body counts: The politics of numbers in global crime and conflict. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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                                                          Collection of original chapters, most by political scientists, about the use of statistics in constructing international problems, including the drug trade and human trafficking. Statistics have cross-national power, although these numbers seem particularly subject to distortion and confusion.

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                                                        • Benson, Rodney. 2013. Shaping immigration news: A French-American comparison. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                          DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139034326Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                          Contrasts media coverage of immigration in the United States with that in France. Demonstrates how cross-national cultural and institutional differences affect which sorts of claims attract public attention and lead to policymaking. Globalization may reduce such differences over time.

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                                                        • Best, Joel, ed. 2001. How claims spread: Cross-national diffusion of social problems. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                                          Collection of chapters dealing with the diffusion of claims across national boundaries, particularly between the United States and other countries. Topics include gun crimes, road rage, and bullying (Great Britain), the metric system (Canada), and tobacco (Japan).

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                                                        • Bogard, Cynthia J. 2003. Seasons such as these: How homelessness took shape in America. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                                          Comparison of local constructions within the United States. Contrasts the way local activists and media constructed homelessness in New York City and Washington, DC, and shows how these different constructions led to very different social policies.

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                                                        • Burgess, Adam. 2004. Cellular phones, public fears, and a culture of precaution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                          New technologies often inspire social problems claims. The introduction of cell phones led to very different concerns in the United States (where the threat was understood to be from holding the phone next to one’s head), and in Europe (where the danger was thought to come from cell phone towers).

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                                                        • Dandoy, Arnaud, and Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos. 2013. Humanitarian workers in peril? Deconstructing the myth of the new and growing threat to humanitarian workers. Global Crime 14.4: 341–358.

                                                          DOI: 10.1080/17440572.2013.831345Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                          The construction of global social problems leads to international efforts to institute social policies; these polices in turn provide opportunities to identify problems related to their implementation. This analysis examines one such claim—that international aid workers become targets for those resisting the aid policies.

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                                                          • Lee, Ellie. 2003. Abortion, motherhood, and mental health: Medicalizing reproduction in the United States and Great Britain. Social Problems and Social Issues. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                                            Examines the movement by abortion opponents to construct Post-Abortion Syndrome (psychological problems following abortion). Compares how different institutional arrangements (such as the British definition of abortion as a narrowly medical matter) led to different institutional reactions in the United States and Britain. E-book.

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                                                          • Saguy, Abigail C. 2003. What is sexual harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                            Examines the effect of political culture on the creation of sexual harassment policies. The key American claimsmakers were influenced by feminism, and sexual harassment came to be understood as a gender issue. In contrast, the French defined it as a question of the abuse of power in the workplace.

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                                                          History

                                                          Acknowledging social change forces sociologists to confront the historical record. Changes in both social structure and culture shape the social problems process. Berger 2002, Jenkins 1998, Parsons 2014, and Trent 1994 examine historical cases focused on the rhetoric of claims, the relative influence of different claimsmakers, and the nature of media coverage at different historical moments. Jenkins 2006 notes how cultural shifts can affect the construction of numerous problems. Case studies of collective memory, whether interpretations of individual lives (as in Fine 2012 and Kubal 2008) or particular events (as in Armstrong and Crage 2006 and Fine 2012), demonstrate how reconstructions of the past can shape contemporary discourse. Not only can a constructionist approach improve our understanding of the past, but historical studies bring into focus contemporary arrangements that otherwise can be taken for granted.

                                                          • Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Suzanna M. Crage. 2006. Movements and memory: The making of the Stonewall myth. American Sociological Review 71.5: 724–751.

                                                            DOI: 10.1177/000312240607100502Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                            Collective memory is a retrospective reconstruction of events. This article examines several early gay disruptions that preceded the Stonewall protest (often cited as the beginning of the gay liberation movement) and seeks to identify how social organization and media coverage led to recollection of Stonewall as the key event.

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                                                            • Berger, Ronald J. 2002. Fathoming the Holocaust: A social problems approach. Social Problems and Social Issues. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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                                                              Traces the history of the Holocaust by first showing how the “Jewish Problem” was constructed, and how this in turn led to policies including the Final Solution. Extends the analysis to show how the Holocaust was constructed in the collective memories of Israel, Germany, and the United States.

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                                                            • Fine, Gary Alan. 2012. Sticky reputations: The politics of collective memory in midcentury America. New York: Routledge.

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                                                              Eight case studies of collective memories of controversial figures and issues related to concerns about fascism and communism in the decades leading up to and following World War II. Shows how recollections shift over time, as new reputational entrepreneurs develop new claims about the past in efforts to reinterpret the nature of society, then and now.

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                                                            • Jenkins, Philip. 1998. Moral panic: Changing concepts of the child molester in modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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                                                              Illustrates how attention to social issues often occurs in waves. During the 20th century, there were three periods of intense concern about adults sexually exploiting children—each with its own distinctive construction of the nature of the offender and the victim—interspersed with periods when such concern was downplayed.

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                                                            • Jenkins, Philip. 2006. Decade of nightmares: The end of the sixties and the making of eighties America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                                              In popular accounts, the 1960s fostered liberal ideas about sex, drugs, and other social issues, whereas the election of Ronald Reagan led to a conservative turn. This book argues that the cultural shift preceded Reagan’s election and that reconstruction of these issues began during the mid-1970s.

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                                                            • Kubal, Timothy. 2008. Cultural movements and collective memory: Christopher Columbus and the rewriting of the national origin myth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

                                                              DOI: 10.1057/9780230615762Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                              Traces the evolution of the understanding of the Columbus story as a succession of advocates (early patriots, Catholics, Italian Americans, Native Americans) incorporated it into their collective memories. Illustrates the mutability of the past as a device for framing social problems.

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                                                            • Parsons, Nicholas L. 2014. Meth mania: A history of methamphetamine. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

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                                                              Traces the waves of drug scares over amphetamines—variously termed speed, ice, and, most recently, crystal meth. Essentially the same social problem has been repeatedly relabeled and repackaged, each time with heightened rhetoric about the dangers posed by the drug.

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                                                            • Trent, James W., Jr. 1994. Inventing the feeble mind: A history of mental retardation in the United States. Medicine and Society 6. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                              Examines how constructions of lesser intelligence evolved from feebleminded to retarded, following shifts in how professionals understood its causes and consequences. A reminder that populations that have difficulty speaking for themselves are invariably constructed through the efforts of others.

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