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Sociology Social Problems
by
Joel Best

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 2003is more microsociological, while Best 2008 is more macrosociological.

  • Best, Joel. 2008. Social problems. 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.

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 Holstein and Miller 2003 and Harris 2010, 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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  • Harris, Scott R. 2010. What is constructionism? Navigating its use in sociology. Social Problems, Social Constructions. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

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    A recent attempt to reframe the theoretical debate by distinguishing between objective and interpretive constructionism. Most of its chapters use particular social problems, such as family diversity and equality in marriage, to illustrate theoretical principles.

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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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  • Holstein, James A., and Gale Miller, eds. 2003. Challenges and choices: Constructionist perspectives on social problems. Social Problems and Social Issues. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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    Surveys the theoretical scene ten years after Reconsidering Social Constructionism was published. Reprints key essays from the earlier volume, as well as commentaries on the evolution of social problems theory.

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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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  • 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 2001), narratives (Davis 2005), emotions (Berns 2009, Loseke 2009), and victimization (Dunn 2010).

  • Berns, Nancy. 2009. Contesting the victim card: Closure discourse and emotion in death penalty rhetoric. Sociological Quarterly 50.3: 383–406.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2009.01145.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    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 how rhetoric about the need to find closure is used by both proponents and opponents of capital punishment.

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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. 2001. Damned lies and statistics: Untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists. 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). Movements may contain very different constructions of the same problem, as evidenced by the diversity in the movements for peace (Lofland 1993) and against human trafficking (Bernstein 2010); 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 the failure of some causes to evolve into successful movements (Goss 2006).

  • 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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  • Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2010. Militarized humanitarianism meets carceral feminism: The politics of sex, rights, and freedom in contemporary antitrafficking campaigns. Signs 36.1: 45–72.

    DOI: 10.1086/652918Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Case study of alliance between feminists and evangelical Christians against sexual trafficking shows how seemingly different activists can make common cause by shifting from issues where they face resistance (pornography and abortion, respectively) to those that can be constructed in ways that gain broad support (opposition to slavery).

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  • Goss, Kristin A. 2006. Disarmed: The missing movement for gun control in America. Princeton Studies in American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Although public opinion polls suggest broad support for gun-control laws, activists have had difficulty establishing an effective anti-gun movement. Argues that this reflects the problems in devising an effective rhetoric for constructing guns as a social problem.

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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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  • Lofland, John. 1993. Polite protesters: The American peace movement of the 1980s. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press.

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    Examines the peace movement’s complexity: its diverse membership constructed the issue in very different ways, with distinctive definitions of the problem, its causes, and solutions. Offers a model for the dynamics of a movement surge that links discourse and organizational conditions.

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

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    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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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 (Pielke 2007). 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 and Gruys 2010), trauma (Fassin and Rechtman 2009), 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).

  • 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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  • Fassin, Didier, and Richard Rechtman. 2009. The empire of trauma: An inquiry into the condition of victimhood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Translation of L’empire du traumatisme: Enquête sur la condition de victime (Paris: Flammarion, 2007). Traces the changing definitions of trauma through the intersections of psychiatric thought and political movements so that the suffering of victims becomes authenticated through psychiatric diagnosis. Particularly useful for understanding developments in Europe.

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

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    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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  • 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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  • Pielke, Roger A., Jr. 2007. The honest broker: Making sense of science in policy and politics. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Examines the role of scientists in claimsmaking and policymaking. Considers the role of expertise in framing policies and explores the limits of expert knowledge as a guide to policymakers. Useful, brief introduction to a complex subject.

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  • Saguy, Abigail C., and Kjerstin Gruys. 2010. Morality and health: Constructions of overweight and eating disorders. Social Problems 57.2:231–250.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2010.57.2.231Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Both eating disorders and overweight 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 (Rich 2004, Weidenbaum 2009); 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.

  • 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.

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    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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  • 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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  • Rich, Andrew. 2004. Think tanks, public policy, and the politics of expertise. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511509889Save 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. Analyzes the range of contemporary think tanks.

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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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  • Weidenbaum, Murray. 2009. The competition of ideas: The world of Washington think tanks. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Prominent economist with experience working in the most influential think tanks describes their operations and the ways they seek to influence policymaking. Especially useful for its focus on the organization and activities of the leading think tanks.

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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 (Best 2010). Analysts typically focus on journalism—both print (newspapers, newsmagazines) and electronic (broadcast news)—and Amenta, et al. 2009 traces how coverage patterns have evolved over decades. However, a broad range of media can contribute to the construction of social problems, including popular culture (that is, commercial entertainment) (Lowney 1999), and a variety of Internet outlets (including websites, blogs, and chatrooms) (Maratea 2008). Typically, the media translate and transform claims to fit their conventions and constraints.

  • Amenta, Edwin, Neal Caren, Sheera Joy Olasky, and James E. Stobaugh. 2009. All the movements fit to print: Who, what, when, where, and why SMO families appeared in the New York Times in the twentieth century. American Sociological Review 74.4: 636–656.

    DOI: 10.1177/000312240907400407Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ambitious effort to examine long-term trends in media coverage of social movements. Coverage reflects both claimsmaking and other movement activities, but also the conventions that govern news work, so that movements actually command more coverage once their claims have led to policies that are enforced.

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  • Best, Rachel. 2010. Situation or social problem: The influence of events on media coverage of homelessness. Social Problems 57.1: 74–91.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2010.57.1.74Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that news coverage of homelessness and other phenomena that sociologists consider social problems is not necessarily framed in those terms. Suggests that efforts by claimsmakers to bring issues to public attention make framing them as a social problem a more likely outcome.

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  • 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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  • 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. 2008. The e-rise and fall of social problems: The blogosphere as a public arena. Social Problems 55.1: 139–160.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2008.55.1.139Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    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 the possibility that an individual’s blog can construct new social problems. 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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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 2003), in which an alarming new trend is identified, its causes are diagnosed, and there are calls for quick action. Recent commentators, such as Furedi 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. 2003. Moral panics and the media. Buckingham: Open Univ. Press.

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    Synthesizes scholarship about moral panics and presents a series of case studies. Focuses on British research and cases; the concept of moral panic originated in the United Kingdom, British sociologists make more use of it, and the organization of the British press with several competing daily newspapers seems to encourage panicky coverage.

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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.

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    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.

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    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). Focus groups give more detailed information about the reactions of small, less representative groups (Polletta and Lee 2006, Sasson 1995). Other analysts seek to interpret folklore, especially rumors (Fine, Campion-Vincent, and Heath 2005, Fine and Ellis 2010), contemporary legends (Campion-Vincent 2005, Donovan 2004), and joke cycles (Dundes 1987), as revealing the public’s reactions to social problems.

  • 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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  • Donovan, Pamela. 2004. No way of knowing: Crime, urban legends, and the Internet. American Popular History and Culture. New York: Routledge.

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    A sociologist relates folklore to public perceptions of crime risks. Examines the emergence of the Internet as a vector for transmitting urban legends. Stands in contrast to standard criminological studies of fear of crime as an attitude, by considering the role of legends in shaping the public’s understanding of crime and victimization.

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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.

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    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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  • Polletta, Francesca, and John Lee. 2006. Is telling stories good for democracy? Rhetoric in public deliberation after 9/11. American Sociological Review 71.5: 699–723.

    DOI: 10.1177/000312240607100501Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study of how participants in discussion groups used storytelling to explore different points of view. Suggests that such public constructions foster understanding of the complexities of social issues, but are viewed as having less utility in trying to shape public policy.

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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). However, there are other means of making social policies: regulatory agencies institute regulations (Scotch 2001), appellate courts can direct policy (Jenness and Grattet 2001, Staller 2006), and all sorts of other organizations (such as the philanthropists studied by Silver 2006) 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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  • 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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  • Scotch, Richard K. 2001. From good will to civil rights: Transforming federal disability policy. 2d ed. Health, Society, and Policy. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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    Examines policymaking within government agencies. During the 1970s, the Office of Civil Rights within what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare interpreted discrimination against the “handicapped” broadly and, in the process, gave the disability rights movement support to expand their claims.

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  • Silver, Ira. 2006. Unequal partnerships: Beyond the rhetoric of philanthropic collaboration. New Approaches in Sociology. New York: Routledge.

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    Officials are not the only policymakers. This book is a case study examining the role of philanthropists in selecting programs deserving support. Shows the tensions between claimsmakers who seek long-term commitments, and the philanthropists’ desire to provide short-term assistance to retain flexibility.

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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 (Dabney 2010, Meehan 2000), decisions to prosecute (Dunn 2002, Frohmann 1998), and corrections (Fox 1999). Coercion comes into play even when courts are used to assess mental health (Holstein 1993) or rehabilitate drug offenders (Mackinem and Higgins 2008). Social problems work extends to the criminal justice system’s efforts to oversee the entire process (Haggerty 2001).

  • Dabney, Dean. 2010. Observations regarding key operational realities in a Compstat model of policing. Justice Quarterly 27.1:28–51.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820902855370Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Limiting officers’ discretion is a central issue for police administrators; Compstat is one recent management strategy to address this problem. Ethnographic observations reveal how officers conduct their work within the context of this management policy, producing a number of ironic consequences.

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  • 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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  • Frohmann, Lisa. 1998. Constituting power in sexual assault cases: Prosecutorial strategies for victim management. Social Problems 45.3: 393–407.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1998.45.3.03x0198pSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines decisionmaking by criminal prosecutors. Prosecutors decide to press charges based on evaluations of a case’s legal strengths; they must then work with victims to elicit cooperation from both those who want weak cases prosecuted and those reluctant to press charges in strong cases.

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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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  • 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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  • Meehan, Albert J. 2000. The organizational career of gang statistics: The politics of policing gangs. Sociological Quarterly 41.3: 337–370.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2000.tb00082.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Illustrates the competing pressures from the public, policymakers, and one’s own organization on social problems workers. Documents how individual police officers construct events and produce records documenting those constructions for gang-related activities.

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Social Services

Supportive social problems work deals with clients who seek assistance; this includes most medical care (Waitzkin 1991), most education, and a host of other social services, such as shelters for battered women (Loseke 1992, Mann 2000), welfare programs (Miller 1991), 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). These individuals must learn to reconstruct themselves (Harris 2006), to accept the categorizations (and the associated treatments) being recommended by the social problems workers.

  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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  • Miller, Gale. 1991. Enforcing the work ethic: Rhetoric and everyday life in a work incentive program. SUNY Series in the Sociology of Work. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    Ethnography of a social welfare program intended to help welfare recipients enter the work force. Contrasts bureaucratic ideology of staff (focused on correcting the clients’ deficiencies) with the resistance of the clients (who construct matters in terms of limited opportunities).

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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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  • Waitzkin, Howard. 1991. The politics of medical encounters: How patients and doctors deal with social problems. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    Analysts of social problems work adopt different analytic tools. This study uses structuralist theory to examine patterns in doctor-patient interactions. Physicians define patients’ problems in narrowly medical terms, whereas patients are likely to locate their illnesses within the context of their lives.

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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 (Noy 2009) and policy debates (Oberlander 2003) and law via legal scholarship (Malloy 2010) or court rulings (Downs 1996, Welch 2000). Often, these constructions inspire a new round of claimsmaking, launching another social problems cycle.

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

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    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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  • Downs, Donald Alexander. 1996. More than victims: Battered women, the syndrome society, and the law. Morality and Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Because policies often involve legal changes, analyses of policy outcome often focus on the consequences of legal interpretations. This book analyzes the myriad effects of “battered woman syndrome”—claims that a history of abuse ought to be taken into account when women kill.

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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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  • Noy, Darren. 2009. When framing fails: Ideas, influence, and resources in San Francisco’s homeless policy field. Social Problems 56.2: 223–242.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2009.56.2.223Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Disputes over policy outcomes often involve opponents who constructed both the problem and the policy differently, but similar assumptions about the nature of a problem need not lead to shared assessments of policy. This case study of homeless policy shows that different political ideologies can endorse rival policies, even when they share a construction of a problem.

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  • Oberlander, Jonathan. 2003. The political life of Medicare. American Politics and Political Economy. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Shows how initially controversial policies can inspire a succession of policy outcome controversies. Medicare has been the subject of continuing congressional debates, from the policy’s inception through projections about its future costs. Addresses the role of Congress as an arena for policy outcome claims.

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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 and Saguy 2005), 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 (Shah 2008)

  • 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, and Abigail C. Saguy. 2005. Constructing social problems in an age of globalization: A French-American comparison. American Sociological Review 70.2: 233–259.

    DOI: 10.1177/000312240507000203Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contrasts media coverage of sexual harassment and 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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  • 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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  • Shah, Svati P. 2008. South Asian border crossings and sex work: Revisiting the question of migration in anti-trafficking interventions. Sexuality Research and Social Policy 5.4: 19–30.

    DOI: 10.1525/srsp.2008.5.4.19Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One consequence of globalization is that one nation’s foreign policies may shape how social problems are constructed in other countries. Examines how American efforts to criminalize human trafficking have consequences for migration policies in India and other South Asian nations.

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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, 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 2001 and Kubal 2008) or particular events (as in Armstrong and Crage 2006 and Fine and McDonnell 2007), 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. 2001. Difficult reputations: Collective memories of the evil, inept, and controversial. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Eight case studies of the collective memories of controversial figures in American history (such as John Brown and Benedict Arnold). Shows how these reputations 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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  • Fine, Gary Alan, and Terrence McDonnell. 2007. Erasing the Brown scare: Referential afterlife and the power of memory templates. Social Problems 54.2: 170–187.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2007.54.2.170Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Most events do not become part of collective memory, but even events whose details are forgotten may provide templates for the construction of other social problems. Shows how largely forgotten sedition charges against the right in the 1940s provided a model for anti-left campaigns in the 1950s.

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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.

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    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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  • 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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LAST MODIFIED: 07/27/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756384-0052

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