In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Problems

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Journals
  • Social Problems Theory
  • Claims
  • Activist Claimsmakers
  • Public Reactions
  • Policymaking
  • Everyday Social Problems Work
  • Policy Outcomes

Sociology Social Problems
Joel Best
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0052


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 conditions 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 that 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.


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 2017 is more macrosociological.

  • Best, Joel. 2017. Social problems. 3d ed. New York: Norton.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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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