Politics of Social Problems Essay

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The sociology of social problems always has to be a historical and sociological analysis of the politics of social problems and their social control. Whereas the constructionist perspective of sociology of social problems is concerned with the construction of social problems categories in society, the politics of social problems emphasizes the political processes in the development of social and political issues and its institutionalization within and by the political system. The politics of social problems refers to four interrelated dimensions and questions: (1) the social construction of social problems categories and problem discourses as a political process; (2) the establishment and institutionalization of social problems as political issues; (3) the transformation of social problems within the political system; and (4) the political use of social problems.

Claims-Making as Political Process

The construction of social problems always is based on interests and values of social groups, collective actors or already established organizations making claims of social or political change. These processes always are shaped by social conflicts about definitions or constructions of a problem and about different solutions of a (putative) problem. Competing interpretations and discourses of a problem, but also different issues within the public, struggle for public attention and political influence. The social construction of social problems always is a struggle for hegemonic interpretations and discourses that is related to the distribution of material, political, and symbolic resources and power, a fundamental political process. Beyond this, politics as struggle for power always also is a struggle for meaning and symbols embedded in everyday life as well as in social institutions.

Claims-Making as Agenda-Setting within the Political System

Even if the treatment or claims of solutions for social problems sometimes are addressed to public associations or by private enterprises, the political system and the state are the main addressee and the ultimate arbiters of allocating valued goods and resources. The different forms of the political system constitute a political regime, institutionalized and organized within a nation-specific political system of representation, including established political parties, interest groups, and associations with institutionalized access processes of decision-making. The success of establishing a specific definition of social problems or claims in this perspective depends only on the capacity of mobilizing power and influence by social actors. Important advances have been made with ideas of political agenda setting as development of political opportunities set by an intersection of problem constructions, solutions, and political support within the political system.

Social Problems within the Political Process

The social issues and claims then are accepted, rejected, canalized, or redefined by specific mechanisms of selection and filters of the organizations within the political system. Even if a public claim is accepted as a political issue, the political arena in which it is placed is important, as are the political actors and the strategy by which it is placed. A network of organizations, professional associations and collective actors within society is established in processes of decision-making and implementation of programs, bargaining and transforming social issues into administrative categories with their own orientations and interests.

The Political Use and Consequences of Social Problems

Organizations of the political system are not only passive receivers of inputs from the society, but also are actively and strategically engaged in producing and constructing public issues and social problems according to the criteria of the system, like election strategies, gaining public support in interorganizational or party concurrence or accumulation of resources by presenting specific problem-solving capacities. Very often it is the political system, and not collective actors in societies, that play the central role in promoting mobilizations and moralizations of social problems. For the political system, social problems fulfill other purposes than being solved. The definitions of social problems could become the object of strategic politics, and the political restructuring and manipulation of the cultural and moral milieu of social problem constructions could ensure the regulation of social conflicts. Symbolic and rhetorical forms of political action assume central importance in the political system, signaling that something is done about the social problem. Political programs and the institutionalization of measures produce official definitions of social problems categories as legal and administrative categories that ”entitle” specific social groups to claims or controls, and they constitute a cultural and social frame of reference for standards of normality and reasonableness relating to alternative social constructions. Very often, one solution for a social problem leads to other social problems and conflicts in other areas, or the institutionalization of one solution leads to increased political opportunities for new mobilizations and discourses on new problematic issues.


  1. Best, J. (2008) Social Problems. W.W. Norton, New York.
  2. Rochefort, D. A. & Cobb, R. W. (eds.) (1994) The Politics of Problem Definition. Shaping the Policy Agenda. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.
  3. Zahariadis, N. (2003) Ambiguity and Choice in Public Policy: Political Decision Making  in  Modern Democracies. Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC.

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