A common way of defining social problems is to include a subjective element; objective conditions only become social problems when they are perceived to be undesirable by some segment of the public. A social problem is a condition that at least some people in a community view as being undesirable. Rather, social problems are defined by a combination of objective and subjective criteria that vary across societies, among individuals and groups within a society, and across historical time periods.
Objective and Subjective Elements of Social Problems
Although social problems take many forms, they all share two important elements: an objective social condition and a subjective interpretation of that social condition. The objective element of a social problem refers to the existence of a social condition. We become aware of social conditions through our own life experiences, through the media, and through education. We see the homeless, hear gunfire in the streets, and see battered women in hospital emergency rooms. We read about employees losing their jobs as business downsize and factories close. In television news reports we see the anguished faces of parents whose children have been killed by violent youth. The subjective element of a social problem refers to the belief that a particular social condition is harmful to society, or to a segment of society, and that it should and can be changed. We know that crime, drug addiction, poverty, racism, violence, and pollution exist. These social conditions are not considered social problems, however, unless at least a segment of society believes these conditions diminish the quality of human life.
By combining these objective and subjective elements, we arrive at the following definition: A social problem is a social condition that a segment of society views as harmful to members of society and in need of remedy.
Variability in Definitions of Social Problems. Individuals and groups frequently disagree about what constitutes a social problem. For example, some Americans view the availability of abortion as a social problem, while others view restrictions on abortion as a social problem. Similarly, some Americans view homosexuality as a social problem, while others view prejudice and discrimination against homosexuality as a social problem. Such variations in what is considered a social problem are due to differences in values, beliefs, and life experiences.
Definitions of social problems vary not only within societies, but across societies and historical time periods as well. For example, prior to the nineteenth century, it was a husband's legal right and marital obligation to discipline and control his wife through the use of physical force. Today, the use of physical force is regarded as a social problem rather than a marital right.
Tea drinking is another example of how what is considered a social problem can change over time. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, tea drinking was regarded as a "base Indian practice" that was "pernicious to health, obscuring industry, and impoverishing the nation" . Because social problems can be highly complex, it is helpful to have a framework within which to view them. Sociology provides such a framework. Using a sociological perspective to examine social problems requires a knowledge of the basic concepts and tools of sociology.