So what is your problem?

This is the first of four extracts from What’s Your Problem? Making sense of Social Policy and the Policy Process by Stuart Connor. This extract is taken from the Introduction where Stuart explains the aims and approach of the book and how it can help students to make sense of social problems.

The aim of the book is to further deepen your understanding of social problems and your capacity to exert influence over the choices that shape related policies. The book starts from the position that you are already well versed in identifying and solving problems and that a number of the skills and resources that you have used when solving these everyday problems are equally applicable to the analysis of social problems and policies. As you read the book, you will see that the scale and levels of knowledge and influence may be different, but the questions and actions that you take in your personal life may be similar and have distinct parallels to attempts to make sense of a whole raft of local, regional, national and global issues. This is not to say that you are necessarily already fully equipped to take on the world’s problems, but that your experience to date does provide an important resource and an excellent starting point for making sense of social problems and subsequent policies. For example, the reason you are reading this book may be that:

  • you are on a course, possibly Social Work, Social Care, Health Studies, Social Policy, where you need to learn more about social problems and social policies in order to complete the assignment and pass the module;
  • you are a tutor who wants to get some ideas about teaching a course on social problems and policy analysis;
  • you have already qualified as a practitioner in social welfare and you are working with clients and attempting to address their problems (which are arguably now your problems);
  • you are a ‘service user’, experiencing significant changes to the provision of services and benefits and you want to know more about these changes with the aim of improving the service you receive and influencing policy and practice;
  • you are a researcher, policy officer, lobbyist or advocate charged with completing a policy brief for your organisation and you want to provide an insightful and practical response;
  • you are supporting or opposing the introduction or closure of an initiative and want to take action on an issue in your locality, region or nation;
  • you want to make sense of the competing claims regarding problems and policies in everyday conversations, news broadcasts, papers, magazines and online forums and discussions but aren’t too sure where to start.

If you consider these statements, they each represent either a situation where a ‘normal’ state of affairs has been interrupted and the goal is to re-establish and return to this normality , or, alternatively, there is an obstacle to be overcome before an individual is able to achieve a desired state. The notion of an interruption or obstacle is considered an important characteristic when trying to identify what counts as a problem. Now take a moment to consider the list of topics in the box.


At some point or another and in some place or other, each of the topics listed in the box has been claimed as constituting a problem. That is, they have been considered to interrupt or act as an obstacle to what is taken to be a desired state of affairs. This may be clear enough when considering any one individual who is unfortunate enough to have experienced or been subject to any of these topics. But when do the problems of an individual come to be considered a social problem? Clearly not all human problems become public ones, but establishing the distinction between personal and social problems is not as clear-cut as you might think. At this point it is useful to consider the work of Wright Mills ( 1963 ), who drew a distinction between p ersonal troubles and p ublic issues. The suggestion was that, although an individual may experience a
number of ‘problems’ in their life, not all of these will gain the status of a social problem – an issue that requires the public’s attention or action. Wright Mills was attempting to highlight the distinction that is drawn between those problems that are ‘private’ (that is, to be handled by the individuals concerned) and those that are ‘public’ (that is, to be addressed through wider forms of social and collective action). Some of the most signifi cant disagreements in discussions regarding social problems may centre on differences of opinion on where this line between personal and collective responsibility can and should be drawn.

If you return to the list of topics in the box, there are some that you may agree with as being worthy of being described as a social problem, others less so and some you may not have heard of.

Some problems you may claim as your own and others you may disown. On other occasions, though claiming no  responsibility or ownership of the problem yourself, you still may seek to learn more, get involved and even posit solutions and offer your services. Some of us may even pursue careers that seek to help people with their problems. So, under what circumstances should any condition gain the label of a social problem (Stone, 1989 )? When reviewing the list above, it is difficult to identify a common theme, apart from that they have all at some point come to the attention of a wider public. Put  another way, different issues will gain public attention and support in different countries and periods. It is also the case that within a particular country and at a particular time, certain issues will gain the attention of some and not others.

Explaining these differences and changes, it may be that some of these problems simply come and go. That is, a problem is identified, policies are developed, the issue is resolved and hence the problem goes away. This suggests that the status of a social problem is dependent on the actual existence and scale of a set of objective conditions – what is described as an objectivist way of considering social problems (Best, 2008 ). Alternatively, and this is the position taken in this book, changes in the way that social problems are understood may be the result of differences in the way that they are constructed by policy actors. This has been described as a subjectivist or social constructionist approach to understanding social problems (Berger and Luckmann, 1967 ; Burr, 1995 ; Clarke and Cochrane, 1998 ), and is one that questions the value of problems and policies being seen as objective entities, open to independent scrutiny and manipulation by authorities and experts (Best, 2008 ; Gouldner, 1962 , 1968 ). What such a constructivist approach also helps highlight is that claims regarding a problem tend to contain and express standards for how people should attend to the problem policy process and what are considered unacceptable conditions and behaviours (Stone, 1989 ). This is an example of what Bacchi ( 1999 , 2009 , 2012 ) describes as the ‘what’s the problem?’ approach : rather than start from the assumption that social problems and the resulting policies reflect an inevitable response to pre-existing givens, attention is paid to how a ‘problem’ is fabricated and how a particular response to a ‘problem’ is legitimated and enacted (Connor, 2010). That is, claims regarding problems and policies reflect particular interests and particular perspectives on the ‘right’ way to do things. In this way, any consideration of your problem may also lead you to ask what are arguably fundamental questions regarding your values, your actions and your place in a wider society.

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