The second extract from our Book of the Week What’s the Problem? Making sense of Social Policy and the Policy Process by Stuart Connor, University of Birmingham is taken from the opening chapter.
The proper course of the sage is to ask three questions. First, what things are and how they are constituted. Second, how we
are related to these things. Third, what ought to be our attitude towards them.
Pyrrho of Elis ( c. 360– c. 270 BC)
In this chapter, the question of what is a social problem is addressed. Rather than being seen as a given condition or state, that is taken to be a social problem is best described as part of an ongoing process. This is a process where a range of policy actors, individuals, groups and institutions seek to establish (a) which conditions, events and behaviours should be considered problematic and (b) why and how these problems should be addressed. The means by which the fabrication of social problems can be understood is examined. The chapter begins by examining the grounds for making the claim that this is a ‘real problem’. It then discusses the question of responsibility . That is, what causes the problem and who is responsible for solving it.
THIS IS A REAL PROBLEM
When a claim is made that something is a real problem, how does the speaker know this and how is the audience able to judge the truth of such a claim (Guba, 1990 )? In other words, how do we know? First, consider a situation where people are discussing their favourite film. Person A cites Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 fi lm The Bicycle Thieves ( Ladri di biciclette ). Person B names Die Hard 5: A Good Day to Die Hard , starring Bruce Willis. As the relative merits of each film are expounded, it’s an exemplar of Italian Neorealism , there is an incredible car chase scene , it may well result in a stand-off, ending with the line, it’s just my opinion . In the absence of any established or agreed criteria by which to verify a claim, if a person thinks that their claim is true, then ‘who are we’ to doubt them? The logic of such a viewpoint reflects what can be described as an epistemic relativism, where the notion that claims can be assessed from a universal and objective standpoint is rejected (Luper, 2004 ). In discussions of personal tastes and preferences, we may not understand or share other people’s preferences, but such differences are not problematic.
But what happens when discussing the existence of social problems? Are opinions sufficient grounds for establishing levels of poverty, crime and health? Should cuts to social security be made because, in someone’s opinion, recipients are abusing the system and are undeserving? Put another way, an individual’s taste in films, or even their opinion as to the state of the world, does not in itself have any great bearing on other people. However, if those opinions are then considered to provide the basis for how those individuals act towards others or, in this context, the grounds for engaging in the problem policy process, then it may be necessary to identify a method and set of criteria by which claims can be justified and the circumstances identified in which policy actors would be willing to challenge and if necessary change their opinion. This is not a suggestion that people should be told what to think and not allowed to have an opinion, but to raise the expectancy that people should be able to account for and justify their position. In this regard, there is a problem with the relativist position, at least as expressed so far. Namely, how can a relativist position be considered true, when there is no way of knowing the truth? Secondly, even if it is accepted that relativism is ‘valid’, and what an individual takes to be true, is true, this would also include the belief that just because an individual thinks that something is true, does not make it true. But how can both these statements be true – while also holding on to the relativistic position? That is, if relativist statements are true, so objectivist accounts must also be true; this would appear to falsify the relativist claim (Pritchard, 2006 ).
So, it may be possible to establish that just because an individual thinks that something is a real problem, this does not make it a real problem. But this still leaves the problem of how an individual can establish whether something is a real problem or not. This is an enduring problem that can be described as the problem of criterion (Chisholm, 1989 ) – where, for the purposes of this book, in order to know that there is a real problem:
- I can only identify that I know this ○ to be a problem, provided I already know what the criterion for knowing is;
- I can only know what the criterion for knowledge is, provided I am already able to identify instances of knowledge by which to derive the necessary criterion.
This appears to lead to a dead end. In an attempt to escape such a position, it is necessary to choose between assuming that it is possible to independently obtain the criteria for knowledge that then makes it possible to know something, or that instances of knowledge first have to be identified in order to determine the criteria. In a similar vein, there is the problem of infinite regress, that is, if every claim is reliant on the support of other beliefs and claims, then aren’t those supporting claims also reliant on their support claims/beliefs, and so on and so on? Such logic may not only be annoying, but it also sits uncomfortably with everyday notions of knowing something.
However, these questions do open up questions of what knowing means. So now the question has been asked as to how a claim can be justified, drawing on the work of Audi ( 2011 ), Baggini ( 2002 ), Foley ( 1998 ) and Fumerton ( 2006 ), it is time to consider some of the answers that have been given.