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how can we solve our social problems

How Can We Solve Our Social Problems?

Subject index

“Rarely do I find a book that so clearly and concisely presents the material is such an accessible engaging manner. I just hope it never goes out of print!” — Chris Adamski-Mietus, Western Illinois University Many of today’s social problems—poverty, crime, racism, sexism, drug abuse, unequal access to quality health care or education, threats to the environment, over-population—can seem intractable. James A. Crone’s How Can We Solve Our Social Problems?, Third Edition is designed to give students studying these types of social problems a sense of hope. Unlike the standard survey texts that focus heavily on the causes and consequences of problems, this book is devoted to analyzing possible solutions. It maintains a sense of sociological objectivity throughout, and without moralizing, describes what could be done in America and on a global scale, through government policies, private sector initiatives, and the collective actions of citizens, to address even our most pervasive social problems. Contributor to the SAGE Teaching Innovations and Professional Development Award ?Find out more at

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Social Problem-Solving

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Social problem-solving might also be called ‘ problem-solving in real life ’. In other words, it is a rather academic way of describing the systems and processes that we use to solve the problems that we encounter in our everyday lives.

The word ‘ social ’ does not mean that it only applies to problems that we solve with other people, or, indeed, those that we feel are caused by others. The word is simply used to indicate the ‘ real life ’ nature of the problems, and the way that we approach them.

Social problem-solving is generally considered to apply to four different types of problems:

A Model of Social Problem-Solving

One of the main models used in academic studies of social problem-solving was put forward by a group led by Thomas D’Zurilla.

This model includes three basic concepts or elements:


This is defined as the process used by an individual, pair or group to find an effective solution for a particular problem. It is a self-directed process, meaning simply that the individual or group does not have anyone telling them what to do. Parts of this process include generating lots of possible solutions and selecting the best from among them.

A problem is defined as any situation or task that needs some kind of a response if it is to be managed effectively, but to which no obvious response is available. The demands may be external, from the environment, or internal.

A solution is a response or coping mechanism which is specific to the problem or situation. It is the outcome of the problem-solving process.

Once a solution has been identified, it must then be implemented. D’Zurilla’s model distinguishes between problem-solving (the process that identifies a solution) and solution implementation (the process of putting that solution into practice), and notes that the skills required for the two are not necessarily the same. It also distinguishes between two parts of the problem-solving process: problem orientation and actual problem-solving.

Problem Orientation

Problem orientation is the way that people approach problems, and how they set them into the context of their existing knowledge and ways of looking at the world.

Each of us will see problems in a different way, depending on our experience and skills, and this orientation is key to working out which skills we will need to use to solve the problem.

An Example of Orientation

Most people, on seeing a spout of water coming from a loose joint between a tap and a pipe, will probably reach first for a cloth to put round the joint to catch the water, and then a phone, employing their research skills to find a plumber.

A plumber, however, or someone with some experience of plumbing, is more likely to reach for tools to mend the joint and fix the leak. It’s all a question of orientation.


Problem-solving includes four key skills:

Based on this split between orientation and problem-solving, D’Zurilla and colleagues defined two scales to measure both abilities.

They defined two orientation dimensions, positive and negative, and three problem-solving styles, rational, impulsive/careless and avoidance.

They noted that people who were good at orientation were not necessarily good at problem-solving and vice versa, although the two might also go together.

It will probably be obvious from these descriptions that the researchers viewed positive orientation and rational problem-solving as functional behaviours, and defined all the others as dysfunctional, leading to psychological distress.

The skills required for positive problem orientation are:

Being able to see problems as ‘challenges’, or opportunities to gain something, rather than insurmountable difficulties at which it is only possible to fail.

For more about this, see our page on The Importance of Mindset ;

Believing that problems are solvable. While this, too, may be considered an aspect of mindset, it is also important to use techniques of Positive Thinking ;

Believing that you personally are able to solve problems successfully, which is at least in part an aspect of self-confidence.

See our page on Building Confidence for more;

Understanding that solving problems successfully will take time and effort, which may require a certain amount of resilience ; and

Motivating yourself to solve problems immediately, rather than putting them off.

See our pages on Self-Motivation and Time Management for more.

Those who find it harder to develop positive problem orientation tend to view problems as insurmountable obstacles, or a threat to their well-being, doubt their own abilities to solve problems, and become frustrated or upset when they encounter problems.

The skills required for rational problem-solving include:

The ability to gather information and facts, through research. There is more about this on our page on defining and identifying problems ;

The ability to set suitable problem-solving goals. You may find our page on personal goal-setting helpful;

The application of rational thinking to generate possible solutions. You may find some of the ideas on our Creative Thinking page helpful, as well as those on investigating ideas and solutions ;

Good decision-making skills to decide which solution is best. See our page on Decision-Making for more; and

Implementation skills, which include the ability to plan, organise and do. You may find our pages on Action Planning , Project Management and Solution Implementation helpful.

There is more about the rational problem-solving process on our page on Problem-Solving .

Potential Difficulties

Those who struggle to manage rational problem-solving tend to either:

This ‘ avoidance ’ is not the same as actively and appropriately delegating to someone with the necessary skills (see our page on Delegation Skills for more).

Instead, it is simple ‘buck-passing’, usually characterised by a lack of selection of anyone with the appropriate skills, and/or an attempt to avoid responsibility for the problem.

An Academic Term for a Human Process?

You may be thinking that social problem-solving, and the model described here, sounds like an academic attempt to define very normal human processes. This is probably not an unreasonable summary.

However, breaking a complex process down in this way not only helps academics to study it, but also helps us to develop our skills in a more targeted way. By considering each element of the process separately, we can focus on those that we find most difficult: maximum ‘bang for your buck’, as it were.

Continue to: Decision Making Transferable Skills

See also: What is Empathy? Social Skills

How to Solve a Social Problem

Rosanne speaking at talk

“If you remember nothing else I say, remember the distinction between a program and a process. A program is a solution to a problem, but a good process is a way of finding solutions and applying a methodology to many contexts and many problems. It’s much more valuable to have a good process than a good program any day,” our President, Rosanne Haggerty, told students at Amherst College last November, where her alma mater was holding a TEDx conference on “Disruptive Innovation.”

Rosanne told the group how she went from not asking the right questions to developing a methodology on solving social problems.

The process:

Watch Rosanne’s TEDx talk  for the details on Community Solutions’ disruptive and most successful innovations.  

Woman speaking in front of community members

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Spring's Most Anticipated New Books

How Can We Solve Our Social Problems?

James a. crone.

304 pages, Paperback

First published November 24, 2006

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More From Forbes

Solving social problems: 11 ways new tech can help.

Forbes Technology Council

That there are a lot of long-standing problems facing people not only in the U.S. but also abroad is not news. There are multitudes of people around the globe who don't have enough to eat, lack access to clean water or are simply prevented from elevating their socioeconomic status.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Alleviating societal issues is neither a simple nor a quick process. New technologies do offer alternate paths forward, however. Artificial intelligence, for instance -- especially combined with data gathered from a variety of sources -- can help curate information. This means a better identification of medical concerns, the ability to develop renewable food sources or the improvement of safety in our communities.

There are more problems facing the world than can be easily listed. The items below, gathered from members of  Forbes Technology Council , are a jumping-off point that identify problems and provide suggestions for potential solutions.

1. Climate Change

Climate change will become the most significant destabilizing global issue. Technology can help in myriad ways, from making electric cars mainstream and building alternative sources of energy to replace coal to creating more efficient buildings, non-polluting air conditioning systems and desalination systems. -  Leah Allen ,  Radius

I think we can eliminate poverty by using technology to create more jobs and open up a wider marketplace for those in developing countries to reach an audience that would be interested in buying what they make or offer. Ensuring everyone has equal access to the internet can certainly go a long way to creating a way for more people to economically sustain themselves. -  Chalmers Brown ,  Due

3. Education

Technologies like online courses and robots in the classroom allow for a higher-quality and standardized delivery of curriculum by experts who really understand the subjects being taught. This type of education dramatically increases access both for urban and rural classrooms that lack the resources to maintain a well-trained staff. -  Richard Margolin ,  RoboKind

4. The Economy 

VR will be a transformative tool to train workers displaced by automation in developed economies and workers entering the workforce in emerging economies. VR can program/reprogram the human mind to learn new skills more effectively, with better learning and long-term retention. "VR-Cades" can circumvent expensive university and polytechnic courses while saving the trainees' money and time. -  Siddharth Banerjee ,  Indusgeeks USA Inc.

Democracies depend on the participation of their citizens. We do this mostly through the power of voting. However, we still have poor participation and tremendous concern with voting accuracy. Blockchain's underlying technology -- the concept of the trust database -- could be used to facilitate universal participation in elections and to assure that there will not be any tampering with results. -  Paul Blough ,  BloughTech

6. Health Care

I strongly believe that by incorporating the right technology tools into the health care system, we could see a huge improvement in patient outcomes, as well as big savings for hospitals. To accomplish this on a larger scale, we need to see professionals in the medical industry who are willing to embrace the technology and technology companies that are open to listening to the needs of medical professionals. -  Marcus Turner ,  Enola Labs

7. Senior Isolation

The elderly often feel isolated, but we have technology based around video conferencing and telepresence that could alleviate some of that isolation when a physical presence isn’t possible. -  Stephen Cox ,  SecureAuth

8. Public Safety

Kidnappings, ambushes and reports of rape are words that we unfortunately read in headlines on a regular basis. Glasses or IoT-enabled personal devices with face recognition technologies connected to a database of criminals may be able to proactively warn when known offenders are in close proximity, while peer-to-peer, location-based emergency communication technologies can enable victims to seek help from law enforcement or others nearby. - Amit Mondal,  PowerSchool

9. Police Brutality

Police brutality is what pops first to mind. When police wear body cameras,  reports  of police violence drop off a cliff. A universal technology mandate would also protect police officers from baseless claims of excessive use of force. -  Timothy Chaves ,  ZipBooks Online Bookkeeping Services

10. Farming

Leveraging e-commerce technologies to improve access to healthier options will help save trillions of dollars in health care, help families live healthier, happier lives and make the healthier options affordable. With deep learning technologies, we can do analysis and predictions on how we farm our crops and livestock, allowing us to evaluate and optimize the sustainability of farming. - Kay Lee,  Thrive Market

11. Safe Drinking Water

With large-scale IoT and the cloud, we now have the ability to monitor infrastructure on a global scale. If we applied this technology and aligned strategy, I believe we could bring safe drinking water to most of the world. Safe drinking water is foundational in the journey out of poverty. - Kurt Dykema,  Twisthink

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1.1 What Is a Social Problem?

Learning objectives.

A social problem is any condition or behavior that has negative consequences for large numbers of people and that is generally recognized as a condition or behavior that needs to be addressed. This definition has both an objective component and a subjective component.

The objective component is this: For any condition or behavior to be considered a social problem, it must have negative consequences for large numbers of people, as each chapter of this book discusses. How do we know if a social problem has negative consequences? Reasonable people can and do disagree on whether such consequences exist and, if so, on their extent and seriousness, but ordinarily a body of data accumulates—from work by academic researchers, government agencies, and other sources—that strongly points to extensive and serious consequences. The reasons for these consequences are often hotly debated, and sometimes, as we shall see in certain chapters in this book, sometimes the very existence of these consequences is disputed. A current example is climate change : Although the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that climate change (changes in the earth’s climate due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is real and serious, fewer than two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) in a 2011 poll said they “think that global warming is happening”(Leiserowitz, et. al., 2011).

This type of dispute points to the subjective component of the definition of social problems: There must be a perception that a condition or behavior needs to be addressed for it to be considered a social problem. This component lies at the heart of the social constructionist view of social problems (Rubington & Weinberg, 2010). In this view, many types of negative conditions and behaviors exist. Many of these are considered sufficiently negative to acquire the status of a social problem; some do not receive this consideration and thus do not become a social problem; and some become considered a social problem only if citizens, policymakers, or other parties call attention to the condition or behavior.

Smoke stacks spewing pollution into the sky

Sometimes disputes occur over whether a particular condition or behavior has negative consequences and is thus a social problem. A current example is climate change: although almost all climate scientists think climate change is real and serious, more than one-third of the American public thinks that climate change is not happening.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

The history of attention given to rape and sexual assault in the United States before and after the 1970s provides an example of this latter situation. These acts of sexual violence against women have probably occurred from the beginning of humanity and certainly were very common in the United States before the 1970s. Although men were sometimes arrested and prosecuted for rape and sexual assault, sexual violence was otherwise ignored by legal policymakers and received little attention in college textbooks and the news media, and many people thought that rape and sexual assault were just something that happened (Allison & Wrightsman, 1993). Thus although sexual violence existed, it was not considered a social problem. When the contemporary women’s movement began in the late 1970s, it soon focused on rape and sexual assault as serious crimes and as manifestations of women’s inequality. Thanks to this focus, rape and sexual assault eventually entered the public consciousness, views of these crimes began to change, and legal policymakers began to give them more attention. In short, sexual violence against women became a social problem.

Placards at the Rally to Take Rape Seriously

Before the 1970s, rape and sexual assault certainly existed and were very common, but they were generally ignored and not considered a social problem. When the contemporary women’s movement arose during the 1970s, it focused on sexual violence against women and turned this behavior into a social problem.

Women’s e News – Placards at the Rally To Take Rape Seriously – CC BY 2.0.

The social constructionist view raises an interesting question: When is a social problem a social problem? According to some sociologists who adopt this view, negative conditions and behaviors are not a social problem unless they are recognized as such by policymakers, large numbers of lay citizens, or other segments of our society; these sociologists would thus say that rape and sexual assault before the 1970s were not a social problem because our society as a whole paid them little attention. Other sociologists say that negative conditions and behaviors should be considered a social problem even if they receive little or no attention; these sociologists would thus say that rape and sexual assault before the 1970s were a social problem.

This type of debate is probably akin to the age-old question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, is a sound made? As such, it is not easy to answer, but it does reinforce one of the key beliefs of the social constructionist view: Perception matters at least as much as reality, and sometimes more so. In line with this belief, social constructionism emphasizes that citizens, interest groups, policymakers, and other parties often compete to influence popular perceptions of many types of conditions and behaviors. They try to influence news media coverage and popular views of the nature and extent of any negative consequences that may be occurring, the reasons underlying the condition or behavior in question, and possible solutions to the problem.

Two college students smiling at a camera while holding their books

Sometimes a condition or behavior becomes a social problem even if there is little or no basis for this perception. A historical example involves women in college. During the late 1800s, medical authorities and other experts warned women not to go to college for two reasons: they feared that the stress of college would disrupt women’s menstrual cycles, and they thought that women would not do well on exams while they were menstruating.

CollegeDegrees360 – College Girls – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Social constructionism’s emphasis on perception has a provocative implication: Just as a condition or behavior may not be considered a social problem even if there is strong basis for this perception, so may a condition or behavior be considered a social problem even if there is little or no basis for this perception. The “issue” of women in college provides a historical example of this latter possibility. In the late 1800s, leading physicians and medical researchers in the United States wrote journal articles, textbooks, and newspaper columns in which they warned women not to go to college. The reason? They feared that the stress of college would disrupt women’s menstrual cycles, and they also feared that women would not do well in exams during “that time of the month” (Ehrenreich & English, 2005)! We now know better, of course, but the sexist beliefs of these writers turned the idea of women going to college into a social problem and helped to reinforce restrictions by colleges and universities on the admission of women.

In a related dynamic, various parties can distort certain aspects of a social problem that does exist: politicians can give speeches, the news media can use scary headlines and heavy coverage to capture readers’ or viewers’ interest, businesses can use advertising and influence news coverage. News media coverage of violent crime provides many examples of this dynamic (Robinson, 2011; Surette, 2011). The news media overdramatize violent crime, which is far less common than property crime like burglary and larceny, by featuring so many stories about it, and this coverage contributes to public fear of crime. Media stories about violent crime also tend to be more common when the accused offender is black and the victim is white and when the offender is a juvenile. This type of coverage is thought to heighten the public’s prejudice toward African Americans and to contribute to negative views about teenagers.

The Natural History of a Social Problem

We have just discussed some of the difficulties in defining a social problem and the fact that various parties often try to influence public perceptions of social problems. These issues aside, most social problems go through a natural history consisting of several stages of their development (Spector & Kitsuse, 2001).

Stage 1: Emergence and Claims Making

A social problem emerges when a social entity (such as a social change group, the news media, or influential politicians) begins to call attention to a condition or behavior that it perceives to be undesirable and in need of remedy. As part of this process, it tries to influence public perceptions of the problem, the reasons for it, and possible solutions to it. Because the social entity is making claims about all these matters, this aspect of Stage 1 is termed the claims-making process . Not all efforts to turn a condition or behavior into a social problem succeed, and if they do not succeed, a social problem does not emerge. Because of the resources they have or do not have, some social entities are more likely than others to succeed at this stage. A few ordinary individuals have little influence in the public sphere, but masses of individuals who engage in protest or other political activity have greater ability to help a social problem emerge. Because politicians have the ear of the news media and other types of influence, their views about social problems are often very influential. Most studies of this stage of a social problem focus on the efforts of social change groups and the larger social movement to which they may belong, as most social problems begin with bottom-up efforts from such groups.

Protesters ralling against climate change in front of CIBC Banking Centre

A social problem emerges when a social change group successfully calls attention to a condition or behavior that it considers serious. Protests like the one depicted here have raised the environmental consciousness of Americans and helped put pressure on businesses to be environmentally responsible.

ItzaFineDay – Financing Climate Change – CC BY 2.0.

Stage 2: Legitimacy

Once a social group succeeds in turning a condition or behavior into a social problem, it usually tries to persuade the government (local, state, and/or federal) to take some action—spending and policymaking—to address the problem. As part of this effort, it tries to convince the government that its claims about the problem are legitimate—that they make sense and are supported by empirical (research-based) evidence. To the extent that the group succeeds in convincing the government of the legitimacy of its claims, government action is that much more likely to occur.

Stage 3: Renewed Claims Making

Even if government action does occur, social change groups often conclude that the action is too limited in goals or scope to be able to successfully address the social problem. If they reach this conclusion, they often decide to press their demands anew. They do so by reasserting their claims and by criticizing the official response they have received from the government or other established interests, such as big businesses. This stage may involve a fair amount of tension between the social change groups and these targets of their claims.

Stage 4: Development of Alternative Strategies

Despite the renewed claims making, social change groups often conclude that the government and established interests are not responding adequately to their claims. Although the groups may continue to press their claims, they nonetheless realize that these claims may fail to win an adequate response from established interests. This realization leads them to develop their own strategies for addressing the social problem.

Key Takeaways

For Your Review

Allison, J. A., & Wrightsman, L. S. (1993). Rape: The misunderstood crime . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ehrenreich, B., & English, D. (2005). For her own good: Two centuries of the experts’ advice to women (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Smith, N. (2011). Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in May 2011 . New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Robinson, M. B. (2011). Media coverage of crime and criminal justice . Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Rubington, E., & Weinberg, M. S. (2010). The study of social problems: Seven perspectives (7th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Spector, M., & Kitsuse, J. I. (2001). Constructing social problems . New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Surette, R. (2011). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Social Problems by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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How Can We Solve Social Problems?

An Introduction to the Study of Social Problems. By Joel M. Charon

How can we solve social problems?

Believing that social problems can be solved is really a myth, and the myth is sometimes harmful. The problem of crime will never go away, nor will poverty, nor will inequality, nor will Scapegoating, poor schools, racism, or destructive families.

There are three reasons for this. First, whenever we try to solve a serious problem, our definition of the problem will change as we learn more about it and are successful in confronting it. For instance, as we have dealt with the problem of child abuse, we have expanded our definition of “child abuse” to include actions that were not previously seen as abusive, such as psychological abuse, or even spanking. Another example could be pollution. Recognizing how gas-powered vehicles polluted the air, we began building “cleaner” engines; yet, even as we were successful in doing that, we turned our attention to eliminating gasoline engines altogether. Over time, we simply come to understand more about the social problem at hand and redefine it.

Second, problems are too complex to be solved. All the causes of any given problem are too complicated and interrelated to be changed successfully. Third, problems are embedded in the nature of society. Finally, solving one would mean that society would have to change dramatically. This is too much to expect and probably simpleminded to believe.

Dealing with solving social problems is like dealing with the issue of freedom. It is not an either/or thing; it is a constant effort. We are never fully successful in our fight for freedom; there are always new controls that have to be dealt with, new threats to freedom, new understandings of what it means to be free. At any time, we might begin to lose whatever freedom we have, or we might take freedom for granted and think we will always have it—only to find ourselves suddenly without it.

Trying to deal with social problems means that as a society we need to understand what is wrong and to work at making it less wrong. If we leave problems alone, they might get better on their own, but they will more likely get worse and might eventually cause even more serious problems or destroy whatever works well in society.

Democracy is a commitment to dealing intelligently with social problems, because democracy above all else means that all people are important and to some extent we are responsible for one another. Society’s problems can be confronted and made less serious, and covering them up or running from them can bring about destructive conflict and disorder, one of the most serious social problems of all. If we demand to solve a problem, we will discourage efforts to deal rationally with it.

The course is not about solutions; it might provide recommendations about doing something to correct most serious problems related to race and ethnicity, so that fewer people are hurt and a better society can be built. Such approach could be changing government policies or organizing concerned people to exert their collective power to influence corporations or schools.  


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    Dealing with solving social problems is like dealing with the issue of freedom. It is not an either/or thing; it is a constant effort. We are never fully