Social Problems constitute a key topic in Sociology. They refer to different kinds of troubles negatively affecting a society, its social structure, and its values.
Social problems can consist of global issues such as poverty, displacement, and terrorism. They can also include issues in a specific society or region, such as the pressing homelessness issue in Seattle and Portland.
Unlike personal problems or natural disasters, social problems are created by society and they can be solved by it.
Definition of Social Problems
In simple terms, social problems are issues that harm a group of people in the society.
They also refer to:
“Social conditions, processes, societal arrangements or attitudes that are commonly perceived to be undesirable, negative, and threatening certain values or interests…” (Jamrozik & Nocella, 1998, p. 1)
Social problems can be seen in a single country or affect the international global society. They can affect the society through harming its harmony, stability, safety or freedom.
Unlike physical issues or natural problems, social problems are related to social processes and social interactions. For instance, while malnutrition might seem like a physical condition, it is actually a social problem resulting from war, conflict, poverty, or abuse.
Most of the social problems are results of social inequality and its implications (Jamrozik & Nocella, 1998). For example, socioeconomic inequality leads to lack of affordable housing and homelessness.
A social problem can be identified by three main characteristics:
- Social Reasons: A condition must have social reason in order to be considered a social problem.
- Negative Impacts: A social problem should have a negative impact on the society by threatening its safety, freedom, or other values.
- Social Solutions: A social problem should be a condition that can be ended by social solutions (Jamrozik & Nocella, 1998).
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Quick Examples of Social Problems
- Unemployment and Underemployment: While unemployment refers to not having a job, underemployed people only have part-time, casual, or temporary work. Both unemployment and underemployment are social problems on a global level. They harm individuals and communities by limiting their productivity and harming their socioeconomic status.
- Racial discrimination: Racial discrimination includes all kinds of hostile treatment against an individual or a group based on their race. It is a social problem resulting from racial inequalities. Racial discrimination leads to unfair social and economic conditions for individuals and communities who are discriminated against.
- Housing Crisis: Lack of affordable housing is an increasing social problem which affects most of the Canadian cities as well as parts of the United States and Europe. It includes rising costs of housing and renting, and it can lead to homelessness.
- Malnutrition: Lack of access to nutritious and affordable food is a social problem that affects various societies globally. While in countries like Yemen, malnutrition is a result of war and conflict, in some other countries such as the United States it is a result of growing income inequality.
- Healthcare Shortage: Lack of access to timely and quality healthcare is a social problem that is increasingly affecting Canadian and American societies, leading to extremely long waiting times for seeing a doctor. It also affects the overall quality of mental and physical healthcare negatively.
- Displacement: Forced migration and displacement of individuals from their home countries is a social problem on a global level. Every year, thousands of people have to become refugees because of wars, conflicts, poverty, and climate change.
- Political Corruption: Political corruption refers to the abuse of power by government officials to gain personal benefits. It is a social problem which leads to mistrust and suspicion towards political authorities.
- Substance Abuse: The problem with substance abuse is often that it make society less safe, and can bring instability and harm into households with vulnerable people.
- Obesity: Poor quality food in stores, high cost of fresh food, and poor social education campaigns can lead to obesity which lowers life expectancy.
- Social Isolation: Social isolation often happens to elderly people or vulnerable populations with low social capital. Their isolation can be detrimental to their mental health.
- Glass Ceiling: As a result of the social injustices in hiring practices, women make up just 19% of executive positions and 6% of S&P 500 CEO positions.
- Gender Pay Gap: Women earn 83 cents for every dollar men earn. This is due to a range of complex social and cultural factors.
- Ageism: This involves the mistreatment or bias against people due to their age. Up to 64 percent of older workers say they have seen age discrimination in the workplace.
- Gerrymandering: This involves the rigging of electoral districts to preference one part over another. The USA is ranked as a flawed democracy due to gerrymandering.
- Gender in Education: In the developing world, millions of girls are denied an education due to gender discrimination.
- Forced Marriage: There are over 15 million people forced to marry against their will around the world. 88% of the victims are women.
- Religious Discrimination: Christians face government-sanctioned discrimination in 168 countries. Muslims face government-sanctioned discrimination in 121 countries.
- Child Poverty: Children from poor families in the USA perform 10% lower, on average, in tests scores, and face more mental health issues in childhood.
- Unequal Service Delivery: Rural and remote areas often suffer most. For example, there are still 71 remote Indigenous communities in Canada without clean drinking water.
- Human Trafficking: Vulnerable people are often taken from their homes illegally or with coersion so they can work for low wages. There are over 20 million victims of human trafficking worldwide today.
- Stereotyping: Gender, racial, class-based, and other stereotypes continue to work to suppress people of various social identities.
- Child Labor: There are 160 million victims of forced labor in the world today. Often, this is because families are too poor to send their children to school.
- Disability Discrimination: People with disabilities are more likely to face discrimination and physical threats, and less likely to be taken seriously by police.
- Digital Divide: Poor access to technology is increasing the gap between rich and poor. Only 39% of people in Africa have access to the internet, compared to 94% of people in the United States.
- Colonial Practices: Indigenous people account for 5% of the global population but make up 15% of the world’s people in extreme poverty.
5 Best Examples
1. Social Isolation
Social isolation is a pressing social problem for elderly people. It occurs when elderly people lose contact with their families or their families die out, and no friends or community members are available to step in to help.
It can lead elderly people to fall into depression and, in worse case scenarios, mean they do not have the support to survive in their own homes. Some societies deal with this through free or subsidized assisted living, while others do not have sufficient infrastructure and policies in place to alleviate social isolation.
Note that social isolation may occur at younger ages, especially among the disabled, neurodivergent, and others who struggle to interact with the community.
Malnutrition is a significant social problem both in developed and developing countries, threatening the safety and functioning of these societies.
Many communities in the United States suffer from malnutrition as a result of living in food deserts: Areas which do not have affordable grocery stores or other sources of healthy nutrition in close proximity (Christian et al., 2020).
Another reason for malnutrition is having an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Studies show that eating disorders are an ongoing problem among teenagers, particularly teenage girls (Chamay-Weber et al., 2005).
3. Substance Abuse
Substance abuse is a social problem that causes thousands of deaths in Canada and other parts of the world (Rehm et al., 2006).
It also harms the society by causing healthcare costs, law enforcement costs, and loss of safety and productivity (Rehm et al., 2006).
Studies show that substance abuse closely interact with other social problems includng lack of access to proper mental healthcare and homelessness (Folsom et al., 2005). Increasingly, society is addressing this addiction as a mental health problem rather than a criminal one in order to help people to recover.
4. Housing Crisis
Housing crisis refers to the shortage of affordable, safe, and available housing and shelter options in a region. It also includes more specific social problems such as homelessness and housing insecurity.
Housing crisis has been prevalent in several North American and European cities for a long time.
However, recent global health events have worsened the crisis by increasing housing prices and rents in multiple countries such as the United States and Turkey (Li & Zhang, 2021; Subaşı & Baycan, 2022).
As a social problem, the housing crisis negatively affects the society by adding to the existing socioeconomic inequalities and making disadvantaged communities more vulnerable.
Forced migration and displacement are global social problems which currently affect more than 89 million people worldwide (UNHCR, 2022).
Each year, millions of people have to escape from their home countries because of wars, conflicts, persecution, or climate change (UNHCR, 2022).
As social problems, forced migration and displacement reflect the injustices faced by refugees and asylum seekers who experience unsafe living conditions.
Thousands of asylum seekers lose their lives by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea each year while trying to reach Europe (Statista, 2021).
In many cases, refugees continue to face challenges even after reaching a safe country. In this sense displacement also interacts with other social problems such as racial discrimination.
Social problems refer to various types of issues and troubles that negatively affect a society’s safety, freedom, harmony, and other values.
Social problems are different from individual, physical, and natural problems as they have societal roots. They are social conditions that harm or threaten the society in any way. They can be solved through social means and measures.
Social problems can exist in one specific society, or they can affect multiple societies globally. Examples of contemporary social problems include poverty, homelessness, and displacement.
It is important to study and understand social problems as they illustrate how different forms of social inequalities can harm the society in various ways.
Chamay-Weber, C., Narring, F., & Michaud, P. A. (2005). Partial eating disorders among adolescents: A review. Journal of adolescent health, 37(5), 416-426.
Christian, V. J., Miller, K. R., & Martindale, R. G. (2020). Food insecurity, malnutrition, and the microbiome. Current nutrition reports, 9(4), 356-360.
Folsom, D. P., Hawthorne, W., Lindamer, L., Gilmer, T., Bailey, A., Golshan, S., … & Jeste, D. V. (2005). Prevalence and risk factors for homelessness and utilization of mental health services among 10,340 patients with serious mental illness in a large public mental health system. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(2), 370-376.
Jamrozik, A., & Nocella, L. (1998). The sociology of social problems: Theoretical perspectives and methods of intervention. Cambridge University Press.
Rehm, J., Baliunas, D., Brochu, S., Fischer, B., Gnam, W., Patra, J., … & Taylor, B. (2006). The costs of substance abuse in Canada 2002.
Statista. (2021, September 17). Deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea 2021. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1082077/deaths-of-migrants-in-the-mediterranean-sea/
UNHCR. (2022). Global Trends. UNHCR. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends