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About this book

Modern society is beset by a vast range of problems – such as poverty, homelessness and terrorism – that cause immense suffering for a significant number of people. These social problems both reflect and contribute to wider inequalities; consequently, in order to develop a true understanding of them, we must consider the social injustices with which they are inextricably linked.

In this ground-breaking text, Neil Thompson turns his attention to the range of complex issues relating to social problems and social justice, and the relationship between them. With the help of engaging features that have become synonymous with his books, Thompson provides a clear exploration of some key social problems currently challenging us, analysis of the connection between social problems and social justice, and a review of how social policy initiatives to tackle these issues have fared to date.
Innovative and absorbing, Social Problems and Social Justice is essential reading for students and practitioners across a wide range of social science disciplines and the social professions.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

This book reflects a set of interests that I have had for over forty years. It is rooted in not only extensive study of the phenomena involved, but also vast experience in responding to social problems in a professional capacity (as a practitioner, manager and educator). Throughout all that time I have had a strong interest in, and commitment to, social justice (as is reflected in my publications to date). So, this book provides me with the opportunity to combine my interests in social problems on the one hand, and social justice on the other. However, it is not simply a matter of my personal interests. Both social problems and social justice are areas of major challenge in the contemporary world. They deserve our close and considered attention. The vast range of social problems that currently exist bring about immense suffering for a significant number of people, with many lives being ruined by the consequences of one or more of these problems. Although much of the literature on the subject of social problems, with its emphasis on facts and figures, does not reflect or capture the human costs of this suffering and the wasting of human potential, this (often unnecessary) human degradation is clearly in evidence if we know where to look.
Neil Thompson

Understanding Social Problems and Social Justice


2. Making Sense of Social Problems

In this chapter we trace some important defining features of the world of social problems. The aim is not to provide a comprehensive analysis, but, rather, to achieve the more modest objective of trying to lay down some foundations of understanding. We begin by considering what is meant by the key term of ‘the social construction of social problems’. It is essential to have a clear understanding of what is involved in social construction before proceeding to Part 2 where we will focus on a range of specific social problems. This chapter is therefore intended to give you a reasonably clear picture of what is involved in social construction and why it is so important in relation to developing a fuller understanding of social problems. To begin with, it is important to recognize that different societies define different things as a problem. For example, an adult having sex with a 15-year-old is considered sexual abuse of a child in some societies, but perfectly legal and acceptable in others. What a society defines as a social problem can also change over time.
Neil Thompson

3. Making Sense of Social Justice

Social justice is a ‘contested’ term. That means that different people interpret, and use it, in different ways. Consequently, before exploring specific social problems and their relationship with social justice issues in Part 2, we need to be clear about how the term is being used for our own present purposes. This chapter has therefore been written to provide some degree of clarity about our understanding of social justice, establish why it is an important topic to study and examine its relationship with the concept of social problems in general and with a range of specific social problems in particular. To understand social justice it is perhaps helpful to consider what we mean by social injustice. This is where the social arrangements in a given society at a particular time in history can be seen as unfair to particular sectors of the population, usually the least powerful groups. As Boswell (2008) reports Samuel Johnson to have said, a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilisation. Similarly, Gandhi is attributed with the idea that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.
Neil Thompson

Analysing Social Problems and Social Justice


4. Poverty, Deprivation and Debt

The three elements of the title of this chapter are closely related in a number of ways, but they are also different. So, in this chapter, we will begin by considering poverty before relating this to the related concept of deprivation and then to debt - a problem closely linked to poverty, but also something that can cause great harm in its own right, regardless of poverty. As poverty is such a significant factor in so many ways, it would be wise to begin with a definition of precisely what we mean by poverty. However, this is more difficult than it might originally seem. We have a number of competing definitions of poverty, and government policies often show elements of different definitions at different times. One way of defining poverty is what is referred to as an ‘absolute’ definition. This is used in relation to situations in which levels of income and financial resources are such that they do not allow for physical survival. Absolute poverty is therefore quite an extreme notion. It refers to circumstances where people may, for example, literally starve to death, where they do not have enough funds or other resources to meet their basic survival needs. Of course, in some countries in the world absolute poverty remains a reality, even in the twenty-first century. However, it is not entirely absent in the industrialized western world, despite attempts over many years to eradicate it.
Neil Thompson

5. Unemployment

In Chapter 4 we examined the significance of poverty as a social problem. One of the main causes of poverty is unemployment. Except for the privileged few who are independently wealthy, earning a living is a key challenge. While many will launch their own businesses to generate income, most people will need to rely on paid employment. Where such opportunities are not available or otherwise prove elusive, poverty will often be the result. While the benefits system provides a safety net to avoid absolute poverty, benefit levels are generally not generous enough to avoid some degree of relative poverty - especially for people who are unemployed on a long-term basis. So, we can already see a link between the subject matter of the previous chapter and this one. While unemployment is indeed a major contributory factor to poverty, poverty is not the only unwelcome consequence of unemployment. As we shall see, unemployment brings with it a range of difficulties and challenges. We shall also see, once again, that there are significant links between unemployment as a social problem and social justice - or, more specifically, social injustice.
Neil Thompson

6. Housing Problems and Homelessness

Home is such an important foundation for our well-being for virtually all of us. Not having a home or being forced to live in substandard accommodation is therefore a considerable source of distress and difficulties for anyone so affected, which is, in reality, large numbers of people. Once again, we see that such problems are not distributed at random across the population - they are closely linked to the social structure and thus to inequality. It is the poorest, least powerful members of our communities who are most likely to face such challenges - and, in some ways, the least likely to have the resources to address them. It is also the case that these problems do not occur in a social vacuum - they are closely intertwined with other social problems. This chapter will therefore help us to develop a fuller understanding of what is involved when it comes to housing problems and homelessness, how these relate to social injustice and to other social problems. We begin by considering some key issues relating to housing-related problems.
Neil Thompson

7. Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour

Crime is a major social problem in terms of the harm it can do to individuals, families, groups, communities and even whole societies. It can range from relatively minor infringements of the law to mass murder. Anti-social behaviour is a relatively recent addition to the crime terminology and refers to those behaviours that are on the fringe of the crime seriousness spectrum, but which can none the less make some people’s lives a misery. One example of this is the fact that crime is culturally and historically variable. For example, there are significant variations in terms of what is regarded as a crime. Some countries forbid particular activities and count them as crimes (for example, homosexual behaviour), while they are perfectly legal in other societies. There are also significant variations in terms of penalties. For example, the use of marijuana in some contexts may result in a fairly minor penalty, if any at all, whereas in others the consequences can be very severe, resulting in imprisonment. As Croall explains: ‘While often linked to criminal law, activities legally defined as crime change over time, and what people perceive to be “criminal” is dependent on a cultural context’ (2012, p. 179).
Neil Thompson

8. Abuse

In this chapter I am going to focus on three particular types of abuse, namely child abuse, the abuse of vulnerable adults and domestic abuse. Although these three different forms of abuse are quite distinct in a number of ways, they also have much in common. All three of them create significant harm and distress, generally for people who are vulnerable in some way - indeed the exploitation of vulnerability and the abuse of power involved is a central feature of abuse. Of course, there is no simple or straightforward cause of something as complex as abuse. Rather, it arises from a multifaceted set of interacting factors. Similarly, the consequences of abuse are many and varied. Our discussion here is therefore far from comprehensive, but it should provide at least a foundation of understanding to be built on over time. I begin by exploring some key issues underpinning the phenomenon of abuse.
Neil Thompson

9. Mental Health Problems

Where someone experiences a mental health problem it can be quite a challenge not only for that particular individual, but also for their family and friends and possibly colleagues. At times, they can also be perceived as a threat to society at large. Hence their status as a social problem, rather than simply an individual problem for the individuals concerned. Mental health problems can range from relatively minor to extremely distressing and devastating. They are therefore worthy of careful consideration. However, the subject matter is not as clear cut as it might originally appear. This is because the dominant ideology relating to mental health problems is an atomistic and pathologizing one, reducing complex, multilevel phenomena to simple matters of individual illness. To understand mental health challenges as a social problem, and to examine their relationship to social justice, we need to look critically at this dominant thinking and question its hegemony.
Neil Thompson

10. Problematic Drug Use

Problems associated with drug use are many and varied. If we include alcohol as a drug that commonly creates problems, then the picture becomes even more complex. As we have found with other social problems explored in Part 2, public perceptions as fuelled by media representations are often different from the reality in our communities. As we shall see, problematic drug use is a major concern because of: (i) the harm it does to the individuals so affected, to the people close to them and beyond; and (ii) its negative impact on other social problems. Once again we will see that there are important links between problematic drug use as a social problem and social justice (or the lack thereof). Underpinning many of the difficulties in contemporary society is a reliance on drugs and alcohol, particularly alcohol. As we shall explore in more detail below, drugs issues are closely linked to a number of social problems. This means that progress in addressing problematic drug use could have a positive knock-on effect in relation to other social problems. Although there is a social disapproval of drugs because they are illegal and perceived to be very harmful, the approach to alcohol is more mixed.
Neil Thompson

11. Terrorism

The subject of terrorism is one that is not traditionally included in discussions of social problems. However, it has come to feature so strongly in so many people’s lives that it is now being recognized as quite a significant social problem worthy of close attention. This chapter therefore provides an introductory overview of some of the key issues involved. As we shall see, terrorism is a complex topic, but it is also one that fits with the pattern of being closely related to; (i) inequality; and (ii) other social problems. I earlier explained the significance of globalization, the process whereby modern communications technology has played an important role in bringing nations together in ways that were previously impossible. We now have much more of a global economy, in the sense that the movement of goods and resources across the world is facilitated. Markets are now generally international, and there are implications of that at a number of levels. We are now more aware, for example, of the significance of different cultures and different worldviews. One of the consequences of that is that there can be significant ideological and worldview differences across nations, cultures and communities.
Neil Thompson

12. Destruction of Habitat

In some respects, the destruction of habitat can be seen as the most important social problem of all, in so far as it has the potential to lead to the end of the human race. If we continue to abuse our environment and its resources at the current rate, we will inflict greater and greater harm on both present and future generations. This chapter follows the same patterns as its predecessors in Part 2 in highlighting some of the key issues involved. While this destruction affects literally everyone on the planet, what we will see is that it affects some people more than others, and so inequality is also a factor here, as with the other social problems highlighted. The interconnectedness of the problem being focused on in this chapter with other social problems will also surface as an important issue once again. People commonly refer to ‘environmental problems’ destroying our planet, but, in reality, the planet will continue to exist in its own right, despite the harm that we are currently doing to it, long after humans have ceased to occupy it. What is being destroyed, therefore, is not the planet itself, but the conditions on the planet that allow human life, and indeed wildlife, to continue. The patterns of work, production and consumption that we have adopted have hastened the end of a viable habitat for us. We are already seeing the destruction of habitat for many forms of wildlife, with many species becoming extinct each year. Our own human habitat is also being shaped in a negative direction.
Neil Thompson

Addressing Social Problems And Social Justice


13. Efforts to Date

In this chapter I offer a review of the main political, policy and professional responses to social problems. My aim is not to provide a comprehensive analysis, but simply to offer a critical review of some of the key issues that have characterized efforts to date. What this chapter should achieve is an overview of the range of responses commonly developed as a result of particular social problems and the challenges they present. What has been apparent throughout the various chapters of this book is a tension between neoliberalism, with its emphasis on the free-market economy and the restriction of the role of the state, and a commitment to a public service ethos that emphasizes an important role for the state in supporting the well-being of its citizens. This is a long-standing tension and it is not likely to disappear very soon. It is important to be aware of it, and its implications, because it informs and influences how social problems are defined in the first place and what policy responses are developed as potential solutions.
Neil Thompson

14. Future Avenues

In this final chapter I present an exploration of alternative political, policy and professional responses to social problems. It is important to emphasize from the beginning that this chapter does not constitute a set of predictions or simplistic answers. It is to be hoped that my comments thus far will have illustrated the lack of wisdom involved in any such approach. Taleb (2010), in an impressive study of improbability, emphasizes the uncertainty of the future and thereby warns against being too confident in making predictions. There are just too many variables to create a realistic picture of what the future holds. Rather, what this chapter is intended to offer is food for thought to inform future policy development and professional practices in responding to the challenges presented by such a wide range of social problems. It is an exercise in considering how the future could be different, depending on the choices we make, individually and collectively.
Neil Thompson
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