Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Donileen Loseke.
Thinking About Social Problems: An Introduction to Constructionist Perspectives.
New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1999 227 pp. US$49.00 cloth (0-202-30619-4), US$24.00 paper (0-202-30620-8)

Listen to me: The basic problem with many Social Problems courses is that they are not about the sociology of social problems at all, but about what textbook writers and course professors consider to be problems and what they (as putative “experts”) think people-in-society (the non-experts) ought to do about them. What the sociology of social problems should be about is what those people-in-society (including, as it turns out, textbook writers and course professors) do with and about things they call “social problems”: How are these things defined? Why are they believed to be problems? Who has more or less power to do the defining? What cultural and material resources are accessed in defining things as social problems? Which and whose definitional claims are successful, and why or why not? And what are the outcomes of those (successful and unsuccessful) processes?

In the analytic vocabulary of this book, I have just claimed that there is a problem in sociology, that it is widespread, that it violates our basic moral imperative to teach about how society works, that the villains are authors and professors, and that their victims are students. My final claim is that it is objectively clear that the solution to this problem is to assign this book, which engages these basic questions, first presented by Malcolm Spector and John Kitsuse in their 1977 classic Constructing Social Problems. Loseke indicates that she wrote the book in part to bring the voluminous academically-oriented research spawned by that book into a format for undergraduates to use. (Unfortunately, Spector’s then-affiliation with McGill University might encompass the totality of Canadian content in this book, clearly aimed at the American market, repeatedly referencing “American” values, morals, and social problems.)

This text (which is short enough to be used to complement rather than replace other perspectives in a social problems course) is divided into three parts. The first part introduces the key themes of the social constructionist approach to social problems (hence CSP), with Chapter 1 introducing the distinction between “objectivism” and “constructionism.” Objectivists study and make claims about social problems that they believe are real and stem from objective conditions of social life; some proto-activist objectivists believe that they have at hand solutions to these problems (to be anti-racist/racially conscious, enact/retract legislation, dismantle/improve the economic system, expand/contract entitlements, or assign this book). Constructionists argue that what is interesting are the claims-making processes occurring in and around these things – hence the list of questions above. In Chapter 2 the key concepts of CSP are introduced to the student: claims, claims-making, audiences, claims-competition.

The middle three chapters offer, in true CSP style, typologies. The chapters are about how moralities are constructed (Chapter 3), how problems and problematic people are constructed (Chapter 4), and how solutions are constructed (Chapter 5). The chapters are organized isomorphically – perhaps too rigidly so. Each chapter discusses how claims fit into (i) the complexity of social life, (ii) constructing types of moralities/problems-people/solutions, (iii) claims competitions, (iv) claims-making strategies, and (v) the complexity of social life (again).

On the one hand the symmetry here is ingenious. In organizing the material in this way Loseke performs an invaluable review service for both established researchers and for graduate students beginning work in this area: she has organized the literature for us, and through the footnotes she makes connections across studies, and between the CSP and social movements framing literatures, and the “problem definition” literature in political science. However, for an undergraduate audience I fear these might come off as extremely repetitive (though not dry) chapters, with some sections barely distinguishable from chapter to chapter. There is a lot of jargon that sounds very similar. Moreover, by organizing things so elegantly, it seems that Loseke is often repeating herself: each chapter reminds us why we study complexity, typologies, competition, etc... and what the essential elements of that study are – issues already well addressed. I often lost track of which chapter I was reading. On the other hand, I am not sure that if I were reading the book as a student over the course of an entire semester (rather than as a reviewer in a week) I would have the same reaction: Over the course of a semester the book might seem less repetitive and more instructive in its reminders.

The third part of the book looks at some of the results of claims-competitions. Chapter 6 focuses on results in terms of how people assimilate information (the “sense-making” of “practical actors”), as well as in terms of objective changes (e.g. new public policies, “moral climates”). Chapter 7 discusses the “troubled-persons industry” – which encompasses social services, broadly defined, and interactions between workers and clients. The underlying theme of both these chapters, and much of the book, is power: how it is used, enacted, and what the results of that are. In this vein, this book will not sit well with the hegemony crowd. Loseke’s focus is on how claims are made and their effect in a decidedly democratic America that, despite objectively powerful and dominant forces, is a place where false consciousnesses are neither determined nor ubiquitous. She repeatedly recounts how that is evidenced in this very grounded and empirical literature. By understanding claims-making processes and outcomes, we can better understand the role of power and conflict and how they operate in society. Ultimately, power to effect social change is, as Loseke puts it, “the very real prize for winning the game of constructing social problems” (p.119).

Finally, Loseke argues that she writes two books here – one, a book for intelligent students (the chapters I just recounted), and a second, for those who are interested in the academic underpinnings of the CSP perspective, which is found in the footnotes and the Appendix. The footnotes are crucial for instructors, offering us a rich assortment of case studies from which we can and should draw in order to fully illustrate the many themes to our students. (Alternatively, or in addition, one might assign Joel Best’s Images of Issues as a companion reader. These books are part of the same Aldine de Gruyter series on “Social Problems and Social Issues”). Unfortunately, this book comes with a terribly thin index, which would have further helped instructors connect themes when preparing courses.

The book concludes with an Appendix which offers a truly excellent primer on challenges to the “contextual constructionist” analysis of social problems – from objectivists, postmodernists, and “strict constructionists.” We are confronted here with extraordinarily lucid writing by an active researcher who clearly has a masterful grasp on both the empirical and theoretical elements of this perspective. I highly recommend this as a text for teaching students about how social problems happen in society.

Mitch Berbrier
University of Alabama at Huntsville
March-April 2000
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