Social Problems

An Advocate Group Approach


By Sara Towe Horsfall

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This book represents a truly innovative and empowering approach to social problems. Instead of focusing solely on a seemingly tireless list of major problems, Sara Towe Horsfall considers how select key issues can be solved and pays particular attention to the advocate groups already on the front lines. Horsfall first provides a robust theoretical foundation to the study of social problems before moving on to the problems themselves, examining each through the lens of specific advocate groups working towards solutions. This concise and accessible text also incorporates useful learning tools including study questions to help reinforce reading comprehension, questions for further thought to encourage critical thinking and classroom discussion, a glossary of key terms, and a worksheet for researching advocate groups. Social Problems: An Advocate Group Approach is an essential resource for social problems courses and for anyone who is inspired to effect change.



The Need for a New Approach to Social Problems

Over the years, whenever I taught the social problems course, I faced the dilemma of what text to use. Despite the fact that it is a common university course, most textbooks have serious flaws. First is the lack of a consistent definition. A social problem is commonly defined as a situation recognized by a group, by someone. That means, whoever identifies the problem is part of the discussion of the social problem. However, most texts do not examine the opinions and actions of the social actors who lobbied to bring an issue into the public eye. Even worse, the author takes the place of those social actions and advocates for the aggrieved persons. The loss of theoretical perspective turns the subject into personal opinion—albeit with a lot of supporting data.

Another serious flaw is that after the first couple of chapters, the material is nearly the same as standard introductory texts with slight adjustment of the titles: family-related problems, problems in education, population, environment, urban problems, problems in aging, crime, and so on. The social problems get lost in the discussion of sociology. This was brought home to me in one course when my students began asking, “Where are the social problems?” The class had become more about “What is sociology?” than “What are social problems?” Further, most social problems books include a discussion of the three sociological perspectives (conflict, interaction, and structure/function) and sometimes additional analysis using the three perspectives. While important to sociology, analysis of the sociological areas using the three perspectives does not always add to the understanding of social problems.

A peculiarity of social problems texts is the lack of a discussion of solutions other than government action. Government action seems to be the sociologists’ “law of the hammer,” leaving a whole range of actions by individuals and other organizations unexamined.

Strangely, there is no standard content to introduce social problems. Some authors talk about political conservatives and liberals, others talk about claims making, still others talk about research methods, or the basic theoretical perspectives of sociology, or values and morality. Teachers are likely to select a book that agrees with their own approach, ignoring the other approaches. Some ignore claims making entirely; others omit any talk about conservatives and liberals and so on. There is a consensus among sociologists about the groundwork in other areas. Why not in social problems?

Another neglected area in most social problems textbooks is lessons from the past. Learning from earlier successes or failures is an important part of addressing any social problem. Which solutions succeeded in bringing a positive change and which failed to do so? Prohibition springs to mind as a policy that failed; it offers great insight into social responses to governmental policies with moral components. One objective of this book is to identify relevant past solutions and bring them into the discussion.

Most textbooks do not include literature on social movements. This is an oversight, because understanding social movements can reveal how social problems are addressed in society. Social problems and social movements are two sides of the same coin. Were there no social problems, there would be no social movements or other advocate groups. Similarly, literature on social change is rarely included. But the goal of social movements and advocate groups is social change. It is helpful to understand the social change processes. In short, these two areas of sociology have much to contribute to the study of social problems.


Some social problems textbooks have started to address one or another of these issues. Some authors have modified the definition of a social problem to improve consistency. Others have focused almost entirely on solutions. Still others have pursued the logic of claims making rather than the more traditional approach. Clearly the subject area is changing. It is within that arena that this textbook is offered.1

Much of the material in this book is similar to other social problems texts. The important social problems are covered: health care, welfare, discrimination, illegal immigration, substance abuse, homelessness, abuse, gangs, abortion, environment, AIDS, rape, prostitution, and others. This is likely to be more than enough material for a one-semester course. While the length of discussion on each problem varies, it is as detailed or more detailed than other texts.

An obvious difference is that the material is not organized by sociological area. Instead, each problem is presented as a discrete unit. This allows for more focus on the specific problem. The goal is to present the key points with enough historical and factual data that the reader can assess the veracity of the various claims makers. It also provides an opportunity to explore particular solutions. In reality, problems are more likely to be addressed individually than as one of a group of problems.

A major addition to this book is the theoretical material presented in the first four chapters and used consistently throughout. It is intended to help conceptualize social problems and the dynamics of those involved and the process of change that is occurring. Readers are encouraged to use the definition (a social problem is defined as having six components) and other aspects of the theory throughout. As always, the role of theory is to bring to light aspects that might otherwise not be noticed.

Another major addition to the social problems topic is the inclusion of advocate groups. These are the people who identified the problem and, more importantly, have a possible solution. Rather than presenting what I think the solution might be, a solution by one advocate group is described for each social problem. This is not necessarily the best solution, but one that raises important issues. The reader is encouraged to explore other solutions (other advocate groups). Evaluating and comparing the solutions is left to the reader. A list of some advocate groups is given after the discussion of each social problem. For the most part they are representative of the different views on the topic currently. A brief description and current URL for each group is given in the Appendix Two. (URLs change without warning, so some links may not be functional.)

Key to this approach is presenting students with the tools they need to evaluate the claims of the various advocate groups. This is found mainly in the first chapter. Is the data accurate? Is there an obvious argument bias? Is what is suggested as a solution workable? Is it likely to be enacted? In truth, I have found that this assessment process is very difficult for students. As I tell my students, they are wonderfully naive and take anyone who uses a lot of data and sophisticated language to be an authority. Figuring out what kind of an advocate group it is, evaluating reliability, spotting ideological and/or other bias is not easy to learn. The instructor is encouraged to have assignments, class discussion, and personal advising devoted to recognizing both data and argument bias. It may seem time-consuming, but the payoff is great in terms of the students’ ability to assess and digest material. Some exercises addressing this learning process are included in the online instructional material. There are also questions for thought at the end of each section.

A strength of this approach is that it allows students to develop and refine their thinking. It is expected that they will examine and/or present different solutions to a social problem. Some of the advocate group solutions will be a model for students to express their own views. Others will present them with the opportunity to “walk in the shoes” of those with whom they disagree and broaden their ability to understand others. “Trying out” different views in this way gives students a comfortable distance and reduces the risk of personal attack. It provides a “safe” environment for the discussion of liberal/conservative differences.

Finally, investigating various advocate groups gives students both an appreciation of their social environment and the information they need to be active and informed citizens of their society.


This book does not give definitive answers. Rather, it will help you understand the basics of the issues and the vocabulary used to discuss them. It will also help you learn where to look for answers and how to evaluate the information you find.

The first four chapters are theory. The purpose of theory is to provide a framework for your understanding. When you see how something fits in the overall picture, it becomes easier to understand. When you systematically examine things using theory, you will discover gaps and missing parts that would otherwise be overlooked. The Analysis Worksheet in the Appendix One summarizes the main points of the theory. Although at first it may seem tedious and difficult to answer these items, by the end of the course, they should be things that you automatically seek to answer when looking at an advocate group.

Part II looks at specific problems in our society. A social problem is something recognized as a problem by someone or some group—the litmus test for including a problem in this book. Each problem has many advocate groups, sometimes well known. We look at the issues that are important to the different advocate groups in order to better understand the problem. And we need to decide if their presentation of the problem is a good one, or if they have exaggerated to make a good argument. If they do exaggerate, does it make a difference?

Some of you will go on to study social movements in greater depth in other sociology classes. It is an exciting area of inquiry. Many years ago in India I had a small office in a busy part of Bombay. The other offices up and down the hallway were occupied by entrepreneurs of all sorts, including production of clothing for export. Each office was a mini business and sometimes a mini factory. What I came to realize is that the whole building was teeming with life, each enterprise cleverly using the resources they had to develop their business and earn a living. Advocate groups in the United States are similar. Each community is teeming with them, for every cause you can imagine, and a few more. Understanding who they are, how they organize, what characteristics they have helps you to understand our society in general.

A list of advocate groups briefly described is given in Appendix Two, along with a current URL. Of course, this is not the complete list of advocate groups, just some of the prominent ones. You may wish to look for other groups that have pursued other solutions to particular problems. Whenever you visit an advocate group site, be sure to look at the “About Us” page to know the identity of the group.

One aim of this text and the class you are taking is that you become a more active participant in the society in which you live. Understanding and recognizing the issues and the arguments is an important part of being a responsible citizen. It is not expected that you will know the details of all the conflicts in and around the world. But you should be familiar with the fact that there are conflicts, and with some of the reasons why. From time to time, people will want to know what you think, and sometimes your views on an issue will matter.

An important part of being informed is vocabulary. You are likely to encounter terms that are unfamiliar to you during the course of your reading. The sociological terms or terms specific to particular problems are defined in the text as they are introduced, and given in the glossary in the back for you to refer to as needed.

An important part of being informed is also insightful understanding. The Analysis Worksheet in the Appendix will assist your analytical thinking. It doubles as an outline of the first four chapters. Refer to the Analysis section after the first advocate group solution in each chapter for my observations.


Thanks go to many. First of all to my friends and colleagues who heard me say for years that I am writing a book on social problems. It must have seemed like a myth at times. It takes time for a theory to develop from a kernel of an idea into something that is coherent and can be used in social analysis. This has not been a solitary project. I have discussed the contents with numerous others—sociologists, nonsociologists, and of course with my students. Each provided helpful insights, critiques, and encouragement.

Students in my social problems classes gave me important feedback. They were particularly helpful in highlighting what worked and what didn’t work. Three students need particular mention, Teressa Norris and Mark Elizondo, who assisted in early research, and James A. Jones, who assisted at a later stage.

Several of my friends and family members helped at different points along the way. Deanna Palla and Karla James read through early drafts and gave important comments. Susan Herrman very carefully edited much of the final draft. Candace Halliburton helped with advocate group descriptions and assisted writing the environment sections.

Thanks also go to the university for giving me the freedom to teach the class using my own theories and writing. And thanks to family members who patiently waited as I wrote.

Sara Towe Horsfall, Ph.D.


1. See Appendix Three for detailed similarities and contrasts.




       Section I





Everyone notices things in the world that need to be improved. But a social problem is more than a personal opinion about something. It has social components. For instance, those affected by a social problem will be a group (collectivity or category), not just one or two people. Also, a social problem is recognized as a problem by a group of people who feel strongly enough to take steps toward change.

Put another way, if people are suffering but no one recognizes it, there is no social problem. It becomes a social problem only when people agree that something is wrong and organize themselves to resolve it. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t suffering if no one recognizes it. But it does mean that their suffering hasn’t filtered into social consciousness, so no one is willing to stop it.

Even those who are suffering may not consider their situation to be a social problem. They may conclude that it is due to their own failing—sin, lack of ability, bad luck, and so on. They may not be aware anyone else is suffering as they are. Or they may be resigned to their fate, believing that the effort to change things is too great and that no one cares about them. But what is defined as a social problem changes over time. Things that are not recognized as social problems today may be considered problems in the future. Recognizing something as a problem is the first step in the social change process.

How can it be that something is not a social problem if no one recognizes it? Consider child abuse. There is evidence that large numbers of children were battered in the eighteenth century and earlier. Yet it was not until the twentieth century that child abuse became a public issue. In 1962 a medical journal published a report by a pediatric radiologist stating that multiple injuries at different stages of healing indicate abuse. Almost immediately professional organizations began to campaign, and twelve years later legislation outlawing child abuse was passed (Kadushin and Martin 1980; Pfohl 1977). Today child abuse is a public issue addressed by social agencies and law enforcement.

Sociologists believe that we create society. We organize ourselves, establish the rules and regulations necessary to make things work, and collectively identify goals. An early sociologist, Emile Durkheim, said that these social norms are as important as, or more important than, instinct. These consensual beliefs tell us what to do and guide our daily lives. Collective recognition and resolution of social problems is part of that creative social process.

To understand the process of defining and resolving issues, we need to know the six ingredients of social problems. First, there are those who are suffering. This is the target group: a collection of individuals who are treated unfairly, don’t get their fair share of social and/or material resources, or face serious threats to their well-being. In short, their personal well-being (life chances, e.g., satisfaction or emotional happiness) or their social well-being (equality, representation, and other social situations) is threatened. People in the target group may not know each other, so it is more correct to call them a target category or collectivity. For simplicity’s sake, I use the term target group to mean collectivity, category, or group.

The second ingredient is the adverse social situation that affects the target group. It can be changed by human effort and probably has a human or social cause. A physical disaster—a tornado or a tsunami—is not in itself a social problem but can quickly develop into one. The tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 created many social problems. In the immediate aftermath, large numbers of people needed food, shelter, and medical assistance. Others suffered long-term needs, such as children without parents, unemployed persons, and persons unable to locate their relatives. These and other problems were addressed by local and international governments (Korf 2007; Tang 2007). Similarly, the 9.0 earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 affected a nuclear power plant. Residents in a nearby farming community were evacuated and, because of high levels of radioactivity, will not be able to return to live there for many years, if ever.

In contrast, several tornados blew through the Fort Worth, Texas, area in 2000 and 2001. There was substantial damage but surprisingly little loss of life (Letchford, Norville, and Bilello 2000). The only real social problem that developed was concern to create a better warning system in the future.

A preventable disaster is almost always a social problem. In 1984 in Bhopal, India, a Union Carbide pesticide factory leaked forty tons of methyl isocyanate gas into the air, killing an estimated 4,000 people, many of whom lived in makeshift houses next to the power plant.1 There had been little public recognition of the danger to these people before the disaster. Afterward, individuals, groups, and governments debated the risks of dangerous engineering defects and human error in such factories (Perrow 1984; Jasanoff 1994; Hatvalne 2010). The original event was only one part of the problem. There was also concern about the potential for future leaks and the suffering they would cause.

The third ingredient is the group of people who recognize a social problem: the advocate group. These individuals are motivated for different reasons, including self-interest, altruism, and idealism. If their own social or physical well-being is threatened, they are heavily invested in the solution. Or they may be moved by the suffering of others. Or they may believe that something about the situation is wrong or sinful and needs to be changed because it offends their belief system. Whatever the reason, they decide that the target group’s situation should be changed. They organize themselves to bring the issue into the public arena for discussion and action. They become claims makers (more about that later).

The fourth ingredient of a social problem is the ameliorating action—the proposed change—and the fifth ingredient is the action group—the group that puts the proposed change into effect.2 After the Fort Worth tornado in 2000, neighborhood groups (advocate groups) complained that the warning sirens were not sufficient. The complaints were persistent enough and numerous enough that the city governments (action groups) in the surrounding communities took action. The sirens were tested and upgraded, and in some cases new ones were installed (ameliorating action).

A sixth ingredient is a will to act to solve the social problem. Social problems often arise because people find it easier not to act. There is usually a cost attached to the action—if not a monetary cost, then a cost in personal effort or sacrifice of personal interest. To bring change, people must be willing to bear the cost. Replacing the warning sirens was relatively inexpensive, and the will to act was sufficient. Within a few weeks they were replaced or repaired. But in the case of the fertilizer factory in Bhopal, India, there was less will to act. One question that arose was, Who is responsible? When no group or agency is willing to take responsibility or has the necessary resources, the will to act falls to the government.

In sum, then, the six ingredients of a social problem are (1) an advocate group that identifies the problem, (2) an adverse social situation, (3) a victim or target group or target category, (4) an ameliorating action, (5) an action group (organization or institution), and (6) the will to act. Subsequently we can define a social problem as a situation judged by an advocate group to be adversely affecting the personal or social well-being of a target group (or collectivity) to the extent that it needs to be redressed by means of an ameliorating action to be taken by an action group/organization or institution. An action group will take such action once there is sufficient will to act.


Looking to the cause, it is easy to blame social problems on people who are irresponsible, selfish, immoral, or deviant in some way—the “nuts, sluts, and perverts” (Liazos 1972). This is the tendency to blame the powerless. Legal offenders are often held to blame. Although innocent people are sometimes convicted, offenders in the criminal justice system are generally assumed to be guilty. And crime is one of the most prominent and important social problems.3

But criminal activity is only one of many causes. Social problems arise because a society is developing or there is general ignorance of a particular situation. Some social problems arise because people pursue their own self-interest at the expense of others. Or there are competing interests. Serious social problems are associated with racism and group discrimination. There are unresolved problems whenever there is a long history of enmity and conflict between groups. This list of causes is not exhaustive, but it is diverse enough to be representative. We will examine each of these possible causes separately.


Chudacoff and Smith’s (2000) fascinating account of U.S. urban growth at the turn of the last century highlights problems caused by development. Fear of disease (unprotected water supplies were becoming contaminated by seepage from privies and graves) and fear of fire spurred city officials to protect public water supplies. Congestion and dangerous transportation issues in nineteenth-century cities led to complaints that drivers were intentionally reckless; thus traffic regulations and fines were devised for everyone’s safety and comfort. Creative solutions to these and other social problems led to the development of the modern urban infrastructure, and the early twentieth century saw “the highest standards of mass urban living in the world” (Chudacoff and Smith 2000, 136, 87, 50). Sometimes developmental problems persist, indicating the existence of factors that erode the social will, such as lack of resources, an inadequate infrastructure, or an insufficient political structure.

Technological advances also bring problems. They create new conditions and issues not addressed by existing regulations or conventions. The rapid and amorphous growth of computers and the Internet during the late twentieth century illustrates this point. Issues of censorship and control are still being discussed—nationally and worldwide.

Aftermath of a Natural Event

A very different kind of social problem comes after a natural event. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the United States during the twentieth century. Half a million people were evacuated, 1,600 people lost their lives, and more than 1,000 went missing (Kessler et al. 2006). From a social problems perspective, what is of interest is the way people organize themselves to respond to the possibility of disaster and the human needs arising from it. In the case of Katrina, the most publicized situation involved the low-income, primarily black residents who survived the hurricane but lacked food and shelter (Brodie et al. 2006). Many groups responded with assistance, including the local police, firemen, and Coast Guard, as well as federal agencies—FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Department of Homeland Security. A host of church groups, nonprofits such as the Red Cross, local organizations, and individuals in other cities also helped with shelter, basic necessities, and financial assistance during the subsequent evacuation.

The immediate outpouring of assistance was followed by several years of effort to rebuild the neighborhoods, the city, and the lives of those affected: home owners (Elliott and Pais 2006), those with increased mental health issues (Kessler et al. 2006), those who lost confidence in government officials, especially regarding issues surrounding waste disposal (Allen 2007). Other concerns focused on how the public was informed about environmental and public health threats, as well as preparedness at the local, state, and federal levels (Frickel and Vincent 2007).


The most prominent inequality is poverty, which affects close to 13 percent of the U.S. population. People who are poor suffer from a lack of basic necessities and from their relationships within the social structure (Myers-Lipton 2006). Minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty and often have reduced access to social resources because of discrimination.4


  • Praise for Social Problems by Sara Towe Horsfall

    “Horsfall shows that the social sciences not only can describe problems but also identify solutions. This text will really connect with today's pragmatic, hands-on, community-service oriented generation of students.”
    Robert Szafran, Stephen F. Austin State University

    “This book is packed with up-to-date information about relevant topics that are sure to lead to productive class discussion. The advocate group approach is refreshing, and students will appreciate its practical and down-to-earth aspects.”
    Sharon Hardesty, Eastern Kentucky University

On Sale
Mar 6, 2012
Page Count
384 pages

Sara Towe Horsfall

About the Author

Sara Towe Horsfall is associate professor of sociology at Texas Wesleyan University. She is coeditor of Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology and author of A Neighborhood Portrait. She has also worked as a foreign correspondent and international journalist, giving her unique insight into social problems and their solutions around the world.

Learn more about this author