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Women and Education

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SOCIAL PROBLEMS

HAROLD

R.

K ERBO

JAMES WILLIAM COLEMAN

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

he study of social problems in the United States is
no doubt one o f the most difficult to summarize and
analyze within sociology. In contrast to family soci­
ology, criminology, social stratification, the sociology o f sport, and so on, the study o f social problems is always
shifting in terms o f what is included or excluded as the
focus of study. But there is also the matter of shifting per­ spectives and theories within all the core issues within the field o f social problems, such as racial discrimination,
crime and delinquency, and sexual deviance, to name only
a few o f what have been among the core issues in the study
of social problems in America.
In what follows, we will briefly consider how social
problems have been studied in early American history
and then consider how social problems have been
defined in sociology textbooks and look at the trends in
these textbooks over the years. In the second half o f this
chapter, we will examine more critically how the partic­
ular pattern o f American values have influenced our
definitions o f social problems, along with the impact
o f wealth and power on these definitions. With this
examination o f wealth and power, we will consider
the impact o f social movements on what comes to be
defined as social problems. A complete understanding
o f the impact o f social movements, however, also
requires brief consideration o f the causes o f social
movements. Finally, we will consider how solutions to
social problems a re also shaped by power, wealth, and
American value orientations.

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A BRIEF HISTORY O F
T HE STUDY OF SOCIAL
PROBLEMS IN T HE U NITED STATES
The first book in the United States with the title Social
Problems was mostly likely that b y Henry George, first
published in 1883 (George 1939). But sociologists such as
George Herbert Mead...