Sociology and Social Policy

Social problems and Sociological Problems

Social Problems

  • Worsley (1977) ‘a social problem is some piece of social behaviour that causes public friction and/or private misery + calls for collective action to solve it’ e.g. poverty, divorce and so on

Sociological Problems

  • Worsley: ‘any pattern of relationships that calls for explanation’ – any piece of behaviour that we want to make sense of
  • Society might regard this as a social problem e.g. someone committing crime; but can be something society doesn’t tend to regard as a problem e.g. why someone’s law abiding
  • ‘Normal’ behaviour is just as interesting to sociologists as behaviour viewed as a social problem = some show little to no interest in solving social problems
  • On the other hand, they’re interested in solving these problems e.g. they study poverty to find solutions

The influence of sociology on policy

  • Even when research is conducted, no guarantee policy makers will study findings or that solutions they propose will become social policies; there are many factors that effect sociological findings and them influencing policies:
  • ELECTRICAL POPULARITY – research findings could point to a policy that would be unpopular among voters
  • IDEOLIGCAL AND POLICY PREFERENCES OF GOVERNMENTS – researcher’s value-stance or perspective is similar to political ideology, may stand more chance of influencing it
  • INTEREST GROUPS – (pressure groups) seek to influence government policies in their own interests
  • GLOBALISATION – social policy isn’t restricted to states alone. International organisations e.g. EU can influence social policies of individual governments
  • CRITICAL SOCIOLOGY – those who are critical of state + powerful groups e.g. Marxists could be seen as too extreme, hostile, impractical so unlikely to be influential
  • COST – even if influential, organisations may not have funding to implement appropriate policies, or could have other spending priorities
  • FUNDING SOURCES – some sociologists may tone down their findings + policy recommendations to accommodate paymaster’s wishes. Similarly, policy makers could recruit sociologists who share assumptions + political values. Findings could then be used to justify policy maker’s original intentions.
  • Social scientist’s ideas sometimes become part of mainstream culture + influence the way social problems viewed
  • This can affect policies e.g. Bowlby (1965) maternal relationships crucial theory widely accepted which can affect climate of opinion in favour of policies that reflect these ideas e.g. policies on day care could have been influenced by this theory

The power to define the problem

  • Sociology only one element to effect social policy; policy result of political decision of the powerful
  • Often those in power decide what is and isn’t a problem and if anything should be done about it in the first place

Perspectives on Social Policy and Sociology 

Positivism and Functionalism

  • P’s take view of sociology being a science, discover cause and solutions to social problems
  • F’s see society as based on value consensus, free from fundamental conflicts
  • Like P’s, see state as serving interest of society, producing + implementing policies for the good of everyone – help society run more smoothly + efficiently
  • For both F + P’s, sociologists role is to provide state with objective, scientific info that state can use as basis for policies
  • F’s favour social policies that can be known as ‘piecemeal social engineering’ – cautious approach, tackles one issue at a time
  • But this approach criticised e.g. Marxists argue educational policies that aim to equalise children’s opportunities, of different classes, defeated by influence of poverty. So, underachievement simply aspects of wider structure of class inequality, basic structure must be changed to be able to solve specific issues

Social Democratic Perspective

  • They share this view, favours major redistribution of wealth + income
  • Townsend (1979) argue they should be involved in researching social problems + making policy recommendations to eradicate them e.g. T looked at poverty. Through findings, made recommendations for policies like higher benefit levels
  • Black Report (1980) on class inequalities in health made 37 far-reaching policy recommendations for removing deep-rooted inequalities


  • Marxists criticise this perspective. They agree social problems like class inequalities in health deep-rooted, reject the idea that far-reaching policies alone will solve the problem. Capitalism, in their eyes, mainly responsible for said inequalities + problem can’t be solved without eradicating it. Also argue, in any event, capitalist state unlikely to introduce costly public spending policies to benefit W-C
  • So, rational social policies, like that of Townsend’s, will fall on deaf ears
  • Postmodernists criticise attempts by sociologists to influence policies. It’s impossible to discover objective truth. All knowledge in findings uncertain + so findings can’t provide good basis for policy-making. Sociologist can only take role of ‘interpreters’, not role of ‘legislators’ (lawmakers) like modernist sociologists have tried to


  • See society as divided by fundamental conflict of interest in which ruling capitalist class exploit labour of W-C
  • They don’t see state + policies as benefitting all member of society
  • State represents ruling class + policies serve interests of capitalism
  • Policies provide ideological legitimation to mask capitalist exploitation
  • They maintain the labour force for further exploitation
  • They are a means of preventing revolution when class conflict intensifies + threatens stability of Capitalism
  • Marxists recognise policies, occasionally, provide real (limited) benefits to the W-C but such gains are constantly threatened with reversal by capitalism’s tendency to go into periodic crises of profitability, leading to cuts in state spending on welfare
  • So, research which reveals unpleasant truth about social problems capitalism creates won’t be used to formulate policies to solve said problems
  • In fact, said problems can’t be solved by capitalist state since capitalism is based on putting profits before human needs
  • Only solution to social problems = revolution
  • Sociologist’s main role should be to criticise capitalist social policy
  • Should reveal exploitation that underpins capitalism + the way ruling class use policies to mask this exploitation
  • Critics argue Marxist view on social policy + role of sociologists impractical + unrealistic
  • Social dem’s criticise them for rejecting idea research can help bring progressive policies within capitalist system


  • See society as based on conflict, but between genders, not class#
  • Society patriarchal, benefiting men at women’s expense
  • State perpetuates women’s subordination through social policy
  • E.g. family policies can assume ‘normal’ family is conventional nuclear with heterosexual married couple; so, state offers benefits to married couples, not cohabiting ones
  • Policies can create self-fulfilling prophecy, encouraging this family type, difficult to live in others
  • Fem’s research has impact on number of policy areas e.g. education
  • Most policies reflect liberal fem’s view that anti-discrimination reforms will bring about gender equality
  • On other hand, radical fem’s also influence policy; regard men as direct oppressors of women, especially in the family, so favour separatism. One policy that reflects this is refuges for women escaping domestic violence
  • So, yes, feminists do have an impact on social policy. But many reject this idea that reformist social policies can liberate women

The New Right

  • Believe the state should have minimal involvement in society, mostly opposed to using state provision of welfare to deal with social problems
  • State intervention in areas like family life robs people of their free will + undermines sense of responsibility = greater social problems e.g. crime + delinquency
  • Murray (1984) argues generous welfare benefits act as ‘perverse incentives’ that weaken family self-reliance; increase dependency culture + underclass lone mothers, undisciplined children + irresponsible fathers…M favours reduction in state spending on welfare!
  • Highly critical of many existing policies; not opposed to social policy completely, see role of sociologists as being to propose alternative policies – should aim to restore individual responsibility of welfare, not rely on state
  • Role of social policy = enable people to help themselves, rather than welfare state attempting, and failing, to do it them

Influence of New Right thinking

  • Ideological opposition to state having a major role in welfare, NR thinking attractive to Conservative party, but Labour policies have shown influence of NR views
  • Support strong ‘law and order’ policy + research by right realists like Wilson + Kelling has influenced introduction of zero tolerance policies
  • But, research by NR questionable; validity of data which M bases his claims of link between absent fathers + delinquency challenged

Quick-Check Questions

  1. A social problem is a situation or behaviour that society’s members regard as in need of help. A sociological problem can be any kind of society or behaviour that needs to be explained by sociologists.
  2. Three factors that affect social policy include costs, globalisation and pressure groups.
  3. Comte, Durkheim and Marx were the early sociologists that argued sociology should act as a guide for social policy.
  4. Three ways in which Marxists see social policies as helping to maintain capitalism include the maintenance of the labour force, by providing ideological legitimation and preventing revolution should class conflict increase.
  5. Social research may be affected by sources of funding as some studies need specific data types, which affects the methods available to the researcher. Also, paymasters may need particular areas to be studied or, in some cases, avoided.
  6. Three policies that feminist research may have influenced are; equal pay, sex discrimination and maternity leave.