Sociology of Social Problems
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In this sociology course, we will explore how social problems become part of our collective consciousness. By learning how sociologists investigate, analyze, categorize, and theorize about social problems, we will come to understand the mechanisms (i.e., the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’) that cause our attention to social problems to wax and wane over time. Take a moment and examine what a 17 year old girl, who is talking to an elder, has to say about the social problems in her society.

CLARISSE: "I'm antisocial, they say. I don't mix. It's so strange. I'm very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn't it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this." She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard.
"Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don't; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film teacher. That's not social to me at all. It's a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it's wine when it's not. They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can't do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lamppost, playing 'chicken' and 'knock hubcaps.' I guess I'm everything they say I am, all right. I haven't any friends. That's supposed to prove I'm abnormal. But everyone I know is either shouting or dancing around like wild or beating up one another. Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays?"
Mr.MONTAG: "You sound so very old."
CLARISSE: "Sometimes I'm ancient. I'm afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always use to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I'm afraid of them and they don't like me because I'm afraid. My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn't kill each other. But that was a long time ago when they had things different. They believed in responsibility, my uncle says. Do you know, I'm responsible. I was spanked when I needed it, years ago. And I do all the shopping and housecleaning by hand.["]
"But most of all," she said, "I like to watch people. Sometimes I ride the subways all day and look at them and listen to them. I just want to figure out who they are and what they want and where they're going. Sometimes I even go to the Fun Parks and ride in the jet cars when they race on the edge of town at midnight and the police don't care as long as they're insured. As long as everyone has ten thousand insurance everyone's happy. Sometimes I sneak around and listen in subways. Or I listen at soda fountains and do you know what?
Mr.MONTAG: "What?"
CLARISSE: "People don't talk about anything."
Mr.MONTAG: "Oh, they must!"
CLARISSE: "No, not anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same thing and nobody says anything different from anyone else. And most of the time in the caves they have the joke boxes on and the same jokes most of the time, or the musical wall lit and all the colored patterns running up and down, but it's only color and all abstract. And at the museums, have you ever been? All abstract. That's all there is now. My uncle says it was different once. A long time back sometimes picture said things or even showed people" (Bradbury 1991, pg. 29-31).

In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (first published in October 1953), the social structure is founded on impersonal social interaction, the possession of a book is a crime that will get your house burned down by the fire department, takings one's life is so common that there are EMT teams that only deal with suicide, and one's TV family (i.e. one's imagined community) is more important than one's real family or social peer group. For Clarisse, 'society' is a wash in social problems but her classmates see nothing. Since she yearns for discourse and relationships that are productive and not destructive, she is ostracized along with her social concerns. Like Bradbury, sociologists understand that individuals, through social action or inaction, create, perpetuate, and/or solve social problems. By understanding these mechanisms, my students will gain a “sociological imagination” when it comes to social problems and their solutions.

   See you in class or around campus,
   Dr. Jensen
   P.S. Please print and read the syllabus; we will discuss it in detail during the second day of class.