What is a social problem and how do you define it?

You are walking down a street downtown one day and see an entire block, maybe longer, of homeless people asking for money. You wonder to yourself how something like this can even exist. Well, it’s a social problem (or social issue) that hasn’t been solved yet.

A social problem is a condition or societal behaviour that negatively affects people (i.e. poverty and homelessness) and that needs to be addressed and repaired. However, there are two requirements that need to be met before a condition is constituted as a social problem.

The first requirement, which is called the objective component, is that the condition must affect large amounts of people in a damaging way. The second requirement, which is called the subjective component, is that the condition needs to have a perception that it has to be addressed.

For example, if society has a situation where too many kids have cavities because they eat too much candy, but society doesn’t view this as a problem that needs to be addressed, then this is not a social problem, even though it is affecting large amounts of people negatively.

The second requirement is based on the social constructionist’s view. This perspective of society sees social problems as a process, not a condition. It centers on the idea that people socially construct social problems; social issues are created by people.

Now that you know the definition, here are some examples of social problems:
  • Poverty
  • Gun violence
  • Systemic racial discrimination
  • Economic disparities
  • Workplace sexual abuse

How do the different sociological perspectives view social problems?

(If you don’t remember what the sociological perspectives are, click here to read my post on it.)


Functionalists will view social problems as a societal function. This school of thought will see social issues as serving a purpose for society, and that it can lead to something positive or create a change that society needs.

For example, functionalist would view police brutality, a current social problem, as a step that will create positive change. This problem, for instance, can lead to the government creating policies that make it mandatory for all police officers to get more education about diversity and learn how to police in unfamiliar communities, thus making policing better.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists view all inequalities in society as a conflict between the powerful and the oppressed. With that in mind, they believe that social problems are caused by the powerful taking advantage of the weak or the rich exploiting the poor.

Let’s take poverty, for example. This is a social problem. Conflict theorists would view poverty as a phenomenon that exists because of the actions that were taken by the powerful, such as not paying their workers a living wage, or hiding their money in offshore accounts and not paying taxes, which affects the funding of social programs.

Symbolic Interaction

Symbolic interactionists would view social problems as issues that are created via people interacting and communicating with one another and spreading awareness of a problem.

For example, let’s use the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment. Although sexual harassment has always been an issue since the dawn of humankind, sexual harassment in Hollywood was never considered a social problem until the #MeToo movement spread and made people talk about this issue. Symbolic interactionists would believe that if the #MeToo movement didn’t spread like it did, this issue would never have taken off and become a social problem, despite men and women being sexually harassed on a regular basis.

Different schools of thought view social problems and how they are created differently. But all the perspectives believe that social issues do harm masses of people, despite one school’s belief that there’s a possibility that it can lead to positive change.

Which sociological perspective do you align with when it comes to social problems and why? Share your thoughts below.

P.S. Do you want to learn more about sociology? Check out my book,  SOCI 001: The Armchair Sociologist’s Guide to Sociology, on Amazon. It's a clear and concise guide with descriptive examples to help you better understand this social science. Click here to learn more about it.





  1. Being a student of sociology, i will comment regarding the above statement in this way that aligning oneself with just a single perspective on a social problem is actually missing the entire picture of a social problem. In my opinion, it is appropriate to elaborate a social problem while viewing it in all three perspectives.