Soc 205

Social problems

Credits: 5

Course time(s): every other term (alternates with Soc 204), at 11:00 am; online version every winter term (and sometimes Summer)

General Education: SSC (Social Science and Culture)

Catalog description: The focus is on providing a sociological framework for students to broaden their understanding of social problems, their causes and consequences, and to explore some approaches to their resolution. The course stresses developing and refining critical thinking skills.

Prerequisites: None, but college level reading and writing ability is expected.


Most recent syllabusOn campus (Spring 2017); online (Winter 2017)

Recent texts used:

  • Ritzer, George. 2015. The McDonaldization of Society (8th Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  • Orwell, George. 1961. 1984. New York: Signet.
  • Steinbeck, John. 1939. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking Press.
  • Numerous other readings

Videos watched include Hot Coffee, Inside Job, The House I Live in, Why we Fight, Fast Food Women and Supersize Me

General topics covered include nature of social problems; how problems are ‘defined’ for public consumption; role of mass media in public understanding of social problems; global warming; population growth and resource consumption; rationalization/ McDonaldization; war, terrorism, social control

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this course, you should be equipped to:

  • think critically and sociologically about social problems;
  • distinguish between individualist and structural explanations of social problems;
  • critically evaluate some of the key social problems facing human societies
  • be a more critical consumer of media, especially as they relate to social problems and how they are framed for public consumption

What is a social problem? Well, first, it’s a problem-it has undesirable consequences. And it’s social-that means, it’s not the problem of an individual, it’s a problem that affects a large number of people. You may have had at some point a hard time finding work. But if 25 million other people are having a hard time, chances are your lack of success has little to do with your efforts or qualifications for employment-it has more to do with some broader, structural problem. The problem could be the local employment market. But the local employment market could be affected by other factors, such as the process of globalization and the infamous ‘outsourcing’ of jobs from the U.S. And while social problems imply many people are harmed in some way, in many cases other people or groups benefit from a social problem. Outsourcing may increase profits for multinational corporations, the board may vote a pay raise for the CEO, stockholders may get bigger dividends, and consumers might see lower prices because of the cheap labor costs.

In this course, we will focus on sociological thinking as a way to understand and analyze social problems. We’ll also talk about how social problems can be socially constructed. For instance, many people think that poverty is a problem of individual failure, people with flawed character. Others say that poverty is structural-not everyone is born with the same opportunities, that there are privileged groups and classes of people, and those who struggle just to reach the poverty line. Who decides what the ‘real’ problem is? How can we address social problems if as a society we can’t even agree on what they are? Do some groups benefit from situations which others see as serious social problems?

This class will emphasize depth over coverage and discuss only a handful of social problems in detail- each chosen for a specific reason–their catastrophic potential, competing ‘framings,’ commercial media as public’s source of information about social problems, issues surrounding war, consumption, and social control. It will focus on how to think about social problems, where they ‘come from,’ what information people use to define and debate them, how to think structurally, and how we might go about addressing problems.