Problems, Social Action and Community

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Moving toward solutions - A teaching guide for Social Problems: Community, Policy and Social Action

Anna Leon-Guerrero, Ph.D.

As privileged people and as intellectuals, we have an obligation to trouble the comfortable and to comfort the troubled. Gary Marx, 1997

Social living is the courage to accept what we cannot change in order to do what can be done about the rest. Charles Lemert, 1997

From the first time I taught this course, I realized the disconnection between my students and the subject matter. While they were interested, sometimes passionate, about the topics, many never met a homeless person, never experienced discrimination, or never experienced violent crime. I used various instructional materials (novels, movies, speakers) to bring the outside world into the classroom, to put a face to a social problem.

Encouraged by our university’s center for public service, I experimented during our interim term adding a service learning requirement. Through lectures and readings, students could apply their sociological imagination to the study of social problems and through their service experience, students had meaningful contact and interaction with individuals and families experiencing social problems. Also invaluable was the opportunity for students to work along side case managers, program administrators, and community advocates committed to their work and to the populations they served. They were able to see positive role models of engagement and care in their own community.

I wrote this text to capture the experiences that I’ve shared with my students – offering a sociological perspective of social problems complemented with a message on the value of working toward real solutions. Three connections are offered throughout the text to achieve these goals. I offer the following teaching tips to help make these connections in your course.

Connection I: Sociology and the study of social problems

First Day of Class Activities

I am probably no different than any other sociologist in the classroom, taking delight in deconstructing individual-deficiency psychology focused perspectives, offering sociology and the sociological imagination as the better means to understanding our social problems. The tone for the class is set from the first day.

• What do you think you know about social problems? I ask students to list a set of issues or events that they believe are social problems and to provide an explanation for the top three on their list. Their lists serve as the basis for a discussion on the sociological imagination (and can be saved for future reference throughout the course).

• Guidelines for class discussion (We are all responsible for our classroom community). Student participation in small groups or during classroom discussion is guided by basic principles of mutual respect, listening, honesty.[1]

• What is sociology? In addition to C. Wright Mills and the theoretical perspectives we’ll be using throughout the semester, I include material on sociology is a science and the importance of empirical evidence for knowledge construction. I base this portion of my lecture on Joel Charon’s “Should We Generalize About People?”, distinguishing the scientific method from stereotyping (often based on prejudicial “evidence”). Following this presentation, I add one more element to our class discussion: each of us is accountable for what we say in class and we should be prepared to ask others and be asked ourselves, “What is your evidence?”

• If you aren’t troubled, you aren’t learning. I tell my students that they should expect to be “troubled” throughout the course. The course title is not deceiving; this is a class about problems. Students are encouraged to examine the moments in class, after finishing a chapter or ending their day at their community site to examine what makes them angry, confused, passionate or uncomfortable. A student journal is required during service learning semesters, providing students with an additional opportunity for thoughtful reflection. [Opportunities for reflection are also provided throughout the text in the “What does it mean to me?” features. Students are asked to reflect and apply chapter material to their life experience.]

Sociological Theory

Each chapter includes a discussion of how four sociological perspectives – functionalism, conflict, feminist and interactionist – account for the presence and persistence of social problems. A summary table of all perspectives is presented beginning with Chapter 7.

Addressing social inequality

Our social class, race/ethnicity, gender, age and sexual orientation profoundly influences the way we define ourselves and how society defines us. The text is organized to first acknowledge the bases of social inequality and how these bases affect our experience of social problems.

I ask students to complete their own diversity wheel (included in the introduction to Part II). The “What does it mean to me?” box provides discussion questions for this exercise. I offer my own primary and secondary characteristics in the text; each instructor should do the same with his/her class. The intersectionality of these characteristics should also be discussed. The second visual essay in the text, “Invisible Dividing Lines”, provides an excellent example of the “otherness” that we take for granted. While highlighting the successes, the photos also identify the challenges that remain.

Thinking global

Returning adopters of this text will find an expanded focus on the global experience of social problems. [The community focus of this book (and its author) is in tact, providing students with the resources and tools to explore the community just outside their campus boundaries.]

Comparative analyses between the U.S. and a selected country (or countries) could be incorporated throughout the semester. Students could be assigned specific countries (or a single problem in multiple countries) as an in-class presentation or a written project. The instructor should provide a template for the assignment: including the incidence or prevalence rates of a specific social problem (as well as selected demographic information about the country) and identifying the human impact of the problem as well as the country’s policy response.

Connection II: Social Problems and Their Solutions

• How we define a social problem has consequences on how we (choose to) respond. In Chapter 1, Schneider and Ingram’s (1993) research is highlighted, demonstrating how the social construction of target populations (those experiencing social problems) influences the distribution of policy benefits or policy burdens. Schroedel and Jordan (1998) confirmed their model in an analysis of AIDS/HIV funding. Schneider and Ingram’s model can also be used to examine policies related to immigration, poverty, drug abuse and education. This exercise could be designed as paper or research assignment.

• Several exercises are posted on the Student Study Site () facilitating student engagement with leaders (“Interviewing Community or Civic Leaders”), with communities (“A Community Analysis”), or with agents of social change (“Studying a Social Movement Organization”).

• The impact of specific U.S. policies may be examined by students as a group project or as an individual paper assignment. As a starting point, the text includes an overview of Affirmative Action employment and education policies (Chapter 3), Title IX (Chapter 4), No child left behind (Chapter 8), welfare reform (Chapter 2) and Medicare reform (Chapter 6).

• In addition to covering specific U.S. policies, each chapter ends with a discussion on the impact of community and individual action to resolve or mitigate social problems. National, state and local resources are identified in the end of chapter exercises.

• Your course could be linked with other courses on campus, e.g. a social policy course offered by faculty in the Political Science or Social Work department. If taught during the same time, instructors could facilitate a discussion on a particular policy, offering a sociological analysis, along with analysis from the other discipline’s perspective.

Connection III: The individual as part of the solution

▪ A collection of service learning materials (contracts, assignments) are also included on the text’s study site (). Particularly useful is Tim Knapp’s (2001) guidelines for student journals, asking students to write at three different levels about their service learning experience: describing, reflecting and relating (to course materials).

▪ Students can discuss the closing quote from Charles Lemert (1997):

Sociology. . .is different for all because each [must] find a way

to live in a world that threatens even while it provides. Grace is

never cheap. In the end, what remains is that we all have a stake

in the world. Like it or not, life is always life together. Social

living is the courage to accept what we cannot change in order to

do what can be done about the rest.

I ask students to consider what social problems cannot be solved. Their

answers vary, from students saying that poverty or terrorism will always

be a part of our lives to students agreeing that everything is subject to change. Applying material from Chapter 17 Social Problems and their

Solutions, we discuss different models of social change and movements.

▪ In Chapter 17, students are invited to write their own “Voices in the Community” feature to share their own story of community action.

▪ Students may find inspiration from the activists featured in the “Voices in the Community” vignettes. Course reading assignments can include texts written by some of the featured activists; such as:

Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. 2007. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time. (Chapter 16 War and Terrorism)

Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon. 2007. Plenty: One Man, One Woman,

and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. (Chapter 15 Environment.)

Wendy Kopp. 2003. One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of

Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way. (Chapter 8


Chad Pegracke and Jeff Barrow. 2007. From the Bottom Up: One Man’s

Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers. (Chapter 15 Environment)


[1] For more information, refer to “Creating Inclusive College Classrooms,” by Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia () and “Guidelines for Discussion of Racial Conflict and the Language of Hate, Bias and Discrimination” (). Both documents are available at the University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. Lynn Weber Cannon's ground rules for discussion is often used ("Fostering Positive Class, Race, and Gender Dynamics in the Classroom," Women's Studies Quarterly, 1990, 1&2, 130-132).


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