– October 3, 2019

A term or concept that should ring alarm bells whenever it is used is that of the social challenge or problem. Today it is one of those labels that pops up everywhere and is unavoidable, unless you choose to live the life of a hermit. Everything, it seems, is a social problem, including many phenomena that were considered simply personal and individual problems only a few years ago, such as being overweight or drinking too much. 

We are constantly told that this or that feature of contemporary life is a challenge and requires action, because of its problematic nature. (Interestingly there are far fewer articles and opinion pieces pointing up phenomena that could be seen as welcome, such as the pronounced decline in crime since the early 1990s, and inviting everyone to give themselves a collective and congratulatory pat on the back.) All of this should alert you to yet another aspect of contemporary thinking that is both muddled and misguided.

In the first place the whole language of social problems and challenges is problematic and deserves radical deconstruction. Both parts of the expression are questionable in many cases. The term social is a notoriously slippery one and this use is another example of that. If we look at a large-scale or widespread social phenomenon and define it as a challenge or problem, the second question to ask is, “A challenge or problem for whom?” Using the word social here means that the answer is assumed to be “everyone/all of us.” This is dubious in itself but also can all too often actually mean “nobody.” As we shall see this leads to both sloppy thinking and bad responses. 

Moreover, the second, apparently clear-cut term is also something we should interrogate. You might suppose that we all know what a problem is and that this is a simple term without deeper implications, but that is not so. In common usage a problem is a situation or condition that is uncomfortable, dangerous, or unpleasant but which can be addressed. In other words, to think of something as a problem implies that there is a solution, if only we could find it, some course of action that will remove the situation or condition. 

However, in both personal life and wider collective human experience, not all unpleasant situations are problems. Some are rather predicaments. The point about a predicament is that there is no solution; there is nothing you can do that will make it go away or resolve it. That doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do, but whatever it is you can do won’t solve the situation, that is, turn it into something better or remove it. For example at a personal level, being ill or experiencing bad health is a problem but having a terminal diagnosis is a predicament.

Both of these points apply to thinking about social phenomena that are described or thought of using the concepts of social and problem. Something that should be more widely admitted is that sometimes social phenomena that many dislike or find objectionable or even tragic are not problems for which there is a solution. They are rather predicaments, something inescapable and unavoidable, which cannot be solved or resolved in some final way. The question rather should be how can this be managed or coped with, which is a very different kind of question and will lead to different ways of thinking and different actions. It is also very dangerous to use the framing of “social challenge” in an unthinking way. 

An Ageing Population

Take for example the phenomenon of an ageing population. That populations are ageing is an undoubted fact. This is the result of a higher proportion of the population living to an advanced age (not of people living longer) combined with a decline in the birth rate. The outcome is a population distribution in which a much larger proportion of the total population is over some age line such as 50 or 60. 

Given this fact, how should we view it? The almost-universal response is to see it as a problem or challenge and in addition a social challenge or problem. This is argued for a number of reasons, such as that an ageing population means less economic activity and growth because of older people’s reduced propensity to consume, or that it means fiscal and other challenges for government because of fewer people of working age to support those no longer working, or perhaps that cultural and economic life will become less innovative due to older people being more conservative and set in their ways. 

There are several reasons though why we might welcome this phenomenon (quite apart from its being the result of things such as increased life expectancy that most welcome). Maybe an older society will be less frantic, wiser, more cautious, and less impulsive. However, the general view is that it is indeed a social challenge or problem, possibly a severe one.

Notice what this does. Framing the phenomenon as a problem implies that there is a solution, that there is something that can and should be done that will get rid of not so much the phenomenon itself but its bad secondary effects. Even granting that it is something more negative than positive, it does not follow that it is a problem in that sense. It may well be a predicament — as indeed growing older at the personal level is. 

If you think of it as a predicament rather than as a problem, then you will not search for solutions but rather for ways of managing it and making the best of it. This is probably more productive because thinking this way is more likely to lead to actions and policies that actually do something and in that sense work. (The same is true at the personal level, of course.) It is the framing of the phenomenon as a social problem that is really problematic. That is because our thinking about the concept or category of the social has become corrupted and even using the term nowadays leads almost inevitably to a certain kind of approach, one that is misguided and also ineffective.

If you read essays about the challenge of an ageing population, or ones about other social problems such as obesity and diet, or suicide, or the misuse of prescription drugs, the term social is used in a sense that denies personal agency and responsibility. As said earlier, the underlying idea is that to define something as a social problem is to say that it is a problem or challenge for everybody in a political community, not just for the people directly affected by it. Because of unexamined ways of thinking, this then becomes the idea that the phenomenon (an ageing population, for example) is a problem for government or social policy. The question then becomes “What should the government do?” or “How can public policy and legislation or regulation solve this?” (This is true even when the term “we” is used because in practice the “we” in question is the government.) Even if this phenomenon is a problem in the sense of being something for which there is a solution, this is highly problematic.

Nonpolitical Solutions

In the first place why assume that a social problem is by definition something that can only be addressed through the political mechanism or primarily by that route? For that to hold, a second argument has to be made, that the political process or government is in a better position to address the problem and will do so more effectively than any alternative. Sometimes this argument is made, but more often it is simply assumed. 

In fact there are many examples of action by purely private agencies that have tackled and resolved things that anyone would describe as social challenges. One of the best examples is the Rockefeller Foundation’s campaign against hookworm infection in the American South between 1909 and 1914, which succeeded in effectively eradicating what until then had been an endemic disease (when the campaign started, 40 percent of Southerners suffered from the disease). 

There are many other examples of serious social problems or challenges under any definition being successfully addressed by private action, such as disaster relief following the great Chicago Fire (which makes a marked contrast to the failures of FEMA action after Hurricane Katrina). In the case of an ageing population, almost all of the published commentary thinks of it as being a problem or challenge for government and comes up with elaborate policy proposals to deal with things such as pensions and macroeconomic policy. These are important, but how about thinking about private action that might address things?

Thinking about things as social problems in this way also moves the focus away from the people directly affected. This denies them both responsibility and agency, making them the helpless victims of impersonal social forces. This is extremely damaging because in many cases it is the individuals concerned who are in the best position to actually do something, not least because they have the detailed local knowledge. 

If the focus is rather on the agency of individuals, then you will be led to consider how that agency might be helped and made more effective, rather than thinking of what can be done to and for people. In the case of an ageing population, what is very striking is how little has been said or thought about family relations and care of the elderly and about how to enable that at a local and personal level. The elderly themselves are too often dismissed as simply a collective problem or drain on resources, not as individual men and women with their own interests, choices, and goals and capacity for action. 

The response to a focus on the individual and its corollary, self-help, is that in many cases individuals are simply unable to act for various reasons and so the social challenge, whatever it is, cannot be dealt with by an individualized approach — there has to be collective action. 

Often this is true, but it does not follow that the collective action has to be through the political process or government. History provides countless examples of effective collective action to address social problems by nongovernmental actors who did not use simple politics. The biggest example is the labor movement. Trade unions, as voluntary associations of workers, acted to address a whole range of problems that disproportionately affected their members, such as access to health care, insecurity of employment, access to education and training, and affordable leisure and entertainment. 

Other kinds of voluntary collective self-help such as mutual aid friendly societies and fraternal orders were other forms of collective action by often very poor and systemically disadvantaged people (such as African Americans, who were disproportionately likely to be part of such organizations) and had a whole range of effective responses to large-scale social problems to their credit. There are also other kinds of non-state collective organizations such as religious denominations and congregations, charity and philanthropic bodies, and campaigning organizations of various kinds, such as the much-maligned Charity Organisation Society.

Moreover, at one level of analysis the distinction between individual and collective action is secondary. Individual actions can amount in aggregate to a collective response to a social problem, with nobody planning and coordinating them even on a voluntary and nongovernmental basis. In other words, if there is a social problem in the sense of there being a bad state of affairs that affects so many people that we can reasonably say that it is society as a whole that has a problem, it does not follow that political action is the only way out. 

Sometimes, so many people take action at a personal level that the problem is either mitigated or even goes away, with no collective action either voluntary or compelled. The solution in other words happens spontaneously. 

An example of this is the decline in crime alluded to earlier. There have been attempts to explain this as the result of deliberate public policy, such as higher levels of incarceration or policing policies such as zero tolerance. The problem is that when you compare different jurisdictions with different policies (as you can in the United States), it becomes apparent that the decline happened at the same rate regardless of what policy was followed. Alternatively, it is explained by structural factors such as demography, but that also doesn’t stack up. The explanation seems to be that many people on a purely individual basis did things that significantly changed the incentives facing potential criminals and made crime much less attractive. Public policy and things such as technological change may have helped but only at the margins. There are other examples of the spontaneous processes of human action in the aggregate removing social problems, such as the decline in cruelty to animals and children in the 19th century, but these are understudied.

Go and Do Something

Finally, thinking about social phenomena in the way that is presently popular, using the language of social problems as that term is commonly understood now, can lead to both a feeling of despair and a lot of misdirected effort and energy. It is easy to feel that nothing can be done (which is not true, even when we are dealing with a predicament rather than a problem) or to spend time and effort in lobbying and campaigning for political action. 

In most cases, that is not the way to go. Instead go and do something yourself, at a personal level and in your locality. If the thing that is troubling you is a widespread phenomenon that needs addressing in an organized way over a larger terrain, spend your time and effort in building and creating a social movement and organization, as labor activists and organizers did. That is the way that the great social reformers worked, and all of the evidence is that it is actually more effective.


Stephen Davies


Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

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