Understanding Social Problems: Issues in Social Policy

Edited by Margaret May, Robert Page and Edward Brundson.


£40 (hardback), £15.99 (paperback)

ISBN 0 6312202 9 (hardback)

0 63122030 5 (paperback)

This new essay collection makes a distinctive contribution to
the literature of British social policy. The two main introductory
essays set out the theoretical and historical dimensions of the
“social problems” approach to social policy issues, in that order.
However, Ifeel it would have been more logical and helpful to
readers if Robert Page had opened the batting with his historical

Page locates the modern genesis of the social problems approach
in the distinction that C Wright Mills drew between a “personal
trouble” that calls for an individual response and a “public issue”
that requires some form of collective response. For Mills, the
ability to make such distinctions was one of the hallmarks of “the
sociological imagination”.

Page goes on to describe the ways in which the dynamic processes
of empirical research and social reform changed our perceptions of
the personal and collective causes of phenomena such as poverty,
disease, homelessness, ignorance and crime. With the passage of
time, policy analysts came to attach more significance to the
structural than behavioural causes of these “problems”.

Page concludes with a brief review of the Labour Party’s new
deal policies which seek to tackle both kinds of causation in a
more balanced way.

John Clarke outlines and evaluates some of the main theoretical
approaches to the study of social problems. He explores how issues
come to be defined as social problems, by whom, for what purposes,
and with what consequences.

These themes of inquiry are taken up in different ways by the
other contributors. They cover a wide range of topics, including
lone parents, age and disability, poverty, income and wealth,
homelessness, health, community development, consumer issues, and
the role of the media in reporting social problems.

These two essays summarise the distinctiveness of the social
problems approach. Justice cannot otherwise be done to 20 essays in
a brief review but, taken together, they add up to an excellent

Robert Pinker is professor emeritus, social
administration, London School of Economics and Political

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