Social Problems

When a particular social phenomenon or condition disturbs the social order and hinders the smooth working of social institutions that come to be identified as a social problem. At the initial phase, such conditions are neglected since they do not have any serious adverse effects on the social system. But gradually, they get accumulated and begin to affect normal social life. Such a condition is recognized as a social problem. Once a social problem takes roots and develops beyond the bounds of tolerance, there arises resentment against it and there is a demand for remedy in the interest of social harmony. For example, the degradation of the soil in certain regions of Punjab and Haryana is being caused by the accepted methods of farming.

Social Problems in Indian Context

Social problems in India have changed with different historical phases. The major social problems in each of these phases reflect the then existing social norms and values. The major social problems in the early phase of the Indian civilization were increasing rigidity of social hierarchy, continuous conflicts between the Aryans and the Dasas, emphasis on the observance of rituals, the sacrifice of animals etc. With the advent of the Muslim rule in India, new social problems like sati, purdah, the introduction of caste system among the Muslims, etc. emerged. In the contemporary phase, India is facing several social problems. We have the problems of terrorism, violence, offences against women, children and minorities, unemployment, poverty, drug addiction, communalism, youth unrest, corruption, migration and displacement, environmental degradation, population explosion, prostitution, HIV/AIDS, etc. These problems are the result of various factors that include economic, political, legal, cultural as well as historical.

Definition of Social Problem

Social problems change with the passage of time. Let us highlight some of the eminent thinkers who have put forth in defining social problems but it is difficult to arrive at a commonly accepted definition.

  1. According to Fuller and Myers, a social problem is “a condition which is defined by a considerable number of persons as a deviation from some social norms which they cherish”.
  2. According to Merton and Nisbet define social problem as “a way of behaviour that is regarded by a substantial part of society as being in violation of one or more generally accepted or approved norms”.
  3. According to Carr, “a social problem exists whenever we become conscious of a difficulty, a gap between our preference and the reality”.
  4. According to Goddard, “Poverty is insufficient supply of those things which are requisite for an individual to maintain himself and those dependent upon him in his health and vigour”.

Nature of social problems

The social problem is connected to the majority of the members of society. According to Bernad, the repressive and tense condition consequent of social problems may be involving three types of elements: (i) Tension factors which challenge some values of society, (ii) Social values which are being challenged and (iii) intense reaction of individuals and groups to challenge.

The following characteristics exhibit the nature of social problems:

 (i)     Disintegrative: Social problems, directly or indirectly disintegrate the social system. Social problems cause dissatisfaction, suffering and misery. It seriously affects the values of the society. It is always disintegrating and disorganizing. It is pathological. It is harmful for society.

(ii)     Multiple Causes: The social problems have no single or simple cause. Each problem has a complex history and is usually not due to one but to many causes. War, poverty, unemployment or crimes do not offer a single or simple explanation of their occurrence. Sometimes one problem is so interwoven with other problems that it cannot be solved apart from them.

(iii)     Inter-Connected: Social problems are inter-connected due to which these become serious. For example, unemployment, poverty and crime are inter-connected.

(iv)     Many Remedies: Hence the solution of the complex social problem requires various multi-sided remedies.

(v)     Relative Concept: Social problem is a relative concept. What we call a social problem in our society may not be a problem in other societies. Similarly, a social problem today may not be a problem tomorrow.

(vi)     Functional Value: Social problem, though disintegrative, has functional value since its cure leads to social problem and social development.

Significance of social problem

(i)     Study of social problems is a part of the science of sociology: Sociology is a social science which claims to study the entire social phenomena. It is the only social science which throws light on the different facets of social life. Social problems constitute an inseparable part of society or social life. It is therefore mandatory for sociology to make a scientific study of social problems. Thus, sociology follows its own ways and means of studying social problems such as poverty, unemployment, over-population, crime, juvenile delinquency, family disorganization, corruption, illiteracy, communal riots, terrorism, extremism, violence against women, and so on.

(ii)     Study of social problems as the historical responsibility of sociology: Study of social problems is very much associated with the origin and emergence of sociology. In fact, the serious social problem such as poverty, unemployment, exploitation of labourers, women and children, child labour, slums, uncontrolled migration towards city, urban crowding, lack of basic amenities in cities, increasing crime rate etc., that cropped up due to the outbreak of Industrial Revolution, disturbed the minds of social thinkers such as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, and other. These thinkers later on strongly advocated the need to establish a separate science of society. Comte especially believed that such a science would be able to find solutions to many of the social problems of the day. Thus, historically also sociology has an obligation to study social problems for which purpose it was originally established.

(iii)     Social pathology as a specialized branch to study social problems: Sociology in its attempts to study social problems systematically, scientifically, and in their entirety established a new branch known as “Social Pathology.” It was Ginsberg who strongly recommended the need for establishing a separate branch of sociology and called it “Social Pathology”. According to Durkheim, the task of social pathology is to study the abnormal or pathological conditions of society. Durkheim who founded two other branches of sociology namely: “sociology of crime” and “sociology of morals”, expressed the view that the incidences of suicide are nothing but the social consequences of the pathological conditions of society.

(iv)     Study of problems is absolutely necessary for finding solutions: A pathological society is like an individual with ill health. No doctor will administer treatment without examining the disease of the patient. This is equally true to society. Unless the social problems are properly studied, their causes are traced out, their nature is known, it is not possible to deal effectively with them and to find befitting solutions to them. Thus, study of social problems assumes importance in sociology. Sociologists also consider it as their social responsibility to study these problems and recommend appropriate solutions for them.

(v)     The very existence of social problems indicates the internal deficiency of the society on the one hand, and the failure of its social policies, on the other: Thus, if a society is suffering from various social problems, on that basis it can be said that it has some serious internal deficiencies which need immediate correction or repair. In the Indian context, the nation has been suffering from a series of problems such as over population, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, violence against women, corruption etc., This state of affairs reflect that many of the socio-economic plans, programmes, and policies of India have failed to bring about the expected results. It also alerts the administration to find out the mistakes and to take proper action to save the Indian society from a social collapse.

(vi)     Social problems indicate that cultural values are changing and getting violated or eroded: Cultural values normally decide or interpret what is good and what is bad, what is desirable and what is undesirable, what is sublime and what is ugly and so on. It is a sociological fact of general observation that whenever cultural values are continuously violated or eroded, social problems of some kind or the other, will crop up. This is true in the case of Indian society also.

(vii)     Social problems demand quick relief, if progress and development are to be achieved: Desire for progress is found in all societies. If this desire is to be materialized, the problems that are haunting the society are to be tackled efficiently and immediately. Progress and development of India become meaningful only when poverty, unemployment, overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy and other problems are contained and all the people are provided with the basic necessities of life. Sociological studies have been of great help to those planners and administrators who are generally interested in the progress and prosperity of India.

Causes of social problems

Social problems create disharmony and maladjustment but still the problems exist. What are the main causes, which have been posed by our sociologists. So far the problem has found no solution and every attempt made in this regard has failed. The main reason for this is that the sociologists cannot pinpoint a single cause responsible for creating such a problem. Let highlight some of the main causes of social problems in India-

(i)     Social change leads to social problems: All social changes do not cause problems. Those social changes which are ordinary in nature and do not cause any problems of adjustments for the people to carry on with their day-to-day activities rarely trigger social problems. But when problems of adjustment are created by social change, social problems may creep in.

For examples, attempts by the government to introduce educational change through a new educational policy which is basically defective, may lead to problems such as student unrest and educated unemployment. A sudden military revolt may push a nation towards political instability and social insecurity.

(ii)     Cultural lag causing social problems: W. F. Ogburn who introduced the concept of ‘cultural lag’ states that changes are quick to take place in the material culture. These, in turn, stimulate changes in the non-material culture. But the non-material culture may be slow to respond giving rise to a gap or a lag between the material and non-material cultures. This lag is called the ‘cultural lag’. This lag or cultural lag may lead to problems of adjustment and also to social problems.

For example, the process of deforestation is taking place faster to cater to the needs of the growing paper industry, house construction,, making furniture, etc. (material culture). But the art of conservation of forest (non-material culture) does not keep pace with these industrial developments. The result is the problem of the environmental population.

(iii)     Natural disasters: Nature has been bountiful to man no doubt. But man often becomes a victim of its wrath. Floods, famines, cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami, outburst of contagious diseases, etc. represent the furious faces of nature. Almost every year, lakhs of people in the world become the victims of these extremes of nature. Man’s attempts to control nature and its forces have not been complete and can never become so. Somewhere at some time some people or the other will have to pay a great price in the form of facing the wrath of nature.

For example, Bhuj of Gujarat in 2000, and a terrific cyclone that proved to be disastrous in Orissa in 1999, the gigantic “Tsunami” waves of 26-12-2004 causing the death of more than 2.5 lakh people and damaging the property worth thousands of crores of rupees in India, Srilanka, Maldives, Indonesia, Africa. The flood havocs at Uttarakhand in 2013, and Jammu and Kashmir in 2014, etc. Natural calamities like these not only disturb the normal course of social life of the people but also create serious social problems.

(iv)     Political and social dangers: Nature is not the only source causing danger to man’s life; man himself creates conditions that often prove to be not only harmful but even dangerous. Like political revolution, revolts, communal riots, racial conflicts, terrorism, ethnic clashes, mass movements, military rebellion, arson and loots, bomb explosions, etc., disturb even the society which has a well-established organization.

For example, the Godra incident at Gujarat that triggered after the burning alive of 58 persons (Ram Sevakas) in a railway compartment in the year 2002.

(v)     Biological causes: Serious ups-and-downs in populations, population explosion, great imbalance in the composition of the population, the spread of diseases, lack of supply of nutritious food and such other biological factors disturb the social balance in the society.

(vi)     Psychological causes: Man’s mental tendencies, temperament, his own inherited qualities influence his behaviour and activities. Sometimes, these aspects of man may disturb him in making adjustments with the changing times. Mental qualities such as instincts, imitation, suggestibility, hatredness, prejudice, anger, jealousy, competitiveness, aggressiveness, hysterical nature, etc., do have their own positive and negative impact on human behaviour and activities. These activities ultimately decide how efficiently or inefficiently they face social challenges or cope with the disturbing social conditions.

(vii)     Technological inventions: Technology has its own limitations. It has brought both good and bad results for man. As Ogburn stated, technology widens the gap between the material and non-material parts of culture. Men are becoming more materialistic and less traditional. Men are devoted more to quantity than to quality, to measurement than to appreciation. Human beings by the use of machines have become less human, more passive and more mechanical. There has been a movement towards individualism and hedonism (pleasure – seekers) which has its own adverse effects on society.

For example, due to technological advancement cities have given encouragement to social problems such as slums, crimes, prostitution, environmental pollution, gambling, drug addiction, etc.

(viii)     Radical changes in social values: Social values play a vital role in maintaining social equilibrium, but these values themselves are subject to change. There is a close affinity between social values and social relationships. Hence, when social values change social relationships also get changed. Younger generation is in a better position to adjust itself with the changing values, whereas the older generation finds it difficult to do so. This situation often leads to a gap between the generations. This ‘generation gap’ gives rise to clashes and conflicts between the parents and children, students and teachers, and the old and the new.

(ix)     Laxity of social control: Social organization is possible because of the successful functioning of social control. But rigidity and failure on the part of the means of social control to adjust themselves to the changing times make them to become less effective. Thus, folkways, mores, customs, religion, law, values and such other means of social control have become weak. A reduction in the effectiveness of the means of social control naturally leads to an increase in the instances of crimes, violence, exploitation, terrorism, cheating, sex crimes, etc.

Characteristics of social problems

Weinberg has mentioned six main characteristics of social problems which may be briefly examined here.

 (i)     Social problems arise by being collectively defined as objectionable by many members of the community. Thus, adverse conditions not defined by the community as reprehensible are not considered as social problems.

(ii)     Social problems change when the concerned behavioural patterns are interpreted differently.

(iii)     Mass media like newspapers, television, radio, magazines, movies, play an important role in creating awareness about the scope and urgency of social problems.

(iv)     Social problems have to be viewed in the context of society’s values and institutions.

(v)     Social problems need to be analyzed in terms of the influences upon them by group processes and social relationships.

(vi)     Since social problems vary historically, contemporary social problems are the society’s concern, that is, the problem of refugee settlement in India in 1947-48 was different from the problem of settling refugees from Assam in 1968, or the Tamils from Sri Lanka in 1988-89, or the Indians from Kuwait and Iraq in September 1990.


With an introduction to the social problems and then attempts to define what is a social problem. Based on it, the characteristics of social problems have been deduced and social problems in the Indian context have been examined. Then an attempt has been made to classify social problems on the basis of causative and systemic factors. Social problems can be due to social, cultural, economic, political, legal, and ecological factors. Systemic factors leading to social problems can be due to social disorganization or due to the deviant behaviour of the individual. We have also learnt about the approaches to study social problems. Finally, some light has been thrown on the societal response to the social problems.


What Is a Social Problem? ~ Link
What Is a Social Problem? ~ Link
Social Problems ~ Link
Introduction to Social Problem ~ Link
ESO16-3 Social ProblemsThe Indian Context ~ Link
The Sociology of Social Problem? ~ Link

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