Joel Best, the author of Social Problems, discusses how taking a social constructionist approach to the social problems course keeps it timely—even during a pandemic.
Norton Sociology: We’re having this conversation as the fall semester is beginning. It’s been a crazy year, not just with many college classes being forced online, but with a pandemic, an economic slowdown, and widespread protests. How does a social problems course help students think through these big issues?
Joel Best: I think it all depends on how the course is taught. Traditional social problems textbooks and the courses built around them offer what I think of as a forced march through a series of topics—crime, racism, aging, and so on. That approach isn’t particularly nimble; in any given semester, some topics may seem much more relevant than others. Discussions about racism may be very much in today’s news, but most of the topics covered in the crime and aging chapters won’t seem all that timely. I don’t know if any of the traditional textbooks has a chapter on pandemics.
In contrast, I teach my social problems course using a constructionist approach. That is, I try to depict the process by which social problems emerge and evolve. In my course, as well as in my book Social Problems, I seek to give students a set of tools that they can use to analyze any and all social problems, including those new issues that textbook authors could not foresee. This is an approach that is always timely. If we suddenly find ourselves facing a pandemic, if unemployment suddenly booms, if there is a sudden increase in protests about police violence, if people are debating whether schools should reopen—whatever topic suddenly seizes our attention, the constructionist framework can be used to understand what’s happening.
That being said, timeliness is still an important factor when I put together my course materials. I find that I am constantly altering my course (and consequently, the book) to take into account current trends and keep things up to date. In particular, for the fourth edition of the book I revised the chapters on public opinion and the media to take into account the growing importance of social media, the shift away from print to electronic media, and other changes in our social landscape. Moreover, I try to include lots of examples—in the chapters, in the boxes that summarize recent research findings, and in the longer case studies at the end of most chapters. These are intended to be as timely as a printed textbook can be, so I revise almost all of them for each new edition. These examples allow students to watch me applying the constructionist model to reasonably recent events. This makes it easier for readers to grasp how they might apply this approach to today’s news—and tomorrow’s.
Norton Sociology: So what might a constructionist social problems class address this semester? Next year?
Joel Best: Well, first, I think it needs to explain the constructionist concepts, to provide a framework for thinking about specific issues. Right now, we seem bombarded by social problems claims. You shouldn’t think of COVID-19 as a social problem—there are dozens, maybe hundreds of different social problems claims related to the pandemic. Similarly—and of course this is older news—racism isn’t one social problem; it manifests itself in myriad ways. (And notice the intersections between the pandemic, race, and let’s add class. Poor African-American and Hispanic people are more likely to get sick, and to die if they are sick. They are more likely to be unemployed, and to experience severe stresses caused by the pandemic and the policies designed to deal with it. And so on.) Each of these social problems—each specific claim—must compete for our attention at a time when there are countless other claims demanding to be heard. No class is going to be able to examine all of these claims. I think the best approach is to select examples and explore them, not just in order to understand the details of those social problems, but to teach students how they can apply the constructionist approach to the problems that interest them. The good news is that there can’t be many indifferent people; pretty much everybody should have at least one social problem on their mind, and they should see the usefulness of thinking about its construction. This should an exciting time to study social problems.
Norton Sociology: How can we examine COVID-19 from a social constructionist perspective?
Joel Best: My course, and also my book, is organized around a model of the social problems process with six stages: claimsmaking, media coverage, public reactions, policymaking, social problems work, and policy outcomes. COVID-19 is relevant to each of these topics, and I go into further detail in the supplement posted on Norton’s website, but one example of how we can examine the pandemic from a constructionist perspective is “claimsmaking.”
I have already suggested that it is possible to identify all manner of coronavirus claims. The roles of claimsmakers are also interesting. Activists have played a relatively small role—at least in the early months of the crisis. To be sure, existing social movement organizations claim that the epidemic reaffirms the importance of their cause (such as social justice), but no one has been able to assume ownership of the problem (probably because there are actually so many problems being constructed). Instead, COVID-19 has highlighted the roles of officials and experts in giving shape to the issues.
Want to learn more about Joel’s constructionist perspective on the COVID-19 outbreak? Click here to watch a video and download the supplement to his textbook.