What's Your Problem?: Making Sense of Social Problems and the Policy Process

What's Your Problem?: Making Sense of Social Problems and the Policy Process

by Stuart Connor

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This lively book provides an essential introduction to the critical analysis of social problems and the policy process. It argues that policy does not just have an impact of people’s lives, but that people can and should have an impact on policy.

Rather than assuming that social policies reflect an inevitable response to pre-existing givens, the author adopts a more proactive position to show how a ‘problem’ is fabricated and how a particular response to a ‘problem’ is legitimated. He goes on to demonstrate how the struggle over the meaning and desirable response to a range of social issues continues to take place not only in Parliament, but across broadcast and print media and the numerous internet channels.  The book provides students, practitioners and activists with a rationale for and means to read, write and perform policy analysis.

Drawing on the notion of policy literacy, readers will be introduced to a range of resources to enable them to further develop the ability to both read (comprehend), write (create, design, produce) and perform (influence and shape) policies. The book is illustrated throughout with examples from historical and contemporary representations of social problems and local, national and global policy making and practice. Each section will make reference to a toolkit that tutors, student and activists can access to help inform their practice.


Presented in an accessible format, the book  demonstrates that making sense of social issues and the policy process, also means making sense of some of the fundamental questions, values and assumptions of how is / should society be organised and our own role in the shaping of society. In this way the book not only provides practical and critical insights into the policy process, but is also an intellectually challenging and stimulating read.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781909330511
Publisher: Critical Publishing
Publication date: 09/02/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 798 KB

About the Author

Stuart Connor is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Birmingham. His teaching and research interests include critical approaches to the analysis of contemporary social policy and practice.  This work includes examining the role of governments, trade unions, NGOs, social movements and community practitioners in the fabrication of ‘social problems’ and attempts to legitimate and challenge particular policy responses.


Read an Excerpt

What's Your Problem?

Making Sense of Social Problems and the Policy Process

By Stuart Connor

Critical Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Stuart Connor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-909330-51-1


Making claims

The proper course of the sage is to ask three questions. First, what things are and how they are constituted. Second, how we are related to these things. Third, what ought to be our attitude towards them.

Pyrrho of Elis (c.360–c.270 BC)

In this chapter, the question of what is a social problem is addressed. Rather than being seen as a given condition or state, what is taken to be a social problem is best described as part of an ongoing process. This is a process where a range of policy actors, individuals, groups and institutions seek to establish (a) which conditions, events and behaviours should be considered problematic and (b) why and how these problems should be addressed. The means by which the fabrication of social problems can be understood is examined. The chapter begins by examining the grounds for making the claim that this is a 'real problem'. It then discusses the question of responsibility. That is, what causes the problem and who is responsible for solving it.


When a claim is made that something is a real problem, how does the speaker know this and how is the audience able to judge the truth of such a claim (Guba, 1990)? In other words, how do we know?

First, consider a situation where people are discussing their favourite film. Person A cites Vittorio De Sica's 1948 film The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette). Person B names Die Hard 5: A Good Day to Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis. As the relative merits of each film are expounded, it's an exemplar of Italian Neorealism, there is an incredible car chase scene, it may well result in a stand-off, ending with the line, it's just my opinion. In the absence of any established or agreed criteria by which to verify a claim, if a person thinks that their claim is true, then 'who are we' to doubt them? The logic of such a viewpoint reflects what can be described as an epistemic relativism, where the notion that claims can be assessed from a universal and objective standpoint is rejected (Luper, 2004). In discussions of personal tastes and preferences, we may not understand or share other people's preferences, but such differences are not problematic. But what happens when discussing the existence of social problems? Are opinions sufficient grounds for establishing levels of poverty, crime and health? Should cuts to social security be made because, in someone's opinion, recipients are abusing the system and are undeserving? Put another way, an individual's taste in films, or even their opinion as to the state of the world, does not in itself have any great bearing on other people. However, if those opinions are then considered to provide the basis for how those individuals act towards others or, in this context, the grounds for engaging in the problem policy process, then it may be necessary to identify a method and set of criteria by which claims can be justified and the circumstances identified in which policy actors would be willing to challenge and if necessary change their opinion. This is not a suggestion that people should be told what to think and not allowed to have an opinion, but to raise the expectancy that people should be able to account for and justify their position. In this regard, there is a problem with the relativist position, at least as expressed so far. Namely, how can a relativist position be considered true, when there is no way of knowing the truth? Secondly, even if it is accepted that relativism is 'valid', and what an individual takes to be true, is true, this would also include the belief that just because an individual thinks that something is true, does not make it true. But how can both these statements be true – while also holding on to the relativistic position? That is, if relativist statements are true, so objectivist accounts must also be true; this would appear to falsify the relativist claim (Pritchard, 2006).

So, it may be possible to establish that just because an individual thinks that something is a real problem, this does not make it a real problem. But this still leaves the problem of how an individual can establish whether something is a real problem or not. This is an enduring problem that can be described as the problem of criterion (Chisholm, 1989) – where, for the purposes of this book, in order to know that there is a real problem:

* I can only identify that I know this to be a problem, provided I already know what the criterion for knowing is;

* I can only know what the criterion for knowledge is, provided I am already able to identify instances of knowledge by which to derive the necessary criterion.

This appears to lead to a dead end. In an attempt to escape such a position, it is necessary to choose between assuming that it is possible to independently obtain the criteria for knowledge that then makes it possible to know something, or that instances of knowledge first have to be identified in order to determine the criteria. In a similar vein, there is the problem of infinite regress, that is, if every claim is reliant on the support of other beliefs and claims, then aren't those supporting claims also reliant on their support claims/beliefs, and so on and so on? Such logic may not only be annoying, but it also sits uncomfortably with everyday notions of knowing something. However, these questions do open up questions of what knowing means. So now the question has been asked as to how a claim can be justified, drawing on the work of Audi (2011), Baggini (2002), Foley (1998) and Fumerton (2006), it is time to consider some of the answers that have been given.


The most common response to such a question would be that we have a basis for the claims that we make. This is described as foundationalism and, as the name suggests, it is a view that holds that our claims to knowledge should have a secure foundation from which to build. There are competing notions as to what these foundations should consist of. An empiricist viewpoint is that it is our experiences that provide the foundations for our claims. Therefore, any claim that something is a real problem would be judged by how well it corresponds to the experience of the world. Rationalists represent a view that it is reason that provides the basis for making claims. The task here is to use reason in order to identify the Archimedean point, or first principles, if not self-evident truths, that can then provide the foundations for our claims. Despite the differences and historical and heated debates between those espousing the rational and empirical perspectives, what is of interest for our purposes is the shared foundationalism. The task, then, for those making claims is to demonstrate the bedrock of their claims (experiences or presuppositions) and for the audience to then adopt or reject these foundations. To many, foundationalism may sound like common sense. True, there may be ongoing discussions and differences as to what should provide the foundations for our claims, but for the foundationalist what is not in dispute is that claims require a basis.


Coherentism describes the approach that a claim can be justified because it fits together with other mutually supportive statements. Unlike foundationalism, the support does not come from a base. Rather the support comes from interdependence and interlocking of claims. So, for a coherentist, rather than look for the foundation of a claim, the emphasis will be placed on how a particular claim fits, relates or coheres with other claims that are held. For example, no one claim is justified on its own but only in relation to other mutually supportive claims. However, if a particular claim is not coherent with other statements that we claim to know, we should either reject that particular claim, or we need to revise the whole chain of claims as to what we know. A simple everyday example is if you know someone who you take to be a good and trustworthy friend, but then hear a rumour that they have been spreading rumours about you. These two pieces of information do not appear to fit, or at least it may not be possible to hold on to one claim while also holding the other. If you then learn that the rumour was started by someone you take to be an unreliable source, you may then dismiss the rumour, as this new information means that your claims can now cohere. That is, the rumour is false, as its origins are from an unreliable source and it is not what your good friend would do – though the possibility remains that your 'good' friend may well have made rather unflattering comments about you. It is worth noting that this notion of incoherence is not the same as the everyday use of the term, where it is taken to mean 'nonsensical'. Claims can be logical and understandable but still fail to cohere if they are considered incompatible with other claims that can be made. Coherentism can also be described as internalist, in the sense that claims about the world are judged by the extent to which they cohere with other beliefs held or claims made by a policy actor. However, this raises the question of what the relationship of these claims is to the 'external' world. Criticisms of coherentism may include that it is just a restatement of the problem of infinite regress, as at some point a hierarchy of claims needs to be made. Coherentism can also be criticised as it is possible for 'false' claims to satisfy the criterion of coherentism, though it is interesting to note how these false claims are identified.


Reliabilism is an approach that argues that a claim can be justified if it is the result of a process which has been shown to provide justifiable claims in the past. This process may be the use of logic, memory or systematic approaches to the collection and reflection on experience. What counts as successful may be the ability of the process to reliably predict, describe, identify or explain events. Of course, chance, in the form of a guess, may prove to be accurate on occasions, but over time it may not be considered a reliable process. Conversely, there is also the possibility that a previously reliable process might not be accurate on this occasion. This may lead us to consider the probability of a claim being justifiable, rather than an all-or-nothing commitment/justification of a claim. It does, however, raise a fundamental objection that in some respects takes us back to the problem of criterion. How do we identify a reliable process? Don't we need a reliable process in order to support the claim that this is a reliable process? Similarly, how are we to know that the process may prove unreliable in particular instances?


The tradition of Pragmatism, with a capital P, asserts that we can justify a claim because it 'works'. Considered a non-epistemic notion of justification, pragmatic approaches may be instrumental, in the emphasis that is placed on the ability of knowledge to enable us to act in the world, or they may be more coherent approaches that emphasise the identification of statements that fit with other statements that we may make. For example, the truth of a map may not be found in how well it corresponds with the world but in its capacity to help us get to our destination. In this regard, a claim is tested through 'trial and error' as the degree to which a claim enables successful practices and works with a wider system of statements is examined. In this respect, pragmatic approaches are relational, in the sense that, rather than seeking to identify the fixed point or rock for our beliefs, as seen in the foundational approach, the emphasis is placed on identifying the role of the statement in our actions in relation to the world. This suggests an overlap with coherentist approaches, where the evaluation of any claim regarding the scale of a particular problem and its causes may be based less on our experience of the issue, but more on the degree to which the claim fits within the system of beliefs or statements that we take to be true.


This discussion does not appear to take us any closer to being able to know whether something is a real problem or not. We are left in a position where we must accept that just because we think something is a problem, doesn't make it so, while not being able to say for certain how we can know something, never mind establish what it is that we know. So where now? Well, let us assume, and this is a big assumption, that there is a truth, but that we can never be certain that we have grasped this truth. However, and this is critical, the assertion that our attempts to pursue the truth may inevitably fall short does not itself mean that this pursuit should not continue and that we should therefore accept that just because we think something is true, it actually is – quite the opposite. It really just predisposes us to the view that we need (a) to be modest and sceptical about the truth of any claims made regarding a problem and subsequent policies and (b) to be clear about the reasons we may give for our claims to approximate the truth and claim that something is a real problem.

It is useful to draw a distinction between the arbitrary and conventional. Recognising that knowledge is constructed does not mean that anything goes. Rather, it points to the fact that how we decide will inevitably reflect the conventions that have been established for what counts as knowledge. In this regard, we can both respect the conventions for establishing knowledge, while at the same time be willing to challenge and revise these conventions as and when necessary. Furthermore, as highlighted in the introduction, what becomes established as a problem is not just the result of impeccable logic or the appeal to sound evidence, but also reflects social, political and economic interests and, as such, needs to be understood as a resource to be used and an outcome of power struggles. However, as is discussed in this section, this does not preclude us from valuing and using reason and evidence to challenge and then make our own claims.


For our purposes, we are not seeking to establish one approach over another as to how we can claim to know. Rather, the reason for this distinction is to highlight the potential ways in which claims for knowledge can be made. By identifying a speaker's justification for making a claim, we are in a better position to critique that position. That is, if the speaker draws on foundationalism, we can question whether the foundation that is assumed actually counts as the self-evident truth the speaker assumes it to be. Alternatively, we can question foundationalism as an approach to justifying knowledge claims and appeal to pragmatism, reliabilism or coherentism and plausible alternatives. This may appear to be a charter for pedantry and disputation, and to some extent this is true, but in the context of attempts to engage in the problem policy process, it is important to be able to identify the nature of the dispute, with the hope of finding not only points of difference but also points of commonality. For instance, you can have two speakers who have very different forms of argument, foundationalist and pragmatist, but who still share a position regarding the conclusions they have reached regarding the scale and nature of a problem. Conversely, very different conclusions regarding the scale of a problem may have their traces in the different systems that have been used for making a claim. Finally, it may be that the differences between speakers are irreconcilable. In this instance, it may be that we have to identify a way of co-existing, rather than seeking to 'batter' the opposition into submission through claims and counter-claims.

Having looked at how we can know, attention now turns to the different claims as to what is known. The attributions of responsibility in the claims made with regard to social problems will therefore be addressed next.


Assuming we are able to arrive at a means of claiming that something is a real problem, a further question to be asked is who is responsible for the problem? An initial distinction between levels of attribution can be identified – causal and treatment (Iyengar, 1996). Causal responsibility concerns the origin of a problem, while treatment (policy) responsibility focuses on who or what has the ability to alleviate the problem. Both types of attribution are especially relevant for understanding the problem policy process. In addition to the distinction between cause and treatment, there are also types of cause and treatment, namely natural, individual and social, political and economic relations. Drawing on the insights provided by Byrne (2005) and Taylor (2003), these dimensions of attribution can be organised as shown in Table 1.1. Discussions of each of the different types of attribution are provided below.


Excerpted from What's Your Problem? by Stuart Connor. Copyright © 2013 Stuart Connor. Excerpted by permission of Critical Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Section 1 - Reading policy

Chapter 1 - Making claims and using frames 

Chapter 2 - Equivalence and difference

Chapter 3 - Legitimate assumptions 

Section 2 - Writing policy

Chapter 4 - The role of the analyst

Chapter 5 - What do you think?

Chapter 6 - Making your case

Section 3 - Performaing Policy

Chapter 7 - Models of the Policy Process

Chapter 8 - Power and Influence

Chapter 9 - Making a difference


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