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The Sociological Imagination Of Individual Problems Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4962 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This assignment will explore C. Wright Mills concept of a ‘sociological imagination’ when looking at the problems of the individual, and explain how this theory might assist social workers. It will then look at a contemporary social problem encountered by social workers, in this case poverty. It will explore and discuss by reference how three sociological theories (Marxism, Feminism and Functionalists) offer useful insights into the socially constructed nature of poverty.

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C. Wright Mills (1916 – 62) had a vision of reforming society and popularising sociology with his theory of the sociological imagination, Slattery (1991). Leon-Guerrero (2005:2) explains “The sociological imagination links our personal lives and experiences with the social world”. It is the ability to look further than the individual’s personal issue, recognising and linking macro scale environmental factors (economic, political and other societal institutions). Mills (1959:12) argued that this theory “… is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances”. Mills is supported by Cunningham and Cunningham (2008) who argue, instead of focusing on the individuals’ inability to cope as the main problem; step back and look at the bigger picture. Cunningham and Cunningham (2008) support this by using an example of someone experiencing depression post redundancy. They argue that instead focusing on the individual’s failure to cope; the problem could exist due to social structures within the macro environment, such as, current economic or political conditions. Cree (2000) adds that the failure by social workers to make such links will result in oppressive practice. Additionally, Cunningham and Cunningham (2008:7) argue “learning to think sociologically is one of the most important skills a social worker can bring to their practice” as it “enables social workers to step back from taken for granted assumptions about social life and to critically unpack these assumptions” (2008:7). This is further supported by Leon-Guerrero (2005:14) “By continuing to develop a sociological imagination and recognising the larger social, cultural and structural forces, we can identify appropriate measures to address these social problems.”

In summary, the sociological imagination is able to assist social workers by allowing them to reject common sense explanations for the consequences of social actions. It enables practitioners to develop skills which help them to work in an anti-oppressive manner. Fundamentally, it helps distinguish between individuals’ private problems and wider social problems; one cannot be properly understood without the other.

The contemporary social problem to be discussed is poverty, as this an ongoing social issue that is common amongst service users. Consequently, a large amount of social work practice takes place around poverty. This is supported by Smale et al (2000:18) “Those who use, and are required to use, social work services continue overwhelmingly to be poor and disadvantaged.” Social workers have been criticised for their lack of knowledge surrounding poverty. Cunningham and Cunningham (2008:32) who argue “The relationship between poverty and social work is not new, yet it is one that remains understated and implicit in social work training courses and practice.” Becker (1997:114) claims “Social workers have little understanding of the complex processes that generate and maintain poverty; they have limited insight into how their political and welfare ideologies and attitudes to poverty affect their daily practice with poor people; they have failed to place poverty on the agenda for social work theorising, education, policy and practice.” Krumer-Nevo et al (2009:225) (16/12/09) takes this further, arguing “despite the profound commitment of social work towards people living in poverty, the social work profession has failed to develop practice based on awareness of poverty.”

Sociologists have favoured two definitions of poverty; these are Absolute and Relative poverty. Giddens (2006) suggests the concept of absolute poverty “is grounded in the idea of subsistence – the basic conditions that must be met in order to sustain a physically healthy existence. People who lack these fundamental requirements for human existence – such as sufficient food, shelter and clothing are said to live in poverty.” Relative poverty emphasises the disparities within society. Leon-Guerrero (2005:224) refers to this as a situation whereby “some people fail to achieve the average income and lifestyle enjoyed by the rest of society.”

Leon-Guerrero (2006) suggests that the construction of social problems arise from social conditions that lead to negative consequences for both the individual and the social world. Moulder (2000:2) claims “sociologists came to define social problems as problems that concern large numbers of people, have social-structural causes, and require social-structural solutions.” Poverty has many negative factors that affect individuals and society, this is supported by a report conducted on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions called ‘Living with Poverty’ (2009:10) (2310/09), which claims “the impact that poverty can have on people’s lives shows that the experience of poverty is almost always overwhelmingly negative, and can have psychological, physical, relational and practical effects on people’s lives.” These findings are supported by Beresford et al (1999).

For a social problem to become defined as an actual problem it must have both objective and subjective realities. The objective reality comes by acknowledging that a social condition does exist. Leon Guerrero (2006) states “A social condition does not have to be personally experienced by every individual in order to be considered a social problem. The objective reality of a social problem comes from acknowledging that a social condition does exist.” Poverty can be seen through media, charities campaigning to help the less privileged in Britain and even on the streets in the forms of homelessness and big issue sellers. A report by Hirsch (2008) (3/12/09) estimated that child poverty costs around £25 billion a year in losses, stating “Child poverty imposes huge costs on those affected but it is also costly to us all”. This suggests everyone is affected by poverty, as taxes are used to eliminate poverty. According to the report Poverty and Wealth across Britain 1968 to 2005 (1997:14) “Over the past 15 years, more households have become poor, but fewer are very poor.” Although the number of extremely poor has decreased there was still a systematic rise in poverty defined as ‘breadline poverty’. A report by Kempson (1996:1) (3/12/09) further identified that “One in four of the British population live in homes with less than half the average disposable income.” This report also identified issues that showed people living in poverty were suffering from a variety of shortcomings including poor health, underprivileged housing, and unemployment.

A subjective reality “addresses how a problem becomes defined as a problem”, Leon-Guerrero (2005:6). This is through powerful groups who look at tackling such problems, such as, government and media. This process is what is known as social construction. Giddens (2006:154) “Rather then assuming that social reality objectively exists, social constructivists work to document and analyse the processes through which social reality is constructed, such that the construction then serves to confirm its own status as social reality”.

Poverty has been termed a social problem in society by the UK government. The Department of Work and Pensions (2009) have clearly stated “The Government’s target is to halve child poverty by 2010 and be on the way to eradicating it by 2020.” This message is supported and reinforced through various forms of media and charities who work towards this goal. Leon-Guerrero (2005:6) in discussing social problems states “they become real only when they are subjectively defined or perceived as problematic.”

This assignment will now explore functionalism, Marxism and feminist theories in relation to poverty.

Functionalism was developed by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).Leon-Guerrero (2005:10) asserts “Functionalists use a macro perspective focusing on how society creates and maintains social order”. According to Durkheim, society can be viewed as an organic object; every aspect of society is co-dependant and contributes to society as a whole. Cunningham and Cunningham (2008:12) uses a biological analogy to explain functionalism “Just as biologists understand the ways in which different bodily organs such as the heart, the brain, the kidneys, the lungs and so on, perform a specific function to keep the human body alive, so with society, it’s different components work in harmony with one common end …” . The body is termed as whole organism with each function depending on the other to ensure healthy ‘functioning’. In social terms these organs can be used to describe social institutions and the relationship they have with different institutions. Slattery (1991:63) also uses a similar analogy to describe this theory: “It functions like any other natural organism as a system of independent parts – the economy, the family, the government and so on – held together by not a central nervous system but a central value system, a set of sociological guidelines called norms based on underlying moral consensus, or collective consciousness.”

Giddens (2006:21) states “Functionalism emphasises the importance of moral consensus, in maintaining order and stability in society.” This is achieved through shared values and beliefs, learned through socialisation. Social control is desirable and change tends to be seen as disruptive. Social problems are seen a result of deviance; this is due to lack of conformity, failing to conform to the norms of society. Acknowledging that poverty does exist within the social structure, functionalists believe that poverty is a beneficial function to society. Leon-Guerrero (2005:228) argues that “Functionalists observe that poverty is a product of our social structure” he further adds that poverty is seen as a “natural consequence of system stratification.” This refers to technological advances which have left behind a workforce of unskilled workers. This theory implies that inequality is both natural and essential, as it provides an incentive for people to work harder and better themselves. This is supported by Davis and Moore (1945) who argue, “social inequality is thus an unconsciously evolved device by which by which societies ensure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons” cited in Best (2005:9). Poverty is regarded on a macro scale in terms of the benefits it provides for society as a whole, rather than for the individuals in poverty. It would provide jobs for those who are tasked to alleviate such problems such as social workers. Theresa Funicello (1993) cited in Leon Guerrero (2005:230) observes “The poverty industry once again substituted its own interests for that of poor people”. Parsons (1953) backs this up, arguing “… that lack of equality of opportunity would clearly have an impact on an individual’s opportunity to make a contribution to the organisation or the wider social system” cited in Best (2005:27). H. J. Gans (1971), argued “that poverty exists because it is functional for society”, cited in Leon Gurrerro (2005:228). Gans (1971:2-4) (18/10/09) claimed “the existence of poverty ensures that society’s “dirty work” will be done,” and “poverty creates jobs for a number of occupations and professions that serve or “service” the poor, or protect the rest of society from them.” Furthermore “the poor can be identified and punished as alleged or real deviants in order to uphold the legitimacy of conventional norms.” Gans believes poverty will “be eliminated only when it becomes dysfunctional for the affluent or powerful, or when the powerless can obtain enough power to change society.”

In summary, Functionalists seem to justify the social status quo and the effects of poverty on individuals/society. The poor are seen as less able and deviant as they do not conform to society’s norms. Taking into consideration the current economical state, the recession has lead to unemployment, forcing more people into poverty; functionalists would agree that institutes were not working together, and that this was just a temporary problem. The role of a functionalist social worker would be to support deviant service users back into society’s norms.

“The ideas of Karl Marx (1818-93) contrast sharply with those of Comte and Durkheim, but like them he sought to explain the changes that were taking place in society during the time of Industrial Revolution,” Giddens (2006:14). Marxism is a conflict theory, and like the functionalists they too view society on a macro scale. However, Marxists argue that society operates in a permanent state of conflict at all levels as a consequence of the clash of interests between two classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat). Leon-Guerrero (2005) suggests that conflict theorists believe poverty exists due to class division in society; it helps those in power to maintain and expand their position leaving little to share with others. Marxists would argue that poverty is caused by capitalism, which concentrates wealth in the hands of the ruling class. According to Best (2005) the bourgeoisie were the owners of capital (rich) who employed the proletariat, who had only their labour to sell (poor). Marists believed that the bourgeoisie exploited and made profit from the proletariat by not paying them full value of their work. By accepting a low wage is creating a conflict of interest, as one social group is benefiting on the back of another social group. Giddens (2006:16) argues that the conflict occurs due to inequalities between the classes, “The relationship between classes is an exploitive one, since workers have little or no control over their labour and employers are able to generate profit by appropriating the product of workers’ labour.”

In an article ‘Poverty in the Big Issue’, Searing (2007) claims poverty is structurally constructed as a result a modern capitalist society. “Poverty and inequality seem to be an intrinsic part of modern capitalism.” She argues “This Labour government, by continuing the neoliberal, modernising agenda of the previous government, regards poverty and inequality as the inevitable price to be paid to maintain competitiveness in the global economy.” Searing (2007) also believes that social class plays a big part in society, arguing “Social work may endorse anti-oppressive ideas but class inequalities, which give rise to and perpetuate income inequalities, remain as wide as ever. Clearly, anti-oppressive practice is at its weakest when it comes to the issue of class.” Furthermore, she asserts that “The social class a child is born into is a major determinant of their life chances.” Searing (2007) argues that the UK government “chooses to minimise the part played by social and economic factors, outside the control of the individual, in causing poverty and implies that in most cases personal inadequacy is at the root of people’s failure to remain independent and self-supporting.”

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In summary, Marxists believe that the source of poverty lies within societal structures and the existence of poverty are beneficial to the ruling class. As long as there is poverty, capitalism will exist. Cunningham and Cunningham (2008:22) state as a Marxist social worker you would “help people to adjust to their difficulties, by providing services, or a listening ear; and in doing so, structural problems become individualised with attention shifted away from the real cause.” This is backed by Payne (2005: 231) who suggests that social workers “are seen agents of class control enhancing the oppression by capitalist societies of the working class. They simply enable the capitalist system to reproduce itself in the next generation by helping people to cope with the difficulties of the system.”

There are different views of feminism. Dealamont (2003:17) identifies “three feminist perspectives, liberal, Marxist and radical”, all of which were “developed in the early 1970s.” Chafetz (1988) cited in Dealamont (2003:18) argued that all feminist theories were defined so that “gender is a central focus” where “gender is systematically related to social contradictions, inequalities and pressure points”, additionally “it can be used to ‘challenge, counteract or change’ situations in which women are devalued or disadvantaged.” This is supported by Trevithick (2005).

Feminists would argue that “women are more likely to experience poverty than men” due to their disadvantageous position in society, Taylor (2002:179). Neubeck and Cazenave (2001) agree, arguing that the government is moving towards maintaining a patriarchal society where the male continues to dominate the welfare policy. Moore (1998:27) asserts “Majority of people in poverty are women” and the “economic and welfare systems conspire to keep them there.” They argue that the government “Need to recognise this and alter the system to give woman the chance to escape from poverty.” Furthermore, feminists argue that women earn less and have less sexual power in society. Glendinning and Miller (1995) agree with these arguments stating women are more likely to live in poverty because they are seen as “secondary workers” whose main role is “seen as domestic.” Additionally, “More women than men rely on benefits as their main source of income; lone parents are vulnerable to poverty, and a large majority are women. The majority of pensioners are also women” cited in Haralambos and Holborn (1995:145).

During the early 1970’s the media and government created an image of women where they were portrayed to be abusing the welfare system, aimed at mainly single mothers these women were believed to be having more children to avoid having to work and gain more financial benefits (Leon-Gurrero 2005). Feminists theories of poverty tend to highlight that women are overly represented in figures of poverty. This is because of their weaker position in society, their weaker economical position. Moore (1998:70) argues that the proportion of children and population living in poverty are likely to be women, as they “form the majority of the elderly, the disable, single parents and the low paid”. If you look at benefits figures it shows the vast majority of people claiming benefits in this country would be women, because they head single parent families and women tend to earn less. This is supported by Moore (1998:70) who states, “As single parents, women are unable to work.” So statistically in old days, women were more likely to encounter poverty. Moore (1998:71) states “Since the 1970’s there has been a rapid increase in the number of lone-parent families in the UK.” Additionally, “Today, more then one in every six families is headed by a lone mother. This is caused mainly by the growth in the divorce rate and by the increase in lone parenthood (that is women having and raising children on their own).” These arguments are supported by an article by the BBC News website (2008) ‘Women’s low pay behind poverty’, which argues “40% of households are now headed by single mothers, and this has concerning implications for tackling child poverty.” Moreover, “The TUC said that mothers were being trapped in part-time, low-paid jobs. More than 75% of part-time workers were female. The gender pay gap for full-time workers was 17.2%.” It further adds that “Women in Britain were more likely to be poor than others in Europe from the moment they conceived.” Haralambos and Holborn (1995:145) support this, arguing “household incomes are not distributed equally. Women tend to have smaller independent incomes than men and there is no guarantee that they will share fully the income of their husbands or partners.” Moore (1998:70) argues that the proportion of children and population living in poverty are likely to be women, as they “form the majority of the elderly, the disable, single parents and the low paid”.

Radical Feminists argue that women form the majority of the poor because they are “restricted by family” as “It is generally regarded as the woman’s role to take primary responsibility for the care of their family” Moore (1998:95). They see the nuclear family as a major contributor towards women’s oppression. Both Giddens (2006) and Haralambos and Holborn (1995:592) support this argument stating “the family is often seen by radical feminists as the key institution producing women’s oppression in modern societies.” Radical feminists also argue “political and economic power is in the hands of men. As a result of this, decisions about economic matters, as well as about issues of health and welfare, reflect the interests of men, and may well harm women. This situation of male power is known as patriarchy,” Moore (1998:23). This is supported by Leon-Guerrero (2005:230) who claims “Feminist scholars argue the welfare state is an arena of political struggle. The drive to maintain male dominance and the patriarchal family is assumed to be the principal force of shaping the formation, implementation, and outcomes of the U.S. welfare policy.” Radical Feminists believes that poverty is caused by gender, men forever superior and women relentlessly submissive. Regrettably with the perpetual fragmentation and modification society is experiencing this theory is old-fashioned. Relationships are not always, heterosexual and same sex relationships have been thriving.

However, Liberal feminists would agree with radical feminists that the role of the nuclear family is repressive towards woman, but they argue that patriarchy is not the cause of women’s oppression. This is supported by Giddens (2006:468) who claims liberal feminists “look for explanations of gender inequalities in social and cultural attitudes.” Additionally Cunningham (2008:97) also states that liberal feminists believe that “the roots of women’s oppression lie with the irrational prejudice, stereotyping and outdated attitudes and practices that lead to sex discrimination occurring in all spheres of life.” Furthermore, Giddens (2006:470) suggests liberal feminists “tend to focus their energies on establishing and protecting equal opportunities for women through legislation and other democratic means.” Liberal feminists work to bring about change through legislation, such as, equal pay act as opposed to radical feminists who try to defeat the system. Finally, Cunningham (2008:99) states that liberal feminists argue “Women lose out on the ability to develop their talents; business loses out because it fails to harness the potential and ability of 50% of the population, and men lose out because they are denied the opportunity to develop close ties with their children.”

This assignment has explored Mills theory of a sociological imagination and how it may assist social workers when considering the problem of an individual. Furthermore, it has looked at how three different sociological theories can offer useful insights into the socially constructed nature of poverty. It will now focus on the impact of these theories upon social work practice.

Sociologists have made a significant contribution towards the understanding of poverty, through their theories. Mills (1959:8) stated “Social work is fundamentally about values and about value-judgements. Sociological knowledge can provide us with a framework for anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive practice, by giving us the analytical tools with which to begin to explore the relationship between individuals and society” Mills theory of sociological imagination is one which does not have a bias and can be applied readily to any case. This theory enables social workers to see the bigger picture and protect service users against anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice. Cree (200:5) argues that this is the reason “social workers need a sociological imagination.” Moreover, Cree (200:209) argues that sociological theories do not provide all the answers to social problems but, “the questions themselves lead to the potential development of sensitive, anti-oppressive practice.”

Sociology theories inform social workers of differing views on the existence and continuation of poverty. The contribution of liberal feminists has raised positive awareness that changes in the social structure can bring about positive chance in the social structure. Giddens (2006:26) states “What sociology gives is as an awareness of cultural differences that allow us to see the social world from many perspectives.” Giddens (2006:27) asserts that “There is often a connection between studying sociology and the prompting of a social conscience.” This is supported by Cree (2000:7) who argues “sociology offers social work the opportunity to explore meanings beneath taken-for-granted assumptions about behaviour, action and social structure. It offers a knowledge and value base which is not rooted in individual pathology but instead seeks to understand individuals in the context of the broader structures that make up their lives (including social class, gender, age, race, and ethnicity) and the historical movement within which they are living.” Additionally, Domenelli (2002:4) asserts “Social workers have a responsibility to challenge this grotesque image of poor people and, besides bringing to public notice the strengths of those who battle to transcend social exclusion, to work to empower those who are engulfed by the weight of circumstances in which they are embedded.” Moreover, “Promoting social justice and human development in an unequal world provides the raison d’être of social work practice, and is a key way of discharging society’s contract in assisting vulnerable people in its midst. ” In order for practitioners to practice anti-oppressively, Cunningham and Cunningham (2008:48) suggest a “task-centred” approach. This “offers a very practical model which is potentially very empowering.” Dominelli (2002) agrees with this approach, arguing that social workers and service users should work together to achieve positive change. Additionally, Cunningham and Cunningham (2008:48) argue “Practice is based on the premise that the service user will work in partnership with the social worker and learn new methods that will equip them in the future. In this sense, workers could adopt a very practical way to address some aspects of poverty.” They further suggest that “this still doesn’t go far enough, as this method of practice is based upon an individual approach and doesn’t address the bigger picture. Possibly combining task-centred working with other more radical methods of working might address this.” Thompson (2006:26) asserts “In order to understand how inequalities and discrimination feature in the social circumstances of clients, and in the interactions between clients and the welfare state, it is helpful to analyse the situation in terms of three levels. These three levels (P,C and S) are closely interlinked.” This is further supported by Cree (2000:208) who confirms that “inequality and oppression exist at both individual and structural levels.” Therefore it’s important for social workers to understand this model as it provides grounds for challenging inequalities. Trevithick (2005:284) supports this, arguing this approach “emphasises the importance of social, economic and political solutions to ‘social problems’, thereby shifting the onus of blame from the individual without denying responsibility.”

In summary, by developing and using our sociological imagination and being aware of theoretical perspectives and approaches to practice, ensures the necessary steps to guard against anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice.



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