How do different values, beliefs and norms affect the definition of social problems?
How or whether one perceives a particular situation, pattern, or development as a social problem, like teenage pregnancy, is largely a matter of one’s beliefs and values and how any given society is conditioned to approach the subject in question. Societal norms are a somewhat objective measure of what is acceptable within that society. Beliefs and values, on the other hand, are more subjective interpretations based upon genetics, environment, education, and other factors that influence emotional development. What is considered a social problem in one environment may not be viewed the same way in another environment. Cultural differences, for example, between the American South and the North, or between the United States and Canada, can determine whether one country or region’s social problem is another country or region’s normal state of being.
Slavery and racial prejudice is a good example of a social problem defined in vastly different ways according to one’s region and to one’s belief system and values. The American South during the 19th Century can be discussed as an entity that exhibited a particular belief system that allowed for levels of racial discrimination that were viewed fundamentally differently among many in the North. That belief system was a product of a perception of economic necessity and a belief in the innate superiority of one ethnicity over another. Those views were militarily defeated in the Civil War, but the underlying beliefs remained very much intact for many generations to come.
The issue of drug use is similarly viewed differently in different cultures, with the United States adhering for many years to a largely punitive approach to drug abuse and addiction while other cultures, most notably, Scandinavian societies, prefer to focus on treating the addiction as a medical and psychological problem for which incarceration is inappropriate and expensive. The United States has undergone dramatic transformations recently in the area of homosexuality, both in terms of lifestyle choices and with regard to military service. Homosexuality has long been viewed by many as representing aberrant behavior – with many religious conservatives viewing it through the prism of Biblical prohibition – yet many societies have advanced beyond such notions to accept it as a normal part of human nature. In short, perceptions of what constitutes “social problems” varies widely depending upon belief systems and values.
Children brought up to believe that a certain activity or value is wrong and immoral, or that a particular religion or ethnicity is inferior to one’s own, are likely to hold to such notions into adulthood. Those beliefs and values are determinative of whether one views a certain issue as constituting a “problem.”