Sociology Essay


There are two main approaches to the study of social Problems the Realist approach and constructionist approach.
Outline and contrast the main features of each perspective and asses there contribution to understanding social problems.


Title: Realist Approach and Constructionist Approach to Sociological Inquiry


There are two main theoretical approaches to the understanding of contemporary social problems, namely the constructionist approach and the realist approach. The constructionist approach is based on the view that the extent to which social problems are perceived as problematic as well as the kind of problems people understand them to be is entirely a function of social interactions. Social constructionists hold the view that social problems are not immediately obvious; rather they first need to be interpreted and then presented to society. The competence of the person interpreting these problems, therefore, plays a critical part in determining the extent to which they will be perceived as problematic.

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The realist approach, on the other hand, a completely different view of social problems is adopted. This approach is based on the view that entities (such as social problems) exist independently of the way human beings perceive them. In this approach, the reality of social problems causes the phenomena that human beings perceive with their senses. This paper the main features of constructionist and realist approaches in the way they define social problems. The features focus on strengths, weaknesses, and contribution to our understanding of contemporary social problems.

Similarities and differences between constructionist approach and realist approach

            In the constructionist approach, focus is on factors determining which issues come to be widely regarded as social problems and those that do not. These factors are in most cases inherent in the process of claims-making. They are also partly inherent in the responses or initiatives introduced by the authorities. For example, a researcher interested in the social constructionist approach might want to find out why a number of the ‘private’ issues that feminists identify as problematic (such as domestic violence) have gained recognition in many societies and are identified as social problems while others (for instance the domestic division of labor) are yet to be recognized as social problems.

            In the realist perspective, social problems are treated as though they already are given (Shilling, 2012). In other words, they are phenomena whose existence at any point in time we can all undoubtedly agree. However, in the constructionist perspective, insistence is on the need to take a step back from the realist view and instead focus on the person saying that this is a social problem (Clarke, 2010; Lister, 2010). In this regard, it is upon the person making the claim to explain what sort of a social problem he thinks it is.

According to Lister (2010), it is also possible to categorize social constructionism into ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ forms. Proponents of the strong forms reject the notion that an objective reality exists and that it constitutes a social problem. On the other hand, weak forms do not deny the existence of a ‘real world’ full of loss, pain, hunger, poverty, and so on; instead, their greatest concern is on how we have come to know about this world and construct it. This weaker form is the one that has had a far-reaching influence in social policy.

            In social constructionism, preoccupation is with the meanings that are attached to various social phenomena (Winslade, 2008). With regard to social policy, this preoccupation has manifested itself as some sort of ‘cultural turn’. According to this theory, a phenomenon is taken to exist as a social problem insofar as it has been ‘constructed’ or ‘defined’ as such (Lister, 2010). Nevertheless, this is not to say that universally troubling conditions, for example poverty, do not exist; the most important thing is the process through which people define and label such conditions as social problems (Carroll, 2008; Lister, 2010).

            According to Lister (2010), the process of defining and labeling a social phenomenon as a social problem starts with the identification of private troubles. The people affected by these private troubles constantly define them as social problems (Lister, 2010). This explains the fact that different social phenomena are defined as problems only in particular societies and for a particular point in time (Lister, 2010) .

            In the process of transforming private troubles into social problems, power, language, and discourse play a critical role (Lister, 2010).  Personal troubles often start by being a concern to individual, families and groups of people. However, not all of these problems end up emerging as ‘public issues’ (Brunsma, 2010). In such a situation, some sort of public intervention is deemed necessary. The implication made in this social construction is an active process in which phenomena are defined and redefined. In the end of this process, some become widely recognized as social problems while others remain as private troubles.

 Explaining the social problem of poverty through the lens of the constructionist approach

One of the social problems analyzed from the perspective of the constructionist approach is poverty. In many societies, poverty is recognized as a serious social problem. However, the way it is constructed tends to vary from one society to the other over time (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2005). According to Lister (2010), the construction of poverty is based on a binary distinction between the people who are ‘normal’ in the sense of not being poor and ‘deviant’ people in the sense that they are poor.

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In constructing poverty as a social problem, normative boundaries are constructed (Randall, 2007; Winslade, 2010). The normative aspect is evident in the fact that there is an ongoing debate regarding what should count as being poor (Ben-Yehuda, 2007). In other words, this debate is about what an individual has to lack to be considered poor (Ben-Yehuda, 2007).  On the basis of these normative distinctions, which are applied to groups of people, poverty is then ‘constructed’ or ‘produced’. In this process, some individuals within these groups are identified as ‘poor’ and others as ‘not being poor’. As far as the condition of poverty is concerned, constructionists do not deny that in practice, people will lack any means of subsistence; rather it they emphasize that it is only some people, in some places, and at some times, will be labeled or defined as being poor.

In this construction of poverty, a number of issues arise, among them the importance of how people define poverty (Ben-Yehuda, 2006). Another issue that arises is the wide historical and social variation in the definition, construction, and response to poverty (Ben-Yehuda, 2006). Moreover, once the label of poverty has been applied to certain individuals and social groups, this affects how they are treated as well as how they see themselves (Ben-Yehuda, 2006).

The main weakness of the constructionist approach is that it is possible to derive alternate constructions relating to the same phenomenon, for example poverty (Ben-Yehuda, 2006). An example of an alternative construction of poverty is the long radical tradition, which is deeply rooted in the analysis of inequality from a structural perspective. On this basis, the impression created is that no binary distinction exists between those who are poor and those who are not poor (Weinberg, 2009). Instead, there is a structure through which unequal distribution of resources between various classes or groups is perpetuated. The conflicting explanations offered by the binary and structural perspectives render the constructionist approach weak.

This weakness has driven the proponents of the constructionist approach to come up with ‘common-sense’ constructions of various social problems, with emphasis being on broad perspectives (Ben-Yehuda, 2010). For instance, poverty is constructed as a phenomenon that is natural and inevitable. In this regard, the dominant view is that poor people will always be around in very society. This is because it is inevitable for some people to achieve more success than others. Therefore, inequality is a necessity as an incentive for people to work hard and improve their lot in life.

The common-sense construction of poverty also emphasizes the idea that poverty is caused by behavior or characteristics of people who live in poverty themselves (Clarke, 2006). Some of these characteristics include lack of interest in work, lack of ability to work, lack of aspiration, and the inability to budget and be financially disciplined (Nichols, 2006). Moreover, in the constructionists’ view, poverty is attributable to political and economic causes, for instance unemployment rate, low minimum wage, and inadequacy of social security benefits (McCall, 2010).

Other than the conflict between binary and structural perspectives, the constructionist approach has stirred controversy on the concept of ‘underclass’. ‘Underclass’ is a label that constructionists attach to people who are in poverty. This concept is not about any specific lived social reality, but rather, a social construction in which an attempt is made to portray poor people in certain ways. In different times and in different places, different terms have been used to refer to the underclass. According to Lister (2010), some of the names used include ‘residuum’, ‘stagnant population’, ‘the dangerous class’, and ‘lumpen-proletariat’. For instance, in the US, the term ‘underclass’ was popularized during the early 1980s while in the UK, it was popular during the 1990s.

The reason for controversy and contention regarding the use of the term ‘underclass’ is that it appears to be nothing more than a convenient ideological tool used to justify efforts to abandon any commitment to the disadvantaged and the poor. Sometimes, there is a view that this ideological tool is used to cultivate popular support for very coercive measures in society (Lister, 2010).

Explaining the social problem of poverty through the lens of the realist approach

The realist approach assumes that there is an ‘external, objective world that exists outside the categories that human beings have put in place through perception and interpretation. During most of the 20th century, this view was ignored or even disparaged by constructionists (Carpenter, 2009). However, these views have emerged as highly influential in the contemporary philosophical discussion about social problems. This is evident in the dominant position that realism continues to hold in social sciences. However, unlike in the constructionist approach, the realist approach contains many debates that remain unresolved (Meyer, 2009). In this case, the disagreements exist among the realist philosophers themselves (Meyer, 2009). This creates a scenario where the divisions among the realists make them look like a minority. 

In explaining the social problem of poverty, the impression created by the proponents of this approach claim to provide a better understanding of emancipation (Weinberg, 2009). The realists argue that we are socially and materially dependent beings. They also argue that it is not possible to conceive emancipation from the perspective of freedom from dependence or determination; rather, they argue that it can be conceived in terms of increase in control over various sources of determination (Metzner-Szigeth, 2009).

The realist perspective also defines poverty in terms of four types of relations. The first one is between an individual and the material or natural environment. This relation entails the individual’s transactions with nature. The second one is the structured, objective relations between various positions and practice. These relations are more or less between one individual and another individual, in other words interpersonal interaction. The other relations include intra-subjective and intra-personal relations.

The argument made in this regard is that with the distinctions between these relations in mind, it is crucial for various contexts of exploitation, the causes of unequal distribution of power, and the basis of continued exploitation of certain social groups to be identified. Although the realist approach is more dominant than the constructionist approach, it is far too abstract (Jones, 2006). This abstractness makes it difficult to relate it to everyday social problems such as poverty. There is too much focus on the various types of relations that determine the likelihood of persistence of conditions of poverty but no attention is directed towards the way different societies define poverty differently.


In conclusion, the constructivist approach to the study of contemporary social problems differs remarkably from the realist approach. There is abundant literature on constructionist approach; in contrast, literature on the realist approach is scanty. This paper has explored the strengths and weaknesses of each approach in enhancing our understanding of poverty. For constructionism, the main strength is the succinct manner in which it explains how different societies have varying levels of understanding of poverty at different types. These understandings are created through a process that begins by the setting up certain normative boundaries. The main weakness of constructionism is the existence of conflicting explanations, for example the ‘binary’ explanation and the ‘structural’ perspective. On the other hand, realism is viewed as being too abstract, leading to an unclear understanding of the problem of poverty as perceived by people in different societies.


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