Mills Sociological Imagination On Individual Problems
|✅ Paper Type: Free Essay||✅ Subject: Sociology|
|✅ Wordcount: 5662 words||✅ Published: 28th Apr 2017|
Mills (1959) talks of a ‘sociological imagination’ when looking at the problems of the individual. How might this ‘sociological imagination’ assist social workers? How might sociological theories offer useful insights into the socially constructed nature of many of the contemporary social problems encountered by social workers? Do this by reference to a contemporary social problem that social workers may have to work with.
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This paper will explore Mills theory of a sociological imagination when looking at the problems of the individual, and explain how this theory might assist social workers. The focus will then turn to poverty as a contemporary social problem encountered by social workers. Poverty will be explored and discussed by reference to how sociological theories (Marxism, Functionalism and Feminism) offer useful insights into the socially constructed nature of poverty.
C. Wright Mills (1916 – 62) was, according to Cunningham (2008, p7) “a flamboyant American sociologist.” Slattery (1991, p210) claims “his aim was to reform society as much as explain it, to popularise sociology and develop a sociological imagination amongst the American public.” Matthewman (2007, p91) explains that a sociological imagination “requires a special quality of mind. When we process it we are able to see links between biography and history, to see how the personal relates to the public, and the individual to the structural.” Matthewman is supported by Leon-Guerrero (2005, p14). “By continuing to develop a sociological imagination and recognising the larger social, cultural and structural forces, we can identify appropriate measures to address social problems.” Cunningham (2008) explores this using an example of a person suffering from depression after losing their job. Without recognising factors outside of the personal (such as the current economic or political conditions), the problem cannot not be sufficiently understood, addressed or resolved. Consequently failure to develop a sociological imagination could result in judgements or assumptions being made upon the failure of the individual, rather than societal structures. Stepping back to see the bigger picture can avoid granted assumptions, labels or ones personal values coming into play. Finally, Cunningham (2008, pg7) argues that “learning to think sociologically is one of the most important skills a social worker can bring to their practice.”
Poverty is a long standing social problem and one which is prevalent among service users. This is supported by Smale et al. (2000, p18) who claims “those who use, and are required to use, social work services continue overwhelmingly to be poor and disadvantaged.” Despite this, social workers have been criticised about their knowledge of the effects and origins of poverty and lack of awareness regarding societal structures in relation to poverty. Becker (1997) cited in Cunningham (2008, p47) 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, p225) writing for the Journal of Social Work Education agrees and argues that “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.”
To measure poverty, it first it has to be defined. There is no universal agreement regarding how to define poverty, although Cunningham (2008) and Leon-Guerrero (2005) describe two main methods used, Absolute and Relative poverty. Absolute poverty constitutes a lack of basic necessities such as, food, shelter and clothing. It refers to a lack of physical needs and is more like to be found in third world countries. Relative poverty was developed by Peter Townsend. It focuses on the inequalities in society. Leon-Guerrero (2005, p224) states that it is based on the premise that “some people fail to achieve the average income and lifestyle enjoyed by the rest of society.” Relative poverty is a widely accepted definition in developed countries and is used by the government in the UK. The Poverty Site (2009) confirms that “the (UK) government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 is defined in terms of relative poverty.” Moulder (2000, p2) confirms that “sociologists came to define social problems as problems that concern large numbers of people, have social-structural causes, and require social-structural solutions.” Leon-Guerrero (2005, p3) explains “first, a problem is a social condition that has negative consequences. If there were only positive consequences, there would be no problem.” Poverty has many negative consequences personally and structurally. Poverty is more than a lack of money. According to a report by the Department of Work and Pensions (2009, p2) “research about 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.” Moreover, “poverty is a highly stigmatised social position and the experience of poverty in an affluent society can be particularly isolating and socially damaging.” Beresford et al. (1999) concurs with the Department of Work and Pensions findings. Additionally, the media often report on links between poverty and health, educational attainment, teenage pregnancies, anti-social behaviour, mental health and social exclusion. All of which have a negative impact and consequence upon society.
Leon-Guerrero (2005, p3) informs that “a social problem has objective and subjective realities. 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.” It must be recognised at an agency (individual) level as having negative consequences for those who experience it. Poverty is apparent at an agency level in society: local clothing banks, annual Children In Need appeal; deprived areas we may have seen or live near, Big Issue sellers, seeing the homeless or beggars on the street, and in the media (reality documentaries such as The Secret Millionaire). Leon-Guerrero (2005, p6) addresses the subjective reality. “The subjective reality of a social problem addresses how a problem becomes defined as a problem.” It is defined by powerful groups in society (politicians, religious leaders, pressure groups, the media or even grassroots). As noted earlier, the UK government has defined poverty as a social problem. Leon-Guerrero (2005, p6) states, “they become real only when they are subjectively defined or perceived as problematic. Recognising the subjective aspects of social problems allows us to understand how a social condition may be defined as a problem by one segment of society, but be completely ignored by another.” Cunningham (2008, p33) explains that “in the 1980s and 1990s Conservative ministers used absolute definitions to refute claims that Britain had a significant poverty problem and that their policies had led to increased levels of poverty. The problem was defined away.” This paper will now explore functionalism, Marxism, radical and liberal feminism.
Functionalism was developed by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and further developed by Talcott Parsons. Functionalism views society on a macro scale. Slattery (1991, p63) uses a biological metaphor to explain Functionalism. “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.” Matthewman (2007) asserts functionalists view society as a complex system, involving a vast array of political, economic and social roles, all of which play an essential part in ensuring society functions and continues to develop. Consensus is at the heart of this theory. It assumes individuals are socialised to fit in, taught the norms of society, primarily by the family unit, secondly by educational institutions, peers, the workplace, and wider society. Leon-Guerrero (2005) claims social problems are not considered in terms of how severe they are, but how the problem arises from society, and whether it serves a function. Leon-Guerrero (2005, p228) argues that poverty is seen as a “natural consequence of system stratification.” This refers to rapid changes that took place in society economically and technologically. It created a workforce that was unskilled for the new economy. Functionalists believe inequalities within the workforce are inevitable. Social status, wealth and power is earned, rewarded and deserved, through skill and hard work. Davis and Moore (1945) cited in Best (2005, p29) support this, stating “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.”
A well-known writer from the political right perspective H. J. Gans (1971, p1-5) explores how poverty may exist to serve positive functions for society. Some of these include: the poor perform work others do not wish to do; they provide employment for the professionals that service them; activities such as drugs, pawn shops and prostitution continue to prosper; they serve as scapegoats (the honest and hard working can accuse them of being “dishonest, lazy and scroungers”); also poverty acts as a measuring tool in terms of status for the non-poor. However, Gans suggests that “many of the functions served by the poor could be replaced if poverty were eliminated, but almost always at a higher cost to others, particularly more affluent others.” He believes that “a functional analysis must conclude that poverty persists not only because it fulfils a number of positive functions but also because many of the functional alternatives to poverty would be quite dysfunctional for affluent members.” 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.” Interestingly, Gans states his aim with this paper was, “to show functionalism is not an inherently conservative approach, but that it can be employed into liberal and even radical analyses.”
The social construction of poverty from a functionalist perspective is seen as natural and beneficial for the affluent and society, or at least parts of it. Leon-Guerrero (2005, p228) supports this assertion. “Functionalists observe that poverty is a product of our social structure.” Functionalists do not inherently agree with poverty, they acknowledge it has functions as well dysfunctions but recognise that it has a role to play in the structure of society. They strongly believe power and wealth is earned through skill and hard work, not everyone has the talent to succeed, therefore, inequality and poverty is inevitable. The poor are seen as flawed, marked out from the rest of society, deviant and non-conforming. The current recession in the UK which has forced many more into poverty would, from a functionalist perspective, be viewed as a natural temporary occurrence. The role of a functionalist social worker would be to support individuals to get back into their role ensuring the smooth running of society.
Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-93) was one of the key influences in sociology according to Slattery (1991). Marxism is a conflict theory, which like functionalism, views society on a macro scale. However, they argue that poverty is the consequence of a capitalist society; it is constructed due to an unequal distribution of power and wealth. The main thread of the Marxist argument is that conflict exists between the classes: the bourgeoisie (who own the capital) and the proletariat (who provide the labour). Giddens (2006, p16) explains capital is “any asset, including money, machines or even factories, which can be used or invested to make future assets.” Giddens (2006, p16) asserts the bourgeoisie “own their means of a livelihood”, whereas the proletariat are “wage-labour.” The proletariat must seek employment from the bourgeoisie, who form a ruling class over the mass proletariat population. Payne (2005, p228) claims “capitalism is an economic system in which a few people accumulate capital to invest in producing goods and others ‘sell’ labour to them for wages.” The profit earned by the bourgeoisie is seen as exploitation of the proletariat. Moreover, the bourgeoisie create a false consciousness controlling the media, policies, laws, religion and education, influencing and shaping the proletariats norms and values, idealising how society thinks. This false consciousness leads the proletariat to believe economic inequality is fair and just. This is supported by Best (2005) and Taylor et al. (2002). The most crucial point is the relationship between the two classes. Giddens (2006) explains that although each class is dependant on the other this dependency is not balanced. Giddens (2006, p16) explains “the relationship between classes is an exploitative 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.”
Hilary Searing (2007) writes from a radical social work perspective. In an article ‘Poverty in the Big Issue’ written for the Barefoot Social Worker website, Searing claims poverty is structurally constructed and the consequence of a modern capitalist society. “Poverty and inequality seem to be an intrinsic part of modern capitalism.” She criticises the government suggesting that poverty has been ignored in order to achieve economic prosperity. “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.” Like Marxists, Searing believes social class is a major factor. “The social class a child is born into is a major determinant of their life chances.” Searing believes social workers patch the cracks regarding poverty, rather than tackling the real structural cause. “The government assumes that social workers can deal with poverty without tackling the underlying causes.” Searing believes Labour demean social-structural causes, consequently placing the onus of poverty upon the individual. She states the 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.”
In summary, Marxists believe poverty is constructed by social structures; society fails the poor and the abolition of capitalism in favour of communism is the solution. According to Giddens (2006) Marxists believe revolution among the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie is inevitable, and that it will bring about a new classless society. Giddens (2006, p17) explains Marxists do not consider inequality would be eliminated. Rather, that “society would no longer be split into a small class that monopolises economic and political power and the large mass of people who benefit little from the wealth their work creates.” Marxists would argue that the current recession was caused by greed and unethical risk taking amongst the bourgeoisie, and the proletariats will be left to bear the real costs. Cunningham (2008) argues that Marxists see social workers as agents of social control on behalf of the state, acting in the interests of the bourgeoisie. Their motive for helping people is to get them back into the work force. They believe that much of social work is around control, surveillance and assigning blame upon individuals. Payne (2005, p231) echoes Cunningham suggesting “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.”
Poverty is of particular relevance to feminist theories since Taylor (2002, p179) claims “women are more likely to experience poverty than men.” In an article for the BBC News website (2008) entitled ‘Women’s Low Pay Behind Poverty’, women’s pay was seen to be a major cause. “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%.” In the same article, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber asserts “as 40% of households are now headed by single mothers, this has concerning implications for tackling child poverty.” Haralambos and Holborn (1995, p145) claim “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.” Additionally, “women are less likely to have occupational pensions and income from investments; married women are less likely to work than married men; 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.” Glendinning and Miller cited in Haralambos and Holborn (1995, p145) claim women are more likely to live in poverty than men because they are viewed as “secondary workers, their primary role is seen as domestic” and they are “less important than that of their husbands so they are not expected to earn a family wage.” Moreover, “women are disadvantaged in access to social security benefits. Only 60 per cent of women are entitled to maternity leave and many women care for sick and elderly relatives, yet they receive very small state allowances for doing so. This intermittent and often part-time employment of women leaves many illegible for unemployment benefit and redundancy pay.” Moreover, “within the household men command more of the family resources (of money, of food, of space and so on) and this is legitimised by their status as breadwinners.” Hill writing for The Observer (2009) suggests women suffer financially after divorce, while men become richer. She argues “his available income increases by around one third. Women, in contrast, suffer severe financial penalties. Regardless of whether she has children, the average woman’s income falls by more than a fifth and remains low for many years.”
There are varying perspectives of feminism, the main three being liberal, radical and Marxist. According to Trevithick (2005) while there are differing perspectives they generally agree on certain principles. The main aim is gender equality; however, they differ on the cause and solution to this problem. Haralambos and Holborn (1995, p592) state “most radical feminists broadly share the same aim as Marxists and liberal feminists – they seek equality between the sexes rather than dominance.”
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Haralambos and Holborn (1995, p592) state “radical feminists see society as patriarchal – it is dominated and ruled by men.” According to Haralambos and Holborn (1995, p602) “Kate Millet was one of the first radical feminists to use the term.” Giddens (2006, p471) argues from this perspective “men are responsible for and benefit from the exploitation of women” and that “patriarchy is viewed as a universal phenomenon that has existed across time and cultures.” Leon-Guerrero (2005, p230) 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.” In the UK, the preservation of marriage and the nuclear family is on the political agenda. Gentlemen (2009) writing for The Guardian claims “the Conservatives say marriage is key to addressing social breakdown.” They also propose rewarding married couples. Bingham (2009) in the Daily Telegraph alleges “the Tories are proposing tax breaks for married couples which would allow women who stay at home to pass on their allowance to their husband.” Abramovitz (1996) cited in Leon-Guerrero (2005, p230) claims “that welfare has historically served to distinguish between the deserving poor (widows with children) and the undeserving poor (single and divorced mothers).” For instance, Margaret Thatcher condemned single mothers in the 1980’s. According to the Workers Liberty website (2007) she “once infamously proposed cutting all benefits to single mothers, stating that they should live in Salvation Army hostels or give up their children for adoption if their own families wouldn’t support them.”
Haralambos and Holborn (1995, p592) allege “the family is often seen by radical feminists as the key institution producing women’s oppression in modern societies.” Giddens (2006, p471) supports this stating “radical feminists often concentrate on the family as one of the primary sources of women’s oppression in society. They argue that men exploit women by relying on the free domestic labour that women provide in the home. As a group, men also deny women access to positions of power and influence in society.”
Firestone (1970), a radical feminist cited in Cunningham (2008, p96) claims “women’s inferiority is linked to their biological sex.” Haralambos and Holborn (1995, p471) explore this further suggesting “men control women’s role in reproduction and child-rearing. Because women are biologically able to give birth to children, they become dependant materially on men for protection and livelihood.” Most importantly “this biological inequality is socially organised within the nuclear family.” Giddens (2006) argues that not all radical feminists agree with Firestone, but rather believe that it originates from culture and socialisation. Haralambos and Holborn (1995, 592) argue that radical feminists believe that “gender equality can only be attained by overthrowing the patriarchal order.” Giddens (2006, p592) asserts that many radical feminists reject the assistance of males in reaching their aim, because “men are seen as the enemies of women’s liberation.”
In contrast, Liberal feminists according to Cunningham (2008) agree that equality should be more equal between men and women. However, unlike radical feminists they do not believe that patriarchy is the cause of women’s oppression. Giddens (2006, p468) claims that liberal feminists “look for explanations of gender inequalities in social and cultural attitudes.” Cunningham (2008, p97) agrees with Giddens but probes deeper stating “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.”
Like radical feminists they believe the family is oppressive to women. Women are expected to play the social role of wife and mother along with carrying sole responsibility for the household chores that go with it. Cunningham (2008, p97) believes it is “an ideology that is perpetuated by the media and popular culture.” A women’s role is laid out before her, she is not free to find their own fulfilment. Life opportunities are not equal to that of men’s. Dunne, Kurki and Smith (2009) assert that economic insecurity is believed to exist due to gender inequality. “Women are disproportionately located at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale in all societies. Women’s disproportionate poverty cannot be explained by market conditions alone; gendered role expectations about the economic worth of women’s work and the kinds of tasks that women are expected to do contribute to their economic insecurity.”
In terms of addressing equality Giddens (2006, p470) claims liberal feminists “tend to focus their energies on establishing and protecting equal opportunities for women through legislation and other democratic means.” Haralambos and Holborn (1995) explain how liberal feminists supported the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Act, hoping these would help to end discrimination. They believe gradual change can be brought about within the existing social structure. Cunningham (2008, p98) states they would also support further female representation and involvement in politics by “the introduction of women-only shortlists.” Liberal feminists are modest in how they aim to bring about change, through anti-discriminatory legislation rather than overthrowing the system like radical feminists. Finally, Cunningham (2008, p99) points out that liberal feminists believe nobody benefits from gender discrimination. “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 paper has sought to explore how Mills theory of a sociological imagination may assist social workers when considering the problem of an individual, and how three grand sociological theories can offer useful insights into the socially constructed nature of poverty. To conclude, this paper shall consider the use of those theories upon social work practice.
Cree (2000, p7) asserts “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.” Sociology provides competing theories that offer differing perspectives to explain the emergence, existence and persistence of poverty. Moreover, they can raise awareness of oppression and disadvantage that may be constructed in social structures. Cree (2000, p208) confirms that “inequality and oppression exist at both individual and structural levels.”
Dominelli (2002) argues that “practitioners who follow emancipatory approaches seek to achieve anti-oppressive practice by focusing on the specifics of a situation in a holistic manner and mediating between its personal and structural components. To obtain this impact, social workers and their clients develop clear goals to pursue and use networking and negotiation techniques to secure change. Change usually occurs at the micro-level where interpersonal relationships are the target of the intervention(s).” Such an approach could be, as suggested by Cunningham (2008, p48) “task-centred”. This approach “offers a very practical model which is potentially very empowering.” The service user decides which areas they should like to work on. “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.” However, Cunningham warns “perhaps 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.” Dominelli (2002, p86) agrees with Thompson, and suggests “if poverty is causing personal hardship, institutional (meso-level) and/or societal (macro-level) changes may be required alongside endeavours aimed at helping the individual to control its deleterious effect on his or her life.” Feminist and Radical methods of practice both focus on the bigger picture. According to Drakeford (2008, p310) “radical social work, essentially Marxist in persuasion, suggested that alliances could be formed between clients in social welfare which would allow for vested interests to be challenged and authority to be redistributed from the powerful to the powerless.” Trevithick (2005, p284) states that 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.” This involves social workers challenging the social structures that oppress and discriminate. Trevithick (2005, p285) claims that “practitioners who work from a radical/progressive/activist perspective are passionately committed to the issue of social justice and to working alongside people from disadvantaged groups in order to initiate change.” Feminist social work, according to Dominelli and MacLeod (1989, p1) “is informed by a feminist analysis of social problems.” Dominelli and MacLeod (1989, p.23) assert the feminist approach “has focussed on identifying the specific ways in which women experience their existence; drawing people’s attention to the lack of resources, power and emotional fulfilment which hold women down; exposing the social relations and social forces responsible for creating their state of affairs; and placing the plight of women firmly on the agenda for social change.” Dominelli (2008, p113) suggests “feminist social work practice is also relevant to children and men.” This is echoed by Cree (2000). A limitation, according to Trevithick (2005, p282) is that “most women experience additional oppressions, such as discrimination in relation to class, race, age, disabilities, sexual orientation, culture and religious beliefs.” And that “these additional oppressions are not always given sufficient weight.”
Cree (2000, p209) informs that “sociology may not be able to provide social work practitioners with answers, but the questions themselves lead to the potential development of sensitive, anti-oppressive practice.” This is because “all theories, ideas and practices are based on a particular set of political and moral principles. We therefore have to make choices about what theories we believe are most useful, and what actions we think are most helpful (or perhaps least damaging) for those with whom we are working. 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 (1959, p8) “personal troubles and public issues.” Cree (2000, p5) argues “sociology and social work construct the individual.” It is also for this reason that “social workers need a sociological imagination.” Additionally, “social work’s central purpose is to work on behalf of society to help those individuals and groups who are vulnerable and marginalised.” If a service users problem exists due to structural of inequalities in society, and a social worker fails to make such a connection, they risk blaming the individual/group, perpetuating the oppression and discrimination already felt by social structures. Consequently, social workers need to have an awareness of the discrimination and oppression some people or groups face in society and be guarded not to perpetuate assumptions, labels or blame. Thompson (2005, p137) claims oppressive practice can happen “through naÃ¯veté or ignorance: failing to recognise significant issues of inequality and thus exacerbating them by not addressing them.” And “by reinforcing stereotypes: jumping to conclusions about a particular individual without actually assessing their circumstances.” Therefore, by developing and using our sociological imagination and by being aware and open to theoretical perspectives and approaches to practice, we can take necessary steps to guard against anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice.
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