Our perceptual filters are the prejudices, stereotypes and biases we hold that affect how we see the world. In the following adaptation of a Zen Buddhist fable, consider how our perceptual filters limit what we can know and understand.
It’s the colonial era, and a British anthropologist has travelled deep into a forested region to study a people he and other colonizers regard as “uncivilized.” This Indigenous group does not know poverty or hunger as their land provides for their needs. After living among the people for some time, the scholar has got to know one of the elders very well. They often sit and have long conversations over a special bush tea prepared by the elder. During one such conversation, the British scholar shares his views on the virtues of European culture, the value of progress and hard labour, and how wealth leads to individual happiness. The elder listens but says nothing. As the scholar winds up, the elder begins refilling their teacups. But this time, when the cup is filled to the brim, she keeps pouring. The tea spills over onto the table. Still she pours. The scholar is dumbfounded. “What in the world are you doing?” he exclaims. “The cup is already full! There’s no room for more tea!” The elder replies, “That is exactly the point.” She continues, “You have come here to learn about us, but your mind is full of your own ideas and assumptions. You cannot know us until you know yourself. Go empty your mind and then we can talk as equals.” As they both retreat into silence, the scholar thinks, “There’s no helping some people,” while the elder thinks, “How can this man know so much and so little?”
In this parable, the elder points out the scholar’s inability to see beyond a particular set of ideas and assumptions. Even as he lives in the village, collecting information and asking questions, the scholar filters what he learns through dominant ideologies we would now call Eurocentrism, capitalism and white supremacy. These ideas construct and represent Indigenous peoples as inferior savages (and were used to justify dispossession, slavery and genocide). The scholar was there to learn, but his learning was limited by his core beliefs and mental models, which are deeply ingrained. Now consider: How might our filters affect how we view social problems?
In the parable, the elder tells the scholar that to make room to know her people, he must start by knowing himself. Engaging in
self-analysis is an important part of analyzing social problems. We have to be aware of our
perceptual filters in order to move beyond them.
The adapted fable provides an example of a simple form of social analysis. The elder’s responses show us how history, ideology, discourse, and institutions shape how we view the world—and also structure our societies. In this course, we will use social analysis to understand how social problems are created and maintained. Once we understand the roots of those problems, we can act and think differently as we work to create lasting social change.
The above fable refers to the colonial era. Decolonization is a term used to describe efforts to undo the damaging effects of
colonialism. To learn more about decolonization, visit the following sites:
To address social problems, we have to identify their roots. We do this through social analysis. Social analysis is a
critical thinking strategy for understanding
social problems. It examines why people have conflicting views about the causes and solutions to social problems. It also considers why harmful conditions continue despite efforts to bring about positive social change.
Social analysis is about asking the right questions, not getting the right answers. To ask the right questions, consider the variables involved in creating and perpetuating social problems. As discussed in other modules, these include:
the conflicting ideologies and discourses people adopt to make sense of the world (Ideology module);
the dominant ideas (ideologies and discourses) that inform and legitimize the policies and practices of social institutions and create social norms (Social institutions,Media 1, and Media 2 modules);
systematic patterns related to who benefits and who is negatively impacted by structures of power (Identity 2, Equity 1, and Equity 2 modules);
the role of identity and how it shapes one’s experience within institutions and society (Identity 2, Equity 1, and Equity 2 modules);
the larger historical context within which social problems arise (Identity 1 module); and
different stakeholder approaches to addressing social problems (Social Action module).
Social Analysis, Critical Thinking, and Identity
To engage in social analysis, we must be aware of our own identities and how they are positioned in society. As the fable that opened this module showed, how we see and experience the world is filtered through our social identity. This identity is socially constructed, and thus influenced by history, ideology, social institutions, and the like (see Identity 1 and 2). Through socialization, we develop perceptual filters that shape our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. We are exposed to dominant ideas and practices that affect our thinking patterns and social experiences. These, in turn, form our biases, stereotypes and prejudices, which influence our behaviours towards others and our interpretation of events. Due to confirmation bias, we tend to reinforce these beliefs, rather than question them.
So how do we develop the awareness needed for social analysis? Critical thinking is key. Critical thinkers examine the perceptual filters that may influence their ability to evaluate situations objectively or accurately. They recognize the need to be knowledgeable about competing ideologies. This allows them to question the ideas and values they hold. Critical thinkers know the difference between fact and opinion. They recognize misinformation and lies. They draw conclusions that are informed and thoughtful. Finally, they recognize the need for good research to engage in solid analysis.
Using critical thinking, we can recognize how our identities, ideologies, and factors like history and institutional norms shape our views and experiences of social problems. This can be useful in thinking through how we may be complicit (involved) in perpetuating the social problems we are investigating or negatively affected by them. In the end, thinking critically about ourselves can help us engage in and see the usefulness of a social analysis of a social problem. Now, let’s look at how to do a social analysis using the triangle model.
The Triangle Model of Social Analysis
Listen to the voiceover to help make sense of the triangle model of social analysis. You will notice that this model has a number of layers. Employing it will be useful to understanding the roots of social problems, how they become normalized, and how they are challenged by individuals and communities.
This chart illustrates the methodology used for analyzing social problems in this course. The analytical components of this model include:
The aspect of the social problem are you analyzing.
The larger context within which the problem emerges and is challenged.
How do individuals and communities experience, perceive and respond to the social problem.
The relevant social institutions involved,
And relevant ideologies – those that normalize the problem and those that challenge the problem.
We must consider these components to fully understand why social problem persists in spite of social action strategies to bring about systemic change. Now let’s consider each component of the triangle model:
The social problem (inverted triangle): Is there evidence that demonstrates this is systemic and not an individual problem? What dimension of the problem are you looking at? Is it the social, economic, political, physical, psychological, or environmental impacts, or will you analyze a combination of these variables?
The larger context (outer circle): Bring you attention to the outer circle of the triangle. This includes the larger historical context of the social problem. It represents the hegemonic tensions that result as harmful norms, policies, laws, and practices are challenged by social action.
Where/how/why/when did the problem originate? Why do so many people ignore the problem when it’s not in their interest to do so? How are the negative impacts justified? What dominant discourses rationalize the problem? What societal tensions are created by this problem? Who has challenged the social problem historically? Have there been changes in laws, norms, practices and policies over time, or have dominant groups recouped their power and privileges? Why does the problem persist?
Individuals and communities: How do individuals and communities experience the problem? Who is privileged? Who is marginalized by the problem? How do individuals view the problem? Who sees it as a social problem? Who does not? How do individuals respond to the problem? Who is involved in social action? Who discredits or minimizes efforts at social action?
Ideologies: What are the differing ideological views about the social problems? Which dominant ideologies normalize and perpetuate the social problem? Are these views based on fact or opinion? Do they rely on stereotypes, misrepresentation, omission, and/or the distortion of facts? Can you identify dominant discourses that shape our understanding of this problem? What do counter ideologies and discourses have to say about the problem?
Social institutions: What specific institutional laws, practices, policies, and norms are implicated in in producing and re-producing the social problem? Are these institutions governments, educational systems, corporate media, legal systems, religious bodies, international organizations, etc.? Have these institutions made superficial or structural changes?
Social action strategies (highlight outer circle): After considering the variables such as the ideologies and institutional policies and norms that perpetuate the social problem, let’s go back to the outer circle. Remember, this represents the hegemonic tensions and historical patterns associated with the problem. Here, we can also consider the effects of social action strategies in addressing the social problem. Why have social action strategies at the ideological, institutional, or individual levels been unsuccessful, or achieved limited results? In your opinion:
What are effective social action strategies for challenging and exposing harmful ideologies, discourses, and institutional laws policies and practices
How do we challenge the harmful attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of individuals and groups that normalize and perpetuate the social problem?
How can we make institutions accountable for harmful laws, policies, and practices?
Now that we understand the different components of the triangle model, we will work through an example: the social problem of youth unemployment, which was discussed in the previous module.
A Social Analysis Checklist—Preparation for Using the Triangle Model
Review the checklist of critical thinking concepts below to determine your preparedness for using the triangle model of social analysis. Review relevant modules if there are gaps in your understanding.
other perspectives were considered,
a range of sources were used,
the perspectives of all stakeholders were considered,
the author relies on facts, not just opinions,
relevant voices or sources were not omitted to alter the conclusions, and
common sense assumptions and
dominant discourses weren’t used to normalize, minimize, or blame the victim for social problems.
Social Problems: Historical Context Is Important
For insight into the complicated and complicating events …, one needs perspective, not attitudes; context, not anecdotes; analyses, not postures. For any kind of lasting illumination, the focus must be on the history routinely ignored or played down or unknown.
– Toni Morrison
Identifying the historical origins of social problems tells us the context within which a social problem has developed. For example, before thinking about youth unemployment, it’s important to understand unemployment in general.
Unemployment originated with the development of the economic system of capitalism. In Europe, capitalism replaced the economic system of feudalism (Source: Kelly, 2020). Under feudalism, serfs (or peasants) would work and live on land that was “held” by knights and lords but was ultimately owned by the king. They would live off what they produced and give some of it to the noble who held the land, in exchange for use of the land and military protection. The emergence of capitalism privatized that land. The serfs were forced to leave. Now they needed money to afford the things necessary to survive, like food and shelter. The only way to get money was to work and earn a wage. Those who were unable to find work in this new system of capitalism became the unemployed.
As capitalism evolved in 16th and 17th centuries, labour conditions were very oppressive (Source: Munroe, 2019). Governments made it illegal for workers to organize into unions to improve working conditions. Many union organizers were arrested and killed by the police. As socialist ideologies emerged to challenge these conditions, many European workers elected socialist and communist politicians to parliament. Chronic (continued) unemployment has historically been built into capitalism to keep the power of labour unions in check and keep wages low. If there was full or close to
full employment, workers could bargain or organize for better wages (Braverman, 1998).
Though unions were made legal after the Great Depression (1930s), recent governments have introduced legislation to weaken the power of unions (Source: Hogler, 2016). Many citizens are influenced by corporate media and think tanks, such as the Fraser Institute, that produce studies to promote dominant discourses and policies favourable to the economic interests of the wealthy (Source: Godeanu-Kenworthy, 2020). These views are reflected in government programs that hire temporary foreign workers (Source: Thompson, 2016). These programs increase inequality for vulnerable workers such as youth workers, drive wages down, create exploitative conditions for foreign workers, and reduce the ability of workers to organize (Source: Block, 2013).
As capitalism has evolved, living wages and stable employment have declined. Unemployment ranges from 3.5% to as high as 25% in times of crisis. In 1980 in the US, union membership was 23%; today it is 10%. In Canada, unionization has declined from 38% in the early 1980s to 28% in 2015 (CUPE, 2016).
Now that you have a broad sense of the social problem of unemployment, let’s consider how people perceive the social problem of youth unemployment.
Questions to Consider: Understanding a Social Problem’s Historical Context
Where/how/why/when did the problem originate?
How has the social problem been challenged historically and by whom?
How has the social problem evolved over time? Have there been changes in laws, norms, practices, and policies that affected it?
Has it been influenced by societal upheavals? Reforms? Revolution?
Why does the problem persist? How is hegemony achieved?
How have powerful groups prevented the social problem from being addressed? Have they made superficial changes that allow them to hold onto power? Or have they used overt institutional power such as the courts, military, or police forces?
The emergence of capitalism has had a number of long-term societal effects.
Read these articles to understand how it changed the nature of work for women.
Watch this video to learn how capitalism disrupted Indigenous spiritual, economic and political systems in the newly colonized lands of the Americas and Australia. (Source: Flanders, 2014)
How Individuals and Communities Perceive and Experience a Social Problem
Now that we have established the social problem to be analyzed, and understand the context within which it exists, let’s explore the aspect of the model that focuses on how individuals perceive and experience youth unemployment.
How Do Individuals Perceive the Problem?
For most of us, how we perceive youth unemployment is shaped by dominant discourses in the media and popular culture. In these discourses, there are three main causes of youth unemployment: the failure of public institutions (i.e. education), the failure of public policy (government), and the failure of the individual (too lazy, entitled, or not properly trained) (Source: Toynbee, 2021). Let’s look at an example of how these dominant discourses sneak into discussions of unemployment.
This article from a private online educational institute says there are four types of unemployment (Source: “Unemployment,” n.d.). One of these is structural unemployment. This may cause you to think back to the last sub-topic, where we discussed how unemployment is built into the structure of capitalism. Capitalism requires a permanent pool of unemployed workers to drive down wages and limit the power of unions. Thus, people may be highly motivated but unable to find work because there aren’t enough jobs. But is this what the article means by “structural unemployment”? No. It limits its definition of structural unemployment to “when the skills set of a worker does not match the skills demanded by the jobs available” or when worker can’t relocate to get available jobs. No mention is made of any failure of the economic system itself. The individual is to blame.
Such discourses cause the majority of people to think of unemployment as inevitable or as an individual problem. We might think, “Things are really not that bad!” or “Nothing can be done anyway” or “This is just the way it is.” We may even think, “This is the best we can do!” When we think like this,
resistance to a structural or systemic problem seems hopeless. And as a result, the
hegemony of dominant groups in the capitalist economic system is maintained.
Counter Discourses and Different Perceptions of Unemployment
Academics who study the problem of youth unemployment have proposed
counter discourses that challenge dominant discourses on the topic. Many of these show how systemic inequality and discrimination factor into this social problem.
For example, an Australian study looked at the correlation between poor literacy and numeracy skills (reading, writing, and math) and unemployment. It concluded that rather than lack of training (poor literacy and numeracy skills), the cause of unemployment was
systemic, created by economic conditions of poverty and limited employment opportunities. It further found that for the 27 jobseekers in the study, literacy was not crucial in their past work and would be unlikely to impact their ability to get a job in the future. Systemic factors were more important.
Whose Economic Wellbeing? A Challenge to Dominant Discourses on the Relationship between Literacy and Numeracy Skills and (Un)employment (Source: Black, 2002)
A 2018 South African study of youth unemployment found that contrary to the common media discourse that blames the individual and educational institutions, the cause was the systemic scarcity of jobs in the economy.
Socialist counter discourses argue that all institutions, including educational institutions, serve the interests of the capitalist class over the well-being of citizens, including youth. Such critics claim that higher educational institutions reproduce social hierarchies related to employment. This means that working-class people, often racialized, rarely benefit from opportunities.
As a result, working-class youth have been especially hard hit by youth unemployment. This group used to have access to stable, well-paying jobs by becoming apprentices for a range of skilled and semi-skilled trades. However, these opportunities have declined as companies move their manufacturing overseas for “cheap” labour. Now, working-class youth form a large section of the
precarious job market.
Lack of employment opportunities and an inability to be self-sufficient and productive create a host of social problems. Working-class youth are regularly labelled “at risk” by government institutions, including the educational system. This is another way of blaming the individual. It serves to marginalize youth and perpetuate the illusion that their unemployment is their own fault.
One way to understand how individuals experience unemployment is through statistics. In Canada, for example, between 27% and 45% of all workers do not have stable full-time jobs. Up to 25% of the paid work force is precarious (i.e. temporary, self-employed, or involuntarily part-time) (Cision, 2019). The youth unemployment rate is usually twice that of adults. In Canada, youth unemployment can be as high as 20–25% (Tancer, 2020).
Consider these statistics in light of inequality in Canada. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 44 billionaires added $63.5 billion in wealth collectively, while working-class Canadians lost 636,000 jobs, with 488,000 people working less than half their usual hours (Tencer, 2021). “Women and marginalized racial and ethnic groups are bearing the brunt of this crisis,” said Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns for Oxfam Canada. “They are more likely to be pushed into poverty, go hungry or be excluded from healthcare. And yet, they are more likely to work frontline jobs that increase their exposure to the virus” (Tencer, 2021).
The experience of unemployment is racialized further. African Canadian youth have more than twice the unemployment rate (26.8%) of all youth born in Canada (11.2%). Hasford (2016) concludes that dominant cultural discourses that stereotype Black youth as “scary,” underachieving, incompetent, lazy, boisterous, etc., contribute to systemic discrimination in hiring and promotions. It also affects the experiences of Black youth in the workplaces. They are more likely to be subject to racial slurs, unfair discipline, or excessive punishment for minor mistakes, and microaggressions such as condescension and“friendly” racial jokes.
Questions to Consider: How Individuals and Communities Perceive and Experience a Social Problem
Are you privileged or minoritized in relation to the problem?
Who is privileged? Who benefits economically, socially, politically?
Who is marginalized or harmed? Who experiences discrimination, violence, exploitation, dehumanization, displacement?
How Ideologies and Discourses Relate to the Social Problem
The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied… but written off as trash.
– John Berger
We all have opinions on the causes and the solutions of social problems. Where do these come from?
One major source is the ideologies we hold. Ideologies help us to make sense of the world and are transmitted through
socialization by families, schools, and media. They inform our everyday thinking, including our thinking about social problems. Despite this, they are invisible to most of us. However, failure to consider their effects can skew our understanding of the causes and solutions to social problems and what needs to be done about them.
In the module on social problems, you were introduced to a chart highlighting different ways of viewing youth unemployment (chart in Critically Thinking About Social Problems section). The following chart adds the additional layer of ideology. Listen to the voiceover as you look at the chart to think through how ideology and discourses are related to and shape how social problems are perceived.
HOW IDEOLOGY INFLUENCES OUR VIEWS OF YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT
View of the Problem
Systemic / Structural Problem
• Does not acknowledge chronic unemployment is built into capitalism • Does not consider privilege, social capital, and class as advantages • The fittest of the fit survive. The weak are undeserving
• Acknowledges structural flaws within the system but will not change the system • Supports programs that help individual youth • Supports educational reforms
• Seeks to reform capitalism system and pushes for more equitable distribution of economic resources in society Democratic socialist • Long-term goal is a socialist society where there is democratic decision making about economic policies and political structures Decolonizing • Capitalism is destructive and oppressive. It must be dismantled
• “Today’s youth are too entitled, lazy, and lacking in ambition.” • “Good jobs are a thing of the past.” • “Get used to the gig economy. The new reality is work that is unstable, low paying, with no benefits or pensions.” • “There are jobs out there; if you try really hard you will find work.”
• “Students are being shortchanged by the educational system. Schools don’t adequately prepare students with appropriate skills and knowledge for the job market.”
• “Young people are underemployed because government policies favour profits for the corporate sector at the expense of the general public. Contributing factors include government cutbacks and outsourcing along with corporate downsizing, deskilling and union bashing. This has created low-paying, unstable and temporary jobs where many people and particularly youth are vulnerable to becoming the working poor.” • “Capitalism is based on greed and short-term gain with no consideration of the harm to future generations.”
• Individuals have to get used to competition in the labour market. • If you’re not finding work, it’s your fault for not looking hard enough or not having a good enough resume. • Individuals must adopt an entrepreneurial mindset and brand themselves to get work.
• If the education system better prepared youth for the labour market, there would be no youth unemployment. • Fixing a public institution will help youth find jobs.
• We need to look at a number of different dimensions when we look at this social problem, especially social status. • The roots of the social problem run deeper than any one thing. It is a product of a number of different social, economic, political and cultural factors in how society is organized.
Institutional Norms & Practices
• Does not support institutional measures to address the social problem • May engage in prejudging, stereotyping youth • Social identity may be a basis for employment discrimination
• Programs specifically targeted to hiring youth • Social identity may be a basis for employment discrimination • Policies create precarious work and unemployment
• Minimum living income for all unemployed workers • Seek more worker control and decision making in how the economy is organized • Wealth inequality benefits the wealthy. We need democracy, community, and inclusion, and must treat the earth as a living entity not a resource to exploit
As you can see in the chart, neoconservatives tend to view unemployment as an individual problem. Dominant discourses align with these assumptions. While some youth do make poor choices and lack ambition, it is stereotypical to characterize all unemployed youth as lazy and lacking ambition. Neoconservatives do not acknowledge systemic issues like poverty, racism, sexism, or homophobia. This can create hostile workplaces for minoritized social groups and allow for employment discrimination. When it comes to unemployment and poverty, neoconservative governments and corporations are preoccupied with questions such as: “How can we stop people from cheating or abusing the welfare system?” or “How can we manage the poor so they don’t disrupt the social order?”
Neoliberals also view unemployment and poverty as individual problems, but historically have acknowledged that social and economic systems are contributing factors. Institutional programs such as social work interventions, employment preparedness, retraining or further education are offered to help those who become “disadvantaged” by the economic system.
Neoliberals also favour privatization of services because they claim public services are inefficient. So they also see public educational institutions as partly responsible for the problem of youth unemployment. The discourse of “public institutions are inefficient and ineffective, and should be run like businesses” suggests that public educational institutions are not offering relevant educational programs and are poorly run. Consequently, governments have forced the public education sector to operate on business models rather than as essential and accessible public services. This has resulted in cutbacks and the elimination of programs. Another consequence of operating on the business model is the deregulation of tuition so that tuition for degrees that lead to well-paying jobs such as law and medicine is too expensive for most middle- and working-class students. While educational systems can always improve, this discourse of the “failure of public services” deflects awareness from the underlying structures responsible for creating unemployment and poverty in the first place and the instability of the capitalist economic system. Neoliberal discourses normalize unemployment and poverty and put the onus on individuals to find success through institutional programs that may or may not help them.
Those who view youth unemployment through the lens of transformative ideologies such as social democratic and antiracist/feminist focus on failures of the economic system and political structures as the primary cause of unemployment and poverty. Many advocates of this approach argue that the system cannot be reformed. What is needed is a fundamental change in the organization of society because it is currently structured to advantage the wealthy and powerful and exploit the minoritized and oppressed.
Questions to Consider: How Ideologies Affect Our View of the Social Problem
Can you compare and contrast various ideological perspectives on the social problem?
Why do some ideologies view it as a social problem and others do not?
Based on your research, what facts or evidence support the claims of neoconservative, neoliberal and transformative positions on the issue?
In the sources you consulted, do you notice ideological biases?
How Institutions Perpetuate the Social Problem
People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages. They come readily to define themselves as inherently worthy of what they possess; they come to believe themselves ‘naturally’ elite.
– C. Wright Mills
When I taught a college course on human resources management, I noticed that the textbooks did not view stress, overwork, or unemployment as systemic problems. Instead, they saw these as individual problems that could be corrected. You could sign on to an employee assistance program, take a class in mindfulness meditation, or retrain. The textbooks also didn’t spend much time on discrimination in employment hiring practices. They didn’t explore why workplaces lack diversity. Or make connections between sexual harassment and the problem of women leaving certain industries. By excluding these considerations, they demonstrated a number of dominant discourses and myths about work. For example, if you look hard enough, you will find work regardless of gender, race, or disability. They also didn’t acknowledge that capitalism creates unemployment and how this affects youth entering the job market. In this way, these textbooks, and the education system itself, fed into a misrepresentation of the social problem of youth unemployment.
Institutions such as the media also tend to misrepresent social problems like youth unemployment (Source: Godeanu-Kenworthy, 2020). This is because for the most part, media companies are privately owned and tied to the capitalist economic system (see the Media 1 module). Corporate media and think tanks spread discourses that promote the idea that capitalism provides for us all. They gloss over the negative aspects of capitalism—like how it creates structural inequality that can affect groups like youth especially hard.
Dominant discourses promote the view that capitalism is a free-market system. This is a myth. Governments regularly help out corporations with bailouts and corporate welfare (like tax breaks and grants). Some critics have pointed out that if corporations get money and special treatment when they are going through hard times, why shouldn’t individuals? Corporations and the think tanks they fund tend to deflect this question. They suggest that public services are inefficient and too costly to taxpayers. They propose more privatization of education, roads, utilities, social programs, and healthcare.
Parenti (2014) suggests that this amounts to “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.” It is largely the taxes of the poor and middle classes that fund both public services and corporate welfare. Privatizing public services and utilities will only enrich corporations, who in their search for profit will likely cut more jobs. For youth, this might mean fewer government programs as they search for meaningful work and the chance to be successful.
These two articles explain some negative consequences of privatization.
THE NEW CORPORATION: THE UNFORTUNATELY NECESSARY SEQUEL (Coming Soon)
Questions to Consider: How Institutions Create or Perpetuate the Social Problem
What are the specific social institutions involved in perpetuating the social problem?
What institutional laws, legislation, norms, and practices create and normalize the social problem?
Who benefits from institutional practices and norms? Who experiences
oppression, injustice, discrimination, dehumanization, violence, or annihilation?
Which dominant ideologies and dominant discourses normalize impacts associated with the social issue?
How do dominant ideologies and discourses promoted by institutions rely on stereotypes, objectification, misrepresentation, omission, and/or distortion of facts?
What Did You Learn About the Social Problem?
Now that we have explored the different parts of the triangle model, we can see how the social problem we are investigating may end up being far more complex than we initially imagined. We have a sense of how social problems are tied to other social issues that impact people. (To look at how any one social problem can intersect with other issues, jump ahead to the Social Problems Intersect with Other Issues section of this module.) We also understand how our individual experiences and perception, ideologies, and social institutions are all bound up together by structures of power, through laws and public policies. And we see how social problems are created and shaped by these forces. Finally, we explored how discourses affect how we view and respond to a social problem.
At this point, you might want to think about how researching the social problem made you engage in self-analysis. How did your research help you identify the filters that affected your perceptions of the social problem? How might these filters play a role in perpetuating the social problem?
When thinking through the complexity of the social problem, we can, of course, consider different ways to resolve or address the social problem. This is the focus of our next sub-topic.
How Individuals and Communities Respond to the Social Problem and Create Change
To avoid the instability of capitalism and its huge social costs requires changing the system.
– Richard Wolff
How individuals and communities respond to a social problem is based on intersecting factors. These include whether they are personally affected by the problem and the ideologies they hold. Another factor is whether or not they understand the effects of social status or have experienced discrimination based on social status.
Based on these factors, some individuals and communities choose to engage in social action to address the problem. Others ignore it and hope it goes away on its own. And yet others don’t see it as a problem at all and continue with harmful attitudes, behaviours, and practices. (For a thorough understanding of social action, jump ahead to the module on social action.)
For example, conservatives are unlikely to consider youth unemployment a social problem. Conservative think tanks like the Fraser Institute are funded by wealthy donors and argue for keeping minimum wage levels below the poverty level (Sources: Murphy, Lammam, & MacIntyre, 2016; North 99, 2018). This hurts youth, who are more likely to be working minimum-wage jobs. Neoliberals, on the other hand, acknowledge employment discrimination and are open to making superficial changes to the capitalist system to make it more fair to youth. For example, they may be open to increasing the minimum wage. However, both groups equate capitalism with freedom and democracy. They want to preserve the economic system—even if it harms groups like youth. Neoconservatives and neoliberals maintain that capitalism is the best economic system humans have devised and socialism when implemented has been a failure.
Unlike neoconservatives and neoliberals, many groups and individuals view the economic system as destructive and harmful to both humans and the planet.
Social democratic groups and think tanks such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Make Poverty History, and the Broadbent Institute seek changes to the system such as a living wage and higher corporate taxes (Source: Wolff, 2015). These would directly help youth by increasing their pay and funding programs to help them succeed.
Socialist economists argue that capitalism is unable to provide a future for most workers, including youth, since it is focused on profit motivated by greed (Source: M’membe, 2018). Capitalism is not concerned with meeting human needs or ensuring a healthy environment. It rewards corporations that exploit natural resources and workers, including children.
In this view, capitalism cannot be reformed. It will never meet the basic needs of working people by providing employment, food, shelter, and leisure. Instead, socialists suggest that improvements in how we produce goods and use technology could result in productive and creative work for all workers, including youth. It would also reduce how much we work, which would lead to more leisure time. (Unfortunately, socialism in practice has not been able to achieve these goals for two reasons. One, socialist leaders have become dictators to maintain power. Two, experiments that were achieving successes such as Allende in Chile and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada were ended by the US during the Cold War.)
Such views are shared by many decolonizing, anarchist, anti-/racist, Black Lives Matter,
intersectional feminist and LGBTQ2S activists and organizations. They too believe that capitalism must be dismantled because it is based on the control and exploitation of both Indigenous peoples and the planet (Source: Zig Zag, 2011).
The degrowth movement, which started in France, looks to create more equal, participatory, and ecologically sustainable societies (Source: Legendre, 2018). It calls for the wealthier countries that benefited from colonization and imperialism to volunteer to start this process. Capitalist societies are organized around profits, efficiency, and competition. These new societies would be organized around sharing, simplicity, and community. Furthermore, by tackling the intersecting issues with youth employment, they would engage with the problem of unemployment more fully.
So how effective has social action been in addressing employment issues in the past?
social action and rebellion has brought about small but positive policy changes to employment practices under capitalism in liberal democracies.
For example, in the late 1800s white workers in Britain fought and earned the right to organize unions to help them negotiate better pay and working conditions. During the financial collapse of the 1930s, politicians and business leaders feared that the working class would rise up against them. As a result, governments of countries like Canada and the US adopted socialist policies that benefited workers.
During the 1970s feminist activists made sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace social issues. This led to laws and policies addressing these issues. Anti-racist feminists, academics, and activists continue to work to get institutions to acknowledge race and gender harassment and discrimination. Similarly, disability rights and trans activists have challenged institutions to implement reasonable accommodations at work and end exclusion from the workforce.
Despite these positive changes, discriminatory attitudes still exist in popular culture and in workplaces. Many youths continue to face a hostile work climate, unequal pay, employment discrimination, and poor choice of jobs on the basis of gender, race, disabilities, and sexuality. Laws and policies to address these issues only work if we educate people on them, monitor youth experiences, and demand they be followed. In the case of youth unemployment, there’s more work to be done.
Youth Activists Exposing Capitalism: Socialism for the Rich, Capitalism for the Poor
Capitalism has always had periods of crisis and instability. The stock market collapse of 1929 led to what is known as the Great Depression. During this time, governments were forced to adopt many socialist labour policies resulting in better pay and working conditions. However, after the economic crash of the 1970s, economic elites persuaded governments to adopt neoliberalism. This was a more exploitative system of capitalism that led to the loss of secure full-time jobs, and more poverty and homelessness (Street, 2014).
Our last major financial crisis occurred in 2008. To recover, the US government paid a trillion dollars of public money to bail out the big banks. US citizens will be paying it back for generations to come (Taibbi, 2019). No senior bankers went to jail (Auerback, 2018). However, millions lost their homes and jobs. And many small and medium businesses went bankrupt (Kotz, 2009).
In response to this most recent crisis, a group of anarchist youth started a global movement known as
Occupy Wall Street. It exposed how corporations and governments work together to enrich corporations at the expense of working people, creating greater inequality. This social action by youth led to a new counter discourse about inequality, wealth and power that is now part of our vocabulary—the 1% vs. the 99%.
Can the economic ideology of capitalism ever solve the problem of youth unemployment?
Have you faced the social problem of youth unemployment? What do you think were the major reasons for your unemployment? The economic system? Your social identity? Inadequate education and training?
How do dominant discourses promote capitalism as the best economic system to solve the social problem of youth unemployment? How does this prevent meaningful change?
Why do neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies critique socialist or social democratic strategies to reduce the impacts of the social problem?
Historically which stakeholders or communities have organized to expose the root causes of the problem? What types of social action have they used? What demands have they made of the relevant institutions?
What do you think are the best ideologies and
social action strategies to address this social problem?
In this module, we were introduced to social analysis and the triangle model. We started by exploring why it is important for us to recognize our perceptual filters. Then we explored the different aspects of the triangle model. This model helps us understand the origins of social problems and why they continue in spite of social action that seeks to create change. We looked at what shapes our perception of social problems. We considered the role ideologies play. Finally, we thought about how institutions can create and maintain social problems through policies, laws and social norms. By engaging in social analysis, we are able to find the root causes of social problems. This allows us to evaluate strategies to address them, change our attitudes or behaviours, and take social action.
The political, economic and cultural domination of one country over another group of people or nation. This can include taking land or resources.
Discourses that question the “common-sense” ideas of dominant ideologies and dominant discourses. They draw attention to how dominant ideologies justify injustice and lead to inequality and discrimination.
Critical as used in this module does not mean negative. It means being mindful, aware, and analytical.
How the common-sense ideas, assumptions and values of dominant ideologies are communicated to us. Dominant discourses can be found in propaganda, cultural messages, and mass media.
Can be understood in terms of “justice” and “fairness.” Equity recognizes that treating everyone the same can still be unfair. Equity focuses on the needs of society’s most under-resourced, oppressed, and disadvantaged people.
For neoliberals and neoconservatives, full employment occurs when inflation (constant increase in the price of goods and services occurring with a steady decline in purchasing power) rises and employers can find enough workers for the types of available jobs. So, it does not mean that everyone has a job as would occur in socialist economies.
Refers to the tensions that occur when activists, academics, and affected communities expose the oppressive and exploitative aspects of the social order.
The process of building consent through social practices where the ruling classes present their interests as the general interests of the society as a whole.
Not equal or the same or even. Often used to note the unfair differences in people’s circumstances.
The experience, or potential experience, of multiple forms of discrimination based on different aspects of our identities.
How mainstream media minoritizes groups and communities, as well as how it portrays ideas or topics from a particular ideological perspective.
Social expectations about attitudes, values, and beliefs.
Occupy Wall Street
The name of the popular uprising after the banks that caused the financial crash of 2008 were bailed out with public money. It exposed the influence of the wealthy on government’s economic, environmental, labour, and human rights policies.
Refers to institutional policies, procedures, practices, and norms that create and sustain inequality and injustice. It also involves attitudes and ideas such as stereotyping and prejudices; as well as actions and behaviours such as discrimination.
Refers to the prejudices, stereotypes and biases that affect how you see the world.
precarious job market
The market for jobs that are contract, part-time, low wage, without benefits, security, or union protection. Increasingly common, these types of jobs are unable to meet the basic needs of workers, who are forced to rely on food banks and inadequate shelter, which affect their material and psychological well-being.
Refers to individual and/or collective acts to change inequality, oppression and injustice in society. It can be organized, spontaneous or symbolic.
A process by which you become aware of your blind spots and perceptual filters such as your ideologies, biases, stereotypes, and common-sense assumptions. It also requires understanding how your social identities potentially provide you with advantages or disadvantages.
social action strategies
Ways to bring about systemic change. Evolve from community and grassroots-based organizing and can involve:
Awareness-raising strategies such as education and research, teach-ins, organizing and collaborating with other groups.
Negotiation such as bargaining for changes in policies, practices and laws.
Non-cooperation such as strikes and boycotts.
Direct action/civil disobedience such as as disruption of services, protests, blockades, boycotts, riots, and confrontation. In rare historical moments it can also involve revolution.
Action by an individual or group of people directed towards creating a better society. Social action often involves interactions with other individuals or groups, especially organized action with the goal of social reform.
Describes how our identities are the product of the interplay between individual, cultural, and social structures.
Problems that affect groups of people and are caused by how society is structured and organized. Social problems are particular to specific societies and times. Solutions to these problems are beyond the reach of any single individual.
The position or ranking a person has in relation to others within society.
The hierarchical arrangement of social groups based on their control over basic resources, such as housing, jobs, healthcare, etc.
Problems caused by how society is structured and organized. Understanding social problems as systemic/structural problems acknowledges that resolving them is incredibly difficult but creating change through social action (based on the principles of global citizenship) is meaningful and can be long-lasting.
Systemic, as used in this course, describes something that is embedded within the structure of society or the larger economic capitalist system. Changing it requires changing the system.
Advantages gained by virtue of one’s social status.
Refers to members of the workforce who work full-time, but don’t make enough money for food and shelter. Consequently, they live below the poverty line and rely on food banks and other sources to survive.
Global Citizenship Example
Global Citizenship, Social Analysis and Critical Thinking
Many students ask, “What’s the point of taking courses like GNED 500? It has nothing to do with what I’m studying.” One important reason is they help develop critical thinking skills. Employers place a high value on critical thinking, making it one of the most valuable assets you bring to your future career. And crucially, global citizens are critical thinkers. Several studies conclude that those who develop the ability to critically think are self-reflective, independent, creative and competent employees in all disciplines. Such employees can logically connect ideas, evaluate arguments, find inconsistencies, and solve complex problems. They think globally and work collaboratively with people of different abilities and backgrounds (Haber, 2020).
When examining Indigenous youth unemployment, we must consider differing circumstances and issues.
Globally indigenous youth and adults continue to be dispossessed of their ancestral lands because of colonization, corporate agriculture, resource development, and military occupation (Sources: Dean, 2003; Yates-Doerr, 2018). Many youth are forced to survive in urban slums. If they have access to schooling, it is largely Eurocentric (about white settlers) as Indigenous teachings are devalued (Source: Dupere, 2016). Indigenousyouth who live in cities encounter prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination that negatively impact their job prospects and employment experiences. A recent Canadian study found that 52% of Indigenous people feel “on guard” at work and 60% felt psychologically unsafe (Source: Deschamps, 2021). These figures double for Indigenous women. Another Canadian study found that currently white youth have an unemployment rate of 15.4%, black youth 31.6% and Indigenous youth 20.9% (Source: Block, 2021). The largest job losses since the pandemic are in sales and services, a sector largely made up of precarious work and predominantly staffed by female, Indigenous and racialized workers. First Nations youth living on reserves in Canada encounter differing employment conditions and opportunities (Source: Restoule, n.d.). A few reserves are resource rich as a result of recent treaty settlements. However, many still face economic hardship and environmental racism from colonial policies that limit opportunities.
Social Problems Intersect with Other Issues
The module on social problems provides important context to understand social problems. We can still go deeper in thinking about them using the triangle model. As Audre Lorde says, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” The dimensions and impacts of social problems are vast and complex. When examining a social problem, ask yourself: What dimension of the social problem am I going to focus on? Will I explore the economic system? Will I look at institutional, social, physical, or psychological impacts?
Use the dropdown menu below to consider more in-depth aspects of social problems to explore. As you will see, the complexity and immensity of particular social problems become clear once we begin to ask critical questions. What are the impacts? Who is impacted? What are the patterns? How do the impacts differ?
If you decide to focus on the social impacts, the first thing is to recognize that not all youth are the same. How does social status affect youth unemployment patterns? Does being Indigenous or of a certain gender, race, class, or sexuality affect someone’s ability to get a job and what kind of job they can find (Source: The Canadian Press, 2021)? Does disability, language, or citizenship make a difference? You may want to consider the effects of not being able to find a job. How do people react? Do they feel disillusioned about the future? Who do they blame for their unemployment? Is this who is actually responsible?
What about the physical impacts? Is there increased violence, vandalism and aggression among unemployed young men? Does being unable to find jobs make young women and men more vulnerable to sex trafficking and associated violence? Does it lead to malnourishment and other health ailments? What about cognitive problems associated with learning and schooling?
What are the psychological harms caused by youth employment? Is youth unemployment associated with increased depression, self-harm, addiction, low self-esteem, eating disorders, or suicide? Do these consequences differ based on your social identity and status? Have the effects of colonialism and loss of territory made First Nations youth more vulnerable to these harmful impacts?
What are the economic impacts associated with unemployed youth? How does it affect the type of shelter, schooling and transportation available to youth from different social groups? Does underemployment lead to more shoplifting or crime? Does it make youth more likely to join gangs? How do economic impacts affect youth globally?
What are the institutional impacts? How do the policies and practices of schools, governments, and corporations contribute to or help this problem? How does corporate media portray the problem of youth unemployment? Do these portrayals lead to flawed common-sense assumptions and stereotypes about youth?
Social Analysis in Global Citizenship: From Social Analysis to Social Action (2021) by Centennial College, Chet Singh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) unless otherwise stated.
Hasford, J. (2016, April 20). Dominant cultural narratives, racism, and resistance in the workplace: A study of the experiences of young Black Canadians. American Journal of Community Psychology, 57 (1-2). https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12024
Sibiya, A. T., & Nyembezi, N. (2002). Examining factors that shape Technical Vocational Education and Training engineering students’ understanding of their career choices. Transformation in Higher Education, 3 (0), a33. https://doi.org/10.4102/the.v3i0.33
Singh, C. (2014) Hegemonic Discourses that Obscure the Root Causes of Poverty and Inequality Trent University’s 50th Anniversary Symposium: Ideas that Change the World. Peterborough, Ontario.