From Claims to Chains: the Materiality of Social Problems

  • Jared Del RossoEmail author


Inspired by the work of Bruno Latour, I propose treating social problems not as claims, but as chains. Social problems chains consist of sites of claims-making activities connected by objectified forms of socialproblems, such as problem categories inscribed in texts or material constructions of problems. The focus of social problems research, then, should be three-fold. Research should attend to the activities that produce objectified forms of social problems. Research should also attend to the material forms that lend stability and mobility to constructions of social problems. And, finally, research should trace the paths those forms take, as they link sites of social problems activities and enable or constrain claims-makers’ efforts to build their own versions of problems. Doing so, social problems theory can better account for the diverse materials caught up in the construction of problems and the differences among competing constructions of problems.


Social problems Social problems theory Constructionism Actor-network theory Materiality 



  1. Best, J. (1987). Rhetoric in claims-making: Constructing the missing child problem. Social Problems, 34(2), 101–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Best, J. (1993). But seriously folks: The limitations of the strict constructionist interpretation of social problems. In J. A. Holstein & G. Miller (Eds.), Reconsidering social constructionism: Debates in social problems theory (pp. 129–150). New York: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  3. Best, J., & Nichols, L. (2018). Memories as problems; or, how to reconsider confederate flags and other symbols of the past. In J. Best (Ed.), American nightmares: Social problems in an anxious world (pp. 129–158). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bump, P. (2018). The original source for Trump’s claim of 63,000 immigrant murders? Bad data from Steve King in 2006. Washington Post, June 22. Accessed 8 March 2019.
  5. Daemmrich, A. (1998). The evidence does not speak for itself: Expert witnesses and the organization of DNA-typing companies. Social Studies of Science, 28(5–6), 741–772.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Del Rosso, J. (2011). The textual mediation of denial: Congress, Abu Ghraib, and the construction of an isolated incident. Social Problems, 58(2), 165–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Del Rosso, J. (2014). Textuality and the social organization of denial: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the meanings of us interrogation policies. Sociological Forum, 29(1), 52–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Del Rosso, J. (2015). Talking about torture: How political discourse shapes the debate. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Del Rosso, J., & Esala, J. (2015). Constructionism and the textuality of social problems. Qualitative Sociology Review, 11(2), 34–45.Google Scholar
  10. Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.Google Scholar
  11. Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Anchor Books.Google Scholar
  12. Hilgartner, S., & Bosk, C. L. (1988). The rise and fall of social problems: A public arenas model. American Journal of Sociology, 94(1), 53–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Holstein, J. A., & Miller, G. (1993). Social constructionism and social problems work. In J. A. Holstein & G. Miller (Eds.), Reconsidering social constructionism: Debates in social problems theory (pp. 151–172). New York: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  14. Ibarra, P. R., & Kitsuse, J. I. (1993). Vernacular constituents of moral discourse: An interactionist proposal for the study of social problems. In J. A. Holstein & G. Miller (Eds.), Reconsidering social constructionism: Debates in social problems theory (pp. 25–58). New York: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  15. Kofman, Ava. (2018) Bruno Latour, the post-truth philosopher mounts a defense of science. New York Times, October 25. Accessed 8 March 2019
  16. Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Latour, B. (1991). We have never been modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s hope: Essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. New York: Oxford University.Google Scholar
  20. Latour, B. (2013). The making of law: An ethnography of the Conseil d’Etat. Malden: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  21. Pfohl, S. (1977). The “discovery” of “child abuse”. Social Problems, 24(3), 310–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Physicians for Human Rights. (2008). Broken laws, broken lives. Retrieved Accessed 8 March 2019.
  23. Smith, D. (1990). Texts, facts, and femininity: Exploring the relations of ruling. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Smith, D. (2001). Texts and the ontology of organizations and institutions. Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies, 7(2), 159–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Sorokin, P. A. (1947). Society, culture, and personality: Their structure and dynamics. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.Google Scholar
  26. Sorokin, P. A. (1965). Sociology of yesterday, today and tomorrow. American Sociological Review, 30(6), 833–843.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Spector, M., & Kitsuse, J. I. (1987). Constructing social problems. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  28. Timmermans, S. (2006). Postmortem: How medical examiners explain suspicious deaths. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Woolgar, S., & Pawluch, D. (1985). Ontological gerrymandering: The anatomy of social problems explanations. Social Problems, 32(3), 214–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology & CriminologyUniversity of DenverDenverUSA

Personalised recommendations