When is a Social Problem no Longer a Social Problem?; Resistance and Cognitive Dissonance

When is a Social Problem no Longer a Social Problem?


By Karen Sternheimer

If a tree falls and nobody is around to hear it, does it make any noise?

You’ve likely heard this hypothetical question before. Sociologically speaking, we might ask in a similar vein: if a social problem improves dramatically but few people know about these improvements, is it still a social problem?

I started thinking about this in my social problems class recently. Each semester, students are very surprised to learn that rates of teen pregnancy have declined dramatically. In fact, a recent report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute notes that the teen pregnancy rate is now at an all-time low in U.S. history.

Taking a look at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the birth rates for 15-17-year-olds fell 45 percent between 1991 and 2008 (the most recent year for which we have data). For 18-19-year-olds, the birth rate fell 26 percent during this time frame. And while births to 10-14-year-olds are very rare (6 per 10,000 girls in this age group in 2008), this represents drop of more than 50 percent since 1991.

The Guttmacher Institute report also notes that the abortion rate for teens has fallen to the lowest level since abortion became legal in 1973, and the rate fell by 59 percent since its peak in 1988. The authors conclude that increased contraceptive use and a decrease in sexual activity help explain the declines.

Despite these significant changes, which have been publicized as the CDC releases data each year, the notion that teen pregnancy is a continuing—and even worsening—problem persists. Some might argue that until the teen pregnancy rate is zero we will still have a problem, that births to teens who may be too inexperienced to become parents is an issue regardless. All we need to do is check out an episode of MTV’s Teen Mom to see why teens and parenting might not mix.

While most contemporary Americans would agree that it’s a good idea to wait until adulthood and achieve emotional maturity and financial stability before becoming a parent, historically teens have regularly become parents. As you can see from the CDC graph below, the birth rate for 15-19-year-olds was 96.3 per thousand in 1957 (it was 41.5 per thousand in 2008).

Despite the widespread belief that the 1950s was an age of innocence compared with today, teens were more than twice as likely to become pregnant then than they are now. The difference was those 1950s teens were also significantly more likely to get married before giving birth. The economic boom after World War II meant that people could afford to support a family at much earlier ages then. Thus, teen pregnancy was not perceived as serious a social problem as today, even though teens were much more likely to become pregnant.


Sociologist Mike A. Males has argued in his book Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities, that the term “teen pregnancy” is itself problematic. Males notes that many teens become pregnant by adult men rather than other teens, so often only one parent is a teen. And as noted above, the largest proportion of teen moms are actually eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, who are technically adults.

And as you can see from the data in the graph below, the teen pregnancy rate varies dramatically by race/ethnicity. In order to understand these pregnancies better, it is important to examine what factors may make Latina, American Indian/Alaska Natives, and African American teens more likely to get pregnant. (Or, by contrast, what factors make Asian American/Pacific Islanders and Non-Hispanic whites less likely).


As Males points out in his book, “’Teen pregnancy’ is strictly an economic phenomenon.” Through use of international and local data on birth rates and poverty rates, he demonstrates the strong relationship between the two. Teen pregnancy is not only an issue about sex; teens who get pregnant are more likely to  live in poverty. Perceiving fewer options for the future, an early pregnancy might not seem to derail one’s future opportunities if you don’t realistically think you have any.

So is teen pregnancy still a social problem? As sociologist Joel Best observes in his text, Social Problems, a social problem is based as much on perception as on any objective evidence. Yes, data indicate that fewer teens are having children today than in the past. But many could argue a troubling condition still exists nonetheless. Because a large group of people perceive this as a social problem, it continues to be.



Science, Resistance and Cognitive Dissonance

By Sally Raskoff

Science is the tool we have to get the most accurate information possible. But do we believe what science tells us? Especially when that information may counter what we want to believe or when authority figures tell us not to believe it?

The current debate on climate change is an excellent example, as is the older environmental debate on evolution and, of course, the even older debate about heliocentrism, or how the earth revolves around the sun (instead of the reverse). Science clearly shows that evolution occurs and the climate is changing. Yet there are groups that do not accept such information or the supporting evidence for it.

Federal and (most) state standards for teaching in K-12 education do hold to the scientific evidence but local and individual decisions may still keep this information from students. It may also be taught in parallel to the belief systems that counter this knowledge.


Source: Borick & Rabe, 2011

Why is this so? There may be many reasons why people in this society reject scientific evidence in favor of contradicting ideas.

One might be cognitive dissonance. Often taught in sociology classes, this is what happens when we behave in ways and believe things that are in direct opposition to what society knows is true. The classic example is that while we know smoking tobacco is bad for our health, many people do it anyway. Their behavior isn’t rational, and on some level they know that, but they may try to come up with reasons to rationalize it anyway.

There can be cognitive dissonance when it comes to climate change too. The science clearly shows that while the climate naturally oscillates , the period of warming we are in has been exacerbated by human uses of technology. Even so, people still use plenty of petroleum products and add to the dynamics that are accelerating the rate of climate warming. We do this even though we know it may be bad for the environment. We may feel guilty about it, or not. We may change some of our behaviors to help, or not. We may be active in some organizations that try to help bring change or attention to the problem. Or not.

However, some people do not believe the science so they would not experience cognitive dissonance.

Another explanation might have to do with social structure itself. Sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote of the social construction of reality in which humans create their society and the structures within it, then that society takes on such real dimensions that we forget we created it thus it then controls us. We may often feel powerless to change society since we feel it is monolithic and outside ourselves.

This phenomenon can help explain resistance to scientific ideas. Each of us grows up in a society – and in subcultures – that teach us that certain ideas are truths. We are socialized into specific belief systems, which then guide us to be an effective part of the group and sustain that social reality. We are not often encouraged to question those beliefs since they are the social glue that holds us together, as Emile Durkheim might argue.

When new information emerges, our first reaction is not to accept it, especially if it seems counter to the beliefs we already hold as normative, natural, and real. Such new information can challenge not only our belief systems but also the power structure of society.

Picture the society of Galileo’s time and what happened once he advanced the theory of heliocentrism. His theories were threatening to the religious powers at that time, and that explains why the church took action against him. Yet the passage of time and more scientific study of his ideas supported his theory. We now understand seasons and many other phenomena because science has identified that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Social structure is very hard and very slow to change. Our society, even with its post-industrial western culture and high ideals for education, may chafe at new information, as do all other social systems. We may want our society to change more quickly when faced with new information, verified by the scientific community, however that is not a quick process either.

Science itself moves very slowly. The need for replication is paramount. This is to ensure we have made decisions on solid and accurate information. (Please note I’m not using the word “truth”. That is a different matter.)

However, once the scientific evidence builds up and enough time has passed so that the societal institutions who were threatened by such information have adapted or been replaced by others, society can then place high value on that information. That is what happened with heliocentrism; it is happening with evolution; and is just beginning to happen with climate change.

Particular entities may be resisting such change because they have vested interests. They may have become powerful because of their ties to our economy, which relies on technologies that contribute to climate change. Those groups with power in society do not give up or diversify that power easily.

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