Edited by Patricia Kennett
Chapter 16: Constructing Categories and Data Collection
Patricia Kennett The construction of concepts, categories and deﬁnitions of contemporary social issues is a central issue in comparative social research. Not only is it vital to ensure that the concepts and categories being compared mean the same or something similar across the societies being investigated, it is also vital to analyse the processes through which a phenomenon becomes deﬁned as a problem. As Jessop argues, selective narratives of past events generate distinctive accounts of current economic, social and political problems, from which emerge ‘a limited but widely accepted set of diagnoses and prescriptions for the economic, social and political difﬁculties now confronting nations, regions, and cities and their populations’ (Jessop, 1996: 3). Representations of social issues are subject to political manipulation, and numbers play a central role in constructing and reinforcing discourses around speciﬁc social ‘problems’, determining what aspects of a problem are responded to and in what way. May (1997) points to three important elements in the construction of a ‘social problem’ – culture, history and social power. He argues that power is not evenly distributed between groups. The recognition that a ‘problem’ exists and the way that it is deﬁned is often a product of ‘the relative power that the people who deﬁne the social problem have over those who are deﬁned.’ (p. 47). Thus it becomes vital to ‘examine the process through which a phenomenon became deﬁned as a problem’ (p. 47), rather than just accept given deﬁnitions....
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