Thursday, November 15, 2007

Social Problems Require A Social Solution

A recent report from the UK finds that obesity is not the individual problem that most people seem to think. Instead, social factors appear to play a larger role in determining whether or not someone becomes obese. For someone in sociology this seems reasonable, but for those not familiar with the field it may be hard to understand how social forces can create social problems.

Some will still argue that it is an individual's "choice" and responsibility to control and regulate themselves. This atomistic view of the world misses the way in which our choices and ideas are constrained by the social world in which we live. For example, energy dense foods (e.g. fast food) that are cheap and available to the poor are more likely to lead to obesity than more nutrient dense food (e.g. fresh fruits and vegetables). While many would say that this just means that the poor need to "make better choices," the fact that these findings show a clear pattern by sociodemographic factors indicate that ideas of choice and responsibility are not sufficiently nuanced to get at the reasons for difference.

Societal factors such as sedentary lifestyle, energy saving devices, automobility, and energy dense cheap foods are all on the rise. Social problems require social solutions and this report just highlights this. A considered response is necessary to combat this problem. It is important to identify and attempt to work on structural factors and not just the symptoms. Issues of consumerism and excess consumption must be examined along with things such as education. We also must come to hold corporations more accountable for their actions and products. Simply providing the nutritional information of the products is not sufficient. It is true that people have the ability to decide what they are consuming. The fact that it is often easier to consume something fast and unhealthy than something self-prepared and nutritious shows a failure of the market to provide adequate alternatives.

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