No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Social Problems as Collective Behavior

The Social Definition of Safety Problems

The assumption that social problems exist as objective conditions within a society was challenged by Herbert Blumer in 1971. He proposed that social problems are products of a collective definition process.

Blumer studied the five-stage process by which a society recognizes, defines, and handles social problems:

1. Emergence: Social problems don't automatically arise; they need societal recognition. Not every harmful condition becomes a social problem, and recognition is a selective process influenced by various factors.
2. Legitimation: Recognition alone is insufficient; a social problem must gain legitimacy. Without respectability, it flounders outside arenas of public action. Only a few among recognized problems achieve this legitimacy.
3. Mobilization: Recognized and legitimized problems enter a stage of discussion, controversy, and diverse claims. This mobilization shapes how the problem is defined, responded to, and potentially resolved. Sociologists often overlook this crucial stage.
4. Plan formation: The society decides how to act by formulating an official plan. This stage involves bargaining, compromises, and accommodations of diverse views. The official plan itself becomes the society's official definition of the problem.
5. Plan implementation: The plan's execution is a defining process, often diverging from the initial vision. Unexpected modifications, unforeseen consequences, and unintended restructuring occur. This stage is crucial but surprisingly understudied.
Likewise, the emergence of safety problems in organizations is a result of a collective definition process. Safety problems don't automatically gain attention; they require recognition within the organization. Not every potential hazard or incident becomes a recognized safety issue, and the recognition process is influenced by various factors such as organizational culture, leadership priorities, and employee awareness. A safety problem needs more than recognition; without being viewed as a credible concern, it may struggle to secure the necessary resources and attention to address it effectively.
Recognized and legitimized safety problems enter a stage of discussion, where stakeholders engage in dialogue, evaluate risks, and propose solutions. This mobilization phase shapes how the safety problem is defined, the urgency assigned to it, and the allocation of resources for resolution.

The organization may decide to address the safety problem by formulating an official plan. This involves collaboration between various departments, compromises, and negotiations to create a comprehensive strategy, e.g. for improving safety measures. The execution of the plan is a dynamic process, which often deviates from the initial vision. Unforeseen modifications, unexpected consequences, and unintended restructuring may occur. This stage is critical for assessing the effectiveness of safety interventions.

Blumer, H. (1971), Social Problems as Collective Behavior, in: Social Problems, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Winter, 1971), pp. 298-306.