SOCIAL PATHOLOGIES: Definition, types, causes

After learning this topic, youare expected to:

  • Define the concept of social pathology/ problem;
  • Appreciate the social and non-biological determinantsof the various forms of problems that individuals suffer from in society;
  • Understand why social pathologies occur in a givensociety;
  • Describe the various forms of social pathologies ofthe contemporary society; and
  • Be aware of the range, extent and major type of socialproblems/ pathologies in contemporary Ethiopia; and explain the socio-politicaland historical factors and bases of these problems.

The Concept of Social Pathology

Social scientists usually talkabout social pathologies or social problems. Social pathologies haveexisted as long as humans began living in groups. In other words, they are asantique as humans themselves.

The kinds of social pathologiesthat baffle social scientists and moral philosophers today were also topics ofphilosophical inquiry for ancient and medieval philosophers and religiousthinkers. However, it may be appropriate to argue that the profundity and scopeof today’s social problems are unmatchable with those of the past (Ranchman,1991; Zastrow, 1996).

The term pathology is aGreek word, which is composed of pathos and logos. It literallymeans the study of diseases and disease processes.

The term social pathologygenerally refers to the pathos of society, i.e., the “socialdiseases” that affect society. However, a more explanatory term is socialproblems. Social problems are those diseased conditions of society thataffect its normal functioning. A problem that is limited only to the level ofan individual person or to only few groups may not be regarded as a socialproblem.

A social pathology affectssociety, or its institutions and organizations at large. However, the very termsocial problem may mean any problem that has social origins,affecting at least two persons, that goes beyond mere psychological andphysiological levels (Kornblum and Julian, 1995)

Sociologists argue that socialproblems are best understood in the social institutional context. Although thecauses for social problems are multiple, sociologists contend that they areusually the manifestations of the failure in the social institutionsthemselves.

When an institution fails toaddress the basic needs of people, social problems occur. It is usually easyfor an ordinary person to blame the cause of a certain social problem on thefailure of individuals themselves. For example, if we take the problem of beggingor drug addiction, the individual victims are blamed for the actions. However,we need to look into the broader sociological and cultural contexts (Indrani,1998).

 The Universality and Locality of Some SocialPathologies

It may be right to state thatsome social problems are universal in their nature; this means that they occureverywhere across all societies. They may derive from the fundamentalsimilarity of the nature, origin and destiny of all human societies.

As anthropologists argue, allhuman beings share common bio-psychological problems and as such they have moreor less similar basic interests, questions, fears, etc. Although they may varyin terms of scale, all societies face such kinds of social problems as forexample, juvenile delinquencies, marriage breakdown and divorce,parent-children conflicts, tensions over limited resources between groups, warsand inter-group skirmishes, alcoholism, environmental pollution, prostitution,homelessness, begging, etc.

However, some of the social problemsseem to emanate from the local conditions; they are the manifestations of thespecific cultural and ecological settings of a society, as well as thereflections of the socio-historical and political dimensions of the society.

They also reflect the level oftechnological advancement a society has arrived at. For example, the majorsocial problems that abound in the industrially complex society of the Westinclude environmental pollution, marital breakdown and familial conflicts,juvenile delinquencies, suicide, drug addiction, and the collapse of morality,among others. These seem to be more rampant in the Western societies. On the otherhand, the Third World societies suffer from such kinds of social problems asurban slums, housing shortage, urban and rural poverty, sanitation problems, famine,ethnic conflicts, lack of good governance and corruption, streetism andhomelessness, among others.

Social Deviance and Crime

Deviance is behavior that membersof a group or society see as violating their norms. Definition of deviance variesaccording to groups. Whether an action or behavior is considered deviantdepends on time, place and social situations (Henslin and Nelson, 1995).

There are psychological andsociological explanations of deviance. Psychological theories focus on the personalityof individuals.

Certain genetic and biochemicalabnormalities lead individuals to commit deviance and criminal acts.Sociological theories focus on the forces beyond the individual.

Differential associationtheory maintains that people learn deviant acts through socialization; structuralstrain theory maintains that deviance occurs when conformity to widelyaccepted norms of behavior fails to satisfy legitimate, culturally approveddesires.

According to the controltheory, every person is naturally prone to make deviance, but most of usconform to norms because of effective system of inner and outer control. It isthose who have less effective control who deviate.

Another sociological theory calledlabeling theory states that behaviors are deviant when and onlybecause people label them as such (Caffrey and Mundy, 1995).

In general biologists andpsychologists look into the individual, while sociologists look outside of the individualfor explanations of why people commit deviance and crime,

A Survey of Some Social Problems in Ethiopia

A cursory look at the streets ofmajor urban centers in Ethiopia shows that this is a time when our contemporaryEthiopian society is hosting a multiplicity of social problems. The nature,type, intensity and complexity of the social problems in contemporary Ethiopiaare reflections of:

  • The country’s long history of underdevelopment;
  • Socio-cultural backwardness;
  • Poor level of scientific and technological development;
  • Lack of good governance and political instability;
  • Uncontrollable natural conditions, such as droughts,famine, etc;
  • The mismatch between rapidly growing population andeconomic development; and
  • Urbanization and economic growth, among others (Fasil,1993).

The following are some of themajor social problems in Ethiopia.

Vulnerability to Famine and theProblem of Food Insecurity

Our country has been experiencingvulnerability to famine. It has successively been hit by severe droughts andresulting famine which claimed the lives of innumerable citizens and those ofanimals. The trend in recent years has worsened so much that in 2001/ 2002, therewere about 14 million Ethiopians exposed to the danger of famine. The faminesof early 1970s and 1984 were so severe that they were talking issues for the wholeworld. The problem is now one of the top agenda items for the Government ofEthiopia. It is no wonder that many people associate Ethiopia with famine, droughtand poverty. The name of Ethiopia was so much popularized that some worldfamous individuals have amassed money through fund raising campaigns in thename of helping the starving Ethiopians and used the money for their personalgains (Mesfin, 1984; Nigussie, 2004).

The rural population is more vulnerableto famine. The quality of life of the rural people has as a result deterioratedvery much. The most important sections of society that are more affected by thefamine and drought are often children, women and the aged. Of the death tolldue to famine, these categories constitute of the largest proportion (Fasil, opcit). Vulnerability to famine as a social problem, thus, results in anumber of adverse consequences on health. “Famine and food insecurity aggravatethe spread of diseases; it is now well known that the mass death and famineinduced mortality are caused not only by starvation but also by the spread ofdiseases among the already vulnerable population” (Personal communication,Dr Teketel Abebe, AAU, Department of Sociology and Social

Administration). Thus, manyof the cases of morbidity and mortality are associated with famine and lack of adequatenutrition particularly in rural Ethiopia. Diseases like kwashiorkor, marasmus,and poor physical conditions like stunted growth, emaciation, etc, are cases inpoint. Such conditions are at the other extreme to some health problems likeobesity in affluent societies.


Prostitution as a social problemseems to be associated with the growth of urbanization and urbanism as a way oflife. Although it has existed throughout history, it has become rampant in thisage of modernization. Some cities in south East Asian countries like Malaysia,

Singapore and Thailand arenotorious for the sex industry. The term prostitution now appears to be outdatedand a more humane term is now commercial sex work. This term isintroduced to indicate that like any other work, prostitution is also anindustry, where individuals are, mainly due to factors beyond their individuals’capacity, forced to sell their bodies to earn money for a living.

As some studies indicate, thehistory of prostitution in

Ethiopia goes back to the rise ofurbanization and the introduction of Italian colonization. Commercial sex work hasnow become a major social pathology in the country. Urban centers like AddisAbaba, Bahir Dar, Nazareth, Shashemene, Dire Dawa, among others are majorcenters of commercial sex work. A recent media dispatch disclosed that inNazareth Town, there are about 3500 commercial sex workers. Multiple sexual partnershipand commercial sex work are thus the most visible pathways for the spread ofSTIs and HIV/AIDS.

Addressing this social problem atits root causes might, therefore, would help very much in the fight against thespread of HIV/AIDS.

The root causes of commercial sexwork are usually poverty, harmful traditional practices such as early marriage,forced marriage and marriage by abduction, among others. Dysfunctionalmarriages, entrenched poverty and economic dependency often drive females toprostitution; and this may in turn contribute to the spread of STIs includingHIV/AIDS among women and the general population. Young girls from rural areas oftenflee to urban centers from harsh social and cultural conditions in the ruralareas. They end up engaging in commercial sex work to earn a living.


Governments in developed andundeveloped countries alike these days face the mounting social problem of unemployment.In Ethiopia, too, unemployment has become one of the major social problems. Theunemployed are those who currently in search of a gainful job and are dependenton somebody else for their living. There are other categories like the underemployed;these are those who are engaged in a job that does not match their level ofexpertise or training (Team of Experts, 2000).

The youth seem to suffer the mostfrom this social problem. Of those who complete the 10th or 12th grades inEthiopia, limited number join colleges and universities. Even of those whograduate with diplomas and degrees, many stay long in search of job. The problemof unemployment has many adverse ramifications on the unemployed and thesociety at large. Desperation and disappointments may lead many toself-destructive and anti-social behaviors and actions, such as drug addictions,alcoholism, organized crimes (like robbery), suicide, and violence againstwomen, theft and begging (Youth Affairs Coordination Office,

Ministry of Youth, Sports andCulture, 2002).

The Youth and Drug Addiction

The problem of drug addiction isnow a number one social problem, particularly in developed societies. The problemis becoming rampant in Ethiopia as well. It is now common to hear from theelectronic media and to read from the print media that the tradition of drugusage is a growing one in many large urban centers in the country. Recent radionews (November, 2004) disclosed that in the town of Nazareth, there were about75 clandestine houses where various types of harmful drugs are sold and used.The drug tradition is often associated with the growth of overnight clubs, barsand the chance for multiple sexual partnerships also becomes very high.

Chat, a local mildnarcotic plant, has become a very common type of drug for many youth as well asadults.

Many have become dependent on thestimulant drug and it seems that without it some fail to efficiently carry outtheir tasks. Studies show that chat chewing is associated with manyadverse mental and physical health problems. The growing number of the mentallydisturbed persons, holding a piece of chat plant, roaming the streets ofsome urban centers like Jimma, Awassa, Dilla and other towns in SouthernEthiopia (Youth Affairs Coordination Office, Ministry of Youth, Sports andCulture, 2002).

Rural to Urban Migration, the RefugeeProblem and Health

Ethiopia as a Sub-Saharan Africancountry has experienced the sweeping influence of the wave of migration that isbetter understood in the political, economic, ecological and socio-culturalcontexts of the contemporary world. The most significant event in the place ofEthiopians in international migration is the period following the downfall ofthe (Ethiopian) imperial rule and the onset of the communist-oriented, revolutionaryrule by the Dergue regime. What might be called the Ethiopian Diaspora cameinto the world scene in the late 1960s and 1970’s (Bekele, 2002).

Innumerable Ethiopiansconstituting particularly the intellectuals fled the country as forced migrantsmainly to the USA, and scattering well over the world. The incessant flow ofEthiopian migrants, as part of the international migration, mainly spurred bythe search for better living opportunities, often masked under the facade offleeing political persecution, has still continued unabated. The impact of thison the country’s socioeconomic landscape, be it negative or positive, is incalculable,particularly the migration of intellectuals and the ensuing brain drain is nosimple matter (Dutoit, 1990).

The various ethno-linguisticgroups in the country have engaged in migration and population movements since timeimmemorial for a multiplicity of reasons. Migration at both the micro- andmacro levels between regions and within regions, from rural to urban and viceversa, from urban to urban and rural to rural, all these have continued untiltoday. The following have significant places in the drama of internal migrationin the country,

  • The government actions of resettling people from oneregion to another such as the rather massive, involuntary villagization programof the Dergue or the current EPRDF resettlement program as part of thecountry’s socio-economic development efforts;
  • The civil wars that have raged between the variousbodies for long period of time;
  • The conquest of the demised successive imperial systemsas an empire building agenda;
  • The ever-recurring drought and the perennial, romanticizedfamine question and food insecurity of the country;
  • The rapidly growing population and the resultant resourcedepletion and ecological deterioration;
  • The increasing urbanization and the seeming presenceof better opportunities therein that act as pull factors; and
  • The weakening of the traditional social-cultural andpolitical structure of the various ethnic groups; among others.

The issue of rural to-urban migrationin Ethiopia is high on the federal and regional governments’ agenda.

Ethiopia’s 1993 NationalPopulation Policy clearly stipulated negative ramification of migration on the country’ssocio-economic development efforts. The quality of life in the migrant sendingrural communities as well in the receiving urban areas of Ethiopia has deterioratedtremendously. The large, steady flow of the mainly productive male sections ofthe rural communities to urban areas has many bad consequences. The sending areaswould face serious productive labor shortage. The receiving areas, where thereare little or no adequate social services and employment opportunities, willface the problem of crimes, housing shortages, growth of urban slums, and otherundesirable, anti-societal phenomena (Abdullahi, 1994).

When we come to health, migrationis an important factor in determining the health status of individuals and groups.People migrate with expectations of better living and health conditions. Butvery often, many individuals end up in poor living and health conditions. Thisis particularly common among the refugees and the lower level labor migrants.The recent ETV dispatch (December, 2004) on the harsh conditions of the

Ethiopian women who live as labormigrants in the Arab World is a case in point. Many are subjected to harsh treatments,poor pay, physical and mental abuses.

Many refugees are subjected tounhygienic living conditions, poor nutrition, to the extent of starvation, and outbreaksof infectious diseases. There are also cases of sexual harassment and rapes.

Uncontrolled rural to urbanmigration (boosted by population growth) and rapid urbanization also lead maylead to the mushrooming of squatter settlements and slums which in turnincrease peoples’ venerability to epidemic diseases.

While migration may thus haveadverse consequences the lives of individuals, we should not also forget the positive,developmental effects of migration, be it internal or international migration.In fact, it is all too well known that people migrating from the Third World tothe

West are making significantcontributions to the economic development of their home countries (Dutoit, 1990).

Population Explosion and Ecological Degradation

The Ethiopian population hasgrown from a mere 30 million in the early 1960s to about 70 million currently.At the present rate of annual growth, which is close to 3%, demographerspredict that the number will double itself in a short period of time. Thecountry is the third most populous in Africa, next to Nigeria and Egypt (Faisl,1993).

The country’s population growthis not matched with a correspondent growth in economy. The country is one of thepoorest in terms of many development parameters such as per capita income, lifeexpectancy, literacy, access to basic health and social services, etc. The uncontrolledpopulation explosions have now become a major threat to the natural resourcesand ecology of the country. It is accompanied by deteriorating ecological conditions,due to deforestation, over-utilization of resources, environmental pollutions,etc. The recurrent drought and famine is one of the effects of the deterioratingecological conditions (Fasil, op cit).

The issues of populationexplosion and ecological deterioration are now major social issue and the EthiopianGovernment has taken them as priority areas.

Growth of Urbanization, UrbanPoverty, Housing Problem, Homelessness and Begging

About 15% of the population ofEthiopia lives in urban areas. With growth of urbanization, many social problemshave emerged. The problem of urban slums, increasing poor quality of life andpoverty, shortage of basic social services such as clean water, electricity, communicationsfacilities, housing, etc, and the growing rate of crimes and deviance. Urbanslums are centers for undesirable social behaviors such as commercial sex work,theft, robbery, drug trafficking and use, sanitation problems, among others.

With the growing number of urbanpopulation, access to good housing is becoming increasingly problematic.

Studies indicate that many urbanpeople live in substandard houses and many more even lack accesses to housing.Thus, homelessness has now become a growing social problem in many urban centers.

Many people are thus forced tospend their entire lives in the streets. Available data show that number of peopletaking to the streets is increasing rapidly, particularly in major urbancenters. Here, we can talk about a category of people known as the street children. These arethose who are born to homeless people or those who come from various parts ofthe country to urban centers and live in the streets. The number of olderpersons living in the streets is also growing.

The health and living conditionsof these categories of people is very appalling. The street children and adolescentsare often among the risk groups to contracting STIs including HIV/AIDS. Theylack access to basic social and health services. The main means of making aliving for these categories of people is usually begging and sometimes engagein commercial sex.

Begging itself has become a majorsocial pathology in some large urban centers. The problem of begging is especiallyvisible during the religious ceremonial days in some big urban centers likeAddis Ababa (Zerihun, 2000; see also Woubshet, 2003).


The terms social pathology andsocial problem are often interchangeably used. They refer to thediseased conditions of society. As the physical body suffers from variousailments, the society as a system also suffers from various pathologies thatthreaten its proper functioning and very existence. Sociologists prefer to use“social problems’ to “social pathologies”.

Problems that are limited to anindividual’s psychological dimension or micro level social groups may not constitutesocial problems per se although they are the manifestation of thediseased conditions of society.

Some social problems haveuniversal or global nature and others are tied to a society’s level of economicand technological development, history, ecology, sociopolitical and cultural set-up.Some social problems are thus more rampant in industrialized societies andothers prevail in less industrialized societies.

The major social problems in ourcontemporary Ethiopia include famine, prostitution, unemployment, drug addiction,homelessness, begging, urban poverty, and population explosion and ecologicaldeterioration, among others. These problems have escalated since recentdecades. They are the reflections of the country’s socio-political history, harmfultraditional beliefs and practices, poverty, and natural factors, among others.


  1. What do youunderstand by the terms social pathologies and social problems?
  2. Why do socialpathologies occur in a given society?
  3. What are someof the main social pathologies that appear to be universally occurring in allsocieties?
  4. Which of thesocial pathologies are more common in developed societies? Why?
  5. Mention anddiscuss some of the social pathologies that are seriously facing ourcontemporary Ethiopian society.
  6. Why do some ofthe social problems appear to be more rampant and challenging in today’ssociety than in the past?
  7. Discuss theHIV/AIDS pandemic as social pathology in Ethiopia and the Sub-Saharan Africatoday.

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