SOCIAL PATHOLOGIES: Definition, types, causes

After learning this topic, you are expected to:

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

The Concept of Social Pathology

Social scientists usually talk about social pathologies or social problems. Social pathologies have existed as long as humans began living in groups. In other words, they are as antique as humans themselves.

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

The term pathology is a Greek word, which is composed of pathos and logos. It literally means the study of diseases and disease processes.

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

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

Sociologists argue that social problems are best understood in the social institutional context. Although the causes for social problems are multiple, sociologists contend that they are usually the manifestations of the failure in the social institutions themselves.

When an institution fails to address the basic needs of people, social problems occur. It is usually easy for an ordinary person to blame the cause of a certain social problem on the failure of individuals themselves. For example, if we take the problem of begging or 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 Social Pathologies

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

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

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

They also reflect the level of technological advancement a society has arrived at. For example, the major social problems that abound in the industrially complex society of the West include 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 other hand, the Third World societies suffer from such kinds of social problems as urban slums, housing shortage, urban and rural poverty, sanitation problems, famine, ethnic conflicts, lack of good governance and corruption, streetism and homelessness, among others.

Social Deviance and Crime

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

There are psychological and sociological explanations of deviance. Psychological theories focus on the personality of individuals.

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

Differential association theory maintains that people learn deviant acts through socialization; structural strain theory maintains that deviance occurs when conformity to widely accepted norms of behavior fails to satisfy legitimate, culturally approved desires.

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

Another sociological theory called labeling theory states that behaviors are deviant when and only because people label them as such (Caffrey and Mundy, 1995).

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

A Survey of Some Social Problems in Ethiopia

A cursory look at the streets of major urban centers in Ethiopia shows that this is a time when our contemporary Ethiopian society is hosting a multiplicity of social problems. The nature, type, intensity and complexity of the social problems in contemporary Ethiopia are 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 and economic development; and
  • Urbanization and economic growth, among others (Fasil, 1993).

The following are some of the major social problems in Ethiopia.

Vulnerability to Famine and the Problem of Food Insecurity

Our country has been experiencing vulnerability to famine. It has successively been hit by severe droughts and resulting famine which claimed the lives of innumerable citizens and those of animals. The trend in recent years has worsened so much that in 2001/ 2002, there were about 14 million Ethiopians exposed to the danger of famine. The famines of early 1970s and 1984 were so severe that they were talking issues for the whole world. The problem is now one of the top agenda items for the Government of Ethiopia. It is no wonder that many people associate Ethiopia with famine, drought and poverty. The name of Ethiopia was so much popularized that some world famous individuals have amassed money through fund raising campaigns in the name of helping the starving Ethiopians and used the money for their personal gains (Mesfin, 1984; Nigussie, 2004).

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

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


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

Singapore and Thailand are notorious for the sex industry. The term prostitution now appears to be outdated and a more humane term is now commercial sex work. This term is introduced to indicate that like any other work, prostitution is also an industry, 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, the history of prostitution in

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

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

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


Governments in developed and undeveloped countries alike these days face the mounting social problem of unemployment. In Ethiopia, too, unemployment has become one of the major social problems. The unemployed are those who currently in search of a gainful job and are dependent on 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 of expertise or training (Team of Experts, 2000).

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

Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, 2002).

The Youth and Drug Addiction

The problem of drug addiction is now a number one social problem, particularly in developed societies. The problem is becoming rampant in Ethiopia as well. It is now common to hear from the electronic media and to read from the print media that the tradition of drug usage is a growing one in many large urban centers in the country. Recent radio news (November, 2004) disclosed that in the town of Nazareth, there were about 75 clandestine houses where various types of harmful drugs are sold and used. The drug tradition is often associated with the growth of overnight clubs, bars and the chance for multiple sexual partnerships also becomes very high.

Chat, a local mild narcotic plant, has become a very common type of drug for many youth as well as adults.

Many have become dependent on the stimulant drug and it seems that without it some fail to efficiently carry out their tasks. Studies show that chat chewing is associated with many adverse mental and physical health problems. The growing number of the mentally disturbed persons, holding a piece of chat plant, roaming the streets of some urban centers like Jimma, Awassa, Dilla and other towns in Southern Ethiopia (Youth Affairs Coordination Office, Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, 2002).

Rural to Urban Migration, the Refugee Problem and Health

Ethiopia as a Sub-Saharan African country has experienced the sweeping influence of the wave of migration that is better understood in the political, economic, ecological and socio-cultural contexts of the contemporary world. The most significant event in the place of Ethiopians in international migration is the period following the downfall of the (Ethiopian) imperial rule and the onset of the communist-oriented, revolutionary rule by the Dergue regime. What might be called the Ethiopian Diaspora came into the world scene in the late 1960s and 1970’s (Bekele, 2002).

Innumerable Ethiopians constituting particularly the intellectuals fled the country as forced migrants mainly to the USA, and scattering well over the world. The incessant flow of Ethiopian migrants, as part of the international migration, mainly spurred by the search for better living opportunities, often masked under the facade of fleeing political persecution, has still continued unabated. The impact of this on the country’s socioeconomic landscape, be it negative or positive, is incalculable, particularly the migration of intellectuals and the ensuing brain drain is no simple matter (Dutoit, 1990).

The various ethno-linguistic groups in the country have engaged in migration and population movements since time immemorial for a multiplicity of reasons. Migration at both the micro- and macro levels between regions and within regions, from rural to urban and vice versa, from urban to urban and rural to rural, all these have continued until today. The following have significant places in the drama of internal migration in the country,

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

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

Ethiopia’s 1993 National Population Policy clearly stipulated negative ramification of migration on the country’s socio-economic development efforts. The quality of life in the migrant sending rural communities as well in the receiving urban areas of Ethiopia has deteriorated tremendously. The large, steady flow of the mainly productive male sections of the rural communities to urban areas has many bad consequences. The sending areas would face serious productive labor shortage. The receiving areas, where there are little or no adequate social services and employment opportunities, will face the problem of crimes, housing shortages, growth of urban slums, and other undesirable, anti-societal phenomena (Abdullahi, 1994).

When we come to health, migration is an important factor in determining the health status of individuals and groups. People migrate with expectations of better living and health conditions. But very often, many individuals end up in poor living and health conditions. This is 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 labor migrants 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 to unhygienic living conditions, poor nutrition, to the extent of starvation, and outbreaks of infectious diseases. There are also cases of sexual harassment and rapes.

Uncontrolled rural to urban migration (boosted by population growth) and rapid urbanization also lead may lead to the mushrooming of squatter settlements and slums which in turn increase peoples’ venerability to epidemic diseases.

While migration may thus have adverse 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 to the

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

Population Explosion and Ecological Degradation

The Ethiopian population has grown 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%, demographers predict that the number will double itself in a short period of time. The country is the third most populous in Africa, next to Nigeria and Egypt (Faisl, 1993).

The country’s population growth is not matched with a correspondent growth in economy. The country is one of the poorest in terms of many development parameters such as per capita income, life expectancy, literacy, access to basic health and social services, etc. The uncontrolled population explosions have now become a major threat to the natural resources and 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 deteriorating ecological conditions (Fasil, op cit).

The issues of population explosion and ecological deterioration are now major social issue and the Ethiopian Government has taken them as priority areas.

Growth of Urbanization, Urban Poverty, Housing Problem, Homelessness and Begging

About 15% of the population of Ethiopia lives in urban areas. With growth of urbanization, many social problems have emerged. The problem of urban slums, increasing poor quality of life and poverty, shortage of basic social services such as clean water, electricity, communications facilities, housing, etc, and the growing rate of crimes and deviance. Urban slums 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 urban population, access to good housing is becoming increasingly problematic.

Studies indicate that many urban people 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 to spend their entire lives in the streets. Available data show that number of people taking to the streets is increasing rapidly, particularly in major urban centers. Here, we can talk about a category of people known as the street children. These are those who are born to homeless people or those who come from various parts of the country to urban centers and live in the streets. The number of older persons living in the streets is also growing.

The health and living conditions of these categories of people is very appalling. The street children and adolescents are often among the risk groups to contracting STIs including HIV/AIDS. They lack access to basic social and health services. The main means of making a living for these categories of people is usually begging and sometimes engage in commercial sex.

Begging itself has become a major social pathology in some large urban centers. The problem of begging is especially visible during the religious ceremonial days in some big urban centers like Addis Ababa (Zerihun, 2000; see also Woubshet, 2003).


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

Problems that are limited to an individual’s psychological dimension or micro level social groups may not constitute social problems per se although they are the manifestation of the diseased conditions of society.

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

The major social problems in our contemporary Ethiopia include famine, prostitution, unemployment, drug addiction, homelessness, begging, urban poverty, and population explosion and ecological deterioration, among others. These problems have escalated since recent decades. They are the reflections of the country’s socio-political history, harmful traditional beliefs and practices, poverty, and natural factors, among others.


  1. What do you understand by the terms social pathologies and social problems?
  2. Why do social pathologies occur in a given society?
  3. What are some of the main social pathologies that appear to be universally occurring in all societies?
  4. Which of the social pathologies are more common in developed societies? Why?
  5. Mention and discuss some of the social pathologies that are seriously facing our contemporary Ethiopian society.
  6. Why do some of the social problems appear to be more rampant and challenging in today’s society than in the past?
  7. Discuss the HIV/AIDS pandemic as social pathology in Ethiopia and the Sub-Saharan Africa today.