What is social policy? 1

This is your first longer post, so get ready for a hefty read! Well, 15 minutes or so.


What is social policy?


What is social policy? That is, unfortunately, a very good question. Most academic subjects have a pithy definition to use; economics is “the study of how we allocate limited resources in the face of infinite needs and wants”; sociology is “the study of human behaviour”. It’s a question I often get from students; or to be precise students often exclaim “I just don’t get it”.


I put out an email on the academic mailing list of the Social Policy Association asking this question of academics. I was wryly amused by how many emailed back to say something along the lines of “I answer this in chapters 1 to 3 of my textbook”, or sent me an entire lecture. There were a fair few of these answers, which suggest social policy is complex.


Four definitions that were a bit pithier caught my eye and summed-up a lot of what the longer definitions contained. Firstly this by Dr Tebbine Strüwer, Erasmus University, Rotterdam:


“Social policy as a research field studies how societies deal with promoting wellbeing. Wellbeing is related to participating freely and properly in the society without being deprived of certain basic human needs. The key element of societies is that we are (unequally) dependent upon each other in organizing our lives; and so are we dependent upon each other in organizing wellbeing. Understanding how systems or societies organize this, is the core of what social policy researchers do.”


And this by Dr Bettina Leibetseder, Johannes Kepler University, quoting Esping-Anderson who wrote a very important book on comparative social policy in the 1980s (published in 1990):


“The welfare state is not just a mechanism that intervenes in, and possibly corrects, the structure of inequality; it is, in its own right, a system of stratification. It is an active force in the ordering of social relations.” (Esping-Andersen, 1990: 23)


These two definitions focus on outcomes – social policy is trying to do something; to improve wellbeing, or to order social relations. They also highlight why we might be trying to do this: because we are unequally dependent on each other; or we are trying to correct the structure of inequality. This suggests that social policy is asserting a normative position that, left to its own devices capitalist society would produce very economically unequal results. We would resist this, and wish to correct this from an economic stance – it is a waste of resources and produces sub-optimal outcomes; and we would want to correct it from a social, or even moral, stance – the damage caused to individuals, or the cumulative damage to society from inequality (particularly poverty) is something we would want to eradicate.


The next two definitions I quite liked were this, from Dr Deborah Price, University of Manchester:


– Social policy is policy emanating from the State that influences the social conditions for the welfare or well-being of citizens (influenced by ideology, philosophy, politics, economics, history, legacy, culture, geography, institutions and people)

– Welfare is provided by many institutions including families, communities, the voluntary sector and religious sector, employers, trade unions, market providers and government

– There are many influences on social policy including supra-national and global influences, influences at state, regional and local levels, at community and individual levels.


And this from Professor Paul Spicker, Robert Gordon University


Social Policy is the study of social services and the welfare state. In general terms, it looks at the idea of social welfare, and its relationship to politics and society. More specifically, it also considers detailed issues in:

-policy and administration of social services, including policies for health, housing, income maintenance, education and social work;

– needs and issues affecting the users of services, including poverty, old age, health, disability, and family policy; and

– the delivery of welfare.

These definitions all share similar views of what social policy is trying to (improve welfare, tackle inequality), but then go on to consider how this is actually done. The “state” figures prominently in both definitions, but they go onto explain how the state is complex: it is multi-layered, with central government (the UK Government or the Scottish Government); devolved government (the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, Greater Manchester, London governments); and local government (Stirling Council). In a state like the UK, this is quite confusing and will be covered in a lecture.


It also suggests a degree of complexity in that, in delivering social policy, governments have tended to break it down into areas of specific issues or expertise: education, housing, health, welfare etc. Often this are aligned to specific institutions within government: schools, the NHS, housing associations.


Dr Prices’s definition also flags that we should not just focus on the state – in any society a range of institutions will support to individuals to increase their welfare: their immediate family and friends; voluntary sector organisations and charities. It also flags that how the state decides to direct and organise these resources is always a political decision, with underlying ideological commitments.


The only thing I would add beyond these four definitions is the central economic question highlighted above, although rather than the dry language of economics, I would bring in some sustainability language. We only have one, very fragile planet, with only so many resources. We might like to achieve a lot with social policy, but we will, at some point, hit resource limits. These might be physical, but are more likely to be political.


Given social policy recognises we are unequally dependent on one-another, this tells us that social policy is about deciding what resources we take of what people, and who do we redistribute them to. This is not just about “taxes and welfare benefits”, but also how we allocate services – do we put the best schools and hospitals in the most deprived neighbourhoods, or do we allow them to “naturally” end up located in the most affluent neighbourhoods?


So, to sum-up, social policy is a complex subject, that is tackling some of the big questions of the world. The object of study is complex and multi-faceted, we can ask a lot of questions of it, and we can approach these questions from different perspectives.


For on-campus students at the University of Stirling, these are issues you’ll explore in the first workshop and in the lecture on “Who does what”, about the structure of the state. On campus students can also read more in the follow set chapters:

Alcock, P. (2016), “What is social policy?”. in The Student’s Companion to Social Policy. P. Alcock, T. Haux, M. May and S. Wright (Eds.) Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell: 7-13

Alcock, P. and Becker, S. (2016), “Researching social policy?”. in The Student’s Companion to Social Policy. P. Alcock, T. Haux, M. May and S. Wright (Eds.) Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell: 14-20

  1. Hello, Really stupid question but im struggling to understand this part of the module. I know there are 10 lectures we teach ourselves, so is this the first one? or have these not gone live yet? I was looking out for the WISP one because in the schedule it is the first one but I'm not sure if this is the right one? Thanks

  2. Great question - I should have made this a bit clearer. There will be the equivalent of 10 lectures of material on here. Just putting up 10 hour-long recordings; or 10 documents that would each take you an hour to read and understand, would be deathly boring, so I've broken it down into chunks that will be presented as blog post, listicles, podcasts, guided reading etc. But these are scheduled to be published on a weekly basis, so if you dip in and spend an hour each week catching up on posts, you'll have the equivalent learning you would have got in a lecture.

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