What is social policy 2 – How can we study social policy? History and politics

This post will be in the structure of “an interesting thing to learn”; “something students often do wrong that you should learn from”.

Social policy has all the hallmarks of an academic discipline: a learned society (the Social Policy Association); numerous academic journals; numerous departments at universities providing education in social policy. If you went to universities across the UK, Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, you could happily have a conversation with social policy academics. Yet, outside these countries you would struggle to find a social policy department.


This is because, although it has all the trappings of an academic discipline, social policy is actually very interdisciplinary and always has been. Its growth as an academic discipline has also been contingent on the contexts within which it has developed: specific welfare states and specific academic and political milieu. Chapter 1 in the Alcock et.al. textbook is really good on how social policy emerged from the nascent Labour Party and the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK.


When students are citing the chapters in the textbook, they regularly get it wrong. What you often see is endless citations of (Alcock et.al. 2016). However, Alcock, May and Wright are editors of the book and each chapter has its own author. Therefore the correction citation for this chapter is (Alcock, 2016) and in your reference list it should look like:


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


As social policy is interdisciplinary, it is studied by a number of different disciplines. I will take the main ones in turn:


History: there are a lot of weighty tomes on the history of the welfare state. One of the key ones is a key text on the reading list for this module: Timmin’s The Five Giants. This history is useful for two reasons: firstly it allows us to understand why we are where we are. Secondly, it allows us to critically question this: are governments doing the right thing in social policy, or could they do something different. In terms of the first point, this is important because many social policy scholars would say that the institutions of social policy are path dependent – that is, back in the past, governments set us on a direction of travel and it’s very difficult to change this. The first point is also useful as some of this path dependency may be ideological.


For example, the British welfare state is highly conditional (i.e. you have to do something, like look for work, to get benefits in return) and this has roots right back in the nineteenth century. This brings us onto the second point – understanding this history of social policy allows us to consider different options: when did a country start delivering a bit of social policy in a particular way, and most importantly why?


Students often use the history of the welfare state incorrectly in three ways. The first, and most obvious, is they get the history factually wrong: confusing the “Five Giants” with the Seven Deadly Sins is a surprisingly common error. The second error is they get obsessed with detail – you (or I) don’t need to know the exact details of the National Insurance Act 1911, we might just need to understand the broad principles of why it is was important (it was the first time the UK government has acknowledged it has a role in supporting older people and created what we now know of as “retirement”).


The third error that is commonly made is bigger, and this is the normative presumption that things were better in the past. This is why, for people doing the assessment, this module does not include a bog-standard history of the welfare state question. There is a lazy presumption in the UK that the period 1945 – 1979 was a “hey-day” of the welfare state where we were living in a social democratic utopia, and since then we’ve gone to hell in a hand basket. This is ahistorical and uncritical to the point of naïveté. The reality was much more complex, varied, and many of the gains of the post-war welfare state were fragile or easily overstated.


Politics: social policy is inherently political as a discipline. This poses an issue for many students who just say “I’m not interested in politics”, or “I don’t get politics”. Unfortunately to do well in social policy you have to understand politics. Hopefully the attitudes questions you filled in helped you understand you are interested in politics (but probably don’t realise).


A critical, analytical approach to understanding social policy is about understanding and unpicking the political and ideological underpinnings of particular policy and allocative decisions by governments (chapters x to x in Alcock et.al cover these). Social policy is also heavily informed by political science/political studies as an academic discipline. This is in terms of the institutions of government, both formal and informal, and also key insights in politics such as theories of ideology, power, electoral politics, governance (the coordination of institutions in society), participation (listening to service users and acting on this), etc. In disciplinary terms, the subtle difference between political science and social policy is often one of objectivity and normativity: political scientists commonly write in a very dry style, utterly devoid of any politic judgements whatsoever. Social policy tends to wear it’s ideology in its sleeve: a lot of social policy research comes from a specific normative viewpoint and is quite clear on this. The academic journal Critical Social Policy is the epitome of this.


What students often get wrong is they get too invested in the politics and thus their work lacks balance or critical distance from the empirical material. For example, very weak students often read biased articles in right-wing newspapers supporting their own view that everyone on benefits is a lazy layabout. They do not read empirical material that challenges this view, so they do very poorly in their assessment. Another, probably uniquely Scottish phenomenon, is the focus on constitutional issues above everything else – this will be addressed in later learning materials.

  1. "In disciplinary terms, the subtle difference between political science on social policy is often one of objectivity and normativity: political scientists commonly write in a very dry style, utterly devoid of any politic judgements whatsoever." Just to be clear: on should be and.

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