What is social policy 3 – How can we study social policy? Sociology, psychology, economics

In the previous post we discussed how history and politics come into social policy as an interdisciplinary subject. In this post we discuss sociology, psychology and economics.


Sociology: social policy intersects very closely with sociology as it is interested in many phenomena that are excellently explained by sociology: social class; gender; race and ethnicity etc. A lot of the terms described by sociologists are also really useful for understanding social problems and why we should act to resolve them by implementing social policy, for example alienation or anomie related to poverty and social exclusion. Social policy also shares many of the same methodological approaches and methods tools as sociology: the semi-structured interview; the questionnaire and large survey data etc. However, while much sociology explicitly frames itself within broad sociological theory – for example by citing the “greats” and their theoretical contribution – in social policy this is often left implicit. A study in social policy might, implicitly, make a Marxian critique of the state – say, that welfare benefits reforms benefit a small elite to the cost of the poor – without explicitly citing Marx.


What students often get wrong is that they over-rely on their sociology knowledge and do an explicit sociological analysis, rather than a social policy analysis. For example, they might say “Marx says x,y and z…”. While this isn’t as bad as solely relying on The Daily Mail for your sources, it’s not really social policy – you’ve got to read, and understand, social policy arguments in academic social policy texts. The other problem that students often find, and this relates to a key difference between sociology and social policy, is that they use sociology to understand the problem, for example the outcomes of living in poverty, but then end their analysis there without linking that to policy. Yes, poverty is a sociological phenomenon, but in social policy we want to critically understand what policy is doing to alleviate, or even exacerbate, poverty.


Psychology: social policy had its start back in nascent psychology as much of the early work in the late 19th century by reformers such as Octavia Hill and Seebohm Rowntree often focused on the individual causes of social issues – presuming, basically, that the poor were at fault for the problems they faced. Hill and Rowntree weren’t as bad as others, but in these early days there was a presumption that people were somehow mentally deficient and this is why they suffered the problems they did.
Psychology and social-psychology went out of favour in social policy for much of the twentieth century, when socio-structural issues were foregrounded in research. However, it has had a recent resurgence in at least three ways. Firstly, in the psychological impacts of the problems that social policy is attempting to tackle, such as the work on wellbeing and unemployment by behavioural economists at the University of Stirling. Secondly, and relatedly, the increasing focus on “nudges”, or small changes to the way policy is delivered to encourage people to behave in certain ways. And lastly, and most controversially, in work such as The Welfare Trait that suggests that welfare programmes change people’s psychology.


What students often get wrong is using “pop-psychology”, aka The Daily Mail school of social policy, to presume that welfare benefits, in particular, create lazy people who just sit around all day watching TV. This is not to dismiss that there may be incentive mechanisms within the provision of services, and some of these may be “perverse” (i.e. not the outcome intended) but it is probably too strong to say that benefits make people lazy. At least, this is not what the vast amount of research evidence suggests.


Economics: if sociology is one of the more key disciplines feeding into social policy, the other is economics. This is essentially because the two disciplines focus on the same core question: who gets what. A lot of social policy academics in the UK have their background in economics. As with sociology, the difference between the disciplines tends to be on the object of study and then what we do with the findings. So, a key focus for social policy, for example, is income inequality. Jan Pen, who famously wrote his “parade of dwarves and a few giants” to describe, metaphorically, the income distribution in advanced capitalist societies, was an economist. In social policy we take such insights and say “so what?”, “what are we going to do about?”, “what have we done about it?”. This is what John Hills does so masterfully in his book Them and Us.


So, whereas economics might just seek to understand why markets allocate resources in a particular way, again, social policy would take a normative view on whether this was right or wrong and consider what the state might do to resolve that situation.


The main error students make around economics is to presume a limitless supply of resources. Coming from a normative standpoint in social policy, it is very easy to presume that if we just spent more on welfare/health/education then everything would be ok. The evidence that increased spending on a policy area leads to better outcomes for individuals is fairly strong, but there are limits to how much we can spend and governments have to make tricky decisions about where to prioritise their resources. For example, the Scottish Government has been widely criticised for funding “free” higher education (i.e. no tuition fees in Scottish universities) by cuts to the budget for further education and colleges.

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