What is social policy?

by Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby FBA

4 Sep 2019

Social policy is a field of study rather than a discipline. It focuses on human need and what governments and other bodies can do to meet it. It developed as an academic practice in western countries after the Second World War, alongside the rise of the welfare state. The core areas of study were initially health services, personal social services and social care, housing and homelessness, cash benefits and pensions, education, and the government policies, regulations and financing that support and shape them.

As the welfare state developed, social policy scholars identified the gaps in welfare provision and the assumptions about priorities and about how people live that directed provision. Scholars pointed out the reliance of the welfare state on a particular form of family, with implications for gender roles and opportunities for women and men, and on particular patterns of employment and working life. They paid increasing attention to gender, race and ethnicity, poverty, wealth and inequality, child care, rights and inequalities in the workplace, ageing policy, mental health issues, how people think about the deserving and undeserving poor, and, more broadly, political attitudes as they influence welfare. They noted the ways in which some policies reinforce privilege and inequality and pointed to the implications of tax breaks, private schooling and subsidies for owner occupation and private transport. A new field of comparative, cross-national and global social policy emerged, examining the differences in human welfare and in provision to advance it in societies across the world.

The welfare state is now on the defensive. British society has become more diverse, divided and unequal. Social policy has responded by developing further new areas of interest: how climate change affects people’s lives, especially those of the most vulnerable; immigration and citizen’s rights and how government succeeds or fails in addressing these; social cohesion and social division; precarity in work, minimum and living wages and modern slavery; in regional inequalities and how they are developing; the policing of the poor; and education and social mobility, upwards and downwards.

Two men sitting on the ground by an empty glass building unit with a sign saying "To let". They're covering themselves with blankets and one of them is holding a plastic cup for change.
A homeless man begs for small change on the streets of Manchester on December 11, 2017 in Manchester, England. © Photo by Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

As the state retreats from social provision, social policy has addressed new providers alongside government: NGOs and charities, active in elder care, homelessness and housing, education, poverty and food banks, as well as in political lobbying to shape provision; the private for-profit sector, the dominant player in social care and increasingly important in health care, education, pre-schooling and day nurseries, and in relation to pensions; employers’ provision for both lower-paid and better-off groups; and local citizens’ groups, increasingly important in the politics of welfare.

Since it is not a discipline, social policy depends for its relevance on social need and social welfare and the nature of the agencies which seek to address them. Some commentators suggest that the contraction of the welfare state and the fragmentation of provision signal the decline of social policy as a field of study. The various areas and issues fit more or less into existing disciplines and could continue perfectly well without a separate area of focus. This ignores the merits of an approach which is multi-disciplinary and normative.

Social policy rests on sociology, demography, political science, social philosophy, psychology, economics and history. It’s concerned with measurement and meanings, with qualitative experience, with policy-making, regulation and finance, with understandings, and with social change. Academic social policy signals a concern with the complexity of human welfare and how our society fails and succeeds in meeting it.

Social policy is concerned with welfare and human need. These concepts are contested but are irredeemably normative. As the divisions between rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, frail elderly and young, well and poorly-educated, those who live in growing or declining regions and the lucky and unlucky grow wider, the need for a focus on people who lose out, for a commitment to the interests of the most vulnerable, grows ever stronger. This is the case for social policy as an academic practice.

Peter Taylor-Gooby is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2009 and is part of the working group for the Cohesive Societies programme.


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