No 16: A ‘radical’ crisis for the subject of social policy?

While Britons fight for better social policies, social policy academics are losing their radical edge.
An anti-austerity demonstration organised by the People's Assembly in 2015. (Peter Damian/Wikimedia Commons)

by Robert M Page

At first glance, the subject of social policy appears to be in good health. Beneath the surface, however, there are signs that the subject’s critical edge is being eroded. The contemporary quest for greater academic respectability and kudos coupled with the need to demonstrate ‘impact’ within official policy circles are major contributors to this process. If social policy is to avoid what Titmuss once described as its ‘handmaiden’ role (Social Policy An Introduction, 1974), it must sustain its reputation for challenging rather than concurring with conventional forms of wisdom. In particular, it must demonstrate a willingness to explore and debate diverse views on the role that social policy can play in helping to create particular visions of the ‘good’ society. The subject should not be populated solely by ‘non-partisan’ applied researchers with ‘consensual’ mind-sets seeking technocratic solutions to a limited range of officially prescribed social problems.  

The desire of many contemporary university scholars and researchers to bolster the academic reputation of the subject is understandable. In its post-1945 incarnation, social policy has struggled to acquire the academic esteem accorded to other social science subjects such as economics, politics and sociology. Social policy’s reputational deficit can be linked to its failure to develop a distinctive body of theory, its practical focus and, most significantly, its historic ‘social democratic’ value base.

From the late-1960s to the early 80s, the subject was invigorated by scholars who sought to ensure that social policy was not studied in isolation from its broader historic, economic, social, cultural and political context. This led to a lively series of debates and challenges. Those on the left highlighted the contradictory functions of the welfare state in capitalist societies and cautioned against an uncritical acceptance of the benevolent impact of ameliorative social democratic state action. Neo-liberals focussed on the ‘adverse’ economic and social consequences of an expanding welfare state. Feminists and anti-racists drew attention to the ways in which the negative welfare experiences of women and ethnic minorities were overlooked. Welfare pluralists seized the opportunity to promote the advantages of what came to be known as the mixed economy of welfare. The flowering of the subject in this era proved to be short-lived, in part because of traditionalist fears that the subject would lose its reputation as a generator of rigorous research findings which could form the basis for the development of ‘consensual’ policy initiatives.

Since the mid-1980s, concerted efforts have been made to restore the subject’s reputation as the natural home of rigorous empiricism which could form the basis for ‘progressive’ policy-making. This approach paid dividends when New Labour came to power in 1997 on a ‘third way’ policy platform which sought to abandon what were regarded as the ‘ideological’ policy agendas of previous Conservative and Labour governments. New Labour was keen to ensure that its prospective policy initiatives were based on pragmatism and evidence, not ‘outdated’ shibboleths.

The de-radicalising of social policy can also be linked to wider developments in higher education. The sizeable financial rewards which accrue to institutions and individuals whose research outputs are judged to be of the highest quality and impact have led university managers to police the research and scholarly agendas of their academic staff closely. Those seeking to be returned to research selectivity exercises have been ‘encouraged’ to focus exclusively on those forms of research and publication deemed most likely to attract external funding and official recognition. In such an environment, it is hard to conceive of a young social policy researcher being able to persuade their ‘line manager’ that there is, for example, scholastic virtue in exploring the relative merits of reformist or revolutionary strategies when considering the future direction of social policy (see on this topic Bob Deacon’s 1983 book, Socialism and Social Policy and Walter Scheidel’s 2017 book, The Great Leveler).

Although the mission statements of a number of social policy departments continue to proclaim their commitment to ‘making a difference’ or for securing significant social change, the stultifying corporate atmosphere in too many of our contemporary universities is unlikely to generate the intellectual vibrancy required to achieve such change. While many of those within the subject  continue to document the various forms of social injustices experienced by disadvantaged citizens in vivid and informed ways, there would appear to be notably less interest in confronting the structural ‘upstream’ causes of deprivation previously identified by Adrian Sinfield (see his article ‘Upstream thinking’, published in Policy World in autumn, 2004) or to acknowledge the role of vested interests in thwarting radical economic and social change (see, for example Nancy Maclean, Democracy in Chains, 2017).   

It is unrealistic to expect any of the remaining social policy departments to unilaterally declare that they will break free from the chains of the research ‘exercises’ and narrow official funding schemes in order to pursue a more independent and critical research and policy agenda. However, one of the consequences of acquiescence is that the lifeblood of the subject will, in all likelihood, ebb away.

Robert M Page is Reader in Democratic Socialism and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. He is the author/editor of a number of books including, most recently Clear Blue Water? The Conservative Party and the Welfare State Since 1940.

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