Review: Beland and Mahon, Advanced Introduction to Social Policy

This is a review of a book I’ve been sent by the publisher, Edward Elgar. I’ve discussed the issues around reviewing before.

Calling something an ‘Advanced Introduction’ obviously invites questions about what could be in it.  This is a very short and rather expensive book (currently £14.36 for 126 pages, not 160 as advertised), mainly concerned to sketch out some key issues in comparative social policy.  The authors explain, right at the end, that “Rather than reviewing all theories and concepts available, we decided to focus on those we find the most analytically and empirically fruitful.”  So, despite what it says on the cover, this isn’t either ‘comprehensive’ or based on ‘compelling empirical materials’.  It’s about some of the ideas that inform comparative social policy: mainly, after an overview of comparative approaches to policy development, about exclusion, gender, the role of nations and globalisation.

Students are in safe hands with Béland and Mahon, but comparative social policy is a difficult subject to cover at a basic level.  Before they start, students need either to have some tools for comparison, or some basic knowledge of social policy.  If they have neither, it’s hugely difficult for them to approach the subject critically, because so much has to be taken on trust.   While several approaches to comparison are discussed – power resource theory, historical institutionalism and welfare regimes – I’m not sure readers would know what to make of the social division of welfare, path dependency, or the oblique references to issues like identity politics or functionalism.  The discussions of gender and diversity are interesting, and spreading the focus beyond wealthy countries is absolutely the right thing to do,  but I’m sceptical that someone who went into this book without knowing about social policy would come out knowing anything more about the kind of provision that has been made.  For the most part, the treatment in this book is discursive rather than explanatory, and that means it has to be read as an adjunct to other material, not as an introduction that stands in its own right.

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