Social Policy: a subject still in trouble

I’ve just read a review of the state of Social Policy teaching in UK universities.  Twenty years ago, I made the case that the subject was in ‘deep trouble’.  At the beginning, this report cites me saying that,  but the tone of the report is more positive, claiming that Social Policy is still threaded through a wide range of courses.  I’d hold to my initial position.  It isn’t just that ‘social sciences’ are ‘under attack’: Social Policy has fared particularly badly.  There are only 18 single honours courses in the UK, and 25 institutions offering joint honours.   A sizeable clutch of universities have closed their courses.

There are two points of particular concern.  The first is the hopelessly inadequate description of Social Policy, taken from the Higher Education Statistics Authority,  as “the study of the policies of institutions which are designed to modify the balance of sociological factors”.  There is a common confusion in the idea that Social Policy is about policy for society.  Some social policies are – Ferge called them ‘societal’ or ‘structural’ policies.  Many are not; they’re about economics, or politics, or service delivery.    If the description had only talked about ‘the balance of economic, social and political factors’, I probably wouldn’t have kicked about it, but it still doesn’t cover the ground. The assumption, that Social Policy is about issues in Sociology, is quite misleading.  Yes, Social Policy does draw on Sociology – but it draws on much, much more.  That ‘more’ includes Economics,  Law, History, Psychology, Management, Philosophy and Politics – and if it doesn’t, it’s not being taught very well.

The second big problem is the relegation of practical and professional issues to the sidelines.  Students of Social Policy need to know about policy analysis and social administration – issues such as planning, partnerships, voice, empowerment,  quasi-markets, incentives, targeting, access to services and so on.  And I was disturbed to see, in a long list of cognate subjects in Table 2.3, no reference to Housing Policy, Social Care or Social Work.


A comment from Stewart Lansley:

I really agree with this. I have two concerns about social science teaching and research today – one is the failure to incorporate an economic perspective in examining on social policy. The other, in part because of this, social scientists have effectively lost much of the influence they enjoyed in the post-war era ( all in the case of the Tories ).

There’s some discussion of this in Policy Press | The Richer, The Poorer – How Britain Enriched the Few and Failed the Poor. A 200-Year History, By Stewart Lansley ( which is in part an attempt to merge economic and social analysis.

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