As an academic subject, social policy is something of an undiscovered treasure trove. When I first accepted an invitation to write Social Policy for Polity’s Short Introductions series my aim was to proselytise on behalf of a subject which, though it thrives at postgraduate level in the UK and as a field of research, tends to be poorly understood among the uninitiated. That the book has warranted the production of a second edition augurs well, perhaps, for the subject’s future development.
In a book short enough to be read almost at a sitting, social policy is presented as the ultimate multi-disciplinary subject area, that raids an entire gamut of social science disciplines – sociology, economics, politics, human geography, social development and much else besides – in order critically to understand the social relations necessary for human wellbeing and the systems by which human wellbeing may be promoted or impaired. As a discrete area of study, social policy (or social administration as it was originally called) emerged in the UK a century ago. It was often associated with social work and/or with public sector management, but in the past 30 or 40 years it has branched out, taking on comparative and international perspectives and engaging with competing critiques of modern welfare state provision. In the twenty-first century, as commitment to the idea of the welfare state unravels and an era of fiscal austerity unfolds in the global north, while interest in social development and new modes of social provision begins uncertainly to burgeon in the global south, social policy is poised at the epicentre of global debates.
Social policy is concerned with the mending of social ills, but in a more fundamental sense with just how in human societies we care for and about each other. Even in the poorest countries a major slice of national income and a great deal of political effort is likely to be devoted to supporting the sustainability of people’s livelihoods (though labour market policy, social security and pension provision) and the provision of human services (including health and social care, education and housing). Just as importantly, policy makers may involve themselves in attempting to supervise or govern the part that families, civil society organisations and market providers play in people’s everyday lives.
Social policy therefore bears on pretty much every aspect of human existence and is a subject with few boundaries. It engages with practical as much as theoretical issues. It brings rigorous analysis to bear upon major controversies to do with who gets what in society, who controls this and by what criteria the outcomes may be considered just. What’s not to get excited about?
Hartley Dean is professor of social policy at the London School of Economics and author of Social Policy (which has just appeared in a second, updated edition).