An introduction to Social Policy

Paul Spicker

Welfare and society

This file was last updated on June 29, 2014

Social policy draws on sociology to explain the social context of welfare provision. If we are trying to improve people's welfare, it is helpful to try to understand something about the way that people are, and how welfare policies relate to their situation. Some writers have gone further, arguing that because welfare takes place in a social context, it can only be understood in that context. This has been particularly important for 'critical social policy', which begins from a view of social policy as underpinned by social inequality - particularly the inequalities of class, race and gender.

The social structure

Societies are 'structured' in the sense that people's relationships follow consistent patterns. Fiona Williams has argued that social policy is dominated in practice by the dominant values of society - the issues of family, work and nation. [1]

Family A range of policies are built around the idea of the 'family' as a man, woman and children. Examples are child benefits, education and child care. Some countries have policies built on the idea of the man as 'breadwinner', with support based on the idea that the marriage is permanent and the woman will not work. Families which deviate from the norm - for example, poor single mothers - are likely to be penalised, though there may also be anomalies in the organisation of benefits (e.g, when promiscuity is accepted and stable cohabitation is not).

Work Many systems of social protection depend on a stable work record for basic cover in unemployment, ill health and old age. Workers who misbehave - for example, by striking or being dismissed - may be penalised.

Nation Most systems discriminate against non-citizens, and many have residence rules for particular benefits or services. Immigrants are likely to have different, and often second-class, services.

These issues are discussed further in the sections which follow.

Family policy

The normal family

"Normal" does not mean "average"; it means "conforming to social norms". The 'normal' family consists of two parents with one or more children, but it is increasingly untypical in developed countries. Several factors have contributed to this trend:

Social policies sometimes seek to reinforce the normal family, by rewarding normal conduct or penalising "deviant" (non-normal) circumstances. Rewards include subsidies for married dependants and children; penalties include requirements to support one's family, and legal and financial deterrents to divorce. At the same time, the assumption that couples live more cheaply than single people may lead to two single people getting greater support: cohabitation rules, treating people living together as if they were married, are used to ensure equity with married couples.

Single parents

The rise in single parenthood is mainly based on three factors:

There is no reason to attribute the rise to teenage motherhood (which, like other forms of motherhood, has tended to fall).

The position of single parents who receive social benefits has been controversial. The liberal individualist position is that if people choose to have children it's then up to them to look after their family. The collectivist position, and to a large extent the dominant position in continental Europe, is that children are other people's business as well. There is also a strong body of opinion which considers that the interests of the children override any moral concerns about the status of the parents.

Teenage pregnancy

Teenage pregnancy was the norm in previous generations, but it has become more common for women to delay childbearing. The reasons for the delay, and for falling birthrates, include

Teenage pregnancy is highest when these factors do not apply to the same degree. This accounts for the apparent association of some social problems with teenage pregnancy.


Patterns of work

The incorporation of people into the formal labour market has been central both to policies to deal with poverty and exclusion, and to the development of social protection. However, in many circumstances people are only partly integrated into the labour market. Their situation is characterised as

Economic marginality has implications for social inclusion. Unstable economic conditions lead to social instability - marginal employment is associated with family breakdown - while also reducing the level of social protection available.

The role of the labour movement

Many welfare systems have their origins in collective and mutualist actions by trades unions, professional or occupational groups, rather than the state. Trades unions developed, for example, unemployment benefits in Denmark, social housing in Norway, or the health service in Israel. In France, social protection for unemployment is administered by a "convention" of employers and trades unions.

It is also true that welfare developed historically at a time of social conflict, and labour organisations have had an important role in the development of policy, including Bismarck's establishment of social insurance and the foundations of the British social services. Marxists have traditionally seen the welfare state as the outcome of struggles by the labour movement. This is only true in part: several measures - like insurance-based pensions in the UK - have developed despite the resistance of organised labour, and others, like the extension of rights to the poorest, have been marked by conflicts between groups.


Nations and welfare

Nations are seen at times as groups linked by a shared history or culture; as a collective group of people in a specific geographical location, with a common identity; or as political communities. Historically, social welfare became important shortly after the rise of "nation states", and in some views the ideas are closely associated. David Miller, for example, argues that the nation is the principal community on which welfare provision depends. [2]

National identity is as often used, however, to exclude people from welfare as to promote inclusion, and the influence of nationalism on welfare has tended to be negative. Titmuss criticised the idea of the "welfare state" because it seemed to limit the scope of welfare to a particular locality. [3] Universalists have promoted an inclusive concept of welfare; in principle, this concept is inclusive, but in practice it tends to be confined to citizens, or members of the political community.

Immigration and nationality

Immigrants, by definition, come from outside a community; wherever social protection depends on contribution to collective welfare, immigrants are liable to be excluded. Residual income support may be available, but it is unusual for non-contributory benefits, such as benefits for disabled people, to be available directly to immigrants; many countries have some kind of minimum residential qualification.

Much immigration consists of movements of people from poorer countries to richer ones: immigrants tend to come with relatively limited resources. Few countries offer immigrants a full range of social protection or benefits, and in the short term this is likely to lead to disadvantage. At the same time, migrants tend to be younger and more mobile than host populations. In the longer term, much depends on the economic niche occupied by immigrant groups, and their relative status and resources. Immigrant careers are highly differentiated.

Issues of immigration overlap with racism. However, there are racial minorities who are not immigrants and widely persecuted (like the Roma in central and Eastern Europe), and some immigrant groups are not disadvantaged.

Social stratification


Class is an ambiguous term, used in three main senses.

Economic position. Max Weber defined class in terms of relative economic position. There are obviously economic differences between people depending on how much money they have, but there are also many other economic groups - it is possible to distinguish people, for example, according to employment status, or the kind of income they have (such as fees, salaries, and social benefits). One classic analysis uses housing tenure as the basis for different classes.

Productive relations. Marxists understand class in terms of the economy. The main distinction in Marxism falls between those who own the means of production and those who sell their labour, but if the basic criterion is accepted there must be other classes: the petit bourgeoisie, who own small shops and firms, or the underclass (Marx's 'lumpenproletariat') who are marginal to the labour market.

Occupational status. Classifying people by occupational status has proved very useful in sociological analyses of other issues, including educational disadvantage and health inequalities.


Weber describes status as a form of 'social honour' or esteem. People's social rank is associated with their class, but the terms are not equivalent; some social roles may have high esteem but low resources (like clerics).

The receipt of welfare has often been associated with social dishonour: the classic example of this is the "stigma of pauperism", the deliberate use of shame to stop people claiming from the Poor Law. The recipients of welfare are socially rejected; they are liable to be portrayed, like the pariahs of a caste system, as immoral, dishonest and dirty. [4]

Social policies tend to be concerned disproportionately with people of low status. In part, this happens because the client groups of the social services tend to be people who already have low social esteem - the poor, disabled people, mentally ill people, single parents and so on. In part, too, the receipt of social services may carry a stigma. The principle of institutional welfare was intended to remove degrading differences in status between recipients.


Power is complex; it can be used to refer to direct force, influence, or authority. Any of these is distributed unequally in society.

Power can be exercised overtly, but it may also be exercised in ways which are difficult to detect. Bachrach and Baratz argue that there may be non-decisions, which maintain the status quo through

"a decision that results in the suppression or thwarting of a latent or manifest challenge to the values or interests of the decision makers." [6]

Examples are delays, lack of interest in such subjects, and failure to respond to problems.

Social divisions

Gender and social policy

Social roles, or expectations, determine the range of opportunities for women and men. Understanding gender divisions is important for social policy, partly because issues affecting women are part of the agenda which social policy must tackle, but also because many of the concerns of social welfare - like poverty, health and old age - are related to gender.

Photo: Suffragettes Christine and Emmeline Pankhurst.
(c) Hulton-Getty collection.

Feminist critiques of welfare have argued that social policy is strongly 'gendered'. Jane Lewis [7] has suggested that, although the dominant models of welfare all assume that women are dependent on a male breadwinner, there are important variations:

Where assumptions are made about the position of women, this tends to reinforce women's inferior status and dependency. Where special provisions are not made, however, this tends to undermine the levels of protection which women receive if they have not earned income on the same basis as men. Widespread inequality in wages and conditions of work mean that 'gender-blindness' in social protection can only perpetuate inequalities.

Feminist perspectives on social policy

There are three main classes of feminist theory: liberal, marxist and radical. They share a common concern with gender as a focal issue in social policy.

Liberal feminism emphasises the rights of women as individuals. It argues against discrimination and stereotyping, and for equality of respect and opportunity. Arguments against limits to opportunity, like complaints against a "glass ceiling" to women's careers, are classically liberal: they suggest that women should benefit from the same inequalities as men.

Marxist feminism views the oppression of women as the result of the economic structure of society. Domestic relationships are seen in class and the relationship of the household to the means of production. Heidi Hartmann comments: "The 'marriage' of Marxism and feminism has been like the marriage of husband and wife depicted in English common law: Marxism and feminism are one, and that one is Marxism." [8]

Radical feminism argues that society is dominated by patriarchy, a structure of power in which men dominate women. Patriarchy is "sexual politics whereby men establish their power and maintain control".[9] This analysis is combined with the moral position that women should be able to live and act autonomously.

Race and social policy

'Race' has no fixed meaning. Although some commentators identify race closely with skin colour, the experience of racism is not confined to colour: the groups in Europe which experience the strongest rejection are probably gypsies and Muslims. Racial discrimination refers to the deliberate use of adverse selection as a means of putting people from particular racial or ethnic groups in an inferior position, but deliberate discrimination is not necessary to explain much racial disadvantage; the effect of denying access to the resources, opportunities and conditions of life available to others is to make the experience of disadvantage worse.

Although issues of 'race' and racism feature largely in many discussions of the sociology of welfare, it is more difficult to point directly to policies which are directly concerned with race in intention and effects. Exceptions are the racialised ideas behind German Nazism, or the apartheid régime in South Africa, which offered different types and standards of social services to 'whites', 'blacks', 'Asians' and 'coloureds'.

More typically, policies concerned with 'race' are developed more obliquely. The American 'War on Poverty' in the 1960s, or the UK Urban Programme, addressed perceived racial problems through other means. The War on Poverty, which was instituted at the same time as civil rights legislation, has been represented as principally concerned to co-opt African Americans into the political process. Discussions of 'poverty' in the US are often still covertly racial in intent. The 'Urban Programme' in the UK was a desultory response to a notoriously inflammatory speech by Enoch Powell, which coded such terms as 'inner cities' as a euphemism for race. The effect of working in code, of course, was that the problems of racial minorities were hardly addressed by the programme.

Social problems

Social policies can be seen as collective responses to social problems. A problem is social when it is socially recognised: important issues like grief and emotional distress are not necessarily 'social', and there may be no social policies to deal with them. Conversely, other, seemingly minor, concerns and complaints can be elevated to the status of social problems, and acted on - dealing with 'NIMBY' protests ('not in my back yard') bedevils community care provision.

Problems are 'socially constructed'. People's values, beliefs and opinions are conditioned by the society they live in, and people come to share many basic perceptions. This can shape the way people think about issues, and close off some options: so, child abuse is usually constructed as the result of parental abnormality, and not as the obvious outcome of rules which allow children to be beaten physically.


Deviance refers to a breach of social rules, or 'norms'. Normal behaviour is behaviour within these rules. There are many possible explanations for deviance. The main schools of thought include

The literature on deviance includes material not just on crime, but on many other issues which are seen as 'problematic', such as disability, sexuality and illegitimate births.


  1. F Williams, 1988, Social policy, Polity.
  2. D Miller, 1990, Market state and community, Oxford University Press.
  3. R Titmuss, 1968, "Welfare state and welfare society", in Commitment to Welfare, Allen and Unwin.
  4. See P Spicker, 1984, Stigma and Social Welfare, Croom Helm.
  5. C Wright Mills, 1956, The Power Elite, Oxford University Press.
  6. P Bachrach, M Baratz, 1970, Power and poverty, Oxford University Press.
  7. J Lewis, 1992, Gender and the development of welfare regimes, Journal of European Social Policy 2(3) 159-173.
  8. H Hartmann, 1995, The Unhappy marriage of marxism and feminism, in D Tallack (ed) Critical theory: a reader, Harvester Wheatsheaf..
  9. J Mitchell, 1971, Women's estate, Penguin.
  10. C Lévi-Strauss, 1949, The elementary structures of kinship, Eyre and Spottiswoode.
  11. E Lemert, 1972, Human deviance, Prentice Hall.