| 6 mins read
In the beginning was the white man, ensconced in the Global North, well-heeled, straight or in the closet and educated at one of the finest universities. He and his scholastic fellows were keen to understand society and make it a better place for all (or some were, anyway). Let no one question their right to lay the foundations of an academic discipline!
It is worth recalling Richard Titmuss's typology of top chaps in social science back in the sixties. Titmuss insisted that none of them (including himself) should take themselves too seriously, for at bottom they were ‘no more than assistant servants in the struggle against irrationality and obscurantism’.
There were women in there too: Eleanor Rathbone and Beatrice Webb, among others. But it was not until new cohorts climbed up and infiltrated the discipline that its focus shifted to accommodate (however grudgingly) feminist and anti-racist analyses, accommodating insights from women of colour, people with openly different sexual preferences and gender identities, people with disabilities, and working class people.
As the academic discipline of social policy evolved out of social administration, Titmuss's struggle against irrationality evolved into what some might call a rainbow coalition (and others, a war of attrition), as multiple perspectives sought to reconstruct the very substance of rationality. And that's not the end of it. What about migration? What about the Global South? Indigenous populations? If your job is to understand how societies work and how to tackle poverty, deprivation and inequality, you're bound to look beyond the nation-state and even beyond the OECD.
That's the thing about social policy. It's got a warm, inclusive ethic (not sure you could say that about political science or economics) and is capable of thinking outside its own box. If you say ‘have you taken X into account?’, it will probably have a think about X rather than tell you to sod off. But how much can it take? How many more categories of identity and experience? How many more layers of awareness and understanding? And guess what? There's another big one out there. The climate emergency! From now on, social and ecological policies need to be intimate partners, learning from and reinforcing one another—even producing an offspring called eco-social policy.
If you find all this daunting, you could turn to Fiona Williams's new book. She has valiantly fought her way through all the things you would ideally bear in mind if you were trying to engage with social policy these days.
Williams uses a four-dimensional analytical framework comprising family, work, nation and nature. She explores ways in which parenting, care and labour (paid and unpaid) interact and are experienced differently by different social groups. She shows how racism combines with nationalism to toxify entitlement to welfare. She relates the critique of Western liberal philosophy's separation of ‘man’ from ‘nature’ to the eco-feminist critique of the international division of labour, which ‘links this man-nature separation to the subordination of women—man as reason over women as nature’.
Historical developments and questions about power are beaten into the mixture. Williams shows how UK social policy moved from what was initially a ‘structuralist and quantitative’ approach (as Titmuss observed) through public choice theory that characterised welfare users as consumers ‘driven by rational and well-informed choices’ and New Labour's ‘citizen-consumers acting in the pursuit of enlightened self-interest’ to a ‘third approach’ that emphasised ‘voice, empowerment and control’.
Williams rightly takes a multidimensional approach to her task: that's the whole point. But it means there is always another factor—or three—to add to a sentence, defying any challenge to cut to the chase. So, for example, she draws attention to ‘bordering practices’ that exclude certain people from welfare: one such practice is ‘the legitimation of the removal of rights by mobilisation of popular sentiments of nationalist/racist/classist/sexist/disablist protectionism around welfare (welfare chauvinism) that reduce subordinated differences of body, language, religion, origin and culture into categories of “below human”, combined with rhetorical forms of seeking consent (fairness)’. There is plenty of this kind of thing—all signalling a determination not to be reductive, not to simplify what is unavoidably complicated.
Perhaps it doesn't matter, because most readers are likely be postgraduate students, and there is so much to learn here about how to think about society and social policy, and about the political, cultural and economic barriers (now I'm doing it) to sustainable social justice.
It made me ponder about a lot of things, two in particular. First, how does this wide-reaching analysis relate to today's ‘cancel culture’ and ‘no-platforming’? Can it encourage open debate between different interests, even while it rightly demonstrates that some interest groups are more powerful?
Second, and of course relatedly, if politics involves negotiation between different interests, and if all these interacting experiences and perspectives are supposed to have voice and agency in the process, is it ever possible to do the right thing?
These questions are just a small indication of how much food for thought there is in this exhaustive and exhausting volume.
Social Policy: A Critical and Intersectional Analysis, by Fiona Williams, is published by Polity. 248 pp. 2021. £18.99.