What is Social Policy?

Social Policy - Society (blurred) - Photo (cc) flickr.com/jonicdao/2954124688

Studying Social Policy will enable you to understand the causes of social problems and what governments attempt to do about them.

The video below is an introduction by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw from an event at the University of York as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2012.

Discover the subject: more videos from our academic staff

Traditional aspects of social policy: poverty, unemployment, ill-health, poor housing and insufficient education

A brief introduction to the subject

As an academic subject, social policy gained prominence in British universities after the Second World War when the rapid expansion of key public services prompted interest in the emerging ‘welfare state’. In its early days the subject was primarily concerned with what William Beveridge, the chief architect of the British welfare state, had termed the ‘five giants’. In modern terms, these giants were poverty, ill-health, poor housing, insufficient education and unemployment. For Beveridge, tackling these social ills was an essential part of post-War reconstruction. The roll out of services to address these social ills marked a distinct shift in social citizenship and it was only natural that a new body of scholars would turn their attention to this important aspect of government policy.

However, over the course of the post-War period, social policy analysts began to identify gaps in the Beveridgean welfare state. Some highlighted the persistence of poverty amidst plenty. Others pointed to ‘hidden’ giants of sexism and racism that the welfare state had failed to address. These criticisms reflected not only a concern with the weaknesses of government policy but a broadening of the focus of the academic subject of social policy which began to draw much more widely on ideas from sociology and political science and adopted a more critical perspective on the welfare state.

The subject has become more international in scope too, recognising that different countries adopt very different solutions to common problems...

In more recent years, the subject has broadened its focus still further. The growing recognition that government needs to work with other groups in order to deliver effective social policies has meant that discussion of the role that charities, businesses, communities and families can play features prominently in debate. The subject has become more international in scope too, recognising that different countries adopt very different solutions to common problems, making a focus on Britain alone unnecessarily restrictive. Indeed, the subject now recognises that the global nature of key social problems – and the role of globalisation in shaping the modern world – demands a global perspective. Added to this, social policy has drawn ideas from an even broader range of subjects – such as geography, demography, economics, management and environmental science – as it looks for answers to the question of how best to maximise the well-being of people.

York – both the University and the City – has a rich tradition in the field. The Department of Social Policy & Social Work was established in 1965 and has an international reputation for its work. The City of York itself was the site of one of the world’s first scientific studies of poverty – Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life (published in 1901).

Degree programmes

Our courses reflect the latest thinking in the field of social policy. They draw on ideas from across the social sciences and adopt a critical perspective that looks to both understand what welfare states seek to achieve but to critique them when they fail to deliver.

Associated subject and degree courses: Applied Social Science

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