It appears that there is not an agreed, clear, simple yet sophisticated definition of Social Policy, however most scholars and social scientists tend to agree that the term "social policy is used to refer both to the academic discipline 'Social Policy' and to what it studies, social policies themselves." (Baldock et al 1999)
According to Hallett (1996) "The term 'social policy' is used in two principle ways - both as the name of an academic discipline (or, as some would argue, a field or focus of study) and as a description of the social arrangements for the provision of social welfare."
According to Alcock (2008) although social policy is an academic subject in its own right it is also reliant on other fields of social science therefore it is an interdisciplinary field, drawing on subjects such as Sociology, Social Psychology, Criminology, Law, Anthropology, Economics, Geography and Politics.
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"The boundaries between social policy and other social science subjects are porous, and shifting; and students and practitioners of social policy may also be working within or alongside these other areas of cooperation closely with others who do". (Alcock, 2008)
Although the term social policy refers to the academic study of the social aspects of society, the study of the policies themselves play an integral role in the understanding of how society functions and what can be done to improve the well being of individuals and help recognise what and how policies affect social groups and individuals.
The study of social policies does not just focus on an enacted policy or laws. A policy can be studied from its birth or inception, from an initial idea or a Bill through the entire legal process until Royal Assent is approved leading legislation. Social policy can be used throughout the whole process to critically analyse proposed bills as some social policies if enforced can result in negative effects to society as well as positive ones.
The aims of social policies, for example on the welfare state may either deliberately or unintentionally control people and may sometimes be seen as a way of keeping them in their place, or they may liberate individuals giving them the freedom and independence with the opportunity for a better life than they may of had before policy implementation.
According to Blakmore (2003) "A major aim of the subject of social policy is to evaluate critically the impact of social policies on people's lives, this involves developing theories about the role of welfare and using hypotheses to test out what is happening."
Blakemore (2003) uses the example of the impact of standard assessment tests, commonly known as SATS, in English and Welsh secondary schools, he suggests that by studying the topic in depth using various methods to critically analyse this means of assessing educational attainment it is possible to see whether or not the introduction of SATS has really helped to improve children's education.
Blakemore (2003) also suggests that it is important to recognise that scholars in social policy have their own perception of the subject and what one individual may feel is the core importance of the topic another may disagree and opt for what is important to them. Therefore the personal image of the topic may vary from one individual scholar to another.
In order to understand what social policy is as an academic subject, and what relevance it has upon today's society and the individuals that create society it is important to look back in history at how society and the needs of individuals have changed and been addressed over the years.
The discipline of social policy, once termed as social admistration, grew from the politics of collectivism. The beginning to the twentieth century saw a significant increase in state intervention to address social problems.
Legislation was created in the nineteenth century to help deal with obvious social problems that were apparent, issues that were developing due to modernity, laws such as the Factory Acts and the Poor Law. These laws proved to be insufficient as they were varied across the country. According to Baldock et al (1999) p19 some local authorities were less inclined to offer financial aid to the poor and offered the only option of help by entering the poorhouse while other local authorities offered allowances to help with low wages when individuals could not afford basic living essentials such as bread. In 1843, the Poor Law was altered and enforced to be universal throughout Britain, using a scale of eligibility, however it wasn't until the turn of the twentieth century that the politics of state provision began to change and face the reality of the hardship that individuals were suffering through no fault of their own. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the principles of collectivism emerge with the backing of liberals, socialists and the Fabian Society.
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"Fabianism was characterised by its proposals for practical policies aimed at social problems" Williams (1994)
Established in 1884, Beatrice and Sidney Webb wrote numerous studies of industrial Britain, they "were firm believers that collective provision for welfare through the state was an essential, and inevitable, development within British capitalist society" Alcock (1996)
Pamphleting and research into issues such as the failure of the free market to alleviate poverty led to lobbying the government in order for politicians to face change and see society as it was and how the state was letting down its citizens.
New social policies were slowly introduced by a Liberal government and in 1909 two reports were commissioned, the Minority Report that was mainly the work of Beatrice Webb of the Fabian Society and the Majority Report that was written by Helen and Bernard Bosanquet. The Bosanquets were leading figures within the Charity Organisation Society (Alcock et al, 2009)
The focus of Webb's Minority Report was that the state should become more responsible for its citizens and provide state provision for those in need, the Bosanquets argued that their Majority Report was the way forward suggesting that greater role should be played by charitable organisations in providing for the less fortunate. Although the two concepts were very different in terms of responsibility they both agreed that more support was needed for those individuals that were living in desperate poverty and were disadvantaged.
In the early twentieth century extensive research was done relating to poverty by various scholars, another example of this was provided by Seebohm Rowntree of the well know chocolate and coco manufacturing firm. In his book Poverty, a Study of Town Life, in 1901, he concluded that the poverty in York was alarmingly high as 28 percent of people were living below the poverty line. Blakemore (2003).
Rowntree conducted several surveys prior to the war and after the war which led him to believe that "healthy and well-fed workers, were also efficient workers. Working closely with his father, Joseph Rowntree, Seebohm introduced a series of reforms at his own company. One change was an increase in wages for the 4,000 company employees. Seebohm argued that employers who refused to pay decent wages should be put out of business as their existence was bad for the nation's economy and humanity."( McMillan 2009)
The research and surveys that were conducted in the early twentieth century showed the change in social consciousness of some of the leading manufacturing companies, from exploiting their work force to recognising that in order to maintain a productive economy and workforce, the workers themselves need to be protected.
It appears that the beginning of the twentieth century was a time of social change and the "term sociology began to gain currency as a way of summing up this scientific, statistical approach to understanding social problems." Blakemore (2003).
As time progressed sociologists began to dislike the idea that their work appeared to be based on problem solving of policy issues and as Blakmore (2003) suggests "Sociology became more theoretical in its concerns, though some sociologists retain an interest in 'real world' and policy issues"
The difference between Sociology and Social Policy as an academic subject was becoming more defined it seems that Sociology is the process of discovering knowledge in relation to society for its own sake while the main aim of Social Policy is to research the impact of social policies on people and society.
The Atlee government is rightly seen as one of the great reformist administrations of the twentieth century, the reforms to the welfare state are seen to be progressive and brave. These reforms were based on the 1942 Beveridge report called 'Social Insurance and Allied Services', the report spelled out a system of social insurance, covering every citizen regardless of income. It offered a cradle to grave welfare state. The government introduced an expansion of free education, public housing, sickness benefits and family allowances.
The birth of the National Health Service in 1948 is seen to be Labours greatest achievement although medical professionals objected to the idea of a free health service believing that it would be unsustainable, it took just two years for the beginning of this remarkable achievement to begin to take shape. The original plan was that all health care would be provided free of charge but Britain's economic growth after the war was a slow process and by 1951 the Chancellor of the Exchequer was forced to introduce charges for NHS false teeth and glasses.
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The first professor of social administration at the London School of Economics was appointed in 1950, Richard Titmus was one of the first non-graduates to have ever become a professor, and this was partly due to his writings shortly after the Second World War based on the civilian experience of wartime, called Problems of Social Policy (1950).
In the 1970's Titmus was challenged and his work criticised by social scientists. Culturalist critiques are "those that challenge the way that welfare services are designed and provided and the cultural assumptions (for example about men and women's role in society) that underpin the manner in which services are delivered" Blakemore (2003).
The 1970's saw the rise in the Feminist movement and the Feminist approach to social policy raised questions as to the social division within the welfare state, questioning the basic construct of the welfare state and how services provided such as education, health and social services reinforce gender inequality. Hallett (1996).
Along with the cultural critiques Titmus was challenged with material critiques, these were based on economic factors such as if the welfare state should only be of support to the poorer and working class groups within society. Others argued that the welfare state was an unnecessary burden to society and was unmanageable economically, although the work of Titmus has been criticised, dissected and analysed from many perspectives it remains that his work has firmly placed Social Policy on the academic map, works such as 'Essays on the Welfare State' (1958) and 'Commitment to Welfare' (1968) have been the basis of understanding social policy as a subject that studies policy for the benefit of individuals, while illuminating the policy makers to what and how policy affects both society as a whole and people as equal citizens of the state.
Every academic book defines social policy in a similar way but no one explanation is brief simple and self explanatory as the subject itself can be complex, involving many academic disciplines that entwine to create a combination of thought processes, research in an ever changing society.