So what is Social Policy?

One of our aims at Critical Publishing is to publish texts that approach subjects from a fresh perspective. From my first meeting with Stuart Connor I knew that we weren’t just going to get ‘yet another textbook on social policy’ but a work that students could really engage with and which would encourage them to take a critical and proactive approach to the subject. His book What’s Your Problem? Making Sense of Social Problems and the Policy Process is published on 1 Sept 2013 and in the post below he talks about his motivation for writing the book.
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My first experiences of being taught social policy were not good. This was no reflection on the qualities of the tutor. He was knowledgeable and approachable and made every effort to engage the students and make clear the material to be learnt. No, the problem was not with the tutor or the style of delivery, but the nature of the package being delivered. That is, policies were presented and understood as legal and bureaucratic instruments, produced by authorities that provided the rules and codes of practices that were to guide our actions and inform decision making. There was a recognition that policies changed over time, but no account was given as to why these polices changed and whether these changes were desirable. My task was to simply learn and recount these policies and where appropriate, to then abide by rules and procedures that the policies prescribed.

I found such an approach to be dull and I struggled to maintain an interest in the subject of social policy. This is not to say that I did not appreciate the value of such knowledge. Identifying and understanding the actual or intended policies of authorities and institutions is important. It was just that this was information that I could quickly discover for myself and more fundamentally, the rather ossified accounts on offer made the subject of social policy appear a rather distant topic, far removed from my own experiences of policy. What was even more frustrating was that I had been initially drawn to learning more about social policy, as, like many others, I was hoping to work with people and ‘make a difference’ and recognized that social policy was a necessary part of such plans. However, my initial enthusiasm waned as these policies appeared to stand over me. I had come to understand social policy as something that people needed to adapt to, rather than policies adapting to the needs of people.

However, having vented my frustrations, a friend recommended a book that changed all this. The book was Murray Edelman’s the Symbolic Use of Politics. First published in 1964 and more likely to be found on political science reading lists, for me the book revealed and expressed all the contingency, change and conflict that I had anticipated would be a part of studying social policy, yet to date had been absent. Edelman helped open the door to an approach to social policy where the problems and solutions that policies represented were no longer givens, but reflections and realizations of particular positions. Policy was no longer reduced to a set of procedures that hung over people’s head, but were made and unmade in and through a range of social, political and economic relations and practices. Far from the distant features of the landscape that I had come to understood policy to represent, Edelman helped closed the gap between policy and practice.

It is still necessary to have knowledge of particular policies but Edelman helped me to realize how policies are part of and woven from the fabric of everyday life. Since then I have been fortunate enough to read and work with a number of researchers and writers that have reaffirmed the view that policies are not just something to be learned, but experienced, read, written and performed. It is the opportunity to interrogate and clarify the different assumptions and interests that underpin the answers to the questions, ‘what’s your problem and what are you going to do about it?’ that makes social policy such a vital subject.

Stuart Connor

University of Birmingham

June 2013

Stuart Connor is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Birmingham. His teaching and research interests include critical approaches to the analysis of contemporary social policy and practice.  This work includes examining the role of governments, trade unions, NGOs, social movements, communities and practitioners in the fabrication of ‘social problems’ and attempts to legitimate, challenge and shape particular policy responses.

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