No 17: Citizens as social actors – how we should think of them and why it matters

Citizens need a robust social welfare state in order to thrive.
Demonstration at Conservative Party Conference 2017, Deansgate, Manchester, Greater Manchester, England, 1 October 2017.

by Graham Room

Who now reads Titmuss, TH Marshall and Tawney? It was through their writings that many of us came to social policy in the early days of the SPA. But do they still have anything to say in today’s world?

All three were critical of the marketplace, as a measure of human worth and a motivator of individual action. They believed that the common man and woman were ready to embrace collective solutions to shared problems — moral solidarity mediated through the public services of an active state. This vision was shaped in part by memories of national solidarity in wartime and the welfare state consolidation of the 1940s.

Meanwhile, other and quite different views of the citizen as a social actor have gained ascendancy. One, of course, is homo economicus — or his close cousin, rational actor theory. This resonates with much of the policy agenda since the 1980s, by both major political parties, concerned with expanding consumer choice in public services. A second is associated with the explosion of interest in behavioural economics. Instead of being rational actors, we are all in various ways irrational, subject to inertia, biases and blunders. We need public policy-makers to re-structure the menu of alternatives that we face, taking these biases into account, and thus nudging us towards choices that are in our own best interest. The research in behavioural psychology, which underpins this policy agenda, does not end there. Neuroscience plays an increasing role, supposedly measuring well-being in a more rigorous manner than social scientists could ever offer.

Neither of these visions leaves much for the moral solidarity in which Titmuss, Marshall and Tawney believed, with ordinary people embracing collective solutions to shared problems. How might we re-conceptualise their view of such social actors, in terms that resonate with the policy dilemmas of today? Or is their legacy no longer of much relevance?

For Titmuss and Marshall, the collective provision of welfare gave some basic stability and security for all. This is surely at least as relevant to the society of today as to that of the 1940s. In a complex and turbulent society, how can the citizen, in the absence of such stability, make purposeful plans for education, for employment, for old age? Far from wanting more choices, citizens may prefer a guarantee of collective well-being and security.   

This is what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘agile’ action. If social actors are to probe the complex, turbulent and uncertain landscapes on which they find themselves, they need to keep one foot on firm and stable ground — the settled knowledge and practices of the local and national communities in which they live. From here, they can re-weave their world and move to a new vantage point.        

In rational action theory, the social actor confronts a menu of options carrying particular costs, benefits and consequences. ‘Agile’ action in contrast, rather than taking that menu as given, actively re-shapes it. This involves the use of mental models as to how the world is likely to unfold and how it can be steered — models carried within the social institutions that surround us. But of course, this involves a struggle played on unequal terms. Those already at a positional disadvantage may end up with hardly any stable and settled ground from which to shape their world and with little option but to hunker down and cling to a precarious existence. There they may find themselves portrayed as the victims of inertia and bias, but nudges are unlikely to make much difference, however well-intentioned.        

Citizens need to be secure, resilient and adaptable if they are to survive and thrive in a complex world. This requires public policies to provide a stable and secure ground for all and to invest in the creative energies of everyone. If the social changes of the 21st century are to be managed successfully and with public consent, they will need a new social contract to underpin them.  

Such a contract should involve a broad range of policies, of relevance to all citizens. It would go far beyond the notion of a basic income, which in various guises has again reared its head across the political spectrum. It would limit the risks of poverty but also promote economic growth; ensure individual security but also collective resilience and adaptability. It would involve rebuilding local and national communities, as points where these different policies can meet. It would leave the market where it belongs, as the servant of the community, not its master.      

It is thus that social policy scholars can illuminate the policy landscape of today, in terms that are sociologically coherent, but which also connect with our social policy roots.        

Graham Room is Professor of European Social Policy at the University of Bath. He is the author, co-author or editor of thirteen books, the most recent being Agile Actors on Complex Terrains: Transformative Realism and Public Policy (Routledge, 2016). He was Founding Editor of the Journal of European Social Policy and is a member of the UK Academy of Social Sciences.

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