No 37: Social Policy’s next 50 years

What will social policy in the UK look like in 50 years? Rod Hick offers five suggestions.

By Rod Hick

The Social Policy Association’s (SPA’s) 50th anniversary blog series has demonstrated the rich variety of topics examined by social policy scholars. While some have examined contemporary policy issues, others have looked back at the past 50 years, or have sought to identify areas warranting further research.

This blog looks forward to the next 50 years for the subject of social policy. My focus is not on how policy or politics might change over this period, or on how social policy analysis itself might evolve. Nor is my aim to identify a research agenda for the years ahead. Rather, I outline five shifts which would, in my opinion, strengthen the subject of social policy. This is a personal list, and thus an idiosyncratic one. But I contend that movement in these five areas would enhance the impact, coherence, significance and reach of the subject of social policy over the next fifty years.

Documenting and teaching the social policy canon

One of the great strengths of social policy is its focus on contemporary social issues, but in an effort to make them timely, social policy texts can sometimes struggle to be timeless. The analysis of particular policies can date quickly if those policies are repealed or replaced. In the debate about whether social policy should be seen as a field of study or a discipline, it was argued that lacking its own distinctive body of thought, social policy could not be considered a discipline. Another possibility, not fully considered in that debate was that, to invoke Zhou Enlai, it was simply too soon to tell whether social policy would produce a distinctive body of thought. This ought to be clearer now, and more apparent still in fifty years’ time. Indeed, the need for a clearly-identified canon is pressing given that those teaching social policy do not always have a background in the subject. Modules on the history of welfare state development, on key concepts, and on contemporary policy developments are commonplace within our degrees, reflecting the focus of introductory textbooks. Documenting and teaching the history of thought within social policy matters too.

Publications that stand the test of time

The canon itself needs to develop and expand. Which outputs, we might ask, will survive the test of time and will be taught to social policy students in the future? Each of us can no doubt identify the classic texts that we return to repeatedly, many years after their publication. For me, one such text is Len Doyal and Ian Gough’s Theory of Human Need, still relevant — indeed urgent, more than 25 years after publication. A challenge for us all is to write material which not only touches upon present-day conditions but also contributes to and develops the social policy canon.

Strengthening capacity in quantitative methods

In The Gift Relationship, Richard Titmuss argued that blood donation systems — and by extension social policies more broadly — ought to be evaluated using economic and ethical criteria. An emphasis on the economic and the ethical continues to be found in the subject today, though not always as Titmuss intended, within a single analysis.

When compared with the rich body of qualitative and conceptual work, one cannot but help notice that there is a relative shortfall of quantitative and mixed-methods analyses within social policy in the UK. One explanation is that advanced quantitative skills remain in short supply. This matters because if our aim is to understand the aggregate effects of social policies, then we must take quantitative skills seriously. The breadth of the subject and lack of agreed way of ‘doing’ social policy pose challenges in terms of identifying appropriate methodological training. But the social policy scholars of the future ought to be able to conduct advanced qualitative and quantitative empirical work, combining this with sophisticated theoretical and conceptual analysis. Being able to take economic, as well as ethical, criteria seriously will require strengthening capacity in quantitative methods.  

Celebrating ‘insiders’ as well as ‘outsiders’

For many of us, an interest in social policy developed in response to injustices that we observed in the world. This widespread rejection of the status quo, and of much of the politics since the 1980s, has embedded an outsider character — and perhaps even an oppositional one — within social policy. This critique of the status quo and commitment to social justice is one of the great strengths of the subject. If however, we have expertise in how to secure, promote and protect wellbeing, then this ought to be utilised to benefit society. This may include softening the edges of otherwise harsh reforms. Social policy academics play valuable roles as ‘insiders’ as well as ‘outsiders’ — by becoming directly involved in politics, by providing advice to policy-makers (either formally or informally), or by conducting research commissioned by governments of various stripes. As a community, we could do more to celebrate those who have not only critiqued the world but who have also changed it through direct political engagement.

Ongoing integration between the global and the local

The growth of social policy outside the West has undoubtedly been one of the most significant developments we have seen in our field in recent decades. This has spurred regional associations such as the East Asian Social Policy (EASP) Research Network and the Middle East and North Africa Social Policy (MENASP) Research Network. Others may emerge in the years ahead. How to internationalise our community, while also ensuring communication within and across it, will pose a challenge in the years ahead. This is in part because international linkages may not be spontaneous when policy-making remains primarily national and local.

There is also value in an awareness of what, in social policy terms, is going on elsewhere, including how the social policy canon is being extended in other parts of the world. For example, the Transformative Social Policy approach that is popular amongst some African scholars strikes me as a distinct approach to understanding social policy, and one that might usefully be taught to UK students within the family of social policy approaches.

The SPA’s 50th anniversary blog posts have demonstrated the richness and breadth of the subject of social policy. No subject stands still, however, and much will depend on changes in politics and policy. These five shifts would, I believe, further strengthen social policy over the next fifty years.

Dr Rod Hick is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Cardiff University. Further information about his research can be found at He Tweets at @rodhick.

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