No 13: Beneficent expert or turbulent priest? The ambiguous role of the Social Policy academic

British parliament is where the fruits of academic social policy should be found.
Palace of Westminster, London.

by Hartley Dean

The role of the Social Policy academic has in several respects always been ambiguous. The object of her scholarship may variously be regarded as a discrete discipline or as a multi- or inter-disciplinary subject area; as a primarily applied or as a critically theoretical field of social scientific study; or, more sceptically, as ‘a mixture of down-to-earth pragmatism and evangelical moral uplift’. In practice, such scholarship can, or has, entailed all of those things. In 2010, for a piece in the Social Policy Association’s newsletter, I wrote the following:

Social Policy scholars have at times been close to the policy-making establishment. At others they have been excluded. However, it is a cardinal principle that academics should never become the complaisant courtiers of the establishment, but must remain free to be troublesome priests.

Looking back, Social Administration as an academic subject/discipline was originally rooted in Fabian ideology: a paradoxical synthesis of the Webbs’ empiricism and the Bosanquets’ moral philosophy, as Martin Bulmer and colleagues put it in 1988. This would find effective expression and influence in the so-called Titmuss paradigm, a set of shared views that were progressively liberal or social democratic and which, though not necessarily hegemonic, held sway within the policymaking establishment.

The pioneers of academic Social Policy in the UK were directly implicated in the moulding of the post-World War II welfare state in its ‘golden age’. Alan Deacon has suggested that a sort of ‘quasi-Titmuss paradigm’ subsequently endured as, in the 1970s, Social Administration morphed into Social Policy, a subject with a wider remit and a more critical edge. However, the substantive influence of the subject on substantive policymaking has since declined: a reflection in part of the fundamental reconfiguration of the welfare state and in part of changes within academia. The changing parameters of social provision in a newly emerging post-industrial era made the study of Social Policy in many ways more intellectually exciting, but, arguably, it diluted or de-centred its focus. And the coming of new public managerialism to the higher education sector has subjected all academics to greater control and resulted in a research agenda with an increasingly utilitarian ethos.

Social Policy academics have continued, nevertheless, to play a key role as policy advisers, independent experts and researchers. And, on occasions, they have sought through their work to call policy-makers to account for the shortcomings, failures or adverse consequences of policy change. In this latter role, the Social Policy academic is likely to engage not merely with technical issues, but with ideological controversies and moral priorities. Speaking truth to power is the prerogative of the scholar, though it may render her vulnerable, just as, in 1170 AD, Archbishop Thomas Beckett’s principled challenge to the authority of Henry II, led to his condemnation by the king as a ‘turbulent’, ‘troublesome’ or ‘meddlesome’ priest (there are conflicting historical accounts as to the precise adjective used) — resulting in Beckett’s unauthorised murder by four zealous knights, loyal to Henry.

Thankfully, troublesome Social Policy academics are unlikely to be murdered, but they may be vulnerable to challenges to their independence, to ridicule through the popular press, to effective exclusion from access to research funding, or more simply, to marginalization. Where the message from academia to policymakers is unwelcome, it can be systematically silenced, filleted or reinterpreted to fit with a different ‘story’ that supports rather than challenges ‘asymmetrical relations of power’.

Looking forward, therefore, it may be foreseen that there will be enduring moral tensions between the different kinds of influence that scholars in the field of Social Policy will continue to seek, and may yet wield, within the world of substantive social policymaking. Key to resolving or accommodating those tensions and to the integrity of Social Policy scholarship is the synergistic relationship between theory and practice on the one hand, and between politics and principles on the other. Systematic evidence gathering and conceptual insight are equally important. And insofar as substantive social policies are invariably constructed on the basis of muddled consensus or ideological compromise, the role of the Social Policy scholar is not to remain aloof from political controversy, but to maintain an undivided commitment to the defence and promotion of human well-being. In this increasingly amoral era of austerity economics and populist politics, the need for an academic Social Policy that combines objective expertise with moral clarity is greater than ever before.

Hartley Dean has been a Social Policy academic for 30 years. He is currently Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics (and is part-retired), but he previously held posts at the Universities of Luton and Kent. Before becoming an academic, he worked for 12 years as a welfare-rights adviser in a community-based inner-London advice agency. His most recent book is titled Social Advantage and Disadvantage (ed. with L. Platt, Oxford University Press, 2016).

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