Moving Beyond ‘Disjointed Literatures’: On the Need for Social Policy Analysis to Bring Housing Back In

By Rod Hick, Mark Stephens and Marco Pomati

The study of housing and debates in the field of Social Policy, and in relation to poverty in particular, have for some time operated in what Mark Stephens and Guido van Steen labelled ‘disjointed literatures’.

Housing studies is located at the interface with several disciplines, but began to grow apart from social policy in the 1980s. Methodological conventions – for example whether to take “households” or “individuals living in households” as the unit of measurement – evolved separately. Even more importantly, understanding of interconnections between housing and other social policies has been hindered. We have separate learned societies, journals and, thus, considerable separation in our academic communities. This separation is becoming harder to defend, however, as developments in relation to housing – in particular, rising house prices and housing costs – threaten to impinge on household living standards to a greater extent than in the recent past.

The significance of housing in terms of the incidence and experience of poverty in particular, and to the concerns of Social Policy more generally, is both self-evident and multifaceted. Shelter is one of our core human needs, without which life itself is threatened – being adequately housed is thus intrinsically important and its absence can be considered a fundamental deprivation. But housing is also instrumentally important: that is, high housing costs can prevent families from meeting their non-housing needs and can push them into poverty.

At least two recent trends speak to the significance of developments in the sphere of housing for social policy issues. The first – which has received substantial media attention – concerns rising house prices and the multiple social impacts that these are understood to relate to. There is particular concern with the challenges faced by young people in getting on the housing ladder, and with the rise of the so-called ‘Generation Rent’. For those helped onto the property ladder by the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’, there are worries that that transfers between the generations will play a significant role in determining inequalities within the generation of younger adults. The rise in house prices has not been geographically even and in the UK this is of course a particular concern in London, a global city within a wider nation. Intra-national differences, especially concerning such global cities are often significant in relation to housing but, as John Hudson has argued, they have not always received the attention that they deserve in the comparative social policy literature, where the nation-state remains a dominant unit of comparative analysis.

But as Madden and Marcuse argue, the housing crisis portrayed in the national media often refers to ‘the experiences of middle-class homeowners and investors, who face unexpected residential instability following the 2008 implosion’, rather than the quotidian struggles to meet housing costs without falling into poverty or having to accept low-quality housing as the price for balancing matters financial.

A second important trend concerns the growth in the share of the population living in private rented accommodation in the UK in recent decades. This in turn raises several dilemmas – since the private rented sector is often associated with housing affordability problems, there are concerns about the impact of this shift on rates of poverty. A study of in-work poverty by Rod Hick and Alba Lanau found that the rise in in-work poverty between 2004/5 and 2014/15 in the UK was experienced largely by renters, and by tenants in the private rented sector especially. There is also a risk that rising rents begin to undermine progress in other areas of government policy – for example, by blunting the effect of increases in the minimum wage. For these reasons, analysts and policy-makers working across a variety of areas of social policy are finding themselves needing to consider developments in housing systems.

In all of this, there are important questions about the extent to which developments in the UK are unique, rare, widespread or universal in international terms. For this, comparative study is needed to examine commonalities and differences across countries as well as whether there are common patterns of change over time.

We are working at present on an Economic and Social Research Council-funded study that seeks to move beyond these disjointed literatures. Our study aims to examine and explain the association between housing and poverty in a comparative European context, and how this has changed over the decade between 2005 and 2017, drawing on comparative quantitative data from the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey. Our project adopts an interdisciplinary approach, conducted by two researchers of poverty who have increasingly found themselves turning to developments in field of housing to make sense of those in relation to poverty in recent years (Hick and Pomati) and a housing studies scholar who has a longstanding interest in its links with poverty (Stephens).

The tide in relation to these disjointed literatures may be about to turn. A new SPA-affiliated Housing Policy Group has been formed (see their earlier blog here) and there has been a newfound prominence of housing-related papers at recent social policy conferences in both the UK and Europe. Moving beyond the disjointed literatures of the recent past and working towards greater integration between housing studies and social policy are important priorities and have the potential to inform analysis and action on some of our most pressing social problems.


Dr Rod Hick is a Reader in Social Policy at Cardiff University.

Professor Mark Stephens is the Ian Mactaggart Chair in Land, Property and Urban Studies at Glasgow University.

Dr Marco Pomati is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences and Research Methods at Cardiff University.

Image: Mikes-Photography at Pixabay