Monday, 25 April 2016

They come and go… and come back: Theoretical concepts in social policy research, and why they matter

Social policy research, much as the wider discipline of social sciences, is characterised by the ebb and flow of theoretical concepts, which fluctuate in popularity, can disappear and later reappear (perhaps in slightly different shape), or emerge as fresh new ways of reflecting upon and making sense of our complex social world.

Whether it is old classics such as ‘poverty’ and ‘inequality’, or more recent manifestations such as ‘social exclusion’ or ‘vulnerability’, two features appear to be universal: On the one hand, there is usually a tension, if not outright conflict, between academic conceptualisations and the way in which political activists or policy-makers use such terms. On the other, there can be lively debates within the research community itself as to which concepts (and which interpretation of any given concept) are the most appropriate and useful to analyse social phenomena.

When I was working on my PhD a few years ago, investigating social policies against exclusion, I was often struck by the extent to which theoretical work that I considered to be deeply insightful and intelligent was simplified, distorted and twisted by politicians, leaving behind little more than some empty shells of rhetoric. At the same time, it was fascinating to observe that controversies were running high within academic circles, to discuss the merits and demerits of ‘social exclusion’ as a theoretical concept. 

Having had the fortune of reading my fair share of Pierre Bourdieu during my own studies, this was of course not surprising, given that the academic world represents one of the ‘fields’ he had written about, with their struggles for symbolic capital and reputation as well as the need to be both on the inside, by playing according to the rules, and to find one’s own niche. In more recent times, ongoing research on vulnerability, together with my colleague Kevin Caraher, has led to similar observations…

These controversies, be it within academia or in the wider realm of politics are, however, not only inevitable in an open society, but also highly beneficial. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is these debates that help to push forward the boundaries of knowledge and that challenge us intellectually – and hence lead ideally to progress. 

And they also help to engage critically with policy-making by, for example, highlighting the shortcomings or biases of social policy programmes, and by being able to understand which approaches could work better. Moreover, such controversial discussions sharpen the tools for critical reflection – something essential in any democratic society to avoid the dullness and narrow-mindedness of a ‘there is no alternative consensus’ and to foster lively debates and peaceful ways of expressing conflicting views.

Finally, it is these ‘controversies’ as well as keeping an open mind, accepting and contrasting different views, and never stopping learning what makes academic work so enriching, for teachers and students alike.

This year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, we offer two bursaries for students on our new MA in Social and Public Policy.

Enrico Reuter – follow me on Twitter: @ReuterEnrico