Isms, ologies and dead cats

Social Policy and Welfare
November 13, 1998

The rather unlikable saying "there's more than one way to skin a dead cat" seems to be particularly apt in social policy, a field which was dominated until recently by one or two student textbooks but which now boasts a considerable variety.

Most social policy texts seem to devote more pages to theoretical and sociological perspectives, or to "isms and ologies", than to the content of recent British social policy. The reluctance to base an introductory book on current policy trends is understandable, given the way social policies can date as rapidly as yesterday's news. But there is still a need for a single-authored introduction to the field that applies conceptual approaches to what is happening around us in British social welfare.

Though this book will be a valuable and distinctive addition to the lecturer's toolkit and to the student's bookshelf (if such a thing exists), Tom Burden's Social Policy and Welfare does not quite do the trick. Students looking for a discussion of why things have been turning out the way they have in British education, health, social security, social services or housing policy will not find it in this book. Under the heading of "community care", for instance, I could find only six scattered pages, not all of which were directly concerned with policy. All the other main policy areas are similarly fragmented.

What this book does contain in abundance are succinct summaries of views of social issues and welfare policy. These are separated into "right-wing", "radical" and "reformist" perspectives on, for instance, gender, the family, citizenship, poverty, race, crime, schooling, urban problems, social work, disease, and professionalism. It is an approach that inevitably results in the construction of rather wooden and arbitrary categories. On the other hand, students will find this text useful as a resource or checklist or if they need off-the-peg summaries of a wide range of "isms" from Bismarckianism to Keynsianism and Marxism.

Another strength is this book's comparative framework. More than 40 per cent of it discusses social policy in East Asia, various European countries, the former USSR and Islamic countries, plus brief but systematic coverage of poverty, health care, "the old", and race in Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. There is also a substantial chapter on global aspects of social policy.

For all its no-nonsense style, however, I was left with the impression of a book that might be more useful to a second-level student than someone in their first year of social policy studies. Just as an NCO might intimidate a raw recruit by barking out a series of instructions, the staccato style of this book might bewilder a beginning social policy student.

On the other hand, a student who had already covered the ground may well find it useful for revision purposes; the cross-referencing system, the provision of related topics and the author's aim to create a "hypertext" are novel and useful features. Meanwhile, we await the arrival of a single-authored introduction to the field that aims to develop a relationship with the reader and can gently lead students into both conceptual material and contemporary British social policy.

Ken Blakemore is lecturer in social policy, University of Wales, Swansea.

Social Policy and Welfare: A Clear Guide

Author - Tom Burden
ISBN - 0 7453 0965 8 and 0966 6
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 261

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