Glitches in all the gloss

Patterns of Social Inequality. First Edition - British Social Welfare in the 20th Century. First Edition
February 25, 2000

Centennial, let alone millennial transitions provide unmissable cues for academic stocktaking. Has the past century really witnessed the strategic and deep changes in the social and economic structure of Britain that so many have argued? If those changes have occurred, to what extent are they the result of state intervention to ease or eliminate the main inequities in social life and welfare?

Government spin provides one answer: that social changes have been radical and many through the welfare state. However, in a new age, a different and specifically mutual contract is required between the responsible citizen and the responsible state. This is based not on the old social dichotomies and on the world of old Labour, but on burgeoning new sets of social relationships.

Social and economic inequalities have been lessened, especially those based on traditional splits between north and south, and between country and town, and, by implication, those based on class, gender and ethnicity. In this new politics those individuals stranded in economic and social backwaters can, at least in principle, be easily assisted back into the mainstream of life.

The "one nation" arguments at the spin''s core are constructed on the grounds that social and economic opportunities were and still are there for the taking.

For the editors and most of the contributors of these two collections, this vision of past change and future possibilities is problematic and based on a serious misreading of contemporary data and historical trends.

The Huw Beynon and Pandeli Glavanis collection, Patterns of Social Inequality , has the more robust and explicitly political focus. It challenges the assumptions on which such political spin is built and the sociological analyses that have paralleled its rise. Their focus is seen as almost entirely on consumption - social, cultural and economic.

Beynon and Glavanis make the bold claim, or at least the cover of their book does, that their text "covers all the themes essential to an understanding of contemporary British society in one volume".

But their introductory essay makes clear that the by-no-means lengthy collection is a partial and committed volume in the Longman sociology series. It redresses what they see as the worrying slide in sociological analysis towards empirically dubious "culturalist" interpretations and an increasing neglect of the core issue of social inequality in its various - and largely traditional - forms.

The volume is a plea for a return to the familiar sociological territory of analysing class inequalities on the basis of production rather than consumption. These inequalities are still embedded despite what some argue are fundamental shifts in social life.

Contributors see these shifts as an enticing, but ultimately fragile, veneer beneath which lie deep and continuing structures of inequality. They chart the stubborn resistance of selected key inequalities to change - in education (Robert Burgess); in class (Beynon and Ian Roberts); in gender (Sheila Allen and Frank Ennis) in "race" (Glavanis); and in work and employment (John Eldridge, Theo Nichols, Tony Elger and Margaret Curran).

The plea for a return to a more traditional sets of sociological analyses will be welcomed by many but will be seen as partial by government ministers and those many social scientists whose perspectives are centred on consumption processes and cultural practices.

Robert Page and Richard Silburn''s collection, British Social Welfare in the 20th Century, superficially has a rather different target to that of Beynon and Glavanis. Written from within the perspectives of the broad church of social administration and social policy, it is an attempt to chart and reflect on the evolution of patterns of social welfare in Britain in the 20th century.

The editors emphasise the recent convergence of interests and analytical styles between historians and social scientists to stress the value of drawing on past and often-heated debates and controversies to illuminate current concerns.

The essays are built on historical reviews of key political ideas such as neoclassicism (Norman Barry), new liberalism (Robert Pinker) and democratic socialism (Michael Sullivan); welfare issues - education Michael Sanderson), employment (Sean Glynn), poverty (Pete Alcock), housing (Norman Ginsburg); and welfare outside the state (Jane Lewis, and Margaret May and Edward Brunsden).

A 20th-century overview is provided by John Stewart. Jim Tomlinson focuses on paying for welfare, and Page writes on prospects for the future.

These essays unsurprisingly echo many of the arguments in Beynon and Glavanis''s collection about the persistence of inequalities, as well as the persistence of many traditional political ideas, albeit with a contemporary gloss.

However, the marriage is an uneasy one, despite the editors'' hopeful and optimistic synthesis of history and social science. This appears most frequently in integrating important developments - especially the underpinnings and impact of new Labour welfare policies and practices - into an historical frame of reference.

Detailed, high-quality, and rather dispassionate historical analyses of the past century sometimes sit uneasily with short and more forthright concluding sections on current and future prospects. These seem rather short on similar detail and perspective.

With some exceptions, contributors appear to beg the question as to when the role of the historian ends and that of the contemporary social scientist begins. Nonetheless the text provides a historically sound review of 20th-century social welfare, even if readers are left - I suspect more than the editors intended - to draw their own conclusions about the impact and resonances of past debates and policies in relation to current and future welfare provision.

However, I doubt whether the government will use this interpretative leeway to backtrack on its ringing dismissals of a persistent and largely unchanged matrix of social and economic inequalities.

Both collections provide compelling evidence that these still exist and some are getting worse.

Ian Robinson is reader in sociology, Brunel University.

Patterns of Social Inequality. First Edition

Editor - Huw Beynon and Pandeli Glavanis
ISBN - 0 582 29263 8
Publisher - Longman
Price - £14.99
Pages - 224

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