In this essay the author will define social policy as an academic subject and show that despite the fact that social policy draws on other academic social science subjects it is different because it is “based upon a distinct empirical focus – support for the well-being of citizens provided through social action” (Alcock 2008:3). The author will show how as an academic subject social policy is both descriptive and analytical and will give examples.

Social policy as an academic subject is difficult to describe as it is both the search of theoretical norms on how society should behave and the practical application and implementation of policies, which are considered to be social (Alcock et al 2004:1). The purpose of these policies is to improve welfare and to meet human needs (Blakemore, K. 2003:1). Spicker (2008:1) defines social policy as “the study of social services and the welfare state”. The study of social policy, originally known as social administration mainly pertains to social services and includes social security, housing, health, social work and education, these being described by Spicker (2008:1) as the “big five”. Social policy as an academic subject draws on other subjects such as economics, politics, history, psychology and sociology and has been described as a “magpie” subject by Blakemore (2003:3). These other subjects offer background information about the many aspects required to understand and develop social policies such as the effects of industrialisation and changes in social conditions, population changes, concepts of class, status and mobility. Understanding sociology gives a better understanding of industrial relations, minority groups and social control (Titmuss 1974:15). However, social policy as an academic discipline differs from these other subjects “because it is based on a distinct empirical focus – support for the well-being of citizens provided through social action” (Alcock, P. 2008:3).

Social policy as an academic subject has been described as the “study of policy practice in order to contribute to policy reform. It combines both descriptive and prescriptive elements” Becker (2008:11). Carlson (2004:89) contends that the descriptive element of social policy is normally involved in the production of “classifications to make comparison easier, or to show the inter-relationships between cases”. According to Spicker (2008:2) Titmuss suggested that social policy describes how policies are formulated and the consequences of policies. Social policy’s main focus is welfare and it describes people’s needs or problems such as poverty, housing, mental illness or disability (Spicker 2008:4). Social policy describes the origin and aims of a policy, how a policy is implemented and the results, either good or bad (Spicker 2008:5). Fitzpatrick (2001:4) wrote that social administration was “concerned with the “how” and the “what” of social policy” . An example of this descriptive element of social policy in practice can be found in a background paper on drugs and drug dependence written by Richard Hartnoll (2004). Hartnoll discusses how many people, what type of people use drugs, the type drugs they use, prevention, treatments and reduction in supply. This descriptive data contributes to addressing policy questions in relation to the impact of drug use on individuals and society. Descriptions also help to assess needs and deal with whether or not there are adequate resources to deal with the problem. Hartnoll concluded that although descriptions of the drug situation and policies had improved in Europe, that gaps remained and much more needed to be done in analysing policies.

“The study of social policy requires the rigorous linking of theoretical analysis with empirical enquiry”. Social policy needs to analyse policies, their goals and impacts and consider if these policies achieve their goals, or if not, why not (Bochel 2005:7-8). According to Carlson (2004:88-89) Best and Kellner make a comparison between social theories and road maps, saying that in order to “analyse, discuss and intervene in social processes” we need to use maps to see how society is structured. Theoretical perspectives or belief systems, referred to as “ideologies of welfare” (George and Wilding, 1994:1) play an important role in the analytical aspect of social policy. Ideologies have three main components as described by Baldock et al (2007:69-70). The first is a view, which stresses or explains argument without giving weight to other viewpoints. The second is the view of groups or individuals who have something to gain from an argument. The third and final component of an ideology is how it deals with more than one issue and refers to a “wider set of coherent ideas”. Analysing social policies in relation to lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in Ireland show how the ideologies of the Catholic Church have in the past influenced social policy. Sex between men was criminalized in Ireland in 1634 and was punishable by death. Amendments were made to this act broadening the scope from buggery to gross indecency in 1885. With the foundation of the Irish Gay Rights Movement in 1974 came the push to decriminalise homosexuality. David Norris took a case to the High Court in 1977 in which he challenged his constitutional rights of privacy and equality. This case was unsuccessful and the judgement of the High Court included reference to homosexuality “been condemned in Christian teaching as being morally wrong”. The High Court also judged that homosexuality posed damage to the institution of marriage. The Catholic Church’s ideologies are evident in this judgement. Norris was successful in 1988 when he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights. Homosexuality was eventually decriminalized in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act of 1993 (Considine, Dukelow 2009:438-443).

In conclusion the author has defined social policy as an academic subject and explained the differences between social policy and other social science subjects. The author has explained how social policy is descriptive and illustrated this with the example from Hartnoll. The author has also shown how social policy is analytical and why when analysing policies consideration must be given to the influence of ideologies as demonstrated with the example given from Considine and Dukelow.

List of References

Alcock, Cliff., Payne, Sarah., Sullivan, Michael. (2004) Introducing Social Policy, England: Pearson Education Limited

Alcock. Pete. (2008) “The Subject of Social Policy”, p. 3 in Alcock, Pete., May, Margaret and Rowlingson, Karen (eds), The Students Companion to Social Policy, 3rd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Baldock, John., (2007) “Welfare, Ideology, and Social Theory” in Baldock, John., Manning, Nick., Vickerstaff, Sarah., (eds) Social Policy 3rd ed, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Becker Saul.(2008) “Methods and Approaches in Social Policy Research” in Alcock, Peter, May. Margaret and Rowlingson, Karen., (eds) The Students Companion to Social Policy 3rd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Blakemore, Kenneth (2003) Social Policy an Introduction 2nd ed, Berkshire: Open University Press

Bochel, Hugh (2005) “Introducing Social Policy” in Bochel, Hugh., Bochel, Catherine., Page, Robert and Sykes, Rob., Social Policy: Issues and Developments, Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Carlson, Judith (2004) “Theoretical Principles and Concepts” in Alcock, Cliff., Payne, Sarah., Sullivan, Michael., Introducing Social Policy, Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Considine, Mairéad., Dukelow, Fiona., (2009) Irish Social Policy, A Critical Introduction Dublin: Gill& Macmillan Ltd

Fitzpatrick, Tony (2001) Welfare Theory: An Introduction, Campling, Jo (consultant editor) London: Palgrave

George, Vic., Wilding, Paul., (1994) Welfare and Ideology Essex: Prentice Hall Europe

Hartnoll, Richard (2004) Drugs and drug dependence: linking research, policy and practice, background paper for Pompidou Group’s Strategic Conference on connecting research, policy and practice, Strasbourg. Germany: Koelblin-Fortuna-Druck

Lavalette, Michael., Pratt, Alan.,(eds) (1998) Social Policy A Conceptual and Theoretical Introduction , London: Sage Publications Inc

Spicker, Paul (2008) Social Policy Themes and Approaches 2nd ed, Bristol: The Policy Press

Titmuss, Richard. (1974) “The International Perspective”, in Abel-Smith, Brian and Titmuss, Kay (eds), Social Policy an Introduction, London: Unwin Hyman Ltd