Social Policy and Welfare: A Clear Guide

By Cochrane, Allan | Capital & Class, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Social Policy and Welfare: A Clear Guide


Cochrane, Allan, Capital & Class


Tom Burden

Social Policy and Welfare: A Clear Guide

Pluto Press, London, 1998, pp.288.

ISBN 0-7453-0965-8 (hbk) L40.00

ISBN 0-7453-0966-6 (pbk)L13.99

Reviewed by Allan Cochrane

This is not a book to be read through in linear fashion from beginning to end. It is-as the sub-title makes clear-a guide to the debates and literature of social policy and welfare. It is likely to be of great value to students seeking a route through the complex thickets of policy practice, political controversy and theoretical contention which characterise the field. Its arguments are set out systematically and clearly. Each section is accompanied by a guide to further reading and readers are consistently referred across to related sections of the book.

Burden usefully summarises a wide range of perspectives and clusters them together into a limited and manageable number of categories-'right-wing', 'reformist' and 'radical'. The value of categorising positions in this way is that it highlights the contested nature of the field, instead of implying that the development of social welfare follows some more or less inexorable logic (whether towards a social-democratic or a neo-liberal nirvana). One danger is, of course, that each category may appear to be homogeneous, so that those politicians, activists and theorists placed in it are presumed to share the same outlook and favour the same policies. But Burden avoids this by recognising the importance of debates and disagreements within the categories, and the possibility of influences working across the divides identified. He acknowledges the tensions which exist within the main positions as well as between them.

The first part of the book is deeply (and justifiably) rooted in and informed by the British experience, despite some references to other literature and the introduction of what appear to be general concepts. The three principal perspectives are used as organising principles through the first five or six chapters of the book, highlighting a range of different ways of approaching and analysing particular social polices, social problems and strategies. The only obvious absence is that of benefits and social security which were a fundamental underpinning of the Beveridge welfare state and are at the heart of today's restructuring in the shape of Blair's 'New Deal'. But the second part of the book moves away from Britain, turning first to a consideration of the diversity of welfare states around the world (drawing on the examples of Japan, the Asian Tigers, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, Cuba and China), and then to a consideration of Anglophone welfare states (including Great Britain, as well as Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada) before turning to the impact of globalisation on social policies and their implementation.

The move outwards from the British experience and towards global forms of social policy is very much to be welcomed. It helps to challenge the sometimes rather cosy context of much social policy debate, which tends to assume that Britain is the 'norm' against which every other country has to be judged or that only the British experience really matters very much. It usefully highlights the role of international organisations which often seem so distant from the day to day realities of social welfare practice, whether expressed in social work intervention or health provision.

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