The Discipline of Social Policy and Biculturalism(1)

Article excerpt

An attempt to reform the university without attending to the system of which it is an integral part is like trying to do urban renewal in New York city from the twentieth storey up. (Illich 1973:44)


The purpose of this paper is to explore aspects of the academic discipline of social policy, asking critical questions about its assumptions and origins. In particular, it explores the extent to which social policy reflects dominant belief systems and the implications of this for ethnicity and culture. Social policy is not alone; a number of academic disciplines have recently undergone their own "cultural audit". Anthropology has revisited its anthropological "gaze", while the revisionist challenge in history has unmasked the subject as something always written by the victor to the detriment of the vanquished. Similarly, the discipline of economics has been critiqued for building on particular assumptions of what constitutes rational economic man (sic), while education according to the "Colonial School", rather than liberating, has been destructive of "native" society and beliefs. The privileged position of such academic disciplines and the knowledge they produce has been considered a form of cultural and intellectual imperialism, helping to cement dominant power relations.

In exploring the foundations of social policy, the paper illustrates how its methods and subject matter "mask" whiteness, and how this may present barriers to exploring biculturalism. The paper discusses five positions or stances that may be taken to social policy analysis within New Zealand: monoculturalism; multiculturalism; focusing on the Treaty; sloganising; and problematising paradigms. It suggests that making these positions transparent is a useful starting point when seeking to understand the relationship between social policy and biculturalism.


This paper arises from the author having relocated to an academic social policy department within New Zealand, having previously undertaken empirical policy research for government departments, international organisations and non-statutory funding bodies within the UK. Once in post, discussions with colleagues encouraged a reconsideration of the fundamental premises of social policy that had been carried as intellectual baggage. Such dialogues clarified the positions that may be taken towards social policy analysis and biculturalism within New Zealand. These positions are tools of analysis to assist in the exploration and unpacking of social policy, rather than reflections on contemporary policy approaches.


The roots of social policy and social work lie in the Fabian reformist, social administrative tradition of the early twentieth century. As an area of inquiry or discipline(2) it borrows from a range of disciplines, principally political science, economics, sociology, public administration and anthropology(3) (Marsh 1965, Brown 1969).

This hybrid of social administration is influenced by a range of ideas about the nature of knowledge, the process of social change, and ideas about policy making and democracy. At an epistemological level, social administrative approaches to policy studies hold that institutions could be reformed to good effect if we knew the "facts" and could present evidence about current ways of doing things. Incremental change will result once policy makers are aware of empirical evidence, and institutions will gradually evolve.

Social administration adopts a rational approach to problem solving, with social problems typically viewed as having an objective existence. Thus, problems exist, are identifiable, and are open to amelioration and alleviation (Marsh 1965, Brown 1969). As Brown writes: "social administration is concerned with social problems and [second] it is concerned with the ways in which society responds to those problems" (p.13). Absent from the social administration perspective are later critiques that suggest problems are social constructions which are created and exacerbated by societal influences and pressures (Holstein and Miller 1993, Sarbin and Kitsuse 1994). …