Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Public Opinion and Social Citizenship in Canada *

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Public Opinion and Social Citizenship in Canada *

Article excerpt

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN OVER THE LAST DECADE concerning the retrenchment and restructuring of state social policies in Canada. Although academic opinion as to the determinants of change is diverse (Myles and Quadagno, 2002; Matthews, 2001), one important theme that has emerged is that the dominant ideas about social provision and the welfare state have substantially altered. The postwar consensus on the desirability of a relatively generous welfare state has been challenged by arguments that the demands of globalization and fiscal restraints on the state require a reduction in state provision, more room for the free play of market forces and cutbacks in social spending by governments (Bumsted, 1997; Jensen, 1997; Myles and Pierson, 1997; Olsen, 2002; Pulkingham and Ternowetsky, 1996). From claims about ideological shifts (Maioni, 1994) and accounts of the embedding of a neo-liberal discourse (McBride and Shields, 1997) to descriptions of change in the "understandings" guiding social policy decisions (Jenson, 1997; McKeen, 2001), the theme of a shift in dominant ideas has been reiterated in a number of different ways. For some, references to this change are limited to discussion of elite politics. Others, however, refer to changes in public attitudes relevant to welfare state politics. Yet empirical documentation of this is largely lacking (although see Peters, 1995; and Mendelsohn, 2002). Notwithstanding the considerable attention to changing state politics in this arena, there has been surprisingly little effort directed to examining the available evidence about the public's orientations to the policy choices relevant to social provision. It is the purpose of this article to address this gap by presenting a preliminary exploration, at the mass level, of the nature and structure of opinion and the possibility of opinion change concerning welfare state issues since the 1980s.

The available data covering our period of interest are, we acknowledge, limited, and the lack of strict comparability between survey items across all the years we cover necessarily limits our analysis and our results. Still, to the extent our study focusses on the structuring of opinion, this lack of comparability is less critical. It is where our interest shifts to the dynamics of opinion that our findings are especially constrained. Overall, however, both aspects of our analysis suggest that the story with respect to public opinion and the welfare state is not a simple one.

Informed by a concept of "social citizenship" developed in the literature on the welfare state, we look at opinion concerning two aspects of social rights: "conventional rights" to state provision of social welfare services and benefits, and "new social citizenship rights" that address forms of inter-group inequality that cannot be reduced solely to economic class divisions. The latter include policies and provisions that focus on the material situation and recognition of groups, such as women and racial minorities, that have traditionally experienced "second class" status in Canadian society.

The article begins with a discussion of some of the theoretical considerations that guide our study. It then describes the data and methodology used in our analysis. This is followed by a discussion of the nature and apparent dynamics of opinion on particular issues, and then by an analysis of the structure of public opinion across four different election studies. We conclude with a summary and some speculations concerning our empirical findings.

Theoretical Considerations

One of the important organizing concepts that was developed in early work on the welfare state is the notion of social citizenship. Exemplified in the writings of T.H. Marshall (1964), this concept expanded the meaning of citizenship rights beyond formal legal and political equality to encompass social equality rights, including the right to a minimum level of economic security and social welfare assured by the state. …

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