Sociology and Social Reform

By Cheal, David | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Sociology and Social Reform


Cheal, David, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Abstract. Recently, there have been calls from several Canadian sociologists to make sociology more relevant to contemporary events in Canada. This paper examines certain features of current social reforms, and it considers their implications for Canadian sociology. The topic of particular concern is the nexus of labour market restructuring and the restructuring of the welfare state, in which increased unemployment is followed by cuts to income protection for the unemployed. Canadian political economy, which had correctly identified the salience of this problem, is described as being at a crossroads with no obvious civic role today. In this paper, it is recommended that sociologists should pay more attention to the micro-social effects of macro-social events, and especially to the unintended consequences of program changes.

Introduction

The recent history of sociology in Canada has been greatly influenced by the evolution of Canadian political economy, but this approach now stands at a crossroads. In her mid-1980s review of Canadian Political Economy, Patricia Marchak (1985) predicted that there would be two central problems for Canadian sociologists to address in the following decade. The first problem was falling political will for state intervention in the market economy, mainly due to attacks on the welfare state and on labour policies. The second problem identified by Marchak was growing unemployment and underemployment, as a result of global restructuring and the introduction of new technologies. Both of Marchak's predictions were accurate, and the effects of the changes she described are clearly visible in the face of poverty in the 1990s (Cheal, 1996b).

As a political economist, Marchak was mainly interested in the significance of current trends of economic and political restructuring for understanding contemporary capitalism. However, there are other questions that can be raised, from different theoretical perspectives.

One of the most fundamental issues in thinking about directions for sociology in Canada today is the need to re-examine our understanding of ideas about progress. The sociological study of progress has mainly taken the form of analysing societal modernization, understood as mutually reinforcing connections between social institutions which produce a constant expansion of life, liberty and happiness, plus the study of those groups who are left behind in the march of progress. (2) The latter groups, it is thought, can be re-integrated into the virtuous circle of progress through progressive social reform, in which the state should play a leading role. In Canadian political economy, the underlying assumption about the role of the state is that progress is most likely to be achieved in a socialist society (see especially the journal Studies in Political Economy). However, in the mid-1990s a socialist transformation of Canada seems increasingly unlikely, and socialist political economy therefore offers only faint hope of progress. Under present conditions, it is not at all clear what civic role is left for Canadian political economy. It is partly for this reason that Canadian sociologists now face the difficult task of redefining our relationship with our publics (Stasiulis and Guppy, 1995). How, then, are sociologists to think about the nexus of labour market restructuring and the restructuring of the welfare state, at a time when increased unemployment is followed by cuts to income protection for the unemployed? One way of thinking about that issue is to re-focus attention on the micro-social effects of macro-social changes.

Family Incomes and Unemployment in Canadian Social Policy

Social policy reform in Canada today means harmonising social policy with economic policy, for example by strengthening work incentives for the employable poor (O'Higgins, 1992; Reynolds, 1993). The manner in which employment and unemployment are addressed in Canada reflects the nature of the Canadian state as a "liberal" welfare state. …

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