“Assess the view that sociological research has little impact on the policies of governments and should remain that way” – 33 marks

An answer essay to the question: "Assess the view that sociological research has little impact on the policies of governments and should remain that way" (33 marks)

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Teresa Mathew
"Assess the view that sociological research has little impact on the
policies of governments and should remain in that way" ­ 33 marks
Some sociologists such as Marxists argue that sociological research has little impact on the policies of
governments, meaning that the plans and actions adopted by national and local government or voluntary
agencies to solve social problems are not influenced by studies carried out in sociology. Some, such as
postmodernists, go as far as saying that there is no ordered society `out there', and so it is impossible to change it
by introducing policies. However, others such as Giddens argue that the benefits of studying sociology form a
useful framework in understanding the world around us, and therefore, significantly impacts on the policies of
The relationship between social policy and sociology has been criticised by those who see sociology as having
been `colonised' by governments and thus having its radical potential tamed. The assumption underlying much of
traditional sociology is that if research shows up social problems, then governments will respond by seeking to
solve the problems on the basis of the evidence. However, this is not necessarily true. Firstly, governments tend to
act only when there are groups powerful enough to have their views taken into account by politicians. An example
is how gay people are now seen as a potential source of votes and as a group who occupy important positions
across society; whereas as some of the poorest groups in society have little access to power, they may well be
ignored by government. Secondly, governments are simply limited by financial constraints which disallow them to
tackle some problems as efficiently as possible: they might know what should be done, but cannot do it for lack of
funding. Additionally, some policies will meet too much opposition from certain interest groups who have enough
power to block reforms if their interests are challenged. Also, governments rarely engage in radical or long-term
changes. In a democracy, governments operate within fairly short timetables based on election periods and are
more concerned with popularity at the time of an election than introducing longer-term changes. They also are
reluctant to commit themselves to very dramatic social change that could lead to upheaval- preferring to operate
within the status quo.
However, other sociologists such as functionalists argue that the research obtained from sociological studies
greatly influences the policies of governments. He discusses there are four practical benefits of studying sociology:
first being the understanding of social situations, meaning understanding the world around us, providing us with
knowledge and insights, both factually (providing `facts') and theoretically (providing explanations). An example is
the series of reports by Townsend (1979) and later by Mack and Lansley (1985) which showed that poverty
remained a huge but hidden problem in Britain at a time when the issue had gradually lost its political importance.
This research work continues, most notably at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which continuously monitors the
issue of poverty. More importantly, this piece of notable research uncovered the extent of poverty by devising
more sophisticated ways of measuring it. In particular, they brought in a `relative deprivation' model of poverty
(Townsend), proving that poverty can only be understood in terms of what people normally expect to have in a
society- even if this was well above the levels of destitution. The result of these researches led indirectly to
policies such as the minimum wage, which guaranteed a minimum hourly pay level, and the current system of Tax
Credits, which provide additional help for people on low pay.
Secondly, another benefit of studying sociology according to Giddens involved awareness of cultural differences,
meaning the way in which sociology can help people to see others' viewpoint, looking beyond the boundaries of
their particular group. It allows us to respond to others' views in an informed and relevant way. An outcome of
this is the way that recent governments have tackled discrimination in the areas of disability and race. For
example, over time, sociological studies have built up a picture of the social and economic exclusion suffered by
disabled people leading to groups such as the Disability Alliance being set up to demand better treatment. In
addition, their work and the work of sociologists have led to a greater public awareness and sympathy, resulting in

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Teresa Mathew
the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act. Just as importantly, there has been a gradual shift in public opinion towards
acknowledging the rights of disabled people.
A third benefit is the assessment of the effects of policies. Once politicians have recognised a social problem, they
are then able to develop policies to tackle it. If sociological knowledge is used in doing this, then the policies
adopted may be those that appear to be most effective in combating the problem.…read more

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