Sociology & Social Policy

Sociology & Social Policy from the Theory topic of AQA A level Sociology

Social & Sociological Problems

Social Problems - a piece of social behaviour that causes public misery and calls for collective action to stop it such as poverty, educational unachievement etc

Sociological Problems - any pattern of relationships that calls for an explanation such as something society regards as a social problem like why some people are poor

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The influence of sociology on policy

Even when sociologists do conduct research into social problems there is no guarantee that policy makers will study their findings. Many factors may affect whether or not sociological research succeeds in influencing policy:

  • Electoral popularity - research findings and recommendations might point to a policy that would be unpopular with voters
  • Funding - sociologists may adapt their beliefs in order to gain funding
  • Critical sociology - sociologists who are critical of the state such as marxists may be regarded as too extreme so are unlikely to influence policy
  • Cost - even if the government is sympathetic to the sociologist's findings it may have other spending priorities
  • Globalisation - international organisations like the EU are able to influence the social policies of individual governments
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Perspectives on social policy & sociology

Positivism & Functionalism

The Positivist approach was part of the Enlightenment project to use science and reason to improve society such as Durkheim's analysis leading him to propose a meritocratic education system to promote social cohesion

Functionalists see the state as serving the interests of society as a whole by implementing policies for the good of all such as housing policies to assist the family in performing its functions

For both approaches the sociologist's role is to provide the state with objective, scientific information and investigate social problems scientifically

Functionalists like piecemeal social engineering policies where they favour a cautious approach, tackling one issue at a time. However, Marxists argue that educational policies aimed at equalising opportunities are just defeated by the influence of poverty in wider society

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Perspectives on social policy & sociology

Social Democratic Perspective

They argue that sociologists should use their research to create social policy which can redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Townsend states that sociologists should be involved in researching social problems and making policy recommendations to eradicate them

The 1980 Black Report on class inequalities in health made policy recommendations to reduce these deep rooted inequalities such as free school meals for all children. However when Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government came into power they refused to implement it on grounds of cost

  • Marxists criticise this perspective and say that capitalism is ultimately responsible for these inequalities because they won't implement costy policies to benefit only the working class. Postmodernists criticise it as it is impossible to discover truth so sociological findings cannot provide a basis for policy making
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Perspectives on social policy & sociology


Marxists believe the state represents the ruling class and the social policies serve the interests of capitalism and not society as a whole:

  • Policies provide ideological legitimation to mask capitalist exploitation such as the welfare state giving capitalism a human face 
  • They maintain the labour force for further exploitation such as the NHS serving capitalism by keeping workers well enough
  • They are a means of preventing revolution when class conflict intensifies such as the welfare state policies after the Second World War helped to keep away opposition to capitalism


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Perspectives on social policy & sociology

They recognise that social policies do sometimes provide benefits but these are constantly threatened with reversal by capitalism's tendency to go into periodic crisis leading to cuts in welfare spending

The sociologist's role should be to criticise capitalist social policy and not to serve the capitalist state and instead reveal the exploitation that underpins capitalism

  • However critics argue that their views on social policy is impractical and unrealistic. Social democrats criticise them for rejecting the idea that research can help bring about progressive policies within the capitalist system as poverty researchers have had positive impacts on policy
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Perspectives on social policy & sociology


Feminists see society as patriarchal which benefits men at women's expense. The state perpetuates women's subordination through its social policies. Family policies often assume that the nuclear family is normal due to the Married Tax Allowance which is not permitted to cohabitating couples and maternity leave etc

Feminist research has had an impact on a number of policy areas in education such as GIST and more learning materials which avoid gender bias. Radical feminists have too had impact by favouring separatism such as the Women's Aid Federation supporting women escaping domestic violence

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Perspectives on social policy & sociology

The New Right

They believe that the state should only have minimal involvement in society. In their view the welfare state robs people of their freedom to make their own choices leading to problems such as crime

Murray argues that perverse incentives weaken the family's self reliance through welfare benefits. This is because they encourage the growth of the dependency culture creating an underclass of lone mothers so he favours a reduction in state spending on welfare. They see the role of the sociologist to propose alternative policies such as the 2007 Breakdown Britain report proposing marriage preparation and a benefit system for mothers staying at home

  • Feminists argue they encourage patriarchal policies which support female subordination and others criticise them for ignoring other family types
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