Sociology and Social Policy
Social policies are measures the government takes to deal with social issues and problems. They create policies that affect the family, education, crime, health, poverty, employment and various other issues.
Sociologists are interested in these policies but do not agree on the role sociology should take:
- should sociology help to shape government policies
- or should sociology criticise policies and suggest alternatives?
Positivism, functionalism and social policy
These theories have a scientific view of sociology to identify problems and offer solutions to benefit the interests of society as a whole.
Policies keep society working: e.g. health policies help the family and keep a healthy workforce; education policies provide the skills needed for work.
Sociologists should help shape government policies by providing objective, scientific research investigating social problems, discovering causes and providing solutions.
However, Marxists criticise the functionalist view of social policies because these policies often fail because they do not tackle the wider structure of class inequality in a capitalist society. For example, policies that tackle poverty will only succeed if capitalism is changed or abolished.
Social democrats and social policy
Social democrats agree with the Marxist point expressed before. They want a major redistribution of wealth and income from the rich to the poor. They believe that sociologists should be involved in researching social problems and offering policies to solve them.
For example, Townsend carried out much research on poverty and made the recommendations that there should be higher benefit levels and more public spending on health, education and welfare to help people out of poverty.
The Black Report 1980 examined health inequalities due to class and made recommendations such as better benefits for the disabled, more spending on housing. However, the Conservative government rejected the Report’s recommendations as too expensive.
However, Marxists criticise social democrats, arguing that class inequalities can only be abolished if capitalism is abolished, and point out that a capitalist state will not implement policies to help the working class if they cost too much.
MARXISM AND SOCIAL POLICY
Marxists argue that state policies only benefit the ruling class. They legitimate class inequalities (for example, welfare makes it appear that the old, sick and poor are cared for, but, in reality, they are maintained at the lowest expense to the state as they are no use to capitalism) and maintain the labour force for further exploitation (for example, the NHS keeps the worker fit and healthy so they can continue as an efficient worker).
Marxists argue that sociologists should challenge state policy, not help develop policies.
However, social democrats criticise this point of view by pointing out that policies can help the working class: for example, research on poverty has helped many people out of poverty.
FEMINISM AND SOCIAL POLICY
Feminists argue that social policies subordinate women.
For example, family policies promote the nuclear family and the female expressive role as normal.
Housewives cannot claim benefit in their own right if their husband is working, making women financially dependent on men.
However, feminists have had some impact on policy: for example, research by liberal feminists on gender bias in schools has led to more gender equality; similarly, policies have developed to help victims of domestic violence. Also, policies such as the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act have enabled more women to develop their own careers and economic independence.
NEW RIGHT AND SOCIAL POLICY
The New Right argue that state intervention in social life is undesirable. They are critical of policies that create generous benefits because it encourages people not to work.
Murray argues this creates an underclass who make unemployment a lifestyle choice and know the government will financially support them, thereby taking away responsibility from the family to take care of itself.
The New Right significantly influenced the Conservative government in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, policies for greater taxation for unmarried couples reflect their high value on the nuclear family. They introduced the Child Support Act 1991 to track down absent parents to make them pay for their children rather than the government; this also gave children of lone parents a role model from whom they could learn the discipline of work.
THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIOLOGY ON POLICY
There is no guarantee that policy-makers will take notice of sociological research. This could be because the policy-makers believe the research will be unpopular with the electorate and may lose votes.
Some sociologists may change their policy recommendations to suit the policy-makers wishes if they wish to secure funding from the government. Some sociologists, such as Marxists or feminists, may be considered to be too extreme or impractical, therefore they are unlikely to influence policy.