Sociology and social policyThe founding fathers of sociology predicted their new science had the potential to transformsociety; today the majority of sociologists have more limited aims; to influence aspects of policyrather than the whole of society.As usual sociologists are not united in their attitude to influencing social policy. Some argue anybody that could influence findings should not fund research. They argue that sociology should be anacademic discipline free to explore how and where it wants. Marxists believe that the production ofknowledge in capitalist society will always reflect the power relations in society, in other words ‘hewho pays the piper calls the tune’ and that quangos, government departments and corporations willnot fund research which will ask difficult questions.This is from the website of the Economic and Social Research Council: ‘The ESRC is the UKslargest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. Wesupport independent, high quality research which has an impact on business,the public sector and the third sector. Our total budget for 2012/13 is £205million. At any one time we support over 4,000 researchers and postgraduatestudents in academic institutions and independent research institutes.We are a non-departmental public body established by Royal Charter in 1965and receive most of our funding through the Department for Business,Innovation and Skills (BIS). Our research is vigorous and authoritative, as wesupport independent, high-quality, relevant social science.’ What in this statement may lead some to question the independence of the ESRC?Funding bodies often demand research which will yield quick results, when long term qualitativework may be more valid. How does Venkatesh argue this point in ‘Gang Leader for a day’?Events in society and who is setting the political agenda are often the most important factors thatdrive policy changes. Both world wars led to huge changes in the way society was organised. Afterthe First World War ‘A land fit for heroes’ was promised. During the Second World War TheBeveridge Report was published which laid the foundations for the welfare state. Why do wars often lead to big questions about the organisation of society being asked?PovertyIn 1899 SeebohmRowntree investigated poverty in York, inspired by the work of his father JosephRowntree and the work of Charles Booth in London. He carried out a comprehensive survey intothe living conditions of the poor in York during which investigators visited every working classhome. This amounted to the detailed study of 11,560 families or 46,754 individuals. The results ofthis study were published in 1901 in his book Poverty, A Study of Town Life.
In Rowntrees work, he surveyed rich families in York and drew a poverty line in terms of aminimum weekly sum of money "necessary to enable families... to secure the necessaries of ahealthy life". The money needed for this subsistence level of existence covered fuel and light, rent,food, clothing, and household and personal items, adjusted according to family size. He determinedthis level using scientific methods which hadnt been applied to the study of poverty before. Forexample he consulted leading nutritionists of the period to discover the minimum calorific intakeand nutritional balance necessary before people got ill or lost weight. He then surveyed the prices offood in York to discover what the cheapest prices in the area for the food needed for this minimumdiet were and used this information to set his poverty line.He placed those below his poverty line into two groups depending on the reason for their poverty.Those in primary poverty did not have enough income to meet the expenditure necessary for theirbasic needs. Those classed as in secondary poverty had high enough income to meet basic needs butthis money was being spent elsewhere so they were unable to then afford the necessities of life.According to this measure, 27.84 percent of the total population of York lived below the povertyline. This result corresponded with that from Charles Booths study of poverty in London and sochallenged the view, commonly held at the time, that abject poverty was a problem particular toLondon and was not widespread in the rest of Britain.It also challenged the dominant view thatpoverty was caused by character defects amongst the poor especially fecklessness.By the late 1960s many believed poverty had been eliminated, but the work of sociologists such asTownsend revealed that poverty existed but was not as obvious as in the nineteenth century, it alsorequired a re-definition. Townsend argued that poverty could only be understood in terms ofrelative depravation rather destitution or absolute poverty. This redefinition eventually contributedto policies such as the minimum wage and tax credits.More recently sociologists, politicians and policy makers have focused on social exclusion; that thepoor are cut out of society by more than just a lack of money. This new focus led the New Labourgovernment to set up An Action Plan – Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion –launched in September 2006.‘The Action Plan sets out a renewed drive to improve the life chances and opportunities for the 2-3% of the population at highest risk of lifetimes of poverty and exclusion, such as children in care,teenage parents, and adults and families with multiple problems including severe mental illness’.Sociology is now increasingly used to assess social policy rather than just promote it. Virtually allgovernment policy today is evidence based. Evidence-based policy is public policy informed byrigorously established objective evidence. It is an extension of the idea of evidence-based medicineto all areas of public policy. An important aspect of evidence-based policy is the use ofscientifically rigorous studies such as randomised controlled trials to identify programmmes andpractices capable of improving policy relevant outcomes.Although evidence-based policy can be traced as far back as the fourteenth century, it waspopularised by the Blair Government, which said they wanted to end the ideological led-baseddecision making for policy making. For example, a UK Government white paper published in 1999("Modernising Government") noted that Government "must produce policies that really deal withproblems, that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-termpressures; that tackle causes not symptoms". In other words they wanted to use sociology to qualityassure what they were attempting to achieve.
However, governments do not always act objectively when social problems arise and policy isenacted. Issues, which require long-term solutions, are too expensive, may not be popular, orpowerful pressure groups may object to, often remain on the shelf. Explain how: cheap air travel and environmental issues generally may be excluded from policy initiatives?Changing political agendasMrs Thatcher was not very popular with sociologists, she famously said; ‘There is no such thing associety, only individuals and their families’. Her government was however; keen to take advicefrom New Right thinkers and think tanks. The New Right believes that welfare creates adependency culture. This view was revived by the Cameron led coalition government.The Blair government however, believed in The Third Way – a path between left wing socialpolicies and right wing economics – which was primarily the creation of the Prime Minister’sfavourite sociologist Anthony Giddens. He saw the role of government as the creation of policiesdesigned to prevent social exclusion. Perhaps the most notable product of this was Sure Start.Sociology has often been responsible for studies that have revealed the true nature of discriminationsuffered by groups this has led to legislation on issues such as disability, sexual discrimination andrace equality. For example, when research was conducted from the 1970s onwards intohomosexual activity, it revealed that homosexuality was far more frequent than previously thought.This contributed to the gay community having more confidence to demand changes in the law.Research can also help redefine and then count groups in society, which can lead to changes inpolicy. Disabled people used to be officially referred to as cripples, spastics and imbeciles. TheWorld Health Organisation (WHO) now defines disability as: ‘..an umbrella term , coveringimpairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions..Thus disability is a complexphenomena, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the societyin which he or she lives.’ In 2011 WHO stated that the disabled population globally was one billionor 15%, up from 10% in the 1970s. Why might establishing a definition and counting a group, such as the disabled, lead to new social policy?
An example of sociological research contributing to policy:REPORT MARCH 2006Young people, pregnancy and social exclusion:A systematic synthesis of research evidence to identify effective,appropriate and promising approaches for prevention and support.The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) is part of theSocial Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.This report presents the findings from a systematic review of the research evidence relating to teenagepregnancy, parenting and social exclusion. It contributes a new focus to the wealth of existing researchon teenage pregnancy by locating it within the context of social disadvantage and exclusion. The reviewsystematically examines research relating to policy initiatives aimed at tackling the social exclusionassociated with unintended teenage pregnancy and young parenthood. It concludes that there arestrong grounds for investing in early childhood and youth development programmes as strategies forreducing unintended teenage pregnancy rates. Happiness, enjoyment of school and ambition can allhelp to delay early parenthood. The available research evidence also points both to daycare and toeducation and career development programmes as promising ways of supporting young parents.Holistic support programmes appear to be appropriate but have not yet been shown to be effective.However, studies of young people’s views suggest many important research gaps. These include thedevelopment and evaluation of policies to promote young people’s involvement in schooling, furthereducation and training, and to support families experiencing problems linked with social disadvantageand poverty.BackgroundThe background to the review is the widespread policy concern with high rates of unintended teenagepregnancy in the UK, the highest in western Europe. While rates are falling in many European countries,recent statistics show that the UK Government target of halving teenage conceptions by 2010 isunlikely to be met. Social disadvantage and teenage pregnancy are strongly related. Young people aremore strongly motivated to defer parenthood in countries where they have a reasonable expectation ofinclusion in the opportunities and advantages of living in an economically advanced society. There arealso more resources and support available in these countries to young people who do become parents.Teenage parenthood is not in itself a social problem, and some young people make positive choices tobecome parents early. The problem, and the focus of this review, is the social disadvantage andexclusion that in some societies, especially the UK, are linked to young parenthood both asconsequences and as contributing factors.Research questionsThis review seeks to answer two questions:Young people, pregnancy and social exclusion: A systematic synthesis of research evidence to identifyeffective, appropriate and promising approaches for prevention and support. 1Executive summary• What research has been undertaken that is relevant to informing policy andpractice in the area of young people, pregnancy, parenting and social exclusion?• What is known about effective, appropriate and promising interventions that target the social exclusionassociated with teenage pregnancy and parenting, which might therefore have a role to play in loweringrates of unintended teenage pregnancy and supporting teenage parents?The review was conducted in three parts. First, we searched for and mapped the existing researchliterature. Secondly, and thirdly, we conducted two separate reviews of the evidence relating to theprevention of unintended teenage pregnancy and support for young parents. The focus of thesereviews was on the following areas: housing, childcare, education and training, employment andcareers, and financial circumstances. These in-depth reviews included statistical meta-analyses of theeffects of different approaches on pregnancy rates, young people’s participation in education, trainingor employment, and mothers’ emotional wellbeing.An important feature of the review is that it includes different types of research. Its conclusions aredrawn both from international evaluations of policy and practice interventions, and from the findings ofrecent ‘qualitative’ research conducted in the UK examining the views and experiences of young peoplethemselves.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Examination question:Item – one view of the relationship between sociology and social policy is that sociologyinvestigates social problems, identifies their causes and proposes solutions to them. Governmentthen translates the work of sociologists into social policies designed to remedy or alleviate theproblem concerned. For example, researchers may discover poverty and inequality are the majorcauses of ill health, and the government will then devise appropriate policies to tackle the problem,for example by redistributing income.However, others regard this view as naïve and overoptimistic. They argue that politicians normallytake little notice of sociologists and their work, and that their arguments and research findingsgenerally have little influence of government policies.Using material from the item and elsewhere, assess the view that sociological arguments andresearch findings generally have little influence on the policies of governments. [33 marks]How to tackle this question:There are two views amongst sociologists, those who are critical of the close relationship betweenresearchers and policy makers, and those like Giddens who have promoted evidence based researchto assist government policy making. The critics argue that such research is always constrained bythe funding body. Furthermore, that such research is rarely long-term and that it will not asksearching questions. The reality is that the government is the largest source of funding for researchin the U.K. Research can lead to policy changes