Social policy is generally thought of as tackling ‘social problems’, especially the welfare of the population. In order to understand this relationship, sociologists distinguish between social problems and sociological problems. According to Worsley, a social problem is some piece of social behaviour that causes public friction and/or private misery and calls for collective action to solve it. For example, poverty, educational under-achievement, juvenile delinquency and divorce may all be seen as social problems by members of society, and governments may be called upon to produce policies to tackle them. Worsley also said that a sociological problem id and pattern of relationships that calls for explanation. This might be something that society regards as a social problem, for example, why some people are poor, commit crime, or fail in school. It can also include behaviour that society doesn’t normally regard as a problem, for example, why people are prosperous and law-abiding, or succeed at school or remain happily married.
Most sociologists are interested in ‘normal’ behaviour and not just behaviour seen as a social problem. Simmel was interested in revealing the universal characteristics present in all social relationships, whether in an office, a family or a bus queue. Similarly historical studies of the social structure of the Roman Empire may have little relevance to today’s social problems. On the other hand, may sociologists are interested in solving social problems through their research. For example, sociologists who feel strongly about poverty or about inequalities in educational achievement have conducted research aimed at discovering solutions to the social problems. Many are employed directly by the government departments such as the Home Office or the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
However, even when sociologists do conduct research into social problems, there is no guarantee that policy-makers will study their findings. There are several factors that affect whether or not sociological research succeeds in influencing policy. These include, electoral popularity where findings may be unpopular with voters. Ideological and policy preferences of governments, interest groups which are pressure groups that seek to influence government policies. Globalisation where international organisations may have and influence, for example, the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes have required less developed countries to introduce fees for education and health care as a condition for receiving aid. Critical sociology, cost, some governments may not have sufficient funding to implement an appropriate policy. Lastly, funding sources. In addition to any direct influence on policy-makers, social scientists’ ideas sometimes become part of mainstream culture and influence the way people see social problems. This in turn can affect the policies that governments produce. For example, Bowlby’s idea that young children’s relationships with their mother are crucial for normal development became widely accepted by many. This influenced policies on day care etc.
Positivists such as Comte and Durkheim took the view that sociology was a science and would discover both the cause of social problems and scientifically based solutions to them. As such, their approach was part of the Enlightenment project to use science and reason to improve society. For example, Durkheim’s analysis led him to propose a meritocratic education system and the abolition of inherited wealth as ways to foster a sense that society was fair, which would promote social cohesion. Functionalists see society as based on a consensus value and free from fundamental conflicts. They see the state as serving interests of society as a whole, producing and implementing rational social policies for the good of all. For example, educational policies are seen as promoting equal opportunities and social integration, while health and housing policies assist the family in performing its functions more effectively. For both functionalists and positivists, the sociologist’s role is to provide the state with objective, scientific information. However, the piecemeal approach has been criticised. For example, Marxists argue that educational policies aimed at equalising opportunity for the children of different classes are often defeated by the influence of poverty in wider society.
The New Right say that we should have only minimal involvement in society. In particular, they are opposed to using state provision of welfare to deal with social problems. State intervention in areas such as family life, income support, education and health care robs people of freedom to make their own choices and undermines their sense of responsibility. For example, Murray argues that generous welfare benefits and council housing for lone parents acts as perverse incentives that weaken the family’s self-reliance.They encourage the growth of dependency culture and underclass of lone mothers, undisciplined children and irresponsible fathers who abandon their families in the knowledge that the welfare state will provide for them. Murray favours a reduction in state spending on welfare. The New Right are not opposed to social policy and see sociologists to propose alternative policies to the present ones. The Social Justice Policy Group, Breakdown Britain, proposes a range of new social policies aimed at the family. Because of its ideological opposition to the state having a welfare, New Right thinking has tended to be particularly attractive to the Conservative party. However, some new labour policies have shown the influence of New Right views. For example, New Labour regards a married couple as normally the best place to bring up children. The quality of the social research used by the New Right have been questioned. For example, the validity of the data on which Murray bases his claims about a link between absent fathers and delinquency has been widely challenged. Similarly, the New Right policy proposals seldom draw on sociologists’ research findings, using instead the findings of politically sympathetic think tanks. For example, the study Breakdown Britain was produced by a think tank set up by former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith.
The social democratic perspective favours a major redistribution of wealth and income from the rich and poor. Townsend argues that they should be involved in researching social problems, unlike the New Right. Townsend conducted extensive research on poverty. On the basis of his findings, he made recommendations for policies such as fairer, higher benefit levels and more public spending on health, education and welfare services.
Marxists criticise the social democratic perspective. While they agree that social problems such as class inequalities in health are deep-rooted, they reject the idea that even policies as far-reaching as those proposed by the Black Report are enough to solve the problem. It is capitalism that is ultimately responsible for these inequalities and so the problem cannot be solved without abolishing capitalism. They also argue that in any event, as the government response to the Black Report showed, the capitalist state is unlikely to introduce costly public spending policies to benefit working class. Postmodernists criticise sociologists for attempting to influence policy. Postmodernists find it impossible to discover objective truth. All knowledge produced by research is uncertain, and so cannot provide satisfactory basis for policy-making.