Analysing Social Policy Concepts and Language: Comparative and transnational perspectives, by Daniel Béland and Klaus Petersen (eds)

Policy Press, 2014, xiv + 327 pp, 1 4473 0644 3, hbk, £70

This book is a study of the language that OECD countries use to describe social policies: language such as ‘welfare state’, ‘social security’, and ‘safety net’. Some of the chapters are about particular countries, and some tackle transnational governance levels (such as the EU and the OECD): some are more focused on language, and some more on the policy characteristics expressed by the language. All are informative.

As the introduction suggests, language is political and context-specific, and so similar terms sometimes describe different policies, and similar policies sometimes have different names. Such terms as ‘welfare state’ are used in such a wide variety of ways that clarity is difficult to achieve. The authors employ a broad range of disciplines in order to study language within its national contexts, and also to study how it travels – as ‘workfare’ has done from the US to the UK. All of the chapters are interested in how social policy language has changed, and in the reasons for that change.

To take two examples:

Barbier’s chapter on the EU shows how the very notion of ‘social policy’ is problematic at the equally complex ‘EU level’; how the dominance of European English in social policy research has affected social policy debate in the EU; how ‘flexicurity’, ‘activation’, ‘workfare’ and ‘social investment’ have come to flourish as somewhat vague notions; and how social policy as formulated in English by an élite Brussels group cannot hope to capture the complexity of social policy across Europe.

In his chapter, Daniel Wincott charts the history of the ‘welfare state’ concept in the UK from its origins in 1928 in a publication by William Temple to its later use during the 1950s and 60s as a description of a developed set of social policies – but, as Wincott points out, the term was not employed as a description of those policies when they were developed and rolled out during and after the Second World War. His interesting conclusion is that ‘welfare state’ has functioned as a description of a golden age that never existed in order to express dissatisfaction with the ways in which social policy has been changing during the past fifty years.

The editors’ concluding chapter shows how influential the concepts of ‘welfare state’ and ‘social security’ have been; how transnational bodies have diffused such language, along with such modern terms as ‘flexicurity’; how earlier traditions (such as ‘deservingness’) continue to influence language; and how more straitened economic conditions since the 1970s have caused convergence of social policy language around such concepts as social investment and activation.

An interesting pair of words to follow through the book are ‘universal’ and ‘universalism’. In some places they mean an ideal state of affairs to which politicians aspire; in others (e.g., p.222) they represent a plan for genuinely universal provision; and in others (e.g. p.263) they express a service’s universal availability for anyone who possesses the need that the service is designed to satisfy. In this last sense the terms might have appeared in the context of the British National Health Service. Wincott does not discuss the current UK welfare state, but if he had then he might have said that Universal Credit is nothing like universal, and that only a Citizen’s Income would be universal in the way in which that word is normally understood.

This most interesting book has opened up some important social policy questions, and we hope to see them pursued further. Maybe a future edition might ask why so many different terms – Basic Income, Citizen’s Income, Universal Grant, etc. – have been used to describe an unconditional and nonwithdrawable benefit for every individual.