Policy reconsidered, edited by Susan M. Hodgson and Zoe Irving

Policy Press, 2007, vi + 250 pp, pbk, 1 861 349125, £24.99, hbk 1 861 349132, £65

‘What is policy?’ (p.22). It is with such fundamental questions in mind that the diverse chapters of this book study both social policy and the study of social policy, and it is no accident that the very first page is not entirely clear about which the book is supposed to be about.

How the concept of ‘policy’ functions is a question central both to the first chapter and to the book as a whole; and also central to the book is the question as to how we should understand the boundaries between political science, economics, social policy (and administration), sociology, public policy, urban studies, organisational studies, etc.. There is constant interchange between the different disciplines as the authors study both policy and the policy process.

Broad policy directions are discussed (will the EU become a social Europe or will it join a globalised race to the bottom?), and there are discussions of the ways in which we categorise people, of the politicisation of social policy, of the relationship between business and policy-making, and of the way in which international policy processes influence national processes. The final section studies ‘practices’ and contains discussions of the relationship between ethics, research, and policy, of user involvement, and of the ‘translation’ of policy from one context to another. The last chapter returns to the fundamental questions with which the book begins, and in particular asks what counts as social policy, what counts as evidence, and what is legitimate method (for all evidence and method is inevitably viewed from particular standpoints). The final chapter returns to the beginning of the book in another way too. It’s about social policy and about the study of social policy, and it isn’t sufficiently clearly structured to enable the reader to distinguish when it’s about one and when it’s about the other.

This is an edited collection and so treatments in successive chapters are not always entirely consistent with each other, but the authors are agreed that the meaning of every term is negotiable and that boundaries are there to be crossed ( – so it’s a bit of a surprise that the first two sections of the book are labelled ‘meanings’ and ‘politics’: ‘meanings’ and ‘boundaries’ would have been better).

Readers of this Newsletter will be interested in the diagram on page 4. ‘Urban studies’, ‘criminology’, ‘housing studies’, ‘education studies’ and ‘health studies’ appear. ‘Income maintenance’, ‘taxation’ and ‘benefits’ don’t; and it is equally no surprise that the many good case studies in the book are drawn from the fields in the diagram and discussion of taxation and benefits is conspicuous by its absence.

Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking introduction to some important questions related to both policy-making and to the study of policy-making, and what’s needed now is a study of tax and benefits policy in the light of the questions and disciplines contained in these chapters.

If I were to choose just one discussion, then it would be that of categorisation of people in chapter 4: ‘The extent to which any policy is able to reach its target population and stated goals crucially depends on the appropriateness of the categories chosen. Despite this, the political process of categorising ensures that theoretical and conceptual clarity are by no means central to the decisions made’ (p.76). After reading this book, reducing to one the number of categories employed in the allocation of benefits looks like a really good idea.