Social Policy, by Hartley Dean

2nd edition, Polity, 2012, xi + 157 pp, pbk, 0 7456 5178 1, £12.99

Hartley Dean’s passion for social policy is rooted in twelve years spent working for an advice centre in Brixton. This reviewer’s passion for the subject stems from just two years working in Brixton’s Supplementary Benefit Office around the same time, but the question that has stayed with both of us is the same: How can we most effectively make provision for diverse human need? This second edition of Dean’s ‘short introduction’ on social policy is even more focussed on this question than the first edition, and although it retains the structure and much of the content of the first edition, it fully recognises the social and social policy change that has occurred during the last six years: for instance, the increasing expectations of the voluntary sector in relation to service provision.

Rather than being structured around such topic areas as education, health, and poverty, as some introductory texts in social policy are, this book is structured around a series of questions: What is social policy? Where did it come from? Why on earth does it matter? What does human wellbeing entail? Who gets what? Who’s in control? What’s the trouble with human society? Can social policy solve social problems? How are the times a-changing? Where is social policy going? A topic approach offers the student an understanding of discrete social policy fields, but will not necessarily enable them to grasp what social policy is or why it matters, whereas reading Dean’s book, and grappling with the questions that it asks and attempts to answer, will hammer home for the student that social policy is about the systematic meeting of human need. (The new edition has benefited from Dean’s recent work on human need, published in 2010 in his book Understanding Human Need.)

If there were to be a third edition then I would ask for two additions:

As an advice worker, Dean would have grappled with the administrative complexity of the means-tested benefits administered by the office for which I once worked. The code of regulations filled a bookshelf, and knowing one’s way around those regulations was a major task in itself. But whilst means-tested benefits are discussed in the book, there is no mention of the administrative complexity which they impose on individuals and households. ‘Administration’ is not in the index. A general long-term shift in academic interest is in evidence here. If Dean had been a professor at the LSE during its earlier years, then he would have worked in the Department of Social Policy and Administration, rather than in the Social Policy Department. To include material on the administrative complexity of means-tested benefits in the next edition of his book would help tor reinterest social policy departments in such important administrative matters.

Dean helpfully distinguishes between Social Policy (capitalised: the academic subject) and social policies and social policy (lower case: policies enacted, and the category to which they belong). What would be helpful in the next edition of the book would be more discussion of the policy process: that is, how do social problems come to be recognised as such, how are political considerations in practice involved in the process, and how do policy ideas become legislation and regulations? Perhaps in the next edition we shall find ‘civil service’ and ‘think tank’ in the index.

But having said all that, this is a most useful book, and it is good to have an updated edition. Social policies matter, and therefore Social Policy matters. The book will give to undergraduate social policy students a good grounding in the questions at the heart of their discipline, and will remind them why they are studying the subject. What would be even more interesting would be for an examinations board to establish an A level in social policy ( – a social policy module already exists within a sociology A level) and for a new edition of Dean’s book to be written in a format appropriate for sixth formers. This would do wonders both for Social Policy and for social policy.