Understanding Human Need, by Hartley Dean

Policy Press, 2010, xvii + 217 pp, pbk, 1 84742 189 0, £21.99, hbk, 1 84742 190 6, £65

The concept of need is at least as complex as the human experiences to which we apply it, and this book brings some valuable order to the ways in which the term is used by policy makers and social scientists.

The first substantive chapter (ch.2) understands ‘inherent’ need as needs which belong to every human being simply by virtue of our being human – and straightaway we are into a variety of ways of understanding need because the different ways in which we understand our human nature result in different understandings of inherent need. If we understand ourselves as utilitarian subjects then our needs will be understood as objective interests; if we understand ourselves as market actors, then our needs will be understood as subjective preferences; if we understand ourselves as psychological beings, then our needs will be understood as inner drives; and if we understand ourselves as members of a species, then we will understand our needs as (evolved) constitutive characteristics. Social policy is about the meeting of need, so how we understand need matters, which means that how we understand ourselves as human beings matters rather a lot.

Whilst Dean recognises that all need is to some extent interpreted, he gives chapter 3 to ‘interpreted need’ as a concept: that is, to understandings of need drawn from our experience of society and its culture. All understanding of need is culturally specific, so, for instance, in our consumer society consumerism generates our understanding of need. Social policy relates to need as we understand it, and so to normative (i.e., expert-defined), felt, expressed and comparative needs, with their respective discovery methods: for instance, participatory methods for discovering expressed needs.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss poverty in terms of unmet need, inequality as a risk that some people’s needs might not be met, social exclusion as exclusion from needs satisfaction, capabilities as the extent to which people are free to meet their needs, and ‘recognition’ as the extent to which people’s needs are recognised. A tension underlying each discussion is that between the individuals’ autonomy and our interdependency within society, and the related question: To what extent are my needs purely my own, and to what extent generated by and understood within our societal relationships?

In this context Dean explores in chapter 6 what he clearly regards as a crucial distinction: that between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ needs. Whilst a variety of expressions are given to this distinction, underlying all of them is the distinction between need as individual and need as social; and much of the rest of the book is taken up with exploring this distinction through discussion of differing theoretical standpoints.
Chapter 7 develops a fourfold taxonomy of need constructed from the two main distinctions so far discussed: that between inherent and interpreted needs and that between thin and thick needs. Each resulting quadrant gives rise to a different social policy approach:

Diagram, Dean
A taxonomy of needs-based approaches (p.120)


Chapter 8 explores the ways in which needs are understood to imply rights. Dean develops another fourfold taxonomy based on the distinction between ‘doctrinal’ (or normative) rights and claims-based (asserted) rights and the distinction between understanding ourselves as autonomous subjects (thin needs) and as potentially vulnerable and therefore interdependent subjects (thick needs). Each quadrant generates rights understood in particular ways: for instance, doctrinal rights and an understanding of the person as vulnerable generate citizenship rights based on needs understood as universal. Dean then shows how each of Esping-Andersen’s welfare regime types prefers a particular category of rights: liberal welfare regimes selective rights, conservative regimes protective rights, social democratic regimes citizenship rights, and all of them conditional rights: and he offers a detailed critique of the ‘welfare citizenship’ to which social democracy has given birth.

In the final chapter Dean suggests that ‘our humanity depends … on social engagement and self-fulfilment’ and that this implies universal and unconditional approaches to social policy and the meeting of both particular and common needs. His particular policy proposal is local social rights councils, but it could equally well have been a Citizen’s Income, which does of course meet both particular and common needs as well as promoting both social engagement and self-fulfilment.
The book contains summaries and questions for discussion at the end of each chapter, and a reading list at the end. There is an index, though unfortunately a flawed one: Bill Jordan is frequently quoted and is in the index; Fitzpatrick is also frequently quoted but isn’t. Basic/Citizen’s Income gets a brief mention on p.136, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the index.

But the index is a minor blemish on an important book: important because it lays an essential foundation for any future discussion of social policy and thus for any future discussion of universal benefits.