Understanding Theories and Concepts in Social Policy, by Ruth Lister

Policy Press, 2010, xii + 311 pp, hbk 1 861 34794 7, £60, pbk 1 861 34793 0, £19.99.

Not only is this a most useful textbook, but it is also a sustained argument for the usefulness of theory. The back cover says that the book is for students and their teachers, but because it constantly draws connections between social science theory and practical social policy it will also be read with profit by social policy practitioners.

Most of the book’s chapters start with a set of theories or ideologies and then relate them to policy areas. Thus moral hazard and public choice theory inform our understanding of Thatcherism’s quasi-markets; feminism has changed the position of the public-private divide and thus our treatment of domestic violence; post-Fordism has contributed to the change from comprehensive education to niche-marketing academies; Foucault has uncovered the disciplinary networks which now influence many areas of our lives; and the idea of ‘social construction’ tells us where ‘the underclass’ comes from – to mention just a few of the many connections to be found in the book.

Three important chapters then start with social policy concepts – needs, citizenship, community, liberty, equality, and social justice; and these too are related to practical social issues: mental health, the relationship between social security claimants and the state, and press censorship – again, to name just a few.

The structure and method of the book reflects the author’s experience with the Child Poverty Action Group and as a university teacher, and the clarity of expression and organisation of the material have clearly benefited from her teaching experience. The final chapter on social movements similarly reflects Lister’s constant engagement with social policy issues through her involvement in organisations, through her speaking at conferences, and through her articles and books. This chapter would have benefited from a rather more personal approach and perhaps should have included an account of issues she faced while at the Child Poverty Action Group. In general, the last few chapters would have benefited from more practical examples.

This is a marvellously comprehensive and comprehensible textbook. There is bound to be a second edition. It should contain a chapter on future directions in social policy which outlines the options for reform of the welfare state, and in particular extends the material on the argument between universalism and means-testing briefly begun on p.191. The debate over the feasibility and desirability of universal provision will be increasingly important in an age of austerity, and students and practitioners would benefit from an extended treatment of the field.