Welfare Theory: An introduction to the theoretical debates in social policy, by Tony Fitzpatrick

2nd edition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, xvi + 241 pp, pbk 0 230 27202 6, £19.99

The map with which political philosophers and social theorists are concerned overlaps, to a considerable extent, with the particular territory occupied by social policy. This book starts from the premise that you cannot properly understand the one unless you understand the other. (p.xiv)

This accessible and thoroughly researched book is also a vindication of Fitzpatrick’s conviction that ‘welfare theory’ – the philosophy of social policy – is a discipline in its own right. Welfare theory draws on both ‘social theory (the philosophy of sociology and social science) and political theory (the philosophy of politics and government)’ (p.xv), but it orders things in its own way and develops its own emphases. It is not insignificant that the first chapter is entitled ‘wellbeing’, now a focal concept for welfare theorists and social policy makers.

The book is structured around a number of concepts: equality, liberty, citizenship, community, state, power, poverty, society, and class. Fitzpatrick explores the histories of these ideas, the different ways in which they have been understood, and ‘recent developments’. Throughout, there is reference to social policy. For instance: the National Health Service’s achievements are judged against a variety of definitions of equality (p.39), the distribution and redistribution of income is the field on which a discussion of the relationship between equality and liberty is constructed (ch.3), new forms of ‘deliberative democracy’ are related to the idea of ‘democracy’ (p.79), and the chapter on ‘state, power and poverty’ is largely driven by the history and current state of the UK’s welfare state, the detail of current social policy, and measured outcomes (ch.5). The first three of these relationships fit the three types of relationship which Fitzpatrick lists in his introduction: ‘assessment’ (of practice by theory), ‘explanation’ (of practice by theory), and ‘reform’ (of practice by theory). But we can see that there is also a fourth relationship: practical policy’s influence on welfare and its concepts. To take a particular example: Beveridge’s ‘contributory’ and ‘social assistance’ welfare state was largely driven by previous government-supported co-operative insurance provision and by the Elizabethan Poor Law. The real-world relationship between welfare theory and social policy is a circular one, with each affecting the other. Fitzpatrick’s book is a text-book for students ( – the first edition was written for that purpose, and this second edition has benefited from the first edition’s use for that purpose), so we would expect it to concentrate on the ‘welfare theory forms social policy’ side of the relationship; but in his ‘concluding remarks’ Fitzpatrick suggests that

it is often necessary to take social policy themes and issues into account when discussing social and political theory. Social policy students do not simply debate how to translate principles into practical reality. Instead, they ask distinctive questions that enhance the method and assumptions of social philosophy. To explore social and political thought without substantial reference to the battles fought over social policies is to miss a key feature in the development of modern societies. (p.211).

Following the chapters on particular concepts, chapter 7 is entitled ‘ideologies’. Here Fitzpatrick describes the Radical Right, Conservatism, Social Democracy, Marxism, and Feminism. (Descriptions of the first two and of Marxism are followed by ‘criticisms’; descriptions of social democracy and of feminism are not.)

Chapter 8 is on ‘identities’: a recognition that social policy is often driven by the ‘recognition’ of an ‘identity’ (for instance, disability). Chapter 9 is on ‘globalization’, and shows how a global economy constrains national social policy; and this chapter in particular shows how economic policy has influenced both the idea of globalization and changes in social policy. The final chapter, on ‘global justice and environmentalism’, is new to this edition, and contains a useful taxonomy of types of global justice.

Finally, Fitzpatrick suggests that the utopian and the pragmatist need each other. The truth of this in relation to our tax and benefits system is obvious. Maybe it’s time for a second edition of his Freedom and Security, his book about a Citizen’s Income: a book which exemplifies the complex relationship between welfare theory and social policy which the book under review is all about.