Theorising Welfare: Enlightenment and Modern Society


Martin O'Brien & Sue Penna

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    Vera and Steve


    Daniel and John


    This book is the product of several years of exposure to, and participation in, debates about the relative merits or otherwise of various strands of social theory. In particular, we would like to thank the participants of the Friday night gatherings in the Moorlands Hotel for their interest, support, humour and general sanity-inducing approach to academic life, and George, a brilliant landlord. Thanks are also due to all the students in the Department of Applied Social Science at Lancaster who have suffered through course 302: Theories of Welfare States, and the students in the Department of Sociology at Surrey who survived the course Social Policy and the Future of Welfare, for their interest, patience and contributions to thinking through many of the issues addressed in this book. We are grateful to Paul Bagguley Geoff Cooper, Kate Currie, Hilary Graham, Tom Horlick-Jones, Bob Jessop, Scott Lash, Elizabeth Shove, Chris Smaje, David Smith, Colin Tipton, John Urry and Alan Warde for comments on various iterations of the manuscript. As to the final contents, the usual disclaimers apply. Many thanks to Gillian Stern for Job-like patience and for support for our project and to Jane Evans, Susie Home and all the staff at Sage who helped in the production of the book. Finally Dan and Debbie have lived through the demands of academia and of this book with great fortitude – we would like to thank them for that and for keeping the domestic sphere ticking over, especially the shopping.

  • Critiques and Conclusions

    Definitions and concepts of welfare are embedded in extensive theoretical perspectives on the nature of the individual, on the operation of social institutions, on the interpretation of historical and contemporary phenomena. They comprise understandings of how people, and the institutions and relationships through which our lives are connected together, do or might operate. In this regard, theories of welfare are always both social and normative in the way that we defined these terms in the introduction to the book. They are not only disinterested reflections on the human condition but are also motivated by some idea of or commitment to a specific arrangement of social relations, and often by both together. Theories of welfare are inescapably political, in the sense that to adopt or promote a way of understanding social welfare is to adopt or promote a way of understanding the organisation of social life and its consequences. In assessing the contribution that different perspectives make to the task of theorising welfare, therefore, it is necessary to assess the contribution they make to the task of theorising the organisation of social life. In this concluding chapter we assess the potentials and problems of the seven different perspectives we have outlined in the book in these terms, although our emphasis primarily will be on the perspectives in Parts Two and Three.

    Enlightenment and Progress

    The themes of freedom and emancipation that underpin liberalism and Marxism need to be situated in the context of the social, cultural and political struggles characteristic of nineteenth century Europe. Liberalism and Marxism provide specific understandings of what ‘freedom’ and ‘emancipation’ mean. They are concepts in a series of philosophical and theoretical discourses about the historical development and direction of societies.

    Liberalism and Marxism

    Nineteenth century liberals were not early prototypes of Beveridge. They did not seek to secure the freedom of all individuals from the ‘giants’ of want, ignorance, disease, idleness and squalor. As we saw in Chapter 1, the poverty of the masses was accepted largely as the condition on which social wealth could be generated. Although the liberal conscience frayed at the edges at the sight of mass penury, starvation and famine, the incentive to work – that is, the lack of sufficient resources to manage life independently of wage labour – was considered necessary to achieve economic growth. A liberal society was not one in which all enjoyed the same freedoms. It was a society in which it was necessary for some people to enjoy more freedoms than others – a stratified society. Stratification was, and is, central to liberal social theory, for stratification is the dynamic that ensures the economic progress of the whole. If people are freed from the necessity to work they will not work, profits will not accrue, economic activity will stagnate, progress will cease. Thus, a liberal approach to social policy requires that it supports economic stratification, that inequality is the means and the goal of that policy. In some of its earlier formulations, such as Spencer's, this principle was taken to the extreme, suggesting that the consequences of inequality – starvation, disease and death – might be seen as the positive outcomes of a social evolution in which the surviving social strata became ever more advanced representatives of the species. In some later formulations, such as Beveridge's, it is said to be possible to tinker at the edges of the unequal society, ensuring that, by and large, such inequality does not result in mass starvation, disease or premature death. Indeed, it is possible, over time, to use social policy as a tool to maintain ‘relative’ inequality whilst simultaneously abolishing ‘absolute’ poverty The distinction between these two views encapsulates a division in liberal philosophy that was most obvious at the turn of the nineteenth century, between laissez-faire liberals and reformist liberals. The division between the two strands of liberal philosophy split liberalism into two mutually hostile political camps and effectively ended liberalism's association with direct political rule. Even in the second formulation, however, liberalism did not reject the proposition that some races might be more equal than others, that racial groupings, organised into societies, might represent different stages of social, rather than strictly biological, evolution. In this version, what was at stake was the fitness of the British (or other Western) nation to rule over an empire, rather than the fitness of one class to rule over another class.

    There is a sense, as we saw in Chapter 2, that Marxist theory also understood inequality as an inevitable characteristic of economic and social progress, although the nature, causes and consequences of that inequality were not at all the same as they appeared in liberalism. In Marxist theory, material inequality was a feature of the organisation of production rather than an abiding characteristic of the human condition. Material inequality existed because the mode of production was based on an antagonism between classes such that whilst inequality was certainly the dynamic that maintained capitalist economic progress it was not at all inevitable that inequality should always and forever divide human societies. In Marx and Engels' early work such inequality would lead inexorably to the downfall of capitalism and its replacement by communism. Thus, progress was as assured in Marxism as it was in liberalism but involved the destruction of the existing system of wealth distribution rather than its elaboration. Marxism proposes that an incentive to work – that is, work for wages or starve to death – is necessary only where work is an exploitative activity. Where people's labour is exploited for another's gain, some mechanism for inducing or coercing people to work is absolutely required. However, it is not necessary for work to be exploitative: it is not necessary that people's labour and its products should always belong to someone else. This ownership of both labour and its products is itself a consequence of the class character of capitalist societies: if the exploitation of work is removed, there is no need to induce or coerce people to work, since what they work for belongs to themselves and what they create is their own self-development. A Marxist social policy, thus, is premised on the abolition of the ownership of labour and its products by people other than those who do the labouring. The means and the goal of Marxist social policy is the emancipation of labour from exploitation, the self-fulfilment of each individual and the whole society through creative and free labour.

    In both liberalism and Marxism, then, there is an essential connection between labour, the welfare of each individual and the welfare of the whole society, although the connection is formulated in radically different ways. Liberal social theory proposes a view of social progress in which each individual and each social group fulfils a necessary role in maintaining the development of the whole. In turn, the most free and most efficient development of the whole promotes the fullest welfare of each individual. The development of the whole depends on enabling the most free and most efficiently coordinated access to the stratified socio-economic system. Liberal normative theory, by extension, proposes organising stratification systems so that both individual and social development are most effectively enabled. Marxist social theory, in contrast, proposes a view of social progress in which each individual is a material product of the social whole. It is the destiny of humanity to overcome the divisions and contradictions that underpin the exploitation of labour and uphold the private ownership of the means of production. The development of the whole depends on the historical abolition of class divisions around ownership of those means. In turn, the abolition of those divisions promotes the emancipation of each individual from exploitation and thereby promotes their fullest welfare. Marxist normative theory, by extension, proposes to destratify the socio-economic system so that individual and social development are most effectively enabled.

    Both Marxism and liberalism theorise an underlying or essential unity to human affairs that gives coherence and direction to the apparently chaotic disorder of social life. The liberal focus on the invisible hand or the evolution of races and societies is contested by the Marxist focus on historical stages and species being. None the less, theoretically, both posit a direction to social change: societies progressively – either through evolution or revolution – become more advanced and the welfare of each individual is a function of the level or stage of development of the social whole. Liberal and Marxist perspectives thus interpret social policies in terms not only of their contribution to or impacts on individual welfare but also in terms of historical trajectories through which societies are seen to progress. The character of social policies and their consequences for social welfare are conceptualised through the lenses of individual property rights and laissez-faire, on the one hand, or class domination and struggle on the other. Liberal analyses of the family or religion, for example, stress their roles in personality stabilisation, socialisation or the transmission of morals and norms that enable social order to persist. Marxist analyses of these institutions make similar claims but stress their roles in enabling capitalist social order to persist. For Marxists, religion is an ‘opiate’ of the masses and the bourgeois family a system of repression which either maintains ‘wives in common’ or contributes to the reproduction of labour power. Liberal and Marxist theory are locked in a permanent contest, each asserting the primacy of competing principles of order and progress, each building conceptual schemes derived from opposing standpoints on the real, underlying essence of social life.

    Anti-Enlightenment Critiques

    The proposition that, beneath the apparent chaos of social life, there persists a principle of order or progress through which human destiny is realised is a philosophical commitment, not an empirical fact: it is an element in a theoretical scheme through which both historical change and contemporary experience can be interpreted. In fact, such a proposition reiterates the philosophical frameworks of Enlightenment thought in that it upholds the search for the independent laws of the social (and natural) order. As such, it can be, and has been, challenged; perhaps the chaos of the world is all there really is, perhaps there is no historical ‘telos’, no human destiny and no fundamental meaning beneath the flux of social life. The ‘view from chaos’ has fundamental implications for the construction of social theory, including social theories of welfare. It implies the development of new concepts or the reinterpretation of existing concepts as well as a reformulation of the interpretive frameworks that make sense of observations about social life. As we saw in Part Two, neo-liberalism and poststructuralism attempt a reformulation of this magnitude and, in so doing, offer very different perspectives on the nature of social welfare and the effects of social policy. At the same time, the reformulations are not without problems; both neo-liberal and poststructuralist critiques of Enlightenment theory raise unanswered theoretical questions.


    The anti-Enlightenment philosophy and theory of Hayek, Friedman and their neo-liberal adherents comprises a rich discourse on the problems and prospects of the contemporary welfare state. Spanning consumer choice, the character of the state, the history of ‘liberty’, the concept of ‘freedom’, and the relationships between ‘justice’, ‘welfare’, ‘rights’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘duty’, neo-liberal political and economic philosophy purports to establish the basis upon which modern societies can best cater for the needs and wants of their members. The ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ knowledge of the (French) Enlightenment is seen as leading to a fundamentally erroneous belief that societies can be successfully organised and directed by a technocratic state. In contrast, neo-liberalism holds that the market is the measure of efficiency, the standard against which our very understandings of what should and should not be are judged. It achieves an efficient distribution of goods and services, it enables freely undertaken human intercourse and negotiation, it provides a forum in which skills can be exchanged and distributed and defines the values of commodities without reference to the power or status of their owners and controllers. In short, it enables the free pursuit of individual life unfettered by collective obligation. Unlike classical liberalism, however, there is no ‘invisible hand’ guiding the totality of market transactions, guaranteeing a positive expansion and coordination of economic progress.

    ‘Freedom’, here, is reduced to free-individualism: the well-being of society is nothing other than the realisation by private individuals of their own interests within a framework of abstract legal rules. Freedom is equated with freedom-to-act without the constraints imposed by a collectively organised normative ethics. It is, on the surface, a purely formal concept. The guarantee that all individuals are at liberty to engage equally in any activity sanctioned by the abstract legal code is the limit-point and defining feature of the neo-liberal free society. The substantive fact that not all individuals can in reality equally engage in such actions – because of material barriers to participation such as insufficient individual resources or group-exclusionary strategies – does not, for neo-liberals, undermine the normative value of an approach based on formal equality. This is because inequality is seen as a ‘natural’ outcome of free activity: the market enables individuals freely to realise their unequal freedoms. Thus, the concept of freedom in neo-liberal thought is tied intrinsically to political principles. ‘Freedom’ requires a particular politics for its achievement. The absence of a politics of freedom – for neo-liberals an absence embodied in the social democratic structures of the welfare state – engenders an enslavement and serfdom of the whole society. Breaking out of this enslavement is equivalent to repoliticising the relations between individuals by strengthening the power of the market against the welfare state.

    Thus, the definition of ‘freedom’ and the characterisation of ‘the market’ are inextricably bound together. Indeed, it is the market which defines the freedom of society and the individuals within it: for ‘free society’ one should read ‘free (market) society’. Whilst neo-liberals do not claim that the market can do everything – for example, there remains a role for the state in providing national security and minimal welfare and infrastructural services – it none the less functions, theoretically, as the organic structure of social organisation, meeting needs and fulfilling human instinctual drives. In this way, the market is held to comprise not only the most efficient, but also the only natural mechanism of social reproduction. There are two problems with this conception worthy of particular note, one relating to historiography, the other relating to anthropology.

    At the heart of Hayek's system of ideas is his conception of the nature of knowledge and its place in a market system. However, this conception rests on an idiosyncratic use of philosophical argument and a one-dimensional account of historical and evolutionary change. According to Hayek, modern societies are too complex to be ‘known’ explicitly by any individual. In the very distant past, small-scale, ‘primitive’ societies were sufficiently simple for each individual to be able to grasp explicitly all the relevant information which s/he needed to know about its processes and conventions. Now, in contrast, societies are complex and – from the individual's point of view – apparently chaotic. Modern individuals have no hope of grasping, in its totality, the knowledge required to regulate society in a rational way. Indeed, no single collective body (including the state) could hope to do this either, since the knowledge required outstrips in its range and complexity any possibility of consciously organising social relationships. Thus, the most important type of knowledge in modern society is ‘tacit’ knowledge – knowledge of the rules of engagement. Because no individual can ever grasp explicitly all the knowledge about society's functioning there has to be a mechanism by which elements of such knowledge can be transmitted to individuals where and when necessary. This ‘knowledge-transmission’ function is fulfilled by the market and enables individuals to continue to act even in ignorance of the total effects of their actions.

    However, this thesis is problematic in several respects. The sociology of knowledge has demonstrated that knowledge is not a ‘thing’ which can with impunity be sliced into two simple categories. There are not just two types of knowledge but a plethora of knowledges with their own special characteristics. Many of these knowledges are vested in and tied to specific social groups who patently do not enter them into the market for distribution. Knowledge is a category, not of culture-in-general, but of particular groups and organised interests who fight hard to retain control over it and avoid its ‘free market’ distribution. This has been the case historically and remains so in present-day society. The burning of women healers in post-medieval Europe with the dawn of a male-controlled medical profession testifies to the struggles in which different types of knowledge are locked. Social groups – and especially professions – develop exclusionary tactics precisely for the purpose of restricting access to knowledge in order to further their collective interests and material positions in society (Witz, 1992).

    A second notable problem is that Hayek, and neo-liberal theory in general, has a very limited understanding of social anthropology. Hayek trained initially as a micro economist before turning his attention to political philosophy, so the limitation is perhaps not surprising in his case. What is surprising is the emphasis he places on the differences between ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ societies. Hayek has no theoretical or substantive warrant for arguing that societies in prehistory operated as he says they did. His assumptions about smallness and lack of complexity, coupled with his assertions about the associated tacit nature of knowledge recall the prejudices of nineteenth century anthropologists in assuming there was some fundamental difference between the knowledge operations of ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ people. Anthropological work contemporaneous with Hayek's writing contested this myth with some force. Winch (1958) and Geertz (1975), for example, demonstrate that in what Hayek would consider a close approximation to a ‘primitive’ society both tacit and explicit forms of knowledge interrelate in highly complex and sophisticated ways.

    It is reasonable to suppose that the same complexity should hold in contemporary societies. However, there is no way, in Hayek's work, to identify which is ‘tacit’ and which ‘explicit’ (reason) knowledge. Without a proper ontology of ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ knowledge it is impossible to identify in empirical investigation when and under what conditions either of these forms is being used. Additionally, if we cannot tell which is which then neither can we tell whether any given actor is drawing on the same tacit knowledge as any other given actor. Thus, it is just as legitimate to argue that an uncontrolled market produces chaos, disadvantage, discrimination, domination and exploitation by distributing totally inappropriate forms of information and resources, based on the uncoordinated tacit knowledges of individuals, as it is to argue that the uncontrolled market provides a valuable service by distilling such knowledge for distribution out of the chaos of human life. Hayek provides no basis upon which to assert which of these interpretations is warranted from his theory. By deriving everything that is good from market processes and deriving the market from nowhere except ‘natural’ human development, there remain no criteria and no guidelines that can be used to investigate the social relations through which markets are in reality built and maintained.

    These two problems – of historical and anthropological inaccuracy – are carried into the work of other neo-liberals who base their arguments on Hayek's philosophical system. Green and Morgan, for example, accept at face value the state–bad / market–good dichotomy, an acceptance which leads to a problematic notion of cultural change. Green, for example, is concerned with the rise of a ‘victim culture’ and the ‘therapeutic state’. Focusing on the decline in individual responsibility and duty that these developments are said to generate, Green argues for a return to ideals of duty and civic welfare delivered within an apolitical community. There are at least two major difficulties here. First, Green accepts the premise that markets are necessary to accommodate the wide range of values and wants existing in any modern society. The state cannot legislate for outcomes because there can be no consensus on social goals in the plurality of competing values. Yet, having accepted value-plurality as a characteristic of modern life, Green argues simultaneously for an apolitical civil society in which everyone shares common values and morals in relation to duty and responsibility for welfare. ‘The community’ can perform the role Green assigns to it only if moral codes are more or less shared among its members. This same tension runs throughout Hayek's work, where value-plurality is held up as a desirable feature to be protected by the market against the encroachments of the state but where, at the same time, families and other social institutions are held to be the transmitters of the traditional values that uphold market structures. Thus, on the one hand, there is a plurality of values but, on the other hand, there is a homogeneity of the ‘successful’ cultural values developed during the process of human evolution. Quite how these opposing conceptions of cultural values and practices can be held within the same theoretical framework is not explained.

    The second problem is that Green accuses the cultural changes of the 1960s of undermining individual responsibility for self-maintenance, counterposing this development to the nineteenth century where duty prevailed. This represents an astonishing reading (or mis-reading) of historical change. The nineteenth century, as we saw in Part One, was a period of intense political struggle around political power and against poverty and injustice. The development of welfare states has been subject to a variety of pressures and forces often directed at offsetting the dire consequences of market-generated inequalities (such as starvation, disease, unfit working conditions, lack of basic resources such as housing and clean water and so on). In the nineteenth century, individuals organised in collective unions and pressure groups, fought long and hard, often facing extreme consequences such as execution, deportation or imprisonment, to force basic provisions for the poor and disadvantaged which the ‘market’ simply did not provide. Such struggles were fought on the basis of the unwillingness and absolute incapacity of market entrepreneurs to cater for basic human needs. The second half of the twentieth century is filled with examples of such struggles: black civil rights activism in America and Catholic activism in Ireland, for example, were aimed at forcing state intervention to offset material disadvantage and social discrimination. Struggles by women for sex equality in work and welfare benefits are a continuing feature of welfare reforms across the world. The history of welfare provision – and not just ‘the sixties’ – is littered with the struggles of oppressed peoples rendered politically and economically unfree by markets and market-based systems dominated by powerful economic interests. Neo-liberal theorists write histories and accounts of state interventions as if this element of struggle had no bearing upon the forms that both market and state provisions have taken. Such historical amnesia denies the significance of political struggle in wresting even minor benefits from economic systems that systematically and comprehensively discriminate in favour of already-entrenched interests.

    Furthermore, there is no evidence to support the neo-liberal mantra of declining responsibility for welfare provision. The social policy literature is filled with studies of informal and community care, pointing to the role of (predominantly, but not exclusively) women in providing the informal care that has underpinned and made possible the formal sector of care. From the care of elderly people, mentally and physically disabled people, young people, through to financial and other support for family and friends, women (and families) have been the bedrock of welfare services. Changes in the position of women and in family formations have not led to the abandonment of this role. Morgan decries the decline of the traditional family which she sees as a result of the impact of feminism. However, the ‘decline thesis’ has been reiterated for more than a century, with the consequence that it is difficult to grasp any longer what exactly is supposedly declining. More importantly, the view of the family contained in neo-liberal theory is simplistic and romanticised, seriously underestimating, and often completely neglecting, sexual and physical violence within families. This is not to say that contemporary neo-liberal writings do not address some important social issues: the point is that the simplistic dichotomies through which they are addressed – market–good/state–bad, traditional family–good/other family–bad – do nothing to further our understanding of the processes and conditions (unemployment, violence, illness, abuse, discrimination, and so on) within which many individuals, families and social groups struggle to survive. In these ways, neo-liberalism has as many affinities with romantic conservatism as it does with classical liberalism (Gray, 1996).


    The charge of (neo-)conservatism has been levelled also against both poststructuralist and postmodern philosophy (Habermas, 1985), although, in our view, these two perspectives represent somewhat different approaches to the activity of theorising. Poststructuralism has been accused of ‘evaporating’ power as a theoretical question, of undermining the critical capacity of social theory to envisage an alternative ‘culture of solidarity’ through which to contest exploitative political arrangements and of failing to recognise the experience and real conditions of victims of violence and abuse (Minson, 1980; Hewitt, 1992: 171, 201; McCannell and McCannell, 1993: 230). The rejection of poststructuralism in much mainstream social theory and social policy is rooted in a desire to maintain a unique rational standard around which the efficacy and acceptability of political projects can be assessed and measured. On this basis, the critique of poststructuralist theory centres on two closely related sets of questions: on the validity of poststructuralism's analytical categories (a conceptual-cum-methodological critique) and a critique of the standpoint (or lack thereof) from which poststructuralist theory views the world (a methodological-cum-political critique).

    In Chapter 4 we noted that Foucault's approach to historical research shifted from an archaeological to a genealogical strategy in response to methodological problems with the idea that the meaning of past events could be ‘read’ in the present in any straightforward way. The strategic shift, however, reveals more than a ‘corrective’ attempt to provide a ‘truer’ or ‘more accurate’ historical representation. It comprises a redefinition of terms and concepts in the theoretical framework that Foucault adopted to interpret the relationships between past and present and between the subjects and objects of knowledge. Both sets of relationships, according to Foucault, are constituted in ‘discourses’, conceptualised as power–knowledge systems that establish both specific ways of knowing and simultaneously specific forms of authority over the contents of knowledge, over what is known. For Foucault, it is a philosophical error to distinguish between ‘thinking’ and ‘knowing’, on the one hand, and ‘acting’ and ‘doing’, on the other. In this respect, Foucault's thesis has affinities with Wittgenstein's philosophy of language games – where languages and meanings are active elements of a community's way of living. For Wittgenstein, meanings are not ‘given’ in a language and then ‘used’ in a way of life. On the contrary, the meanings that language provides are embedded in the actions and relationships through which everyday life is organised and carried out. Foucault's philosophy, however, attempts to radicalise this perspective further, suggesting that meanings are not neutral expressions of social relationships but are exercises of power, opening up and objectifying some of those relationships and closing off or repressing others. What is meant by ‘deviance’, ‘need’, ‘illness’, the ‘normal’ or the ‘abnormal’ is a product of a discursive closure that is both historical – in the sense that discourses emerge and consolidate over time – and economic – in that discourses comprise frameworks and rules by which meanings and concepts can be exchanged, valued and developed and through which the world can be ‘invested’ with sense and order. The order of the world is not reflected in knowledge about it; rather, the world is ordered through discourse (through power–knowledge). The medieval world of God and faith, evil and sin, of inexplicable disaster and catastrophe is not a false world that has been superseded by the true world of particles and matter, rationality and science, of knowable laws, causes and effects. The two worlds represent different orders of discourse that invest different meanings and truths in experience and perception.

    A clear problem with such a radicalised discourse theory is that it becomes at least very difficult, and potentially impossible, to know the meaning of anything. The problem applies to Foucault's own perspective as much as to the effort to theorise through Foucault's philosophy. If the meaning of the world is given in orders of discourse, the grounds on which meanings might be shared or communicated become very slippery – is it necessary to identify the discursive order before a meaning can be grasped? If so, what is the order of discourse in which Foucault's concepts and categories make sense? Foucault evaded this question by proposing that his works represented ‘tools’ or ‘weapons’ that could be used by groups in struggle to disturb and disrupt the conventions and taken-for-granted assumptions underpinning contemporary expert and professional knowledges. However, if the distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ is erroneous, then it is difficult to understand (to ‘know’) what it is about Foucault's works that such groups might ‘use’ or what use they might make of them. To put this another way, are there ‘orders of usage’, like there are orders of discourse, that clarify the implications of Foucault's works for social and political projects, or are these works equally useful to a rampant New Right, hell-bent on dismantling any and all forms of social support and to marginalised groups challenging the dismantling process?

    This question is one that applies also to Foucault's interpreters. Fraser, for example, developed Foucault's discourse analytic in her investigation of ‘needs’ discourses in social policy. Her division between ‘expert’, ‘oppositional’ and ‘reprivatisation’ discourses is a useful device for investigating struggles over needs. It begs the question, however, of how to distinguish between such discourses in empirical research: can an ‘oppositional’ movement expound a ‘reprivatisation’ discourse? Can an ‘expert’ representative of an official institution of knowledge-production expound an ‘oppositional’ discourse, and so on? Similar problems are encountered in relation to theories that treat professional knowledges (such as law or medicine, for example) as discourse in their own right. Whilst it may be the case that lawyers and doctors (and judges, social workers, psychologists, police officers, and others) may struggle over the control of social rights and obligations, this does not imply that there is an automatic correspondence between such struggles and the discourses in which medical and legal, and so on, knowledges are formulated and transmitted.

    Similarly, the marking of bodies and identities with differences need not be understood as an abstract expression of culture, as Gatens proposes, nor simply as an effect of discursive relations. The mobilisation or manipulation of cultural symbols and signs that realise marked bodies and identities may equally be theorised as a social process of domination, classification or even resistance (or a combination of all three). Here, the relationships between signs, symbols and identificatory practices may be related to the interests, goals or projects of individuals and groups struggling over specific inequalities or oppressions. Such struggles, in turn, may relate to more extensive dimensions of social or economic exploitation of which the individuals and groups may themselves be unaware. The point, here, is not to argue that discourses or meanings are not in themselves contradictory or antagonistic. Rather, it is to note that there may be non-discursive reasons why this is the case or non-discursive causes of such contradictions and antagonisms. If the entirety of experience and perception is conceptualised as a feature of discourse, the question arises as to the standpoint from which such a claim can be issued. In what discourse is the claim that ‘knowledge is discourse’ situated?

    Applying this sort of questioning to poststructuralist theorising leads into a series of circular arguments about the respective value of the view from within and the view from outside discourse. Underlying the circularity is a more fundamental issue that characterises both poststructuralist and neo-liberal theory, namely the rejection of the claim that the social whole can be known in and of itself, that there is a type of knowledge or a way of knowing in and through which the real or essential basis of the social world can be grasped and reflected in the form of a theory or a science. Both Hayek and Foucault dismiss this claim as a fiction. Hayek dismisses it on the basis that it represents an inflated sense of self-importance on the part of the social scientist, resulting from a distortion of Enlightenment rationality. Foucault dismisses it on the basis that it construes ‘knowledge’ as somehow separate from the political and institutional relationships in which different ways of knowing are validated and invalidated. In both cases, Enlightenment faith in the objectivity of ‘Reason’ and the truth of ‘science’ is subjected to critical scrutiny and the Enlightenment project – rational adjudication on and coordination of human affairs in the name of progress – is seen as the expression of relations of power rather than as the highest goal of human civilisation.

    Post-Enlightenment Problematics

    In theoretical terms, the anti-Enlightenment philosophies of neo-liberalism and poststructuralism represent contemporary limit points of a reconfiguration of social theory in which the idea of a historical telos in human societies and the search for an underlying causal mechanism of their change or progress are abandoned. The shift in perspective has resulted in a focus on the relationships between discontinuous social forces in, rather than on the continuous succession of, human societies. In particular, a great deal of contemporary social theory is characterised by a ‘reflexive’ standpoint towards the analysis of social change. By ‘reflexivity’, here, we are referring to two, related, theoretical logics. On the one hand, recalling Marxist critical theory, reflexivity refers to an immanent critique of social processes. Such a critique contends that the processes that sustain or realise a specific organisation of social life contain within them the logics of its transformation. In other words, social organisation is inherently unstable and precarious, subject to multiple dynamics that push and pull institutions, discourses and traditions in many directions simultaneously. On the other hand, reflexivity refers to the acknowledgement that social experience and social perception are, at least partially, constituted in discourse. Recalling Foucault's thesis on power–knowledge, the meaning or significance of social phenomena is not ‘given’ directly to experience but is inflected by the perspective through which the world is viewed. The theories of political economy, political ecology and postmodernism that we outlined in Part Three do not all have the same relationship to these theoretical logics but the debates within and between them are strongly influenced by the ‘immanentist’ and ‘perspectivist’ dimensions of theoretical reflexivity.

    Political Economy

    As we noted in Chapter 5, three issues in particular are highlighted in contemporary theories of the political economy of welfare. First, they draw attention to the relationship between national and international economic organisation. Welfare states display a dual characteristic. On the one hand, they are designed to offer at least some form of minimal protection against the vagaries of the market to citizens of the national economy. On the other hand, they also act as a form of social organisation designed to assist the national economy in the face of international competition. They look both inwards and outwards, oriented towards the social maintenance of the citizenry and the market success of the economy. Changes in the organisation of one of these characteristics has immediate impacts on the organisation of the other. During the first half of the twentieth century the industrial and extractive sectors of the economy – steel, coal, ship-building, chemicals, automobile manufacture, light engineering – provided the basis for economic development. Keynesian Welfare States were predicated on continued growth and competitiveness in these economic sectors and the work patterns and methods of profit accumulation that these implied. In other words, the welfare state and the industrial system amounted to an interlocking, mutually supportive socio-economic structure. Entire communities, ways of life, identities and social norms were rooted in this socio-economic structure. Under pressures of globalisation, it is not only the market economy which changes but the structure itself and its interlocking mechanisms – including patterns of socialisation, norms and types of employment, community networks and the identities of their members. The changed circumstances imply that welfare systems designed for an industrial manufacturing economy are unable to sustain either new forms of socio-economic organisation or manage the increasing complexity of political divisions.

    Second, the myriad changes wrought by globalisation connect closely with shifts in the organisation and distribution of employment-related benefits. The British Keynesian Welfare State and its institutions, for example, was underpinned by policies for full employment and industrial growth, a policy framework based on easing the transition between work and non-work – whether the latter is a result of unemployment, sickness, age or education. The social insurance system has been geared towards a norm of secure, permanent employment for the majority of household heads. It is part of a benefits structure that supports family, rather than individual incomes, and presupposes a ‘link-worker’ (usually a woman) to service the needs of workers and dependants in the household.

    However, postwar social and economic change has served to undermine such assumptions and norms. For example, although women's employment is not a postwar phenomenon, during the postwar period considerable numbers of men have been displaced from the workforce whilst women have entered the labour market in large numbers, tending to be concentrated in part-time, insecure and often low-paid work. At the same time as state welfare provision is being increasingly residualised, greater responsibility for caring and welfare functions is accruing to women in workplaces, their homes and communities.

    There are two immediate consequences arising from this shift in employment patterns. First, as more women enter the labour market, the link-worker role comes under increasing strain. Women are less available to undertake the roles of nurturing, supporting and organising household needs, undermining assumptions about traditional family forms and the support services they provide, motivating a search for policy frameworks to reconcile the family–employment nexus throughout Western Europe (Hantrais and Letablier, 1996). Second, part-time and low-paid work has both in-work and out-of-work consequences. Part-time workers are easier to sack and often excluded from pay scales, career structures and training programmes; ‘flexible’ workers are likely to receive less income in work and less income out of work and are often disqualified from receiving benefits altogether. Low pay also means low or no insurance contributions towards retirement and less income in retirement. The diminished amounts being paid in taxation and insurance contributions result in less revenue for benefits and services at a time when there is more demand for these. In these respects new employment patterns have both social and fiscal welfare consequences.

    The changes in work patterns and their impacts on family structures draw attention to the final issue raised by the post-political economy perspectives, namely the extent to which contemporary societies are characterised by fragmentation, social fracture and polarisation. Economic globalisation and the parallel dynamics of socio-economic reorganisation intensify existing social divisions and bring to the foreground previously obscured or neglected forms of exclusion and discrimination. Patterns of production and work have an impact on family structures and households but the latter are also strongly influenced by changing cultural and political mores. The growth of sweated and migrant labour, the intensified racial stratification of class relations and the patriarchal regulation of minority ethnic women's labour identified by Lash and Urry (1994) comprise institutional clusters in which family, state and economy intersect in the organisation of racism.

    Whilst the contemporary world appears very different from its prewar predecessor, this does not necessarily indicate a transition to a new form of socio-economic organisation. Whether or not the identified changes represent a ‘post’ condition – either industrial or Fordist – is a matter of dispute concerning, amongst other things, the adequacy of the underlying model of change. Although lacking a clear monocausal mechanism of change and a final end-state to historical development, contemporary political economy retains a familiar evolutionary typology found in social theory. As Kumar (1995: 13), referring to theories of postindustrialism, points out: ‘current changes are seen according to a model derived from (assumed) past changes, and future developments are projected following the logic of the model. So just as industrial society replaced agrarian society, the information society is replacing industrial society, more or less in the same evolutionary way.’

    In contrast, Kumar argues, continuity, not change, is what characterises contemporary societies. The techniques and technologies of production may have been modified but capitalist societies remain organised around the same principles and objectives as always (Kumar, 1995: 24–5, 32–4). In short, the conception of a radical break in social development is greatly overestimated, its evolutionary underpinnings overstating the degree, and the mechanisms, of change.

    The neo-Marxisms of Lash and Urry (1987) and Jessop (1994a, passim) are intended to overcome this problem by emphasising either the flows of capital or the double dynamic of capitalist development rather than the functional determination by capital of state structures and policies. None the less, through these concepts both the disorganised capitalism thesis and the post-Fordist paradigm attempt to theorise the transition from a capitalism of the nation-state to a capitalism of the global order which has consequences for welfare politics. These consequences, however, are not accepted by all commentators.

    For example, the argument that social-structural change generates greater and more complex social divisions, has been criticised on the grounds that it underplays the historical continuity of both social fragmentation and class divisions in modern societies. Much of this dispute depends on what particular definition or model of ‘class’ is adopted to examine what dimensions of stratification and political action. Critics of the class-in-decline/fragmentation-in-the-ascendancy thesis point to a conflation of class-based and non-class-based inequalities. This conflation, it is argued, ignores the persistence of the bourgeoisie's control of economic wealth in capitalist societies, the capacity of wealth owners to influence political processes and the transmission of privilege from one generation to another (Hout et al., 1996: 52). Increasing differences between classes in relation to the distribution of wealth and power are said to attest to the continuing salience of class categories. Hout et al, for example, argue that:

    The complexities of political strategies and tactics make the distinction between class as a causal agent and class or inequality as an object of discussion absolutely critical. Merely because an issue is not directly couched in terms of class or traditional left–right politics does not mean that class is irrelevant to understanding it … What if some ‘new’ social issues have become the object of political struggles and public debate in part because they resonate with people's traditional left–right political heuristics …? Could it be that controversies over affirmative action or the extension of rights to new categories of citizen (such as the disabled) gain their ideological strength from being about ‘old’ (class) issues, such as equality or social democracy? … To say that class matters less now than it used to requires that one exaggerate its importance in the past and understate its importance at present. (1996: 55)

    The underestimation of social fragmentation is visible in Offe's comments on the political implications for welfare state development of social divisions and the undermining of social solidarity entailed by these divisions. Such divisions were highlighted by Titmuss (1958) many years ago when he investigated the ‘social divisions of welfare’ – the ways that social welfare systems reflect and contribute to social inequality. Both the fragmentation of workers and the stratifications in tax and benefit provisions have been evident throughout the postwar period.

    Contemporary theories of political economy also underestimate important social processes around gender and ethnicity. The Regulation Approach to post-Fordism, for example, has argued that the state performs a coordination function to maintain the dominant ‘strategic line’ of accumulation by allocating responsibilities, specifying roles and monitoring actions (Jessop, 1994a: 271–4). The allocation, specification and monitoring are functionally linked to the economy as paradigmatic instances of the ‘guidance’ and ‘integration’ of consumption and accumulation within specific nation-states (Boyer, 1990: xiii; Lipietz, 1994: 340). This conception of roles, responsibilities and actions, however, does not account for their gendered and racialised character. Why it is that economies and welfare organisations should be dependent on or reproduce a gendered division of paid work and domestic labour is a question that lies outside the theoretical framework of the Regulation Approach. Similarly, in emphasising the ‘newness’ of contemporary processes of globalisation, postindustrialist, post-Fordist and disorganised capitalism perspectives also underemphasise the role of imperialism and its relationship to racialised social structures and institutions. The contemporary ‘global’ economy is not only a transformation of an earlier ‘national’ economy: it is also an economy that travels through the networks and institutions of the imperialist world system that was forged throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The transformation of the Keynesian Welfare State into a Schumpeterian Workfare State or the transition from organised to disorganised welfare does not simply have different effects for different ethnic and gender groups; the logics of transformation are themselves rooted in the gendered and racialised networks of the imperial system.

    Identifying a transition to a ‘post’ condition is fraught equally with methodological problems. For example, Esping-Andersen's model of welfare régimes groups countries into one of three types – liberal, corporatist-statist or universal – on the basis of data about income maintenance schemes, eligibility criteria and extent of population coverage. The ‘decommodification’ index that determines the positions of countries in regime clusters is derived from the ratio of means-testing to universalism in their income-maintenance programmes: the less the reliance on means-testing the greater the degree of decommodification. The focus on income-maintenance policies has been criticised as an overly restrictive conception of what comprises welfare policy. Feminists (Orloff, 1993; Sainsbury, 1994) have been sceptical of this approach for a number of reasons. First, to determine the position of women in any regime type requires establishing whether women's entitlement to benefit is granted on an individual basis or whether it is attached to marriage status. Women's role in the family has many implications for understanding the relationship between commodification and decommodification. For example, the countries which score highest on the decommodification index, those with the greatest degree of universalism, have a large labour market participation rate for women, meaning that women's labours are commodified to a large extent in decommodified systems. Yet in conservative countries in the corporatist model their labour is more likely to be decommodified, perhaps because of the priority attached to the traditional gendered division of labour in these countries. Thus, it has been suggested that attitudes to gender and the family need to be built into models of welfare régimes (see Hill, 1996: 44–5).

    Examining outcomes rather than policies also yields a different regime classification. Decommodification can be achieved by a variety of policy instruments; whereas Australia scores low on this measure when assessed on income-maintenance systems, it has been pointed out that Australia has concentrated on achieving some measure of pre-tax, pre-transfer income equality, mainly by maintaining wage levels. The point here is that taking into account other policy priorities and measures results in yet further regime clusters (Hill, 1996: 46–7). The wealth of research comparing aspects of welfare state provision has been approached from qualitative as well as quantitative perspectives, charting the historical development of welfare states in terms of the institutional, political and ideological characteristics of particular countries, and providing further different classifications.

    We have emphasised the difficulties of using comparative social policy approaches to theorising the emergence of postindustrial societies, because the problems of measurement and comparison are germane to all of the political economy perspectives that we outlined in Chapter 5. In order for such theories to maintain their validity it is necessary that the units of comparison are roughly equivalent. Yet it is a moot point whether the Germany, Italy, United States, Sweden and Britain of the later nineteenth century really comprised equivalent political, economic and social units. Italy did not become a nation-state in the manner of Britain and France, for example, until unification under the King of Savoy between 1860 and 1870. Germany unified under Prussian dominance in the 1870s following the Franco-Prussian War. The Civil War of 1861–5 marked the unification of America as the ‘United States’. In the European context it is only after the signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1920 that a map of European nation-states passably recognisable by contemporary standards came into existence (Hobsbawm, 1995b: 88–9; 1995c: 144–50). Thus, when discussing the emergence and transformation of ‘welfare states’ in historical terms it is difficult to avoid comparing chalk with cheese.

    Political Ecology

    Theories of political ecology draw attention to the relationships between development, environment and welfare and, eschewing a strict theoretical focus on ‘capitalism’ or ‘the state’, examine the logics of exploitation that connect environmental degradation to the uneven distribution of rights, freedoms and obligations in global socio-economic development. In social policy and sociology there is very little literature on the relationships between social welfare and environmental change and almost none at all that deals with the connections between social welfare systems and environmental exploitation. The environment is rapidly becoming an issue for social welfare because, increasingly, it is an arena of struggles over distributive and allocative strategies around resources: clean air and water, common space, productive soils, and so on. The theories of political ecology that we outlined in Chapter 6 indicate that these are struggles over welfare in the widest sense of that term. They involve confrontations over control of and access to resources, over meanings and definitions of what is ‘valuable’ in environments, over how environmental exploitation is and should be organised and over identities, rights and statuses in the development process or, in other words, over what it means to be a ‘citizen’ of planet earth (O'Brien and Penna, 1997).

    In social welfare terms, however, we need to ask not simply what rights and freedoms, obligations and duties are contested and distributed but how are they contested and distributed: both who has what rights and undertakes what duties and what are the processes by which this distribution is achieved? As Beck points out, the most common response to the problem of environmental degradation is to argue that ‘we’ are all responsible and that ‘we’ all have a duty and obligation to protect, repair and respect the environment. The consequence of this, however, is that, since everyone is responsible, no one is liable for actual environmental destruction. Theories of political ecology do not necessarily advance much beyond this position, either. Gorz blames the ‘mega machine’ of capitalism, Shiva accuses ‘Western’ ‘monocultures of the mind’ and Beck charges the ‘risk society’ with having embedded within it a logic of hazard production that drives forward economic development and growth.

    One effect of this generalised liability is that, as Beck notes, the environmentalist critique of modern industrial organisation draws on the very scientific specialisms and knowledges that it charges with complicity in damaging the environment (see also Yearley, 1990). Part of the reason for this is that these discourses have become one of the few ways, in the public domain, of challenging the power of bureaucratic and commercial institutions in their increasing encroachment on to and control over environmental resources. In this area, the scientisation and rationalisation of the ‘environment’ – and ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable development’ – means that the rules of engagement in the debate, the forms that critique and dissent can take, are at least partially predefined by the political-economic control of the environmental agenda.

    Theories of political ecology are confronted also with the problem of disentangling the social welfare aspects of the critique from the moral philosophical aspects. As we saw in Chapter 6, concepts of ecological citizenship provide some useful ways of understanding the political dimensions of local struggles over environmental change. At the same time they do not provide solid grounds on which to construct theories of rights and responsibilities: in what, exactly, do environmental ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ consist? Who has what rights and what responsibilities and how are these to be encoded so that they can be understood and realised by people? Similarly, if rights are to be awarded to non-human species, how will these non-human species be able to realise them? What court of appeal will hear a claim of discrimination or maltreatment from a heifer cow or a cockroach? Does a virus or bacterium have rights or responsibilities? These questions emerge in political ecologies of welfare because they are strongly normative: the critique of actually existing political ecologies (the critique of the ways that the connections between social and environmental processes are currently organised) rests on the proposition that things must be changed in order to offset catastrophe. However, what has to change and how change should be undertaken are not easily derivable from the theories of political ecology. The most developed positions rest on non-environmental politics – notably feminism, anarchism and socialism – such that theories of political ecology end up in the service of political projects that, in themselves, are not necessarily environmentally friendly.

    Since there is no basic or ‘paradigm’ perspective in political ecology, only an array of competing theories and viewpoints, almost any set of commitments and policies can be termed ‘environmental’. Increasing the production and consumption of electricity (because it is an ‘environmentally sound’ form of energy), building new roads (because it reduces congestion on existing roads), encouraging the development of out-of-town hypermarkets and shopping centres (because they reduce traffic in and erosion of town centres) have all been called ‘good’ for the environment. That there are environmental problems of some kind is disputed by hardly anyone at all. Precisely what these problems are and whether and how people should respond to them is disputed by just about everyone. Theories of political ecology point to the necessity of developing ‘total’ solutions – in that every element of human activity and organisation is charged with contributing to environmental change – but at the same time they point also to the divergent and contested projects through which people and groups propose radically different solutions addressing different sets of problems.


    Is the fragmentation in environmental disputes a contingent outcome of people's divergent projects, or does the fragmentation indicate something more fundamental about social and political processes in the modern world? In other words, is there a ‘solution’, not only to environmental degradation, but also to the numerous divisions and conflicts around possible solutions, or is the fragmentation inevitable and incurable? This question goes beyond the theoretical scope of political ecology. In fact, in some version or other, it lies at the heart of debates about postmodernism. Phrased as a ‘problem’ requiring ‘solutions’, fragmentation and divergence appears as a ‘cause’ of inaction and ineffectiveness in ‘responding to’ environmental change. However, in theoretical terms, it is not necessary to posit fragmentation as a ‘problem’ in this way at all. It can be argued that the differences of perspective and the divergences in social and political projects expose acts of resistance to dominant scientific and bureaucratic strategies of centralising knowledge about and control over more and more aspects of people's lives. In spite of the tendency of environmental campaigners to adopt scientific and bureaucratic discourses in their struggles over ecological destruction, environmental disputes continue to pit local knowledges and anti-scientific discourses against them.

    Disputes around environmental change can be said to indicate the plurality of voices through which social and political struggles are conducted. Moreover, they indicate that contestation and conflict are endemic to social and political organisation. The formation of an ‘environmental’ agenda is a process of struggle, as is the formation of a ‘disability’ agenda, a ‘feminist’ agenda or a ‘development’ agenda, and so on. There is not one single environment over which people struggle, any more than there is one single line of historical development through which cultures and societies ‘modernise’. Different environmental and historical relations are organised through struggle and dispute and, in the process of struggle different identities, statuses, meanings and perspectives are centralised and marginalised, excluded and included. In postmodern theory there is no solution to this differentiation process: it is not a ‘problem’ that requires the invention of a unifying ideology under which everyone will reach agreement about ‘what is to be done’. Postmodern theory suggests that the analytic categories through which social life has been investigated and theorised do not name portions of the ‘real world’, the understanding of which will (eventually) guarantee its repair or reform. Rather, they represent unstable, tenuous, political classifications resulting from the investment of certain ways of ‘knowing’ the world in hierarchical institutions and intellectual networks.

    For some, this type of argument is just too much. By politicising even the concepts in which social science has investigated history, culture and politics postmodern theory has gone ‘too far’, engaging in a series of denials around central logics in mainstream sociology. Amongst these denials, for example, Walby includes ‘a denial of significant structuring of power’ (1992: 30) and a denial of the ‘coherence of classic analytical concepts such as “woman,” “class” and “race”’ (1992: 31). Others reject postmodernism's apparent dissolution of the emancipatory ideal and accuse postmodernism of a gesture politics that functions as an apologetics for the status quo (Norris, 1990). The impossibility of deriving a future utopia from postmodern theory has led to accusations of ‘conservatism’, at best, and of nihilism and apathy, at worst (Habermas, 1985; Ebert, 1995). If there is no underlying unity to the social world, if social life is inherently fractured and contestatory, if there are several axes of domination and if even the concepts and logics through which the world is understood in social theory are complicit with power relations, how can an emancipatory political programme be realised? How, even, is it possible to know if things are changing for the better or worse?

    A related issue is the postmodern endorsement of multiple ‘voices’. This endorsement is attractive in so far as it gives recognition to groups who, historically, have been ignored, excluded or silenced. However, there is a theoretical as well as a moral dimension to the endorsement, one that is not so straightforwardly attractive. The theoretical dimension can be addressed in two parts: first, the problem of ‘voice recognition’ or of knowing who is speaking; and, second, the issue of what is ‘voiced’, or of understanding the consequences of what is spoken. The first problem arises because postmodern theory proposes that identities are unstable: that, rather than ‘having’ identities people ‘practise’ them, such that ‘identity’, in postmodern theory, is an active process rather than a state or condition. But the activity of identity is much more complex in postmodern theory than in, say, symbolic interactionism (where identities are negotiated between people using common symbols), in that it is inescapably political. To realise an ‘identity’ is to position oneself in specific social, cultural and political locations and not others, in specific relationships, and not others, through a specific configuration of symbolic and social resources. ‘Identity’ is simultaneously a practice of self-inclusion and other-exclusion. But since postmodern theory proposes that identities are fractured and unstable, then it follows that so also are the ‘voices’ that contest and dispute the utopian and emancipatory projects of modern social and political philosophy. In this sense, there are no theoretical grounds for deciding which voices are speaking in which locations: whether ‘voice’ is attached to identity, or not.

    The validation of multiple voices simultaneously confronts the problem of what those voices are saying or, in other words, the problem of interpretation. A great deal of postmodern analysis focuses on textual material – deconstructing the narrative forms through which textual meanings are organised. In extending the analytical agenda beyond written or visual texts, however, postmodern theory encounters non-narrative ways of organising meanings. In other words, the social worlds in which multiple voices express claims, realise identities and dispute meanings are subject to processes of physical, economic and military exploitation which may persist in spite of the multi-faceted character of modern identities. Theoretically, the question arises as to whether it is necessary – or helpful – to theorise the social world through located identities in order to grasp the influence of military or economic institutions on social change and social experience. To put this point in reverse, is it not more feasible to theorise the multiplicity of located identities through, for example, the militaristic, economic and political domination of everyday life by highly organised vested interests controlling powerful institutions?

    A final criticism that can be applied to postmodern perspectives concerns the extent to which they are often dependent on the logics and conceptual categories that are the target of their radical critique. Although postmodernism contests the traditions and canons of mainstream social theory, it almost invariably uses selected ‘classic’ concepts in its critique of modern society. Notable amongst these is the concept of ‘identity’ itself, which has a long sociological pedigree, but we would also point to the notion that a theory of social change, exploitation or exclusion can be derived through an analysis of cultural categories – symbols, signs, texts, meanings, and so on. There are some ambiguities in the relationships between the ‘cultural’ and the ‘social’ in postmodern perspectives that seem unresolvable using the theoretical logics of postmodernism's radical perspectivism.

    Concluding Remarks

    ‘Social welfare’ is a label for a complex and unstable mixture of relationships, experiences, processes and structures. The means by and conditions through which individual and collective welfare are achieved or undermined are the focus of intense political action and social struggle. From conditions of employment to the regulation of family life, from the availability of shelter to rights over the environment and its resources, from the classification of social membership or personal need to the management of industrial and municipal waste, social welfare is embedded in a wide range of political, economic and cultural relationships. Thus, to reflect on the acquisition or maintenance of welfare is to reflect on the operations of economies, the procedures of political rule, the categories of cultural definition and classification, and the interactions between social and environmental change. To theorise welfare is to theorise public and private, institutional and communal networks of action and struggle.

    These concerns have been central to the development of Western philosophical and theoretical thought. From the philosophies of the Enlightenment – with their attempts to situate human societies within grand, meta-theoretical understandings of the relationships between individuals, communities, state power, political representation, economic development and nation-building – to the post-Enlightenment, reflexive paradigms outlined in Part Three, the organisation of these relationships has been the basis of social theory. Such concerns endure in part because human societies are characterised by both continuity and change: each generation lives through rapidly changing economic and cultural processes, yet at the same time, each generation experiences social division and inequality. Social welfare policies and systems are embedded in visions of the ‘good society’; each proposal for, or understanding of, social welfare, is inextricably linked with a wider analysis of social life. In Enlightenment thought, the perfectibility of the individual and the progress of the social whole were bound together as both political and philosophical commitments. The purpose of theorising society was to theorise the potential for a progressive expansion in the welfare of both individual human beings and the social totalities of which they were members. For many, the Enlightenment offered a vision of a world of human affairs in which predictability and control could be effected to a degree previously unimaginable. Important currents in contemporary social theory undermine this faith in predictability and control, pointing instead to the limited capacity of individuals and nations to direct and order the complex, local and global networks and relationships governing modern life.

    The ‘new world order’ creates particular problems for the development of social policies. As Townsend (1995) has argued, welfare policy can no longer limit itself only to the national arena but must address the connections between the local and the global. As we have seen, addressing such connections, necessitates an encounter with political, economic and cultural forces and recognising the structural changes to which they give rise.

    We end our assessment of theoretical perspectives in welfare analysis by reaffirming a proposition that we made in the Introduction: there is not and cannot be a single, total or complete theory of welfare. Some theories provide insights into political economy, some into political ecology, some into cultural expressions of identity, inclusion and exclusion. Theories offer prospects and limitations for understanding social welfare and encourage critical perspectives on the world. They do not store up the ‘true’ answers to the world's problems but, instead, enable different questions to be posed about the world and the problems and potentials it contains.


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