‘We need a more integrated and critical approach to social policy’-Fiona Williams
This Thursday the Oxford Institute of Social Policy held the Sidney Ball Memorial Lecture given by Professor Fiona Williams. The Memorial Lecture marked 100 years since Sidney Ball’s death. Ball was a progressive reformer and lecturer at Oxford from 1882 until his death in 1918.
Fiona Williams is an Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of Leeds. She is also Honorary Professor at the Social Policy Research Unit, University of New South Wales, Australia, and Research Affiliate at COMPAS (Centre on Migration, Policy and Society) at this university. Furthermore, as a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, shewas awarded an OBE for services to social policy. She has published highly influential work on gender, race, and ethnicity in social policy, and helped to pioneer using an intersectional approach to social policy. In her lecture she shared insights into how social policy has evolved over time, the consequences of re-structuring the welfare state under austerity, and how new crises such as migration are pushing us to imagine a new, inclusive, sustainable future for social policy.
Social Policy and Social Discord
Williams began with an image depicting the crossroads of social justice movements and anti-immigration nationalists. The increase in social movements by activists since the global financial crisis in 2008 has invigorated movements such as Black Lives Matter, campaigns for LGBTQI rights, feminism, indigenous rights, sustainable growth, and more. They are working against austerity measures that have normalized precarious work and supported authoritarian political parties, and privatization which has stacked power against the working class.
Many of the major critiques made in the 1970’s and 80’s of the ‘Golden Age’ of the welfare state are still relevant today. The collective struggles of civil rights movements in the 20th century often involved the welfare state, with concerns that citizenship did not extend to all and pushing to expand the notion of ‘social’ to include class, race, gender, ability, sexuality, etc. There is still a need for increased intersectionality, a critique of the focus on family, work, and nation, and need for new social relations of welfare that are non-hierarchical, non-discriminatory, and respectful.
Social Policy’s Five ‘Turns’
There have been five major ‘turns’ that have led to major developments within social policy; agency, intersectionality, ethics, global/transnational/postcolonial dynamics, transnational political economy of care, and intersections of crises. First is the concept of agency; welfare subjects being lots of different experiences and personal histories that can aid development of social policy. Agency can be understood in both individual and relational terms, and is embedded in networks, solidarities between individuals, and cultures. The second is intersectionality; understanding that many of the social categories are interconnected and overlap, with compounding experiences of discrimination and marginalization. Third, the ethics of care have reimagined autonomy, saying we act and reason in ways not only for ourselves, but also for others. Fourth, global, transnational, and post-colonial dynamics have increased the number of migrant care workers, many of whom work precarious, temporary, part-time jobs that wealthier welfare states rely on. Lastly, there is an intersection of all these crises; on a macro scale, devaluation of our environment, the commodification of care, and destructive impulses of capitalism has jeopardized security, human solidarity, and sustainability.
So what can we do?
Williams introduced three main alternatives to addressing these complex, intersecting, multi-scale social problems. First, a universal basic income could ensure everyone received a certain amount of money to keep them above the poverty line. Second, a radical social investment strategy based on the Nordic model could improve social cohesion. Lastly, an eco-social commons could reclaim the world’s resources and bring together areas of resistance to enable collective public action.
Overall, those of us studying, researching, and practicing social policy need to attempt to create and re-conceptualize democracy, build from the bottom up, and center on social justice and intersectionality. The time is right for new thinking, for building new alliances and networks, and allowing for dialogue and deliberation that seeks common ground while respecting all.
Kate Sheridan is a graduate student reading for the MSc in Comparative Social Policy at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Health Administration and Policy from George Mason University.