The re-issuing of Robert Page’s book, Stigma by the Psychology Press some thirty years after it was first published in 1984 serves to remind us of the `revolution’ in the study of social policy which occurred during the 1970s and 80s in response to what Peter Taylor-Gooby once described as the `boring crisis’ of Social Administration. Instead of focussing primarily on the historical antecedents and contemporary operation of the social services in Britain, students studying what came to be known as Social Policy (rather than social administration) were encouraged to explore a more extensive range of ideas and perspectives both at home and abroad.
Growing student and public interest in social policy and in the social sciences more generally at this time spurred a dramatic growth in academic publishing in these fields. Robert Page’s book on Stigma, based on his doctoral thesis at the University of Kent, formed part of a series entitled Concepts on Social Policy. The underlying argument of the book was that the study of stigma in Social Policy should not be restricted to the devising of technical fixes to resolve the problem of low take up of means tested social security benefits. Greater attention needed to be focused, it was argued, on the social control functions of stigma in unequal, class based societies.
Hopes that the subject of Social Policy would embrace the more expansive perspectives that took hold during this golden age in its history have not been fully realised, not least because of the emergence of what might be described as the `new’ Social Administration with its emphasis on `disinterested’, technocratic, `evidence based’ research and policy rather than more critical forms of reflective research and scholarship. The quest for enhanced `scientific’ respectability has resulted in contemporary social policy researchers being viewed by politicians and policy makers alike as reliable, `non-ideological’ purveyors of `sensible’ policy remedies rather than as thoughtful and challenging critics. This has tended to stifle the growth of alternative, arguably more radical, subject agendas.
Is there a possibility that a second social policy revolution might emerge? There are some causes for optimism. The process which led to the undiluted socialist Jeremy Corbyn being elected to succeed Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour leader Party suggests, for example, that there might be a greater public appetite for alternative policy ideas and approaches than has been commonly assumed. For those engaged in the study of social policy it is now an opportune moment to challenge the conventional wisdoms of the age. What should be the respective roles of the state, the market and the voluntary sector in terms of service provision? What are the participative and democratic alternatives to `New Public Management?’ What are the constitutive features of the good society? Breaking free from the narrow policy debates, agendas and practices of the recent past and rediscovering the intellectual curiosity and critical awareness of previous eras can help to revitalise the subject and the wider society.