Social Policy

You may have heard talk of 'social policies' in the news, or when elections come around. But what are social policies, and what role do they play in sociology

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Table of contents
    • We will define social problems and outline the differences between them and sociological problems.
    • We will touch on the sources and some examples of social policies.
    • We will explore the relationship between sociology and social policy.
    • Finally, we will examine a number of sociological perspectives on social policy.

    Social policy definition in sociology

    First things first, let's clarify what we mean by social policy.

    Social policy is the term given to government policies, actions, programmes, or initiatives that are intended to address and improve social problems. They are designed for human welfare and deal with a wide range of areas, from education, health and employment to crime and justice. (See Sociological Theories for more information.)

    The difference between 'social' and 'sociological' problems

    Before we understand the various types of social policies or how sociology influences them, we should understand the difference between social problems and sociological problems. This distinction was made by Peter Worsley (1977).

    Social problems

    According to Worsley, a ‘social problem’ refers to social behaviour that leads to public friction or private misery. This includes poverty, crime, anti-social behaviour, or poor education. Such problems may attract the government to create social policies to address them.

    Sociological problems

    Sociological problems refer to the theorising of social behaviour using sociological explanations and terms. Social behaviour does not have to include social problems; for example, sociologists may try to explain ‘normal’ behaviour such as why people choose to attend university.

    The presence of social problems, therefore, means that they are also sociological problems, as sociologists try to explain the issues and find potential solutions. This is where the role of social policy is important; sociologists can influence social policies by offering explanations and assessing policies’ effectiveness, e.g. in reducing juvenile delinquency.

    The relationship between sociology and social policy

    Sociology has a significant impact on the creation and implementation of social policies. This is because many social policies are based on sociological research, which is conducted by sociologists to try and find an explanation of a social problem. Very often they also try to find solutions to such social problems, which is where ideas for social policies can arise.

    Let us assume that there is a set minimum wage put in place for the whole of the UK. Sociologists may find that those living in the UK's capital cities, i.e., London (England), Edinburgh (Scotland), Cardiff (Wales), and Belfast (Northern Ireland) are at greater risk of poverty and unemployment, due to the higher cost of living in those cities relative to the rest of the country. To reduce this likelihood, sociologists may suggest a social policy that raises the minimum wage for people living and working in these cities.

    Sociologists are likely to produce quantitative social research to support the creation of the above social policy. For example, they may cite statistics on income, employment rates, and costs of living. They may also present qualitative social research e.g. interview or questionnaire answers and case studies, depending on the length and depth of the sociological research.

    Quantitative data collected by sociologists are likely to be useful for the identification of trends, patterns, or issues, while qualitative data can help find out the causes of such issues. Both types of data can be extremely valuable for governments and policymakers.

    Sources of social policies

    Ideas for social policies are generated all the time, usually in response to growing social problems. Groups or factors that influence the creation of new social policies include:

    • Government departments

    • Political parties

    • Pressure groups (also known as interest groups)

    • Global organisations such as the European Union (EU), United Nations (UN), or World Bank

    • Public opinion or pressure

    • Sociological research (discussed above)

    Types of social policy in sociology

    Social policies can take the form of laws, guidelines, or controls. They can be designed to take immediate effect, or they can gradually bring in changes, depending on the social policy itself.

    Let us now consider social policies themselves.

    Examples of social policy

    The best way to understand social policies is to look at concrete, real-life examples. Below, you can find examples of different types of social policies in different sectors.

    Education and social policy in sociology

    • Since 2015, the school-leaving age has been 18 in England. This is to reduce and prevent unemployment among young people.

    Health and social policy

    • Implementation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 - comprehensive, universal and free healthcare for all.

    • Since 2015, nobody can smoke in a vehicle if there is someone under the age of 18 in the vehicle.

    Environment and social policy

    • The UK government announced a sales ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, to achieve net-zero vehicle emissions by 2050.

    Family and social policy

    • The introduction of Working Family Tax Credits in 2003 by New Labour provided a tax allowance for families with children, married or unmarried, and encourage both parents to work (rather than just a male breadwinner).

    • The Sure Start programme, which started in 1998, provided health and support services for low-income parents with young children.

    Social Policy, A girl working on her laptop in a library, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Education is a common sector in which social policies are implemented.

    Theories on social policy in sociology

    Let's move on to consider sociological perspectives on social policy. These include:

    • positivist

    • functionalist

    • New Right

    • Marxist

    • feminist

    • interactionist

    • and postmodernist perspectives.

    We will look at how each of these views the role and impact of social policy on society.

    Positivism on social policy

    Followers of positivist theories believe sociological researchers should provide objective, value-free quantitative data that reveals social facts. If these social facts reveal social problems, then social policy is a way to 'cure' such problems. For positivists, social policy is an effective, scientific way to address social problems that have been discovered using scientific methods.

    Collecting data that reveals social facts is also a way for positivists to uncover the laws that govern society. An example of a positivist sociologist is Émile Durkheim, who was also a functionalist.

    Functionalism on social policy

    Functionalist theorists believe that social policy is a way to keep society functioning, as it addresses problems within society and helps to maintain social solidarity. According to functionalists, the state acts in the best interests of society and uses social policies for the overall good of everyone.

    The sociological discipline plays an important role in this, as it provides objective, quantitative data that reflect social problems. Sociologists uncover social problems through research, not unlike doctors diagnosing an illness in a human body, and suggest solutions in the form of social policies. These policies are implemented as an attempt to 'fix' the social problem.

    Functionalists like to address specific social problems as they arise, often called 'piecemeal social engineering'. This means they work on one issue at a time.

    New Right on social policy

    The New Right believes in minimal state intervention, particularly in the issue of welfare and state benefits. They argue that too much state intervention creates a dependency on the state and makes individuals less inclined to be independent. New Right thinkers claim that people need to have a sense of responsibility and freedom to solve their own problems.

    Charles Murray, a key New Right theorist, believes that overly generous and dependable state benefits, such as financial aid and council housing, encourage 'perverse incentives'. This means the state encourages irresponsible and free-loading individuals by unconditionally giving state benefits. Murray states that over-reliance on the state leads to crime and delinquency, as people relying on the state do not need to seek employment.

    Therefore, the New Right is in favour of cutting welfare and state benefits so that individuals are forced to take initiative and provide for themselves.

    Contrast the New Right perspective with the functionalist perspective; functionalists see social policy as benefiting society and maintaining social solidarity and cohesion.

    Social Policy, Bags of food, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - New Right theorists do not believe in generous state intervention, particularly in financial aid.

    Marxism on social policy

    Marxists believe that social policy is a way of upholding capitalism and the interests of the bourgeoisie (the elite ruling class). The state is part of the bourgeoisie, so any social policies are designed to benefit only the interests of capitalists and capitalist society.

    Marxists believe social policies have three main results:

    • The exploitation of the working class is masked by seemingly 'generous' social policies that make the state look like it cares

    • Through giving workers money and resources, social policies keep the working class fit and ready for exploitation

    • Social policies that alleviate working-class struggles are a way to 'buy off' opposition to capitalism and prevent the development of class consciousness and revolution

    According to Marxists, even if social policies genuinely improve the lives of the working class, these advantages are limited or cut off by government changes and the overall capitalist agenda.

    Marxist sociologists believe that sociology should work on highlighting social class inequalities through research. Since the state is biased and any social policies it enacts will only benefit the bourgeoisie, sociologists should take the initiative to counteract this bias in their research. This will help the working class achieve class consciousness and eventually result in revolution and the overthrowing of capitalism.

    The Marxist perspective on family and social policy

    Marxists particularly point out that social policies that claim to benefit the family do so in order to uphold ruling class interests - since the nuclear family raises and socialises the next generation of workers, it benefits capitalism to invest in it.

    Feminism on social policy

    Some feminist sociologists believe that social policy upholds patriarchal structures and the interests of men at the expense of women. They argue that patriarchy influences the state, so social policies are designed to keep women subordinated while uplifting men's interests.

    According to feminists, social policy frequently has the effect of restricting women's rights, harming women, or perpetuating gender stereotypes. This can be seen in instances such as family and divorce policies, unequal parental leave, austerity cuts, and gendered taxes, all of which unfairly burden and/or negatively affect women and their livelihoods.

    However, there have also been many social policies created to alleviate or eliminate gender inequalities based on feminism, especially liberal feminism, which argues that it is through legal and social changes that women can achieve gender equality. Examples include:

    • Women's right to vote, passed in 1918

    • The Equal Pay Act of 1970

    Radical feminists, on the other hand, do not think that women can achieve true gender equality in society as society is inherently patriarchal. For them, social policies will not address the issues faced by women.

    Interactionism on social policy

    Interactionists believe sociological research should be focused on micro-level interactions between individuals. It should strive to understand human behaviour by understanding people's motivations. An important facet of interactionism is the theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy, which states that individuals are more likely to act in a certain way if they are 'labelled' and treated in that way.

    Followers of this perspective believe there is too much emphasis on labels and 'problems' within social policy, which doesn't lend itself to true understanding.

    The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy has been used to acknowledge biases and prejudices in the education system, especially where deviant children are labelled or treated as deviant, and so become deviant.

    Postmodernism on social policy

    Postmodernist theorists believe that sociological research cannot influence social policy. This is because postmodernists reject notions of 'truth' or 'progress', and consider concepts that we take to be objective and inherently true, e.g. equality and justice, as socially constructed.

    They do not believe in the inherent human needs that social policies are created to address - such as health, nutrition, education, work/employment, etc. - and therefore have no contribution to make towards social policy.

    Social Policy - Key takeaways

    • Social policy is a government policy, action, programme, or initiative that is intended to address and improve upon a social problem.
    • A social problem is a social behaviour that leads to public friction or private misery. A sociological problem refers to the theorising of (any) social behaviour through a sociological lens.
    • Social policies can take the form of laws, guidelines, or controls, and can come from a variety of sources, such as the government, global organisations, public pressure, etc. Sociological research can also influence the creation of such policies.
    • Social policies can be enforced in a number of areas, such as health, education, environment, and family.
    • Positivists, functionalists, the New Right, Marxists, feminists, interactionists, and postmodernists all have differing views on social policy.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Policy

    What are the types of social policy in sociology?

    Social policies can take the form of laws, guidelines, or controls. They can be designed to take immediate effect, or they can gradually bring in changes, depending on the social policy itself.

    What is social policy?

    Social policy is the term given to government policies, actions, programmes, or initiatives that are intended to address and improve upon social problems. They are designed for human welfare and deal with a wide range of areas, from education to health, crime, and justice.

    What is an example of social policy?

    An example of a social policy implemented in the UK is the creation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, to provide comprehensive, universal, and free healthcare for all.

    What is the importance of social policy?

    Social policy is important as it addresses and attempts to solve social problems that people struggle with.

    Why do we need social policy? 

    We need social policy for human welfare and to deal with a wide range of areas, from education, health and employment to crime and justice.  

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