Social Policy And Postmodern Perspectives

Social Policy refers to actions, legislation and programs by policymakers to promote the welfare state role, both for individual and social welfare. Apart from legislation and action, social policy includes research and the academic study of the impact and evaluation of such programs. Research in social policy also includes comparing and exploring different models of policy developed across countries and over the decades.

While there are many theories and schools of thought that guide the philosophy and course of action of governments, policy makers and academics, perhaps the most contested might be the Postmodernist perspective.

Postmodernism was fashionable among the intellectual circles in the 1980s. Disillusionment with the traditional forms of politics and social philosophy provided a space for postmodern theory to gain traction. Marxism with its focus on structural inequalities and class conflict had lost favour with the intellectuals who had begun to rethink the concepts of emancipation and progress.

Jean Francois Lyotard who was a leading figure in the French postmodern school of thought, contended that academics can no longer subscribe to ‘metanarratives’ (any system of thought that attempts to understand the social world through an all encompassing critique). Marxism is one such metanarrative. Thus postmodernism rejects the view that any form of emancipatory politics can rely upon a single explanatory model or system. For the postmodernists, truth is contextual and belongs to a certain set of ideas. They also reject the idea that values and judgements can be applied universally across space and time. Postmodernists also reject foundationalism and essentialism, the notion that knowledge and belief are based upon a single foundation or source of truth. For them, understanding is always a matter of interpretation and interpretations change. The theory seeks to get rid of the hegemony of absolute foundations of knowledge and celebrates difference in thought and perspectives. In its very aim to realize difference, postmodernism supports identity politics based on culture, groups and societies. Solidarity, thus, is far more important than the aim of inquiry.

For all its tenets, postmodernism has come under attack from various fronts. It has been accused of promoting social and political conservatism- a claim that it prevents people from organizing and working towards a common goal. It has taken progress to be impossible and undesirable because for the postmodernists there are only power structures that pit the oppressed against the oppressor- there is no consensus, discussion or dialogue, thereby maintaining the present status quo. But postmodernists insist that we must stop thinking in terms of binary distinctions such as nature vs. culture , and reject hierarchies and structures.

Social Policy and Postmodernism

Social policy researchers and theorists are critical of postmodernism. For example, if social policy’s aim is welfare measures, then researchers must be able to define and compare higher and lower forms of well-being in making cross-cultural and cross-national comparisons Researchers must identify what welfare measures work for a nation and what hasn't or does not work for a particular group and help rectify it. With postmodernisms insistence on anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism, these judgements would not be possible for researchers to arrive at. Postmodernism undermines notions of truth and social progress, thereby relegating concepts such as equality, freedom and social justice as social constructs. Thus these are damaging to the study and practice of social policy.

The premise upon which social policy functions is that there are inherent human needs such as health, nutrition, education, work/employment etc. that need to be met.  With the postmodernism school of thought, human nature becomes a socially constructed concept and thus human needs are constructed through language rather than being natural. Postmodern theorists agreed upon the fact that Knowledge was produced in language, and that languages, and hence knowledges, were plural, relative and incommensurable. Hence, in line with postmodern theorizing, the rationale of the welfare state may fall apart.

In-spite of this bleak picture of the connection that postmodernism and social policy might have, there are theorists and academics who show how the two need not be this hostile. Postmodernism presents a perspective that shows how identities might be created in terms of gender, sexuality, religion, language, nationality, disability etc. whereas social policy has been primarily occupied with class and therefore income and occupation. Postmodernism urges policy makers and theorists to look beyond socio-economic relations towards other domains of a person's identity. But then, how can class be weighed against non-class divisions? Still, for others, there needs to be a more equitable balance between class and non-class categories.

Postmodernism also sparks debate with respect to the delivery of welfare schemes and services. Social policy has been characterised by a debate between universalism and selectivism. For example, in India the Public Distribution system moved away from a universal to a targeted population system for the benefit of the poor. A postmodern take on this debate suggests that welfare schemes must be universal but policies must be sensitive towards the needs of particular groups and sections of society. A progressive postmodern stance stresses the importance of non-market forms of inclusion and deliberation, which would involve more than just providing financial inclusion opportunities or employment to people.

Risk Society

Challenging the postmodern definition and notion of modernity, theorists such as Ulrich Beck argue that we have reached the beginning of a second modernity. The first modernity was an age of industrial progress during which all socio-political institutions were designed to generate ‘goods’(welfare services and economic growth) in a world that was stable, knowable and scientifically calculable. In contrast to this, the second modernity is a risk society that has to navigate the risks of nuclear war/waste, pollution of all forms, climate change and the related anxieties and hazards. All of these hazards and anxieties affect people of all classes and social positions. Thus the older simple class hierarchies are redundant in understanding society. With the Risk Society perspective, welfare reform must equip people with the skills and capabilities to deal with the risks inherent in the second modernity.

Although the Risk Society idea has been influential in social policy, it has received criticisms. It has been regarded as naive in its outlook towards class structures as global inequality has steadily risen. Also Second Modernity as an idea might have ignored the fact that many of our risks and hazards have been produced by the very actors (such as those who promote the neoliberal agenda) that are against welfare state capitalism. Thus, instead of providing people with the skills to deal with such hazards and risks of second modernity we must question the systems that created such inequalities in the first place.

Social policy and its role within welfare state societies is constantly questioned with the postmodern theory and its proponents. Even if postmodern theory and social policy might seem irreconcilable opposites, there is no doubt that both provide insights into society and understanding of the self.

This analysis has been influenced by a compilation of writings on social policy (chapter 15).

Vedika Inamdar