Monday, 8 April 2013

Why are social policy academics absent from the national debate on benefits?

If you can believe it, the last three years have been exciting (and worrying) for anyone with an interest in the welfare state.  The Coalition have introduced huge changes to the social security system.  They have dramatically reduced the generosity of certain benefits, capped the amount households can receive, reformed eligibility and introduced stringent new work requirements for many claimants.  Further, the public debate on welfare has been relentless.  What is fair and who deserves what are conservations that stretch beyond the closed world of Westminster policy wonks.

Yet amidst the welfare storm that has swept the country, there has been one notable group that is often excluded from the debate: the UK's hundreds of social policy academics.  Last week, a silence was finally broken with a letter to The Guardian, signed by fifty social policy professors.  Now 'expert letters' have probably never had much influence in shifting the terms of policy or debate; but now, in the social media age - when news is 24/7 and everyone is given a platform through mediums like Twitter - they are probably even less effective than they were in the past.

So why have social policy academics been so quiet at a time when their own discipline is the one of the most talked about news stories: week-in, week-out?  I can't claim to have any definite answers, but I do have a few ideas.  In short, I think there is a vicious circle that exists: one in which social policy academics are excluded from debates, whilst also excluding themselves.

On the one hand then, I think the media must bear some responsibility.  If you listen to radio debates and phone-ins on welfare policy, presenters invariably go for two representatives of completely opposing sides of the debate.  They are (perhaps inevitably) less interested in a more nuanced analysis of policy and want people - such as think-tankers and political commentators - who are able to summarise opposing viewpoints in an articulate way.

However, I don't think this completely explains the absence of social policy academics from national debates.  Thus as well as being excluded from discussions on welfare, there are numerous ways in which academics exclude themselves.  The most obvious way is by failing to engage with new social media effectively.  For example, I attended one day of last year's Social Policy Association conference; an event in which there were hundreds of discussions taking place about the welfare state.  The event had a Twitter hashtag, but there were only around 10 people actively using it to promote the conference.  I also think that compared to other disciplines, social policy academics are relatively sparse on platforms like Twitter and blogs.

The second way in which I think many academics exclude themselves from debate is more complex and is to do with the intellectual relationship many have with welfare.  I think it would be fair to say that many academics working in social policy have a preference for a certain type of welfare state; one that is quite far from the type we have in the UK.  And what this means is that there is a culture of criticism (and even hostility) - empirical, theoretical and moral - that pervades British social policy when it looks at our own welfare system.  In general, I think this leads to those in control of the debate (e.g. TV and radio executives) to assume what academics will think: critical of the government, anti-cuts, pro-welfare expansion.  And if you want to air those kinds of views, you might as well look to media-friendly voices, rather than the (stereotypically) 'dull academic'.

Overall, I think there needs to be a big debate within the academic social policy community about how to engage better with national conversations about the very subject its members devote their working lives to. This will involve practical steps such as a stronger focus on social media output.  But it will also involve something more difficult: to 'open up' the discipline to a wider range of views about the welfare state, to welcome more intellectual diversity and to challenge existing ways of thinking about social security.  Sometimes academic social policy can feel predictable and insular.  And as long as that remains the case, the debate will continue to go on without it.

No comments:

Post a Comment