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A Research Agenda for Social Welfare Law, Policy and Practice

Chris Brignola on Unsplash

The social and political environment and the nature of social welfare in the UK have undergone a series of profound changes in recent years. These changes include the financial crisis of 2008, the decision to exit the EU in 2016, the impact of the Covid virus from 2019 onwards, and the continuing erosion of the post-war welfare state. To this list, one can now add the recent cost of living crisis, the unfunded cost of the package of measures that were put in place in response to it, the rapid decline in the value of sterling, the resulting bail-out by the Bank of England and the scale of the public spending cuts that are likely to follow. These profound changes suggest the need for a new research agenda for social welfare law, policy and practice. This is the gap my upcoming book, A Research Agenda for Social Welfare Law, Policy and Practice, is filling, drawing lessons from different disciplines and perspectives.

Although a good deal of research on social welfare law and policy has been undertaken, it is surprising that there is no single-or multiple-authored book on social welfare research in the UK. There is not even an edited book containing de novo contributions or collections of already published articles. Thus, there was no other book which this edited collection needed to take account of.

The approach that was adopted in the book was to consider the insights that could be obtained from those with expertise in different branches of law, in the major areas of social welfare policy, in different research methodologies, and in some of the most contemporary developments. The 15 substantive chapters included in the book cover four branches of law, namely public law, family law, human rights law, and administrative justice; four areas of social welfare policy, namely health and social care, social security, education and employment, and crime and criminal justice; four distinctive methodological approaches, namely anthropological and ethnographic approaches, normative approaches, feminist approaches, and approaches highlighting issues of race and gender; and three contemporary developments, namely outsourcing, digitalisation, and street/screen level decision making. These vantage points are inevitably selective, and others could equally well have been chosen. However, the perspectives from which each of the fifteen chapters is written reflect a wide-ranging set of methodological and substantive concerns and the hope is that, taken together, they have produced a challenging research agenda.

The overarching aim of the book is to use the specialised insights and experiences of experts who work on different aspects of social welfare law and policy and have undertaken different types of research to construct a post-Brexit, post-Covid-19 research agenda for the subject area. In proposing topics and approaches, the experts were invited to make their own suggestions and not to worry that they did not provide a comprehensive answer to the question.

Whether or not the suggestions made by the contributors to this book together comprise a coherent and persuasive research agenda is for readers to judge. However, it is noteworthy that none of them adopted an exclusionary or ‘winner takes all’ approach and several explicitly encouraged multidisciplinary approaches. Some of the suggestions were limited to single areas of social welfare law and policy but most of them were more wide-ranging.

Although several contributors highlighted the need for research on the impact of devolution and the potential of comparative research between the four nations within the UK, wider comparisons e.g., with EU member states, were, rather surprisingly, not suggested. Several contributors mentioned the need for research on the implications of proposed changes to the scope of judicial review, and in human rights law, for social welfare and this topic is likely to feature prominently in any future research agenda. It is noteworthy that there was support for further research on outsourcing, digitalisation and screen and system level implementation. Other contributors emphasised the need for social welfare researchers to take social harms and social inequality into account and to the case for exploring the interface between social welfare law and other areas of law, e.g., education law, employment law and family law.

Turning from substantive to methodological issues, the contributors advocated a wide-ranging methodological pluralism. Thus, among the contributors were supporters of qualitative research that takes account of the voices and experiential narratives of those who are subject to decision-making, research that uses ethnographic methods, research that is explicitly normative and takes account of debates in moral philosophy, discourse analysis, feminist research, research that uses big data sets and research that has the potential to inform policy. It was also argued that research should not be the exclusive concern of social researchers but that poor and disadvantaged people, who may have a better understanding of social welfare, need to be included among those who conduct the research, and that social researchers would benefit from collaborating with other researchers, e.g., computer scientists with expertise in digital technology.

The research agenda that emerges from the suggestions made by the 15 contributors to this book is clearly a very exciting one, which will offer considerable scope to researchers. It is not intended to be a straitjacket that constrains them or requires them to follow one or more of the suggestions outlined here. Rather, it is my hope that it will function as a resource for researchers, and funding bodies, that opens their eyes to a wide range of possibilities that they may only have been dimly aware of.

The publisher expects to have finished copies of the book in their warehouse during December 2022.

About the Author

Michael Adler

Emeritus Professor Michael Adler

University of Edinburgh

Michael Adler was Professor of Socio-Legal Studies in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh until his retirement in 2008 and, since then, has been Emeritus Professor. His main research interests lie at the interface between social policy and public law and, in recent years, he has focused on three interconnected sets of issues: the nature of administrative justice, the resolution of administrative grievances and the effectiveness of different mechanisms of dispute resolution. He has carried out empirical socio-legal research educational policy, social security, penal policy and consumer credit/consumer indebtedness.

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