Social Policy:
Theory and Practice

Paul Spicker

Advice for students

Social Policy: Theory and Practice has several features intended to support people who are studying social policy. There are boxes raising issues and reviewing case studies, questions for discussion and a detailed glossary.

The second edition of Social Policy included advice to students about how to write for work in social policy. The new third edition includes, on pp 450-452, a guide to sources. Both of these are duplicated here, with the permission of Policy Press; the guide to sources has been adapted for the web. They remain in the copyright of Paul Spicker.

Using source material

Reading and collating material from various sources is one of the staple tasks for students of social policy. This is true largely because facts and materials only become meaningful if they are put in some kind of context or framework, and reading helps to provide that framework. There are occasions when practitioners are asked to resolve problems which no-one else has tackled before, but this is usually rarer than they think. There is constant pressure to 're-invent the wheel' - that is, to devise procedures and tackle problems which others have also had to work through. The starting point for tackling any problem is finding out what has already been done about it.

As a general rule, this means that people working in this field have to cover a lot of ground. Lawyers can often rely on one good, solid, authoritative textbook, which will point them directly to a relevant and authoritative source; economists can apply standard methods, learned as part of their discipline; but a student or practitioner in social policy rarely has either option. The subject demands a wide range of reading, and the central skills demanded of someone working in social policy are to be able to absorb, interpret and use information from a range of different sources.

It is fairly unusual, even in the most basic essay for social policy, to find a topic which can be directly answered with a synopsis from the textbooks or by downloading likely material from the Internet. The exercise of writing is an introduction to basic research techniques and the use of original source material.

Students must, however, use sources, and books are part of those sources. The purpose of using sources is

The material which is selected has to be closely related to the problem being studied. Topics in social policy are large and complex enough to overlap with a range of topics which have little direct relationship to each other: studies of 'community care' or 'causes of poverty' can be understood and investigated in such different terms that there is almost no point of contact between the different literatures. The difficulty this poses in social policy is that a good coverage of a problem area may still fail to address some of the important issues for policy. Equally, many of the problems which are being addressed are multi-faceted. A systematic approach considers each of the different aspects in turn.

It is important to specify sources precisely, for two main reasons. The first is that a lot of the 'facts' in social policy are disputable. There is a children's game called 'Chinese Whispers', in which children whisper a message to each other in turn. What each person says can be misheard by the next, and by the time the message reaches the end of the line it bears little or no resemblance to what it was at the outset. The same happens in academic literature; the original work of Booth and Rowntree, for example, has been distorted beyond recognition, because people have cited other recent sources instead of reading the original. Students need to be alert to the drawbacks of using secondary sources; it is important not to give the 'original' source if this has not been consulted, but rather to give the actual source of the comment.

The second reason is that one of the tests of writing in this field is the demonstration of skills. For this purpose it is necessary to distinguish what has been selected by the writer and what has come from someone else; who has set the agenda for discussion; and where understandings of the material come from. The same words convey a different message about skills if they come from one place, if they come from three places, or if they come from three places and contain a reflective evaluation by the student. Plagiarism, or unattributed use of sources, is a common problem in assessed coursework: it consists of passing off the work of another person as one's own, which means not just that students copy work but also that they paraphrase it, or use the arguments, without attribution. This is a serious academic offence, and there are often heavy penalties. But it also has the effect of blurring the lines between different sources, and this means that skills cannot be demonstrated. Most plagiarism is done out of ignorance. Students who do it have often done much more work than they have made apparent, and they might well get a higher mark if only they attribute sources properly.

A guide to sources

The Internet. The World Wide Web has become an invaluable source for accessible material on social policy. Government documents in particular have become easy to access; many legal jurisdictions now place case reports on the Web. Governments on the web includes links to government sites around the world. There are further links on my website.

New media. Apart from the web, in recent years there has been a flurry of new technologies, including blogs, Twitter and RSS feeds. The immediacy of these sources also runs the risk that they will not last - it takes considerable dedication to run a Twitter feed - and I am sceptical that links in a book will stay up to date for long.

Books. Textbooks are used to summarise material, and to offer a range of differing opinions. Their main use is to allow people to gain an initial overview of a field; students can absorb the material and move on, occasionally referring back for different purposes. Most students using this book will also need to get a descriptive text outlining social policy and services in their own country. The facts in such books date rapidly, however, and any information should be supplemented by drawing down facts from sites on the internet.

Academic journals. Academic journals are ‘refereed’, which means that articles are scrutinised by specialists before acceptance, The articles in journals are often difficult, and the quality is very mixed, but they are generally more up to date and much shorter than textbooks. With the advent of electronic libraries, articles in academic journals have become much easier to access in recent years. Most readers can read ten articles in the time it takes to read one book, and they will probably have covered far more ground. The leading journals in the subject are the Journal of Social Policy, Social Policy and Administration and the Journal of European Social Policy. There is also potentially useful information in Critical Social Policy, the International Journal of Social Welfare and Policy and Politics.

Collected papers. Some books are collections of articles; readers can draw from them in much the same way as from a journal. Although books in the subject are also refereed, there is rather more freedom in collected books to theorise, to speculate, and to present interim conclusions. This means that the quality of collections is variable, but it has also been an important stream of ideas on social policy; much of the feminist literature in the subject, for example, has developed in this format.

Most books in social policy tend to be specialised, often putting forward a particular argument or taking a position. The contrast between views and findings from different sources becomes more striking as more ground is covered, and the wider the ground covered, the better equipped the student is to deal with the subject. Student ‘readers’ are, consequently, worth a special note; these are edited collections which bring together some of the major papers on a subject. They can be invaluable both as a way of extending one’s range and as a fruitful source of arguments and material.

Monographs, pamphlets and working papers. One of the undesirable side-effects of using academic referees is to delay publication. This, coupled with pressure to present material in an appropriate academic framework, means that books and journals are rarely able to carry basic research reports. Much of this kind of material appears instead in small and ephemeral publications, produced by academic institutions (e.g. the LSE CASE Programme), research agencies (the Institute for Fiscal Studies), charitable foundations (the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), campaigning groups (the Child Poverty Action Group) and public sector agencies. Some of the most important papers in social policy have appeared in this kind of format. It used to be difficult to track it down, but the growth of the Internet has made this kind of material much more accessible.

Newspapers and periodicals. There is always a problem with books, since however accurate the book is when published, new legislation and other developments soon make parts of it out of date. Newspapers and weeklies are helpful. Most reporting on social policy is second- or third- hand, however; most journalists are not very well informed on the subject, and newspaper reports cannot be relied on. The kinds of research monograph referred to above are important sources for many journalists.

Statistical sources. Official statistics have their problems, but they are a quick and easy way to check basic facts. There are many easily accessible international sources available. Columbia University Libraries have many international links and the United Nations has links to national statistical offices.

Primary sources. In the discussion of research methods (Chapter 18 of Social Policy), I outlined a number of ways in which information might be drawn from original sources. Even for students working at a basic level, information can often be obtained directly from government, politicians, and political parties: examples are consultative documents, pamphlets, and manifestos. It is harder to get to administrative decision-makers, though not impossible by any means. Voluntary groups often bring together observations and comments from stakeholders and service users.

Writing about social policy

Students are generally asked to write both as a means to develop their skills, and in order to test their understanding. The test of understanding is that they are able to use material and put it in their own words. The main skills being assessed are

Selection demonstrates only the lowest level of understanding; argument, the highest.

Writing is commonly judged by the balance of facts and relevant material on one hand, and structure and argument on the other. These cannot strictly be separated. Facts and material are made relevant by argument, and in social science the argument cannot be strong if it is not supported by evidence or material. People writing about social policy need, then, to concentrate on both aspects.

Essays and reports

An essay is a structured discussion - a form of argument. A good argument is one that

Part of the purpose of studying social policy is to prepare students for work in public service, where the primary form of written presentation is a report rather than an essay. Reports differ from essays in the style of presentation. There is no "introduction" as such, but there will be an executive summary - a precise and brief summary of what is in the following text; paragraphs are numbered, to allow for referencing and specific discussion; and instead of conclusions, there may be recommendations.

The structure of material

Planning is crucial to ordering material. It is virtually impossible to construct a coherent argument without deciding the order in which points should be made, or how to use the facts available. The standard way to plan material is from the top downwards: topics have to be classified into sub-areas, and if necessary the sub-areas should then be classified into further sub-areas. A plan develops like a tree (the analogy should be familiar to anyone who has a personal computer): the root has to be divided into two or three main branches, then each in turn has further branches which go from it. The initial plan for Social Policy was devised by first identifying the main parts; then, by sub-dividing those parts into chapters; then identifying the main areas of the chapters; and then moving on to sub-areas within these areas. Before anything was written, the plan consisted of more than seventy sub-sections, making it possible to write a first draft in sections of about 1000 words each.

Introduction Many people announce in the first paragraph what they are going to do, as a guide to the reader. Very few professional reports begin this way - the norm is to present an executive summary, not an introduction - and there is an argument for working to professional standards from the outset. An introduction may have advantages in explaining the shape of an argument, but problems arise in student essays and dissertations if they then do something else entirely. Introductions, abstracts and summaries are invariably best written after the rest of the material has been done.

Explaining terms One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is that they should `define their terms'. This does not mean that they should give a dictionary definition (ordinary dictionaries are not very reliable for specialised terms); it means that it is important to explain what the terms mean. The language of social policy is not, for the most part specialised and agreed; there are many disputed terms understood in different ways, such as poverty, altruism, management, equality, or rationality. If a reader understands the basic terms in a different way from the writer, it is not likely that the rest of the argument will be very persuasive.

Planning how to deal with the issues. Few problems in this field are simple. For example, the question 'how can we do it?' requires consideration of both technical and political feasibility; 'what should be done?' asks not only what is possible, but also what is right. Fortunately, there are some useful general principles which apply fairly widely in this field. Rules are made to be broken, and there are always reasons why some people writing about social policy should wish to depart from these principles, but they are helpful at the outset.

The first principle is that theory comes before practice. Theory, as explained in chapter 1, offers the framework within which practice can be discussed. If a discussion begins with practice, the problem is that there is no basis on which to select material in the discussion of practice; everything has to be put down first. If, by contrast, one begins with theory, the material can be selected and then reviewed in the terms of the theoretical discussion.

Second, context comes before specifics. The rationale for this is much the same: describing a context makes it possible to identify the principles for organising the description of specific data.

The third general principle is that problems should be discussed before responses. The reason is that if responses are to be evaluated in terms of the problems, then the responses have to be set in a framework which can be addressed to those problems.

Writing up research. For research reports, it is also helpful to note that there is a tried and tested formula which makes such material much easier to write, and (because readers have come to expect it) easier to read. The most common pattern of a research report is as follows:

This is not however a good way to write most research dissertations, because in a longer work tackling several main issues, the material for each issue would have to be split and spread across at three sections.   It is usually better to deal with each of the issues one at a time.

Ordering material within sections. It is fairly essential to deal with one issue fully before going to the next. Established writers in this field commonly use sub-headings as a guide to the subject of each section; one of the benefits is not only that it tells a reader what to expect, but also that it guides the writer. Sections should ideally begin with an explanation of what they are about, and conclude with some kind of statement which explains what they have established.

Keeping to a plan. There are two common traps which may lead to a loss of structure. One is to try to follow a chronological sequence. There are some topics which are best explained in chronological terms, but not many; what happens is that the chronology becomes a list of material in which the inter-connections and relationships are simply muddied, which is of course what happens in real life.

The second trap is attempting closely to follow another person's structure and argument. An argument which has been designed for one purpose is often difficult to bend to another. Students often lack the confidence to dismantle an original argument and cannibalise the useful bits, which prompts me to offer a piece of general advice: never write an essay with a book, paper or internet article open in front of you. The text inhibits your own thinking, stopping you from linking up related facts from different sources, and so from making the best use of the material you have.


Material from different sources rarely speaks for itself; it has to be interpreted. There are important differences here in the tests which are applied to published material and to students' work. Published material is part of a political forum, and it is liable to be judged on political criteria as much as on academic merit. Students' work, by contrast, cannot legitimately be marked on its political position, because that would simply be a recipe for bias. Students have to be marked on the skills they demonstrate. But this does not mean that you must not express an opinion; on the contrary, it is rather more difficult to construct an argument if you have none. It means that you must back up what you say, and consider arguments against your position.

Arguments can be developed either by stating a case and using facts as evidence for the view, or by looking at the facts and drawing a conclusion from them. The second approach is usually (but not always) preferable. Fact and argument should not be separated into different sections, because this makes it difficult to relate them to each other.

Arguments are made much stronger by showing why the people who disagree with the position are wrong. If arguments against a position are not considered, the position remains vulnerable to those criticisms, and the case is weakened.

Lastly, it is important to be critical. Students are often far too deferential to what they read. It is important not to assume that anyone who writes a book or posts material on the internet has to make sense or to have got their facts right. You don't need, as Dr Johnson said, to be a carpenter to know that a table wobbles.

A note on style

The best writers in this field avoid a conscious 'style'. Good prose, Orwell once commented, is like a window pane; it does not get in the way between the reader and the sense which the writer is trying to convey. Writing is usually most clear when it is simplest and plainest, and there is a case for trying to use the clearest words and shortest sentences possible.


Conclusions should be drawn from the previous argument, and be consistent with it. Summaries of the main points can be helpful at this stage, but they are not essential. One of the most common vices in this field is the attempt to finish with a flourish, a problem which afflicts many established writers as well as those who write first year student essays; the effect is to introduce new topics, and new lines of inquiry, which are uninvestigated. The time to stop writing is when everything has been said.