Decentring social policy: narratives, resistance and practices
Modernist social scientists typically seek mid-level, or even general, theories by which to explain particulars such as the adoption, operation, and effects of a policy. They prefer explanations that are formal, as opposed to historical, precisely because they conceive of explanation as involving the subsumption of particulars under either a mid-level or general theory. Many social scientists would not even accept that an account of a particular case could count as an explanation, no matter how broad and abstractly that case is defined. In their view, explanations must be synchronic accounts of patterns that persist across multiple cases. They have used much ink discussing how to select appropriate cases in order to arrive at a valid mid-level or general explanation. Decentred theory contrasts sharply with this modernist approach to social science. Decentred theory is overtly historicist in its emphasis on agency, contingency, and context. It rejects the hubris of mid-level or comprehensive explanations that claim to unpack the essential properties and necessary logics of social and political life. So, for example, it suggests that neither the intrinsic rationality of markets nor the path dependency of institutions properly determines whether policies are adopted, how they coalesce into patterns of governance, or what effects they have. Decentred theory conceives of public policies, instead, as contingent constructions of actors inspired by competing beliefs themselves rooted in different traditions. Decentred theory explains shifting patterns of social policy by focusing on the actors' own interpretations of their actions and practices and by locating these interpretations in historical contexts. It replaces aggregate concepts that refer to objectified social laws with historical narratives that explain actions by relating them to the beliefs and desires that produce them.
With a focus on the narratives and resistances within social policy, this special issue explores narratives within the terrain of social policy and the forms of knowledge embedded in them. The focus of the special issue is on Britain, providing an explanation of the elite narratives which have framed the setting for recent scholarship, and have also stimulated patterns of resistance. Social Policy as a discipline has a claim to be more long-standing and differentiated in the UK than elsewhere, maintaining a separateness from the related disciplines such as sociology, social work, economics and public health.
The articles in this special issue cover a range of policies, but they all adopt decentred theory. Following decentred theory: (1) They lean towards historicist explanations. They explain beliefs not by reference to a formal model, system, or correlation, but by locating them within historical traditions that actors modify in response to traditions. (2) Their empirical focus is on meanings in action. They explore various mixtures of elite narratives, social science rationalities, and popular resistance.
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