Founded 50 years ago, the Social Policy Association (SPA) works diligently to promote the discipline of social policy. Rebecca Megson-Smith speaks to Karen Rowlingson, Chair of the association, about their collaboration with Policy Press to promote the discipline of social policy, and in turn tackle today’s most important social challenges and problems.
“From climate change, to poverty, inequality, homelessness and crime,” says SPA Chair, Karen Rowlingson,”social policy is all about tackling important social challenges and problems. It teaches us how to look at the causes of social problems as well as the possible solutions to them. It’s a richly interdisciplinary field of study, drawing on a wide variety of social science disciplines and beyond.”
A central part of the SPA’s work includes helping connect research with key organisations and policy makers to make a positive difference to society.
The similarity in values between the SPA and Policy Press led to a now longstanding relationship, beginning nearly 20 years ago with the publication of the Understanding Welfare series.
Getting important social policy research outside the academy and into a wider orbit has been a key driver for Policy Press since its inception in the 1990s. As Karen says:
“Policy Press filled a gap in publishing left by the more elite, traditional publishers, whose portfolios focused on more theoretical work. Policy Press has always had quality and academic rigour as a strength as well as a keen focus on engaging with and reaching a wider audience. It has always been very much aligned with SPA values.”
The role of the SPA in disseminating vital research, alongside key publishers such as Policy Press, has been substantial over the years.
“Books are at the heart of social policy as a discipline – setting out arguments, providing evidence and assessing how effective social policies are. The audiences we’re trying to reach are highly diverse – academics and students, policy makers and practitioners, obviously. But social policy impacts all of us, so there is a broader audience to consider too.”
Rowlingson cites publications such as Injustice by Danny Dorling and a series of books by John Hills and colleagues at the LSE on social policy and inequality as bringing subjects at the heart of social policy to a wider public. Often these landmark publications capture the spirit of a particular time, raising the level of debate.
“In 2009 we had the publication of The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – very much the right book at the right time. We’d just had the global economic crash. We even had the Conservative (then opposition) leader David Cameron saying, ‘we’ve got to do something about inequality’.”
None of these books are born in isolation though, says Karen:
“A blockbuster on an important subject doesn’t just happen by accident. There’s a real opportunity for publishers and the SPA to do more to promote a book or a constellation of books that we want to have an impact.”
One area that merits further promotion in social policy, according to Rowlingson, is ‘race’.
“There has been a range of excellent recent publications in this area including the Open Access Ethnicity, Race and Inequality in the UK by Bridget Byrne, Claire Alexander, Omar Khan, James Nazroo and William Shankley, and White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society by Kalwant Bhopal, among others. There’s still more for us all to do in this area though.”
Publications are central to academic debate. The ideas they are based on often start and then develop further at academic conferences such as the one held annually by the SPA. Bringing together hundreds of researchers to share the latest studies enables a vibrant cross-fertilisation of ideas. The Social Policy Review, published by Policy Press, is both a record and a reference point of the SPA conference, including as it does a selection of the key topics covered at the event.
Making social policy content accessible continues to be a focus. For the SPA – and for academic publishing generally – successfully harnessing the potential power of Open Access to increase the visibility of social policy research is critical.
“Social media, blogs, podcasts and so on are all increasingly important channels too’, says Rowlingson. ‘We need to get the messages about social policy out in a variety of different formats, reaching the widest possible audience and having a wider impact.”
In order to achieve this wider impact, the SPA publishes a number of journals, book series, blogs and reports. It also forms part of Social Research Publications, a not-for-profit collaboration, to produce Discover Society, an online magazine of social research, commentary and policy analysis.
Since the Beveridge Report
While the ‘five giants’ of Beveridge’s initial report, first published 80 years ago, still remain relevant and central to social policy discourse today, the field has expanded significantly.
With the market for students becoming more global over the past 20–30 years, so too has the study of social policy. While the discipline has always been concerned with the built environment, housing, jobs and so on, increasingly migration, climate change, sustainability and intersectionality are becoming prominent within the discipline, as indeed they are everywhere. Rowlingson says:
“As an applied, interactive discipline it is automatically engaged with the world. What’s changing is that we need not only to disseminate information to external stakeholders and the wider public, but also to work with them, co-producing and co-authoring research and publications etc. Social policy is continuing to develop such collaborations and I expect further development of such approaches with important partners such as Policy Press.”
Karen Rowlingson is Chair of the Social Policy Association and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of York.
Rebecca Megson-Smith is a writer and writing coach, founder of Ridley Writes.
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