Addressing 21st century social challenges: Building bridges between ‘development studies’ and ‘social policy’

By Rana Jawad

The coming together of social policy and development studies as academic subjects at a recent conference held by the Development Studies Association and the Social Policy Association (University of Bath, 26-27 April) seemed like a very “natural” occurrence.  Earlier, scholars at Bath had already ventured across this academic divide and have already commented on how much social welfare work in developing countries is done under the banner of development, and hence, much development work in developing countries may provide useful lessons for poverty-alleviation in richer countries; the participation and sustainable livelihoods approaches being two such examples. There is no doubt that development studies and social policy share similar substantive concerns on poverty, social justice and well-being and sharing their academic experiences in the light of urgent global challenges that affect the world economy as a whole is welcome. Moreover, both subjects share the same hybrid pedigree: they are not academic disciples in their own right, but applied subjects which draw from the mainstream social sciences.

In thinking of ways in which this coming together of the two subjects can now move forward, we need to further reflect on their differences. We can only build a bridge between the two subjects if we know how big the gap is. This difference is in part less an issue of academic substance and more of the different socio-political contexts in which both subjects have developed since he the post-WWII era. Social policy has been about the study of poverty and social welfare in “advanced Capitalist democracies”, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). On the other hand, development studies has been about the study of poverty and social welfare in ‘poor countries’. Social policy has been more about how to solve social problems, development studies has been more about social action and how to bring about social change. Social policy reflects the historical development of the welfare state as a political entity, development studies reflects primarily the dominance of international development institutions over developing countries and the continued attachment to a  ideal of industrial modernisation which is becoming increasingly challenged by concerns over climate change. How have these real historical forces shaped the academic languages and frameworks used by social policy and development studies today? Why is that rich countries are no longer under pressure to “develop” and why is it that poor countries are not seen to have more organic solutions to their social problems?

These are helpful questions that can begin to construct a new debate about the social challenges facing both “developed” and “developing” countries in a world where the vagaries of the Capitalist system are felt by all, where new economies are emerging as political and economic leaders and the re-definition of human happiness and well-being is an enterprise that is relevant for all of human society.


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