What is social policy?

The term ‘social policy’ is typically used in two ways.

Firstly, social policy refers to any government action aimed at addressing social need, such as issues of employment, education, healthcare, housing and sustenance.

Secondly, as an academic discipline, social policy refers to the study of how societies distribute resources to address the aforementioned social needs. An interdisciplinary subject, it draws upon elements of economics, history, politics, psychology and sociology in order to analyse:

  • how societies respond to social problems
  • the progress made by these responses
  • how this progress is measured
Black and white photograph of people crossing cobble streets at George Square, Glasgow, in the 1950s.

History of social policy

Social policy grew as an academic interest in tandem with the growth of the United Kingdom’s post-war welfare state.

In 1942, the Beveridge Report asserted the state’s responsibility for tackling the ‘five giants’ of need:

  • want
  • disease
  • ignorance
  • squalor
  • idleness

The Attlee Government elected in 1945 adopted the report’s recommendations and set out its commitment to tackling these giants in its 1945 social programme. The result was the creation of National Health Service, introduction of National Insurance and an enormous expansion of state education.

With the emergence of new methods and services, new research was devoted to measuring their effectiveness. In 1950, the London School of Economics named pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss as the head of the newly-created Department for Social Policy (then named Social Administration). Originally overseeing the training of social workers, the department gradually took on a greater degree of research and analysis into social provision.

From these beginnings, the subject has grown over the decades to provide a wide-ranging analysis of societies’ responses to the problems of social need. While emerging from the creation of the Western welfare state, a growing international community of experts and researchers has also broadened the subject’s horizons and added vital new perspectives and data.

Social policy as an academic discipline

In its infancy, social policy traditionally analysed the role of national governments and the services and support they fund. These include child maintenance support, state education, social housing, unemployment benefit, statutory healthcare and state pensions. The scope of the subject has grown, but a focus on need remains fundamental.

At its most practical level, social policy examines the ways in which societies distribute resources and develop services to meet individual and social needs. It employs a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to improve our understanding of how societies organise resources to meet these needs and how they measure progress in these areas.

The study of social policy is closely concerned with issues of inequality in access to services. Students examine the ways in which access is affected by socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability status and relationship to the justice system. 

The scope of the subject has expanded greatly throughout the course of the twentieth century. No longer confined to a narrow focus on state services, social policy also examines the roles of other actors in the provision of social services, such as the third sector, civil society, non-government organisations and the market.

At its most practical level, social policy examines the ways in which societies distribute resources and develop services to meet individual and social needs.

What's the difference between social policy & public policy?

As an area of study, public policy is concerned with the analysis of any decisions made by the state. Social policy focuses more specifically on decisions made to address issues of social need.

To speak generally, social policy focuses on areas of government action traditionally associated with the welfare state. Examples are:

  • social housing
  • family and child benefit
  • state healthcare
  • unemployment support

Public policy also focuses on these areas, with the additional study of measures that may not neatly fall into the ‘social’ category, such as business, transportation or foreign policy.  

This distinction is complicated by the argument, made by some, that all government policy is created with the stated purpose of addressing social needs in one form or another. Economic, diplomatic and environmental decisions, for instance, can have an enormous social impact.

Defining what social policy is - and what it's not - and mapping the relationships between social policy and wider governmental policy – is another crucial element of its study.

What can I do with a social policy degree?

The study of social policy gives students a wide-ranging critical perspective on social services and their delivery. Graduates often go on to have successful careers in the public sector - working in local or central government, formulating policy or managing key services – or in third sector organisations who exist to achieve social aims.

As an interdisciplinary subject, social policy draws on tools, technique and modes of analysis from many other social science disciplines. Students gain a firm grounding in research and analytical methods, drawing on perspectives and practices from history, sociology, anthropology, economics, law and politics.

Graduates find they strengthen their skills in qualitive and quantitative research, data analysis, communication, presentation and academic writing. These are transferable skills much-valued by employers in the public, private and third sectors.

Because public policy is concerned with real-world problems, it lends itself also to continuous professional development. Students with significant work experience behind them often choose social policy to gain a broader understanding of the wider issues affecting their roles.

Graduates gain a deep understanding of pressing issues of social need and methods employed to address them. This enables them to move into employment or further study with the awareness and knowledge to make lasting change to meet the needs of today’s societies.

Studying social policy at Strathclyde


Our joint honours degree programme in Social Policy gives you the opportunity to learn more about the social and economic challenges facing Scottish society, placing them in a broader international and comparative perspective.

It also addresses some of the major questions of our time: how should social policy adapt to a changing global, digital, connected and information-rich world? How can we adapt social policies to the needs of a more diverse society? How should resources be distributed, not only between generations, but also within them?

It can be studied in combination with subjects including Economics, English, Journalism, Politics and Psychology.


Social Policy

We offer two Social Policy Masters - MSc Social Policy and MSc Social Policy (Research Methods) These programmes will offer you the opportunity to develop and extend your knowledge and understanding of key social policy issues together with advanced training in research methods.

They aim to improve your knowledge and understanding of the factors which shape social needs and the ways in which different societies have responded to these. You will enhance your research skills and undertake an independent research project on a topic of your choice.

Criminology & Social Policy

Gain a cutting-edge understanding of the individual, relational, cultural and structural factors that intersect with, and underpin, offending and related social issues. The programme draws on critical arguments, theories and debates at the forefront of criminology and criminal justice, social and penal policy and practice, locally and internationally.

Health & Social Policy

Unique in the UK, the programme offers an integrative approach to the study of health and social policy, promoting awareness of intersectional inequalities and equipping students with a range of transferable skills and expertise.

International Social Welfare

Our unique MSc in International Social Welfare programme is aimed at students with an interest in international social work and global social policy. The course will provide advanced knowledge about the theory and practice of social work and social policy in an international context.