Social policy has changed, and so has social policy research. That’s not all bad news

Continuing the discussion on the future of social policy research in Australia, Deputy Director of the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre kylie valentine explains how work in the field has adapted to changes in funding and stresses the importance of multiple disciplines, epistemologies, intellectual traditions, conceptual frames and partnerships in researching the causes and effects of social inequality.

There is a joke to be made somewhere about a sociologist, an economist, a gender studies theorist and a demographer walking into the bar at a social policy conference. The recent Power to Persuade posting from Paul Smyth reminds us of the changes to the organisation of social policy, and social policy research, over recent decades. Of these changes, the most important are probably the expansion of what we see as social policy, and who we see as influencing it (a good thing, and not only if you’re a social policy researcher) and the shift to short-term competitive funding and a reliance on market mechanisms (a bad thing, especially if you’re a social policy practitioner or researcher). While there may still be a sense in some quarters that the real business of social policy is driven by social security and economics, we are also, happily, benefiting from decades of research and advocacy on the interconnectedness of policies and programs relating to tax, transfers, education, family relationships, childhood development, neighbourhoods, intimate relationships, everyday decision making, and mental well-being. Social policy research is concerned with income standards and income inequality, but also with sex and drugs—we’re still working on the rock and roll (sorry, and no, that’s not the joke).

How could it be otherwise? Who would want investigation of the causes and effects of social inequality to be the province of one discipline or portfolio? Consider the cornerstones of the welfare state, income support payments to people not in the workforce. The Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW Sydney, where I work, was founded in 1980 by the Department of Social Security and funded for decades to conduct research on social welfare, with a particular focus on benefits and pensions. The benefits to policy, and to knowledge more broadly, of sustained work on this topic were invaluable and it is testimony to the work done during that time that very senior politicians from the federal Labor and Liberal parties remain friends of the centre. More recently, we lost that dedicated stream of funding, which had allowed researchers and policy practitioners to collaborate both on devising research questions and on ensuring that findings from research were considered in policy formation and delivery. Cue the violins, but as with social policy agencies across the country, our research ha  responded by expanding in terms of both content and partnerships. The most recent intervention into the social security debate was from the first significant output of a fairly new partnership between UNSW and ACOSS, the Inequality in Australia 2018 report. This was led, as is the partnership, by Professor Peter Saunders, who was director of SPRC during its years of core funding and did so much to advance social policy and research during that time.

As other examples, our core research interests now include child protection, the financing of human services and the workforce delivering them, disability policy, Chinese social policy, and policy translation and innovation more broadly. Inequality underpins all of this in some ways, and the interventions by organisations such as the Productivity Commission (and the Business Council of Australia) into these areas are interesting in part because of what they say about the terms in which debates are being framed and whose interests have been animated. Everyone who works in the field laments the scarcity of resources to fund this research, and the work that goes into building partnerships. Almost everyone who works in the field recognises the importance not only of multidisciplinary approaches but multiple epistemologies, intellectual traditions, and conceptual frames. As with the organisations and sectors we research, the changes to funding and organising social policy research has been produced, and now works to produce, new types of work and contributions.