Book & Event Reviews

Book Review: The Origins of Active Social Policy: Labour Market and Childcare Policies in a Comparative Perspective
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Since the mid 1990s, governments throughout Europe have invested massively in two areas: active labour market policy and childcare. The result, a more active welfare state, seems a rather solid achievement, likely to survive the turbulent post-crisis years. This book contains case studies of policy trajectories in seven European countries and advanced statistical analysis of spending figures. Giuliano Bonoli provides a rich and well-referenced narrative, which readers can use to scaffold their understanding of Western European social policies, writes Donna Peach.

The Origins of Active Social Policy: Labour Market and Childcare Policies in a Comparative Perspective. Giuliano Bonoli. Oxford University Press. March 2013.

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The interrelationship of social policy and the economic structure of family life is a vital area of research at both macro and micro levels. How such research is undertaken is influenced by the lens adopted by different social science paradigms, which influence what knowledge is constructed and who is likely to read it. The Origins of Active Social Policy: Labour Market and Childcare Policies in a Comparative Perspective, authored by Professor Giuliano Bonoli, is primarily for scholars and students of political science, although other social researchers have much to gain from dialogically engaging with this book.

Bonoli provides detailed case studies of the development of employment and childcare policies for several Western European countries. These are accessible and thoughtfully structured, providing rich content useful to a wide audience. The author is also refreshingly transparent about the methodological challenges presented when researching complex and changeable phenomena over time and space. However, as a postmodern social psychologist and feminist I found some of the structural perceptions embedded in the content of this book challenging to accept. Thus, I would encourage other critical social researchers to engage with this narrative in order to encourage discourse about the construction and positioning of women in the micro and macro aspects of social economic policy.

The logical structure of the book is helpful, as Bonoli seeks to define, map and explain what ‘active social policy’ is, before presenting his evidence and findings. His introductory chapter narrows the scope of his focus on Western European Countries, and distinguishes between Nordic, ‘English speaking’, and South Western European countries (p. 3). Bonoli asserts there has been a major transformation in the promotion of active social welfare in European countries subscribing to Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He investigates this transformative change by exploring the relationship between ‘Active Labour Market policies’ (ALMPs) and governmental childcare strategies. In ‘Defining Active Social Policy’ Bonoli premises his transformative argument by asserting that active social policies were not necessary before the 1950s as there was at that time ‘full employment’ (p.17). He identifies post-industrial risks to active social policies as: reconciling work and family life; single parenthood; having a frail relative; possessing low or obsolete skills, and insufficient social security coverage.

The distinction between traditional male employment and the risks presented by the introduction of women to the labour market is a theme throughout his third chapter the ‘Emergence of Active Social Policy’. Bonoli refers to the power relations within the social construction of motherhood and asserts, “given the strongly unbalanced distribution of care-work within households in OECD countries, the issue of reconciling work and family life is considerably more pressing for mothers than it is for fathers” (p.54). In his brief consideration of women’s political influence upon the development of childcare policies (p.54), Bonoli cites several studies including Swers, 2001 and Lovenduski & Norris, 2003;  which suggest female parliamentarians are more concerned with gender equality policies than elected men. Interestingly, Bonoli then proceeds to challenge his own hypothesis of an association between women’s political influence and the level of childcare provision. He considers the hypothesis problematic because “it implies a link between women’s presence in key democratic institutions and the effective representation of women’s issues.” Furthermore, Bonoli asserts it remains for some a ‘puzzle’ as to why elected female politicians would support women’s issues when women did not elect them (p.54).

Throughout this study, Bonoli is challenged by moveable definitions and measures. Thus, he adopts a mixed-methods design to confine relevant variables with which to offer temporal and spatial case studies supported by quantitative empirical evidence. He uses two chapters to first present his qualitative comparative perspectives of active labour market policies and then childcare policies. Bonoli successfully condenses a myriad of social events and political decisions within seven Western European countries, furnishing the reader with multiple yet navigable chronologies. There is some commonality in the sub-headed structure within and between these chapters, which enable the reader to cross-reference information. For example, Bonoli gives consideration to the impact of the British historical antecedents such as the 1834 Poor Law and the 1942 Beveridge Report on the welfare state to explain its active labour market policies. When exploring British childcare policies, Bonoli briefly alludes to the ‘ideology of motherhood’ (p. 143) situating women as ‘carers’ rather than as ‘carers and workers’. He proceeds to report on the Conservative government’s childcare voucher scheme under John Major’s leadership, which in 1997 received some derision. Bonoli then discusses the family policies of Tony Blair’s New Labour and the introduction of ‘Working Families Tax Credit.’ In my opinion, there would have been more value if the labour market and childcare policies had been interwoven, thus permitting a qualitative analysis of their interrelationship.

Bonoli complements his case studies with statistical analysis, the results of which are reported in ‘Quantitative evidence: The determinants of public spending on active labour market policy and childcare’. His independent variables are: partisan effects, economic opennesscrowding out effect and per capita GDP (p. 155). Bonoli adopts pooled time series  (p. 156) to conduct a cross sectional analysis of nations and time using public expenditure as a dependent variable. He recognises inherent difficulties with this measure, as it is unable to illuminate the specific factors, which underpin any fluctuation (p. 159). It could be argued that although this research design is widely accepted that it raises empirical challenges to the internal reliability and validity of its findings:

  • There is a relationship between the presence of a policy problem and the development of a new policy.
  • Relatively strong evidence of ‘crowding out effects’ within both policies.
  • Positive effect of trade openness.

This book has many strengths and Bonoli’s ability to provide concise chronologies for seven European countries is commendable. He furnishes the reader with a rich and well-referenced narrative, which they can use to scaffold their understanding of Western European social policies. A further strength is Bonoli’s openness regarding the limitations of the complex task he is undertaking. He recognises that his definitions, hypotheses and variables are complex and at times transient; this presents challenges for both Bonoli and his readership. I consider these factors made the task of tracing an empirical line of evidence directly related to governmental policies, difficult. I found the construction and positioning of womanhood a challenge throughout the book. This criticism is not directed at Bonoli per se, but I would suggest reflects the inherent paternalism, which underpins Western European social policies.

In conclusion, I would recommend a wide and varied audience read this book. The issues of social policy as they pertain to our economic and family life are crucial to our personal and professional opportunities. Bonoli provides a framework, which invites dialogue with social political content and methodologies, and I would particularly encourage further discussion between political scientists and critical social researchers’.


Donna Peach is a PhD student in psychology at the University of Huddersfield. She has a broad interest in social psychology and promotes a narrative which encourages less extreme perceptions of relativist positions. Her proposed thesis is entitled ‘The dialogic experience of adoptive relationships: A pluralistic perspective’. She tweets at @donna_peach


Book Review: Social Research After the Cultural Turn:

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Social Research after the Cultural Turn aims to address fundamental questions facing those working in the social and human sciences today: How have the epistemological and political contexts of social research changed? Can we still define a distinct sphere of ‘the social’ to research? What distinguishes social research from cultural studies and the humanities? Donna Peach writes that the breadth of topics and depth of enquiry into epistemological and methodological assumptions makes this book a useful companion for academics in any area of the social sciences.

Social Research After the Cultural Turn. Sasha Roseneil & Stephen Frosh (eds.) Palgrave Macmillan. January 2012.

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The idiom ‘do not judge a book by its cover’ certainly applies to this book. The seemingly innocuous title, alongside the subtle hues of yellow thermometers hanging from blue helium-filled balloons against a grey background, suggests a restrained selection of content. The need for a more measured approach quickly becomes apparent though, as Social Research after the Cultural Turn impressively traverses the multifaceted tensions and opportunities associated with the movement to make culture the focus of contemporary debates within the social sciences. Sasha Roseneil & Stephen Frosh provide a stimulating excursion illuminated by diverse perspectives that extend the socio-cultural arena and negotiate the current limits of its navigation. All but two of the contributors – Gordon Lynch (Kent) and Mike Savage (York) – are based at Birkbeck, University of London. Thus, this anchors them and presumably the majority of their readership, including myself, to a British strand of social research.

The 21st century British social research perspective of the ‘cultural turn’ reflects the underpinning epistemological assumption that knowledge is not universally or quantitatively decreed. Each social research discipline and their location in time and place influence the emerging meaning or construction of what constitutes the ‘cultural turn’. Some critical social psychologists (see Hepburn) highlight Kenneth Ring’s formal challenge to the epistemological values of experimental methods as a turning point. However, recognition of a ‘cultural turn’ over the past 60 years should not assume a solely linear process. Indeed, as Roseneil & Frosh argue, the word ‘turn’ suggests a change in direction, which is complex and enriched by its cyclical and situated approach to the construction of knowledge (p.6).

As a proponent of the cultural turn I recognise that we all actively construct knowledge, and one reader’s understanding of the book may differ from the next. With this in mind, this review is based upon what a reader might gain from it whether or not they consider the cultural turn to have occurred. I am mindful that those who do not advocate the relevance of a cultural turn may not read this review or indeed this book. But on whichever side of the debate one is situated, not reading this book denies an opportunity to raise questions and challenge one’s own perceptions. Such questions are not solely about the existence of the cultural turn, but about the expanse and limitations of its relevance and usefulness.

The breadth of subject matter covered is extensive and includes sexuality, feminism, racialisation, identity, digital data, religion, law, development, food production/consumption, and psychoanalysis. The chapters divide into two broad themes, which debate whether or not the cultural turn has occurred. I recognise this distinction, but as a reviewer, I consider the book’s most valuable contribution to be its harvesting of the complexities and weaknesses that construct or denounce the cultural turn, thereby encapsulating the intricacies of divisions that occur even within broadly accepting disciplines.

In ‘Living with Two Cultural Turns: The Case of the Study of Religion’, Gordon Lynch discusses the scope for the cultural turn to contribute usefully across the social research spectrum, from individual subjectivity to understanding global events. Lynch argues that different research disciplines have developed distinctive relationships with culture, which require productive development if constructive progress is to occur. He explores the relationship between subjective reflexivity and the mediatisation of religion, and reminds us of C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (p.86). This serves to incite an awareness of the influence of combined historical structures, cultural truths and subjective experience upon our social realities (p.87), leading Lynch to argue that future studies of religion should turn their lens towards our everyday realities in order to understand how they are experienced and socially structured (p.88).

In her chapter ‘The Gaze of Development after the Cultural Turn’, Karen Wells presents a less optimistic case for the cultural turn to mediate the historical structures and complex contemporary realities underpinning developmental studies (p. 111). Wells highlights the enduring tensions between theoretical knowledge and ‘real world’ needs, which can become the antithesis of progress (p.113). She explains that within the expansive field of development studies, the term ‘cultural’ is rooted in colonial, Anglophone histories which structure and constrain the space to turn. Wells proceeds to detail how the focus of development studies is further impeded by the governmental processes of policy-approved practice. This focus, Wells suggests, prevents development becoming a field of study in its own right; to have its own agency explored and heard. Wells cites a formative post-development text by James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machinewhich argues that despite all the “expertise” that goes into formulating development projects, they nonetheless often demonstrate a startling ignorance of the historical and political realities of the locale they propose to help.

Throughout this collection, the authors wrestle with the perceived constraints of the cultural turn, which can inhibit the dynamic construction of new knowledge within established structures. Many of the authors describe how they have experienced the cultural turn. In particular, Lynne Segal notes that in some quarters it remains subject to academic ridicule (p.53); views endorsed by recent Government policies and rhetoric. As a collective, the authors define the multiplicity of the cultural turn and its illuminative value. However, they have equally chorused the weaknesses and constraints that the cultural turn has constructed. There is a consensus that the complexity of the cultural turn impedes a sole discipline gaining a comprehensive perception. Indeed, Savage asserts that the cultural turn is not the end of progress as there remains much to achieve (p. 180).

In conclusion, this book is a must read. The breadth of topics and depth of enquiry into epistemological and methodological assumptions makes it a useful companion for a wide range of academics. As a reader, I reflect that to denounce another’s experience, another’s truth, is to undermine your own truth. Despite its weaknesses, the cultural turn has made an extensive contribution to our understanding of our social world. If this is to continue, your voice, my voice, our voices, need to collaborate within this vital debate.


Donna Peach is a PhD student in psychology at the University of Huddersfield. She has a broad interest in social psychology and promotes a narrative which encourages less extreme perceptions of relativist positions. Her proposed thesis is entitled ‘The dialogic experience of adoptive relationships: A pluralistic perspective’. She tweets at @donna_peachRead more reviews by Donna.


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