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Irish Social Policy; A critical introduction by Mairéad Considine and Fiona Dukelow Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2009 pp 1+555, €39.99, ISBN:9780717141562

This excellent book by Mairéad Considine and Fiona Dukelow joins the wonderful Irish Social Services by John Curry (4th edition published in 2003) and the comprehensive UCD Press series, which began with Irish Social Policy in Context and its companion Contemporary Irish Social Policy in 1999 (a second edition of the latter was published in 2005). This book by Considine and Dukelow is welcome on a number of grounds. It is welcome because the general social policy readers referred to above have become dated. Although they are still very useful, it is good to have current material available to students. It is unfortunate for those who write social policy texts that the rapidly evolving nature of the subject means their work becomes dated very quickly. The second reason to welcome the book is its user friendly structure and presentation. Finally, the book covers an expansive range of key social policy issues in one volume.

The book is divided into four parts: the first of which sets the historical context for social policy, beginning in the seventeenth century and ending with the current recession. The second explains social policy by examining concepts, policy and ideology. The final two parts of the book are concerned with analysing Irish social policy. The authors focus on ‘social services’, which they define as, social security, health, education and housing policies in part three. In part four the analysis concentrates on individual groups and emerging trends in social policy. In chapter 11, the first chapter in part four, has as its title ‘social groups and social policy: needs, rights and recognition’ and includes sections on a diverse range of groups, such as, children, older people, people with disabilities and carers. The second chapter in this part is titled ‘social policy and social groups: issues of diversity and discrimination’, and centres its analysis on three different groups: immigrants, Travellers, and lesbian, gays and bisexuals in social policy. The final chapter addresses some newer topics in social policy as it engages in ‘social policy, sustainable development and quality of life issues’. The key themes in the three sections in this chapter include social policy and environmental concerns, sustainable development, and social policy, transport and the environment.

This book is a large undertaking (with a total of 555 pages), and addresses a substantial catalogue of social policy issues and conceptual matters. The scope is comprehensive, and given the scale and range of the publication, one feels churlish to point to some possible deficiencies and omissions. It has to be acknowledged that given the reach of social policy it is almost impossible to include everything in a textbook, even one of this size. Let it also be said that we all have our pet subjects which we believe should be the mainstay of a social policy textbook. In this context I would point to the lack of specific chapters on policy making processes and on the community and voluntary sectors. Both are referred to in passing but not to the extent that their importance warrants. The three sections in chapter 11 on children, older people, and people with a disability are short relative to their significance as topics of interest for students who will work with these groups. However, chapters 4, 5 and 6 provide a much needed and excellent summary of the theme under which they have been grouped, ‘explaining social policy: concepts, politics and ideology’. Overall the book is well-balanced; it meets the objectives set out by the authors and includes the essential material required by students at under-graduate level.

An interesting dimension to the book is the use of the term ‘critical’ in its title, Irish Social Policy: A critical introduction. The authors explain in their introduction that the ‘analysis of social policy presented here is shaped by attention to core social policy concepts, such as equality, redistribution, rights and social justice, which require openness to question and explore both the achievements and limits of social policy’ (xxiii-xxiv). ‘Critical social policy’ and ‘radical social work’ have their origins in the 1970s and were influenced by Marxism, with its social analysis based on class struggle. Subsequently, writers such as Fiona Williams (1989) broadened the class analysis to include gender and race. The journal Critical Social Policy, in celebrating its hundredth issue this year, traces the historical development of its own use of the term ‘critical’ (CSP Editorial Collective 2009). The CSP Editorial Collective acknowledges the journey it has travelled in its thinking on the meaning of the term, and points to key moments, such as dropping its claim to be socialist in 1996 (CSP Editorial Collective 2009:318). The current focus of the journal is captured in discourse on a range of concepts central to social policy, such as social exclusion and social justice (CSP Editorial Collective 2009). It is engagement with, interpretation of and challenge to this discourse that currently defines critical social policy. These themes are central to Considine and Dukelow’s work and their textbook is in keeping with the current stage of development of critical social policy. At a time in Ireland when public policy appears to be concerned primarily about shoring up a failed economic system and treats the social dimension of people’s lives as tangential, it is essential for our students to have the foundations of knowledge to challenge this analysis. Considine and Dukelow’s critical focus contributes admirably to this foundation.

In preparation for writing this review I asked two students to read through the book and to give me their opinion of it. The feedback was very positive. They thought it was an excellent book, and commented that it was ‘easy to read’, reflecting the accessible language in which the book is written. They also said that the various boxes and definitions throughout the text were a great help to understanding key concepts. Even in the twenty four hours I gave them to read the book each of the students found material which helped to make sense of content that I was covering in class. A definite winner!

Joe Moran

  1. Critical Social Policy Editorial Collective (2009) ‘Reflections on Critical Social Policy at 100’, Critical Social Policy, Vol. 29(3): 317-321.
  2. Curry, J. (2003) Irish Social Services, 4th edition. Dublin: IPA.
  3. Kiely, G., O’Donnell, A., Kennedy, P. and S. Quin, (Eds.) (1999) Irish Social Policy in Context. Dublin: UCD Press.
  4. Quin, S., Kennedy, P., Matthews, A. and G. Kiely (Eds.) (1999/2005) Contemporary Irish Social Policy. Dublin: UCD Press.
  5. Williams, F. (1989) Social Policy: A Critical Introduction: issues of race, gender and class. Cambridge: Polity Press.