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Writing welfare history: An historiographical jigsaw?

Rosemary Kerr
Curtin University

Child welfare history has evolved over the past 30 years using various theoretical frameworks which have emerged as tools for the interpretation in the writing of history. This paper examines the main theoretical concerns that have dominated welfare history to date. It also points to some more recent approaches which may open new paths of interpretation in the subject.

Why study welfare history? The function of history, using British historian, E.H. Carr, is 'to promote our understanding of the past in the light of the present and the present in the light of the past' (1964:107-8). In the field of welfare history there has been much debate about the use of theory to examine the evolution of social policy, the ideologies of the agents of reform and to uncover the objects of policy, namely the poor and disadvantaged.

Prior to the 1960s and the emergence of social history, welfare history followed the liberal, or whig, tradition. As an area of history it was considered a relatively unimportant aspect of social history and consequently was relegated to merely illustrating to social work students achievements leading up to the foundation of the welfare state. The 'welfare fable', to use Richard Kennedy's term (1989:13), begins in the 1890s with the rise of the state and progresses over the decades as reforms are instituted. These reforms are usually attributed to 'society', 'the community' or specific individuals labelled reformers. In its most robust form liberal history is triumphalist, describing 'reformist social technocrats who fought heroic battles against the dark forces of conservatism and vested interest' (Mcnicol, 1980:viii). The error of liberal history is that its narrative frequently portrays the point of view of the dominant agents, ie. those who instigated the reforms. It mostly excludes history from below or portrays the objects of the policies as merely passive recipients. In this model the State is viewed as a vital interventionist on the path of progress.

Yet in this model there is no critical analysis of the social, political, economic and ideological changes occurring within the context of the narrative. The issues of class, gender and ethnicity are also ignored. Van Krieken (1986:419) argues that child welfare is not a linear progress toward more and more state intervention into family life. The role played by child welfare policies and institutions differ for different periods, with continuities and discontinuities. To illustrate this point he uses the metaphor of a swinging pendulum to describe the way people have gone back and forward between ways of dealing with the original unsolved problem (eg. vagrancy, delinquency), 'forgetting that the other alternative was not new, has been tried before, and had as many problems as it was supposed to solve' (Van Krieken,1986:420). Without wanting to get into cliches about swings and roundabouts, I prefer to see the continuities/discontinuities argument in terms of a roundabout, where debris (in the form of social, political, economic and ideological change) picked up on the way round has served to obscure the benefit of hindsight.

But the study of welfare history is not just to make judgements about the anomalies and paradoxes of welfare systems, it should also describe the scope and limits of social welfare and account for the phenomena observed (Pinker, 1979:5).

The challenge to the traditional liberal welfare histories began in the late 1960s and 1970s with the development of critical social science literature in the areas of criminology, social policy and social work. Revisionist history began investigating social policies and their function, (the ameliorative aspect often the least important), in the context of social, political, economic and ideological changes. It was part of a shift in attitude with regard to the role of the state and intervention toward a critical approach towards the relations of power in capitalist, patriarchal society. The main impetus, according to Van Krieken (1986:402), 'came from a desire to apply both feminism and Marxism to areas other than production and the workplace to include the state, social reproduction, culture, ideology and all the social practices occurring beyond the sphere of production'.

The work of Anthony Platt, The Child Savers (1969), provided the turning point for welfare history by ushering in a new orthodoxy commonly called the 'social control' perspective. This new method of analysis was essentially Marxist. It was based on the perceived failure of reformist legislation to significantly alter the distribution of wealth and power in society. Social policy was viewed as one element in a number of social, economic, political and ideological controls whereby inequalities were perpetuated or enhanced (Mcnicol, 1980:).

The classical Marxist thesis is that the State is the instrument of oppression by one class of another and its continuance is due to the irreconcilability of class antagonisms (Higgins,1982:200). Bessant (1987:7-10) has argued that the notion of 'control' applied historically is of most use when it is linked with examining structures of relationships between classes. He states that it must be related to the conflicts and interactions between the exponents of the dominant ideology of a particular period and the resisters who concurrently accept and reject elements of dominant class ideology.

Essentially Bessant's argument uses the Marxist paradigm, one of the most useful theoretical models to emerge, of Antonio Gramsci's notion of 'cultural hegemony' 'established by the dominant class, and unwittingly consented to by the working class' (Marwick,1989:110). This expansion of Marxist theory allows for the integration of many wider fields of study beyond merely modes of production. It means cultural factors can be taken into account and allows for working class attitudes to affect the structure of society. Notions of gender, childhood and race can be studied as factors that support the dominant mode of production at any time. Hetherington (1986:8) argues that the concepts of social control and hegemony 'provide bodies of theory which offer an explanation for the connections between ideology, the structure of power and the provision of so-called welfare services'.

The social control arguments have had a significant influence on the analysis of child welfare. However, because it is Marxist theory some writers have avoided it, and run the risk of a 'progress' approach by default, or the other extreme has been adopted where the control model has been used without any further critical analysis. Hetherington (1986:9) makes the observation that the social control theory

delivers us from the unconvincing liberal historiography about good works and virtuous women, and yet some historians who make use of it express a high level of moral outrage which has the effect, like liberal historiography, of emphasis ing individual responsibility. The theory aims to show that the participants in the drama are the product of wider social forces.
Hetherington's criticisms of the way historians have used the control model point to an important area in the story, that of 'the participants of the drama'. Van Krieken has argued that the control model has generally not taken into account the objects of social welfare policies. He states that it is a fallacy to make the assumption that the state and bourgeoisie as the dominant actors, and child welfare as the means of facilitating adherence to bourgeois lifestyles and ideals, means that these ideals are alien to the working class. There is evidence that the working class were not passive objects of control. Working class men and women used the courts, police, reformatories and child welfare services themselves. Parents committed their children to institutions because of poverty or they found their children 'uncontrollable'. Indeed the child welfare systems relied on the 'respectable working class' to care for children through the boarding out system (Van Krieken,1986:411-12).

Van Krieken has articulated a number of problems concerning how the subject and object of social control have been conceptualised, as well as the purpose and effect of the control. First he argues that the evidence used to see child welfare as imposing social control is generally drawn from the reformers and welfare bureaucrats themselves. This is done by putting together 'the most colourful and strident quotations one can find about the evils of the lower classes and how this or that institution of piece of legislation will civilise and regulate them... this is presented as conclusive proof that child welfare was clearly part of a process of social control' (Van Krieken,1986:407).

The second problem is that studies rarely make clear how significant a role child welfare agencies play in the maintenance of social stability. Van Krieken argues that social control was not the preserve of child welfare, indeed very few children in relation to total population, came under its supervision. He suggests that the work of the police, schools and the workplace was far more pervasive in terms of social control (1986:407-8).

Thirdly is the notion that there was no control over children before courts and institutions. Given his argument outlined above, this is a position which is difficult to sustain. Child welfare legislation did not suddenly impose class control, rather, it can be viewed as a change in the form of working class socialisation. Van Krieken suggests that the debate might be about how that change should be assessed (1986:408).

The final problem Van Krieken posits is the notion perpetuated by the social control model in its crudest form; that working class and middle class cultures were two discrete value systems. Moral hostility towards the 'lower orders ' was not confined to the bourgeoisie. Tholfsen argues working and middle class cultures were not

...two discrete value systems, each socially determined, one of which was achieving domination over the other. Rather, there was a clash between divergent versions of common values, along with extensive overlapping, as well as areas of unresolved incompatibility. ( Van Krieken, 1986:409)
But the reduction of welfare analysis to questions of class has proved unsatisfactory to many historians. Dickey (1987:81) has described welfare history as the history of relationships, and while Marxist analysis using class has many uses it has had the tendency to treat the family as a subsidiary institution. Feminist historians have, to a degree, done some work on the way the family interacts with labour and social policies (Pedersen,1993:12). Work in the 1970s by Marxist feminists raised the issue that the emphasis on modes of production, population shifts and state structures lead back to questions about the family. This approach, according to Hetherington (1986:12) serves to remind us that na analysis of the public sphere is not enough 'because complex cultural and social patterns are mediated through the parent - child interaction in the family'.

During the 1970s the interconnection between domestic and public sphere was the subject of vigorous debate. British historian, Elizabeth Wilson was one of the first Marxist Feminists to describe welfare policy as more than 'just as set of services it is also a set of ideas about society and family' (1977:9); the State organisation of domestic life.

Most early feminist accounts of relationships between women, the family, the labour market and State conclude that social policies which reinforce the division of labour in the household and in the workplace disadvantage women and tend to matin class and gender inequities. However, it has been argued by Cass and Baldock (1988:xvi) that this account ignores the dynamic nature of public policy negotiations, for example, those policies that come out of contested class and interest demands. For not all social policy is inevitably supportive of existing inequalities, on the contrary such policies which result from organised political action can be viewed as the redistribution of income and services outside the labour market, for example widow's pensions and child endowment.

According to Ian Davey (Bessant,1991:70) a revisionist historian, the 1980s witnessed a retreat from 'grand theory' in education and welfare history. There was a disenchantment with the explanatory power of various theories employed to explain change. The dominance of class analysis and social control theories was challenged by the development of feminist theory and history employing patriarchy, with its contradictions and tensions between class and gender relations. While the investigation of patriarchal systems has informed feminist history there is little work in the area of welfare save Davey and Pavla Millers's analyses of family formation and gender structure.

Undoubtedly, over the past 20 years, feminist analysis has placed gender and dependence at its centre. This approach has been very useful and has pointed out that so-called 'universal' welfare systems are often deeply structured along gender lines. It has also revealed that welfare institutions are based on normative rather than actual patterns of familial dependence and maintenance (Pedersen,1993:9-10); that is, the child within a nuclear family is the focus of child welfare policy.

Although feminist theory and history has informed social policy and welfare analysis, Pedersen points to a limitation in the focus on gender which, she argues, is often obscured by the fact many social policies are concerned mainly with children, and not with men and women. Consequently, gender relations are not a central concern (Pedersen,1993:11).

There are a number of other theoretical frameworks which may be of use in the study of child welfare. Both Liberalism and social democracy (or its closely related ideology of social justice) have been used to a certain degree by welfare historians but very few studies have used these as a critical base for analysis. Given the massively weakened position of communism and, as a consequence, Marxist theory in its most didactic form, these frameworks may offer useful directions for historical welfare study.

Liberal tradition has been very significant in Australia. In his study of Australian Liberalism, Australian Liberalism and National Character (1978), Tim Rowse argues liberalism has a binding effect in modern Australian history. This is essentially because liberalism, according to Rowse, is

a discourse capable of a range of political inflections within a constraining framework. It is a hegemonic ideology in that it articulates the theory and rationalised the practice of a certain institutional ordering of society, the dominance by a ruling class over subordinate and fragmented social classes. (1978:6)
Periods of progres sive liberal hegemony can be correlated with periods of reformism (Beilharz ,1989:135). In the areas of Australian history up to post-World War II reconstruction there are three main liberal movements: colonial liberalism; new liberalism, or ameliorative, (pre-World War I); and reconstruction liberalism, beginning around 1940.

In its simplest terms liberalism is a recognition of the individual's right to accumulate wealth by buying and selling of commodities. The most important commodity is labour power. Using this definition, liberalism is a sanction of the social relations of capitalist exploitation (Rowse,1978:122). Colonial liberalism, according to Rowse, was porous enough to induce the organised working class to accept its rules of political struggle. This, in turn, created a collaborative structure during the first decade of federation. Liberalism formed a political bridge between conservative interests and the more radical democratic elements of society at the time. As a result, palliative social reform was introduced and a kind of 'deal' was set up where the State would protect workers' incomes and recognise the trade unions as partners of the Labor Party. At this time, for both the Labor Party and the liberals, the notions of responsible government did not differ (Rowse,1978:9). Indeed, Labor drew on liberalism, albeit in an arbitrary way.

Essential to this shift in attitude was the influence of the New liberalism which emerged at the end of the 19th Century. Its most influential exponent, T.H. Green, produced a theory of the ethical state which encompassed civic obligation. Green's theories gave both British and Australian liberals a political philosophy which breached laissez-faire theories of the State, while remaining true to an ethic of individualism (Rowse,1978:37). Given the extensive role played by the State as economic developer of Australia since white settlement, the ideas of New liberalism were embraced by such influential Labor figures as Deakin, Fisher, Higgins and Anderson. The New liberalism held that in order to guarantee liberty effectively, the State must interfere in economic life. The concept of liberty in New liberalism was more closely identified with individual welfare, maintenance of freedom and class harmony (Rowse,1978:9). Deakin, Fisher and Higgins believed that the capacity for compassion and social responsibility in each Australian citizen was expressed in aggregate form in their reform policies. These covered economic intervention, welfare measures and the redistribution of wealth to remedy poverty and unemployment (Beilharz, 1989:136). The Deakinite liberal experiment, carried over to a large extent by Fisher, gave Australia the reputation of being the social laboratory of the world.

Following World War I liberalism became less of a political focus. With the advent of the Depression the priority became the rescue of capitalism. It was not until World War II, when Keynesian reform became a new focus for the Australian Labor Party, that an expanded role of the State in social services began to be considered. The reformist liberalism of the 1940s hitched its hopes to Reconstruction. Essential to the reconstruction movement was the idea of the worker as productive citizen. This concept drew on T. H. Green's concept of citizenry united with ethical purpose. many of the reformist arguments drew on themes characteristic of New liberalism. There was a renewed critique of economic individualism which included a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to social problems. Social planning was viewed as the key to ameliorate the destructive operation of economic individualism in the market (Rowse,1978:129-48).

The development of the welfare state is linked with post-World War II reconstruction. But it would be naive to view these developments in purely humanitarian light. Many reforms introduced during this period, such as child endowment ( which undoubtedly had a redistributive effect), were in fact introduced to act as labour and wage restraints.

Even though liberalism provides a useful framework to explain the introduction of reformist legislation and the development of the welfare state, there is something unsatisfying about it as a framework to explain the development of child welfare systems. This may be explained by the fact that while the Australian Labor Party drew on liberalism to inform its social policies, there is an inherent masculinist cast in Australian Labor. Beilharz (a 1989:91) argues that even though the New liberal tradition fed into labourism it was at the expense of key values such as citizenship and participation. Jill Roe provides an illustrative example by stating that because of the hegemony of Higgins' strategy industrial citizenship meant as much if not more than political citizenship. Labor politics privileged the industrial activity of men rather than advocating political citizenship for men and women alike (beilharz,1989 a:92) If citizenship is primarily based on the position in the labour market there is little room for those outside the market. Francis Castles has described this situation succinctly in his term the 'wage earner's welfare state' (Beilharz, 1989a:91).

Within discussions about liberalism, welfare and Labor the concept of social democracy should be explored. In the past, social democratic, welfarist and reformist political groups tended to be lumped together. T.H. Marshall's social democratic theories were very influential in welfare study. His work led to the view by many scholars that the welfare state was the outcome of the effort to diminish inequalities of class and to extend the definition of citizenship to include social as well as civil and political rights. However, the central problem with this approach was that it was often based on the notion of the wage earner and therefore excluded significant numbers of women (Pedersen, 1993:5)

In the 1960s and 1970s Marshall's theories played a significant role in Marxist interpretations of the welfare state. Marxist analysis deepened the tendency to view inequality as originated in the social relations of productions. The primary role of welfare was to provide greater security for workers. Even widow's pensions and child endowment were viewed as income maintenance (Pedersen,1993:6). The main problem behind Marxist welfare analysis was that it did not assess the real differences between social democratic, welfarist and reformist political groups.

Only in the 1980s, with the rejection/reassessment of Marxism was there any interest in assessing social democratic theory as a framework in its own right. The focus of social democracy is on the citizen rather than on employer/employee relations. However, in the Australian context it is very difficult to make social democracy come to the fore in relation to Labor politics and policies since, as we have seen, the definition of citizen in Australia has been very narrowly rendered (Beilharz,1989:134). In the post World War II period Labor ' delivered a thinly strung welfare net, rather than an arrangement recognising citizens as the active subjects, not the passive objects of welfare' (Beilharz,1989:141).

Essentially Beilharz argues that the social democracy project has not been fulfilled. Both Beilharz and Stuart Macintyre argue that social justice rather than social democracy have been pursued in Australia. The two concepts are closely linked in ideological terms but the distinction remains(Beilharz,1989 a :85)

It is pointless to try to construct a 'theory of everything' to help explain the contradictions and paradoxes encountered in the policies and practices of child welfare. This is essentially because the very ideologies they come out are not completely rational and clearly defined. Mcnicol has argued that because children are one of the few groups in society unable to campaign to themselves, supporters' motives for the development of social policy may be more complex than in more orthodox cases o f self-interest (Mcnicol,1980:xi).

Certainly Marxist historiography has provided useful frameworks for welfare study and if it can offer no more than the reintegration of the bulk of society into the study of history then it is of great use to historians. The social control model has been a popular paradigm for investigation and interpretation but, as discussed in this paper, it has problems. Van Krieken has said that in order to balance some of these difficulties social control 'needs to be conceptualised as an intersection between capitalism, the State and the middle class with the effect of working class political action and cultural change' (1986:423).

Feminist analysis has asked important questions about gender relations, the family , the nature of dependency and the State. Because Feminist history is often concerned with experiential aspects of people's lives, oral history, literature and autobiographies could be used more systematically to generate useful evidence about childhood (Hetherington,1986:11).

It has been suggested by both Hetherington and Van Krieken that there is another way of looking at child welfare. They propose that rather than seeing things in purely class/gender terms, child welfare could be analysed as a manifestation of generational conflict. After all, the generation gap is a real social phenomenon. I have not discussed this point in the paper because it is still rather too conceptually loose in my mind, but it is an interesting perspective.

In this paper I have not tried to present any one theoretical framework as superior to another. Each has its merits and weaknesses and ultimately the path an historian takes depends on their own subjective view of the world and the forces that shape it.


C. Baldock and B. Cass (eds), Women, Social Welfare and the State in Australia, Allen and Unwin: Sydney, 1988.

B. Bessant, Mother State and Her Little Ones, Centre for Youth Studies: Melbourne, 1987.

B. Bessant, 'Progress and Revision in the History of Education in the 1980s', Discourse, 2, (1), Oct. 1991, pp.67-84.

P.Beilharz, 'The Laborist tradition and the reforming imaging', in R. Kennedy (ed), Australian Welfare: Historical Sociology, Macmillan: Melbourne, 1989, pp.132-153.

P. Beilharz (a), 'Social democracy and social justice', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 25 (1) May 1989, pp.85-99.

E.H. Carr, What is History?, Penguin, 1964.

B. Dickey, 'Problems in writing welfare history', Journal of Australian Studies, 21, Nov. 1987, pp.80-95.

P. Hetherington, 'Childhood and youth in Australia', Journal of Australian Studies, 18, May 1986, pp.3-18.

W. Higgins, 'To him that hath..: the welfare state' in R. Kennedy (ed), Australian Welfare History, Macmillan: Melbourne, 1982, pp.199-224.

R. Kennedy, Australian Welfare: Historical Sociology, Macmillan:Melb, 1989.

A. Marwick, the Nature of History, 3rd ed. Macmillan, 1989.

J. Mcnicol, The Movement for Family Allowances 1918-1945: a Study in Social Policy Development, Heinemann: London, 1980.

S. Pedersen, Family Dependence and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France 1914-1945, Cambridge Uni Press, 1993.

R. Pinker, The Idea of Welfare, Heinemann: London, 1979.

T. Rowse, Australian Liberalism and National Character, Kibble Books: Melbourne, 1978.

R. Van Krieken, 'Social theory and child welfare: beyond social control', Theory and Society: Renewal and Critique in Social Theory, 15(3), 1986, pp.410-429.

E. Wilson, Women and the Welfare State, Tavistock: London, 1977.

Author: Rosemary Kerr, Curtin University, pkerrrb@cc.curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Kerr, R. (1996). Writing welfare history: An historiographical jigsaw? Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1996. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1996/kerr.html

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