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Stigma and social welfare.

Spicker, Paul


Paul Spicker


This book looks at the concept of stigma in the context of social welfare. The idea of 'social welfare' is commonly identified with the 'social services'. Both terms are regrettably unclear. 'Welfare' can be taken to mean 'relief'; a 'welfare recipient' is someone who receives a monetary allowance. Secondly, 'welfare' refers to individual well-being; in economics, 'social welfare' refers to the overall well-being of a society. Thirdly, it signifies a pattern of organised activities equivalent to the social services (Butterworth, Holman, 1975, 15). This is the principal use of the term in studies of social administration. Social welfareis an omnibus term used to cover a wide range of activities in society. These activities are concerned with the maintenance or promotion of social well-being. (Ibid, 14) This is a very wide concept. 'Social well-being' covers anything that could be argued to be good for society. All collectively provided services, Titmuss writes, are deliberately designed to meet socially recognised needs (1955, 39). ('Need' is used to signify those things which are deemed essential for the well-being of individuals or groups.) But not all services provided on this basis are social services: the army is an obvious example. The needs that are dealt with are of a specific kind. The services which are most commonly accepted in Britain as being social services are health, housing, education, social security and social work. They have in common, not only that they provide for needs, but that people receive directly a good or a service from them and are therefore dependent. Titmuss refers to states of dependency which are recognised as collective responsibilities (1955, 42-3). These include injury, disease, disability, old age, childhood, maternity and unemployment. People in these circumstances rely on socially provided goods and services, and it is this reliance which is the distinguishing characteristic of social welfare and the social services. Eyden writes that A social service is a social institution that has developed to meet the personal needs of individual members of society not adequately or effectively met by either the individual from his own or his family's resources or by commercial or industrial concerns. (in Byrne, Padfield, 1978, 1) This definition implies, firstly, that the social services respond to individual need; and secondly, that they do so only when other methods have failed. This is true of some services, but not of others: education, or health, are accepted as social services, but are provided without regard to other resources which could meet the need. Greve (1971), by contrast, cites a definition of a social service from a UN report: lt is an organized activity that aims at helping towards a mutual adjustment of individuals and their social environment. This objective is achieved through the use of techniques and methods which are designed to enable individuals, groups and communities to solve their problems of adjustment to a changing pattern of society, and through co-operatlve action to improve economic and social conditions. (Greve, 1971, 184-5) The definition, Greve notes, makes three points. The first is that the provision of social services is not simply a transaction in which a passive person receives bounty (in the form of cash, kind or counselling) from the rest of the community. Nor, as many still think, is a social service concerned to get people to adjust unilaterally to society or to their possibly squalid environment. ... society must also adjust to the individual. (Ibld, p 185 ) The second point is that social services help groups and communities, not only individuals. Eyden suggested that social services were individual and residual. But dependency is not necessarily a feature of individuals: a group or community may be collectively dependent. The third point is that there is a 'positive, developmental function' pursued through'co-operative action'.This is a good definition, but it has its weaknesses. Its essential flaw is that it is prescriptive rather than descriptive. It puts great emphasis on self-determination either by enabling people to meet their needs, or by cooperative action - when the relationship may be one of passive dependency. It emphasises mutual adjustment, whereas the reality may be a matter of social control. The concept of dependency does not in itself imply either adjustment or control, or determine a developmental function; but it is consistent with them, as it is consistent with other policies. A social service can be defined as a social institution which is developed to provide for those conditions of dependency which are recognised as collective responsibilities. This is a restricted definition, but I believe it reflects the actual use of the term. Housing, health, social security, education and social work are social services because they deal with conditions of dependency. Urban planning, road building, libraries and the police force do not. This is the distinction between social and public services. The distinction may seem irrational, and in some ways it is. The study of social policy has moved increasingly towards treating them on an equivalent basis; but 'social policy', which takes in any policy affecting relations in society, is a wider concept than a study of the social services. The distinction is not completely arbitrary; states of dependency do present a distinctive set of problems, and those problems are central to this study. 'Social welfare' is not used quite synonymously with 'social services', although the terms are very close: references to 'social welfare services' can be found (e.g. Reisman, 1977, 50), which seem to mean, not services to promote welfare, but rather services which perform the function called 'social welfare'. Social welfare can be defined as organised activity to improve the condition of people who are dependent. Stigma and social welfare Stigma is an important concept in the study of social administration; it has been described as the central issue (Pinker, 1971, 136). A stigma marks the recipient of welfare, damages his reputation, and undermines his dignity. It is a barrier to access to social services, and an experience of degradation and rejection. The imposition of stigma, Pinker writes, is the commonest form of violence used in democratic societies. (1971, 175). Although some sociologists have tried to claim it for their own (e.g. Lemert, 1972, 15), 'stigma' is not an academic term; people who are embarrassed or ashamed of their dependency on social services use the word to describe their feelings. An unemployed miner talks about the stigma of going up to the dole every week, I think it's awful. (cited Gould, Kenyon, 1972, 21) A tenant of a 'sink' estate says, It is stigmatised ... You felt ashamed to say you were from Abbeyhills, because of the stigma. (Flessati, 1978) A person who had been committed to a mental institution for three days ln 1935 wrote to a Royal Commission more than twenty years later asking to get my name off your registers so that I no longer bear the stigma of being a certified person. (Cmnd.169, 1957, 97) And a recipient of Supplementary Benefit complains, It's shame, the stigma of it. Richardson, Naidoo, 1978, 27) 'Stigma' is a part of common speech; and, like many other common words, it has no precise definition, but is used in a way that assumes other people will understand it. Exposition of the concept has been limited, and the idea has been accepted, for the most part, uncritically. References to 'stigma' ln studies of social administration tend to be made in passing; they are asserted, without the benefit of reason or evidence. I have built up an argument, in many places, on the basis of references like these - a short passage from one book, a phrase from another - in order to illustrate both the way the idea is used, and some of the underlying assumptions made about it. The result is, I hope, rather more than a selective review; it is an attempt to clarify the different uses of the word, to establish whether a coherent concept can be constructed, and to see what the implications of the idea of stigma are for social policy.


SPICKER, P. 2011. Stigma and social welfare. [Self-published]

Book Type Monograph
Publication Date Dec 31, 2011
Deposit Date Oct 8, 2013
Publicly Available Date Oct 8, 2013
Publisher Self-Published
Public URL


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