A fascinating seminar today on the Big Society – presented by Pete Alcock and Bernard Harris. It made me think about what I would have been doing if I hadn’t e-mailed John Mohan and been sold on the idea of quantitative research and a Masters in Social Statistics. If I’d taken a different Masters I’d be answering my question in a completely different way: looking at policy and motivations, rather than surveys and activities. Thinking this way can lead you into dangerous territory – before you know it, you can find yourself picking a fight with a sociologist about the validity of qualitative research!
The national path-not-taken is quite different. We named our nascent welfare system ‘National Insurance’ but it is not a true insurance policy. In this case, the path not taken is maybe true mutualism, true insurance. Perhaps our voluntary sector would look very different if we had. But Harris talked about a historical misapprehension (made primarily by those on the right, I suppose) that the birth of the welfare state marked the death of mutualism and the decline of institutions like the friendly societies. He showed a much earlier decline, unconnected with the welfare state. In our research students’ room afterwards we decided to blame the Industrial Revolution – it’s traditional!
The seminar was also pretty political in content. Alcock compared New Labour and Conservative policies on the third or voluntary sector and found them extremely similar in content, if not in form. Essentially, the policies are the same but the spin is different. Put in stark left/right terms, the voluntary sector is either about communities or it’s about individuals. It’s a either socialist utopia, or a vision of self-help and self-reliance. Either way, it’s the same sector!
Edit: Hugh Muir in the Guardian Diary was reading my mind (and that of Prof Alcock). Apparently the government has announced a new and exciting “surge into mutualism“. Muir says: “So when Maude unveils Sunshine Care of Rochdale – a fine organisation doing brilliant work – as of one his whizzy new ‘mutual pathfinders’, wearied types nevertheless point out that the very same Sunshine Care project actually emerged from a programme funded by the Department of Health way back in 2006. Ministers were very taken with it. Tessa Jowell went there last year.”