Journal of Social Policy


Robert Pinker, the Idea of Welfare and the Study of Social Policy: On Unitarism and Pluralism


a1 Professor of Social Theory and Policy, School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy, University of Ulster, Coleraine, N. Ireland, BT52 1SA email:


This article reappraises the distinction upon which Robert Pinker has insisted since the 1970s between the heuristic and the normative dimensions of concepts and theories associated with ‘welfare’ in social policy studies, a distinction prompted by, for instance, the writings of Richard Titmuss. It discusses Pinker's differentiation of forms of study which seek to account for the likenesses and unlikenesses within and between the welfare systems of different countries from forms of study aiming to establish moral criteria by which one system of welfare can be deemed superior to another. In particular, it highlights his emphasis on the need for social policy as a subject to attend to: (a) the reality of everyday ideas of social welfare and ‘faring well’ in general; (b) how everyday ideas of ‘faring well’ are exhibited in what he has called ‘conditional altruism’, whether exercised within families, towards strangers or across nations; (c) the practices undertaken by individuals and families to attain freedom and security as well as to meet those of their needs commonly taken within social policy studies to be the components of ‘welfare’; (d) the difficulties, moral, political, social and economic, associated with Titmussian welfare unitarism, in contrast to welfare pluralism. The article thus provides a review of aspects of Pinker's many published papers as well as his influential Social Theory and Social Policy and The Idea of Welfare.