Beyond Merciless Critique: Reflections on the Contribution of Sociology in the Social Policy Space

Anthony HoganAnthony Hogan is a Fellow with the National Centre for Epidemiology and Public Health at The Australian National University. His paper argues that sociology could make a stronger impact on social policy if it went beyond criticism and engaged with the imperfect aspects of decision making.

Dr Anthony Hogan

This paper1 examines governmental policy development processes in the context of Bourdieu’s (2003:17) question as to how and under what conditions sociologists would involve themselves in processes ‘where the fate of individuals and societies [are] increasingly being decided’? The paper provides an overview of several policy development processes before moving to address the challenges facing sociology in today’s social policy space. First, the paper argues that policy makers can do little with sociology if all we have to offer, as Bourdieu (2003) put it, is unrelenting critique. Second, policy commentators draw attention to the fact that academics generally have been reluctant to engage in murky policy processes, which are often the fruit of tradeoffs. Nonetheless, policy decisions are made, whether sociology is at the table or not. The decisions are simply poorer for the absence. If the view is accepted that it is not enough to criticise, and that we want to achieve change (Marx 1947 cited in Morrison 2006), the question remains: how will sociology work to shape policy?

The idea for this paper arose from discussions I was having with Dave Marsh (Director of the Research School of Social Sciences at The Australian National University) at the launch of the National Institute for Rural and Regional Australia in 2009. At the time I was the manager of a corporate social policy section for a large Australian Government department. Beyond managing the day-to-day aspects of the department’s social policy, the role also involved sitting on a number of high-level inter-departmental social policy committees. In all I spent five years working on policy development for the Australian Government across three Commonwealth departments. I have also spent many years interacting with policy-makers as an academic and community activist working on disability issues. The purpose of this paper is to provide personal reflections, as a sociologist, on the policy process as I have experienced it.

The needs of specific groups in society are realised in the context of complex social histories which often result from the convergence of multiple causes. Bourdieu argues that ‘people get caught in the contradictions of the social world, which are experienced in the form of personal dramas’ (1998:1; see also Mills 1970). Such significant personal dramas, arising in the midst of social complexity, are presently unfolding in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin, which makes up a large part of Australia’s farming belt spanning southern Queensland, down though the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The Basin, commonly referred to as Australia’s Food Bowl, has been experiencing considerable environmental stress as a result of a long and deep drought occurring in the context of climate change (Murray Darling Basin Authority 2010). A key impact of these water shortages is that irrigated farming is becoming increasingly difficult. However, this problem of a shortage of water occurs in a specific historical and social context as well as an environmental one. Analysts (for example Alexander 2010) report that many farms which were established in the Basin were small from the outset and therefore by design they were unlikely to be economically viable in the long term. Such farms were established for a social reason; to provide an occupation for soldiers returning from war, rather than as businesses per se. However, industry viability in the region was greatly enhanced by the development of government supported irrigation systems; irrigation systems which have been rendered non-viable by drought. Overtime however, a variety of market forces also came to bear on the competitiveness of Australian agriculture through the development of the World Trade Agreement, the subsequent removal of tariffs to protect local industry, fluctuating commodity prices, and dramatic shifts in input costs.

In the face of social problems resulting from multiple causality, policy decisions (be these personal responses or policy decisions) are made in the absence of certainty. When we make our own decisions, rarely do we do so in the circumstances of our own choosing (Marx 1970 cited in Kitching and Pleasants 2002). It is within this context of identifying and addressing social problems with complex causality that Bourdieu contemplated how we, as sociologists ‘might more effectively intervene in the political world and if so under what conditions’ (Bourdieu 2003: 17). Before moving to explore this area further, I want to switch for a moment to address the government policy development process and to consider how this process is undertaken.

New Policy Proposals

Within the Australian Government, new strategic policy directions require many millions of ‘new’ government dollars. (For example, the National Mental Health Strategy or the national strategy to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians). The development of a new policy proposal (NPP) is the mechanism through which new government monies may be allocated through the budgetary process to government departments for new initiatives. A call for an NPP can arise through a variety of mechanisms including: community activism; decisions made by the elected politicians who presently hold power in government; decisions arising from inter-governmental meetings such as the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) which is made up of the Prime Minister, State Premiers, Territory Chief Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA); and governmental responses to significant commissioned public reports or internal departmental initiatives. However, once the internal process of policy development commences, it is usually shrouded in a high level of secrecy. It is at this point that departmental senior staff, working in close collaboration with other relevant government departments, the ministers and their advisers, take control of the process and put their mark on it. Where large amounts of money are at stake, and especially where initiatives cut across portfolio functions, high level inter-departmental committees may also be established. These are spaces where the skills of economists are highly valued, as is evident in the presence of expert economists working across a variety of portfolio areas. Examples include agricultural economists, labour economists, health economists, economists working on Indigenous and women’s policy. Rarely though are the decisions to be made, just economic. Nonetheless, Schumacher (1973: 240) observes that economics is central to policy making, noting that ‘there is no other set of criteria that exercises a greater influence over the actions of … government’. Schumacher’s somewhat dated comments would not be so problematic for me if senior Canberra economic bureaucrats had not made the comments to me recently. Their view was that government is about the distribution of scare resources and who better is placed to determine such decisions than economists? There is certainly a commonsense logic to this perspective but it is one that does not sit comfortably with me either.

My concern here is not that economists do not have important insights to offer, but that often important contextual and social insights are missing from the analysis and ensuing social policy advice. Such insights seriously limit the potential policy impact that can be achieved by new initiatives. A key problem economics has is how they may include insights from social analysis in their work. Specifically in my work I can see three common barriers. The first is that the traditional approach to economic analysis is based on observational behaviours. This is why economists commonly look to large government data sets as the basis for their modelling. Unfortunately, the very human factors that drive peoples’ decision making are absent from such datasets so the real reasons why people make decisions can be lost from the modelling. Commonly, sociologists gather such insights through qualitative work. Economists have two problems with such insights. First, there can be a disconnect between what people say and do. Take for example a conversation I had with Chris Richardson, a Director of Access Economics, a high profile private sector company providing economic analysis in Australia. He tells me that people often say they want better schools and health services but they vote for tax cuts. Economists call this distinction the difference between stated and revealed outcomes. Revealed outcomes, such as behavioural decisions can be verified in the objective world using large datasets as I have noted above. The second common objection that economists have of qualitative analysis is that it is often based on small samples (versus the larger datasets) and as such they are often considered to be woolly or fluffy, meaning that the data is not seen to have robust qualities. A way through these limitations has been to develop larger quantitative social surveys based on qualitative insights. However, in countries such as Australia there has been strong resistance from certain quarters of sociology to go down this pathway, citing concerns about social constructivism and its impacts on survey design and the uses to which data is put.

I have now worked on several projects where quantitative social and economic analyses have been combined. As in any trans-disciplinary team the essential challenge is how one integrates differing ontologies and methodologies into a whole. However, once that issue is tackled, the power of the integrated analysis is truly amazing. The problem is that that many economic studies exclude social insights from the design and subsequent analysis and social policy is the poorer for it.

One of the many problems which arise when the social is excluded from the analysis is that decision making may be more likely to be market based, following an attitude to ‘let costs lie where they fall — the laissez faire solution’ (Titmus 2006: 44). In turn, this results in ‘diswelfares’ (Titmus 2006: 45), a concept describing the social costs of policy changes which benefit some at the cost of others. For example, the abolition of skill sets, premature retirements, or the loss of community amenity are not considered within cost benefit models. Rather, the state’s strategy is to continue the amputation of its ‘left hand’ (the social service side) (Bourdieu 1998: 2). Better integration of social perspectives into models which underpin NPPs then can have important implications for the community at large.

This is particularly important because the existing Australian system has no mechanism to routinely evaluate the extent to which the assumptions under-pinning the development of NPPs reflect lived experience, particularly when such policies are implemented. At best one might hear of unintended policy consequences. While it is a legislative requirement under Commonwealth law that regulatory impact assessments be undertaken before a law can be developed and enacted, such assessments are rarely reviewed in terms of the longer term impacts arising from such legislation. An illustration of this process is transport policy in Australia where the evaluative orientation has been towards free-market policies and individualised transport. This is evidenced in resources being poured into the development of roads and tollways while railway infrastructure was been left to dwindle. Currently road ways in Australia exceed train lines in kilometres by a ratio of 18:1 and the dominance of transport by road is evidenced in the fact that 95% of all food, for example, is transported by road (Edwards et al. 2010). Processes such as these need careful attention and review and sociologists are well placed to do such work. Nonetheless, the shaping of this process occurs with the input from the central government agencies (Treasury and Finance) where the economic lens (centred on market values) is particularly applied. Projects that pass through these reviews in turn go to Cabinet and the Budget where they are refined and, if again they survive the process, they are announced on Federal Budget night. Such final review processes may be as much political as they are economic.

A second level of policy formation that also deserves brief attention here is that of policy execution. The government department that administers a specific government policy and its associated budget has significant capacity to act. The rule of thumb in government is that the person who has the chair gets to make the call; that is, the policy decisions fall to specific individuals. The departmental Senior Executive Service (SES) staff generally set and drive a department’s overall agenda and strategy in consultation with a ministerial office. Once the strategy is set the execution of strategy falls to the middle management bands (SES Band 1 and their Executive Level (EL) 2 officers).2 In turn, depending on workloads, key decisions may be made by the ‘on the ground’ analysts. It is in these situations that opportunistic but well placed individuals seeking to shape the policy agenda get to have a lot of influence and the busier the section the more influence they may have. This kind of behaviour is sought in government — a key performance indicator for public servants is demonstrated influence in decision-making processes. My concerns are centred on my observations working in the policy sector. I see that an increasing concentration of staff support the neo-classical framework within the bureaucracy, and more and more operational decisions are made from values centred on rationalist economic theory.

Finally, a third policy formation process (a stakeholder centred one) also deserves brief attention here. Safework Australia is a national tripartite government body responsible for improving occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation arrangements across Australia. The agency operates under a management structure made of up representatives of state and federal governments, along with employer and union representatives. Policy and strategic issues can be introduced into the process by any of the members. Issues raised in this process may be referred to sections within the agency for further research and development. Outputs prepared by agency staff are then sent out to members for consideration and debate at meetings of the tripartite groups. Union and employer representatives in turn, have the opportunity to consult with their members before key policy decisions are made. Rarely do decisions proceed until a consensus of opinion from the three groups has been reached. While many departments have mechanisms where representatives of the jurisdictions can meet and discuss policy, Safework Australia, as an independent organisation, has a documented and routine process where non-bureaucrats have the opportunity to directly participate in policy development.

Reconciling policy development and practice

Bourdieu (2003: 17) asks what role we should play in the processes ‘where the fate of individuals and societies is increasingly being decided’? He answers this question by suggesting that a key role for sociologists is ‘merciless logical critique … aimed at uncovering the social determinants that bear on the producers of the dominant discourse’ (Bourdieu 2003: 20). My position is that while critique is certainly required, on its own it is not enough either tactically or strategically. Tactically, without sufficient rapport with the bureaucracy, the system simply shuts out critique; the organisational process of government treats critique as treason and as an attack. As noted earlier, someone made a decision and in criticising a person’s individual call on a specific issue, the criticism becomes personal for the decision-maker concerned; this is particularly the case when it places their career success on the line. It is important to note at the SES officer Band 1 level and above, an officer is evaluated on how well an issue is managed. The control of debate and of stakeholders makes up a critical aspect of policy makers’ performance evaluation. Critique of a new or emerging issue can typically mean death to such an issue — it gets too hot to handle.

The question hangs then as to the extent to which sociologists who are interested in being at the decision-making table are prepared to accept the rules of how the process operates? Saunders and Walter observe that the policy-making community is constrained by ‘the need to develop realistic solutions to practical problems within feasible time lines’ (2005: 8). In launching the Saunders and Walter book, the then Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold (2005:1), made the following remarks:

Not infrequently I talk to academics who tell me that they work in the area of public policy. It awakens my interest. Often I am rudely disappointed. They may be researching in areas that are at the forefront of policy debate – health, welfare, early childhood development, education, employment – but they appear uncomfortable when asked directly what policy changes they would implement. This is seen, I discern, as a matter for others – less talented others – to ascertain from a proper consideration of their research findings. Practical policy which affects people’s lives seems to be regarded as a trade skill, sullied by the dirt and grime of political compromise.

Other academics have very clear policy prescriptions, often argued forcefully and sometimes propounded with a level of polemical certainty. While I am engaged by many of their ideas, and somewhat disquieted by the single-mindedness of their underlying philosophical conviction, I discover that my questions about possible compromise positions are met with a strong gaze into the mid-distance. A second-best outcome, I realise, is not good enough.

The art that I find so beguiling – developing policy iteratively, moulded by an environment of political contest and organisational advocacy, responsive to unexpected opportunity, stymied by unforeseen barriers and shaped by financial exigency – is an uncomfortable discipline for the purist.

In the context of the insights that Bourdieu (1998; 2003), Shergold (2005), Saunders and Walter (2005) put forward, sociologists need to ask themselves: are we prepared to engage in practical policy processes that affects peoples’ lives while knowing that such processes will be imperfect? Are we prepared to put forward anything other than deconstruction? Are we able to accept the second-best outcome as Shergold asks? And can we work with policy development processes that are not going to be fully open and participative certainly not formally and certainly not in the short term? Sociologists interested in influencing policy may choose to make their work accessible to policy officers by making their insights available in condensed formats online, by sending policy officers copies of their work and going to see them to discuss it. But one should not realistically expect a two-way process. The lack of transparency within this process is problematic for many academics, who in turn choose not to participate at all. Yet if we choose not to participate at all, are we also prepared to accept the consequences of process that go ahead anyway without our input?

We hear a lot about the triple bottom line (economics, environment and social); is it not time for the social to come to the forefront? I consider that the question before us as a collective, be it as people who undertake philosophical and/or empirical sociological work in its various forms, is: What does sociology need to do in order for the social to be considered as an integral part of the public decision-making process? This is the question I think we need to debate.

If the sociology of knowledge teaches us anything, it is that we will never have certainty. No knowledge production process, be it philosophical, qualitative or quantitative, or a combination of the three, will contain all the answers on any given matter. Similarly, no policy process will be perfect, it will be a compromise. Our options are to sit on the sidelines and criticise or to bring both our critique and our imperfect knowledge to work on imperfect processes, working towards the best decision that can be made on the day, be it on mental health policy or emissions trading schemes. Are we prepared to work towards the second best outcome today, knowing that ‘tomorrow’ we may have another chance to achieve the preferred outcome? And at this point I want to distinguish between individual interest groups plugging away at influencing the policy process (be it in the environment, health, women’s issues, labour relations, rural social policy and the like) and the broader voice of sociology. The issue for me is how we as a collective go about building a legitimacy and an acceptance for the social in the policy space where we move beyond critique and contribute to the change process; that people would think it odd that there are no sociologists sitting on and advising high level government committees; that people would think it odd that policy development would occur without the input of sociologists. That moreover, we, as a public presence, make it evident to decision makers that it is not acceptable that our expertise is excluded from the processes that lead to the production of practical policy which affects people’s lives.


1. An earlier version of this paper was published in S. Lockie et al. (Eds) The Future Of Sociology: Proceedings of The Annual Conference Of The Australian Sociological Association. Canberra: Australian National University. Last accessed online 13 April 2010:

2. SES Band 1 is quite a senior manger in the Australian Government, they would typically lead a branch within a government department and be responsible for managing two to four sections. SES Band 1 officers would report to a division head; the division head would be part of the executive management team for the department. Sections are led by EL 2 officers. Sections can range in size from a few people to 40–50 people. EL 2 officers provide day-to-day leadership and management of their designated program of work, such as policy development. EL 1 officers would typically be highly-skilled staff with expertise in the section’s program of work.


I would like to think Professor Gabrielle Bammer and Professor Stewart Lockie from the ANU and the SAW Editorial team for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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SAW logoArticle copyright: © Anthony Hogan 2010. Published by Sociology At Work. All rights reserved.

Article citation: Hogan, A. (2010) ‘Beyond Merciless Critique: Reflections on the Contribution of Sociology in the Social Policy Space,’ Working Notes, Issue 1, June, online resource: