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Social science, evidence, and social policy : the role of ideology, and the importance of history Bateman, Rebecca Belle

Abstract

Current enthusiasm for evidence-based social policy, which emphasizes the importance of randomized, controlled trials, cost-benefit assessments, and other quantitative methodologies, owes much to earlier periods of history in which social science research was seen as the key to effective policies and programs to combat poverty, homelessness, and welfare dependency. This thesis contributes to the literature on deliberative policy analysis within planning theory by examining the historical context of evidence-based policy, using the history of poverty knowledge in the United States as an example, to illustrate that underlying ways of thinking about the causes of social issues continue to underpin current attempts at addressing them. Two case studies are presented: current approaches to homelessness interventions, and attempts to break up concentrated poverty through the creation of socially mixed residential neighbourhoods. In the case of the former, cost-benefit analysis, originally developed in the 1950s to evaluate weapons systems and later applied to the assessment of social programs, has come to define current discourse about homelessness and how most effectively to deal with it. Social constructions of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, nineteenth century concepts, continue to influence the way in which the poor and homeless are viewed. Ideas about the ill effects of the residential concentration of poverty, which also date to the nineteenth century, inform social mix strategies that seek to stop the “cycle of poverty” through re-development into mixed-income neighbourhoods, and through dispersal strategies such as housing vouchers. Any attempt to analyze how evidence informs social policy must take into account the historical context in which decisions are made, and the resilience of the underlying ideological beliefs and assumptions upon which they are based. Researchers need to acknowledge the inherently political nature of the knowledge they produce, and embrace rather than avoid the opportunity to subject their interests and assumptions to scholarly scrutiny and debate. Most importantly, social scientists, through forging closer ties with service providers and their clients, need to recognize and emphasize the value of expertise and knowledge based in practice, and the lived experience of individuals, in the formation and evaluation of social policy.

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