Social Quality - Challenge and Opportunity for Developing Social Policy

To make social development assessable I want to draw attention on the approach of Social Quality (for further details see and a preliminary working paper by Laurent van der Maesen and Walker).

Point of departure is a principle – and widely accepted – critique that European Social Policy – and actually Social Policy in Europe – is


largely subordinated under economic policy and


understood in a reduced meaning, taking it as social administration.

However, a positive approach is lacking. This is true as well in regard of the analysis of society which is lead by the abstraction of, human relationships as exchange relationships. The Social Quality approach, however, emphasises that social relationships are going far beyond these. We propose to grasp society and social relationships on the ground of two dialectic dimensions, the one being concerned with objective factors, the other with subjective factors.

The first on the main dialectic and the objective conditional factors is shown in the following figure (from Maesen/Walker; a.a.O.);


The dimensions of the main dialectic and the subjective conditional factors can be seen from this second figure (from ibid.);

(In the middle along the arrows between the societal and the biographical development it has to read contingency.)


Thus, we arrive at 2 times four components that are considered as guidance for developing an analytical tool (assessment of social quality) and as well as challenge for a proposed role of social policy, which then is conceptualised a complex and multidimensional setting, as we can see it in the following figure (from ibid.).



However, as this is a concept that had been only recently conceptualised it is very much discussed by the Foundation and other scientists who are near to this group and want to develop the concept further. The challenge is both a theoretical and one for the debate on elaborating a system of indicators. Taking up the first challenge, Margo Keizer presented a modified version of the “quadrant”, bringing the two separate quadrants together in a three-dimensional scheme. Even if the aim is to clarify the position of socio-economic security the new three-axis model is cum grano salis stimulating for the general debate. The figure now looks as follows.

The three-dimensional first Social Quality Quadrant reformed

(from: Margo Keizer: Socio-economic security. Preliminary Discussion Paper. On behalf of the first meeting of assistants of the European Network on Indicators of Social Quality; Amsterdam: European Foundation on Social Quality, August 30th, 2002: 6)

The important point is the increasing importance that is given to the societal – biographical axis. So we read,

‘when concentrating on the component of socio-economic security, we can interpret that the processes in this component especially take place at the societal development-end of the y-axis and the systems, institutions and organisations-end of the x-axis. If this interpretation is right, w would be able to say that with the operationalisation of socio-economic security we should concentrate on processes based on rationally motivated exchange of interests on a societal level. Furthermore, the dialectic between individual self-realisation and the formation of collective identities plays a role in the processes taking place in every component, also in the component of socio-economic security. This means that the whole z-axis (both ends of the axis) is central in every component.’ (ibid.)

What is getting clearer from here is the tension between the different dimensions and components – as well challenging the political task of the multidimensional approach, linking

the somewhat diverging and contradicting “traditional policies”

on the one hand and at the very same time on the other hand

the as well somewhat diverging and contradicting levels of societal development and biographical level.

However, despite other possible issues, there is in my own view the questions if and how such a system really can deal with the dynamics of social quality. This is in particular important as the approach claims


to provide a dynamic perspective and


to aim on social policy not as policy of

Ř       compensation for shortcomings of other policies or

Ř       flanking economic or else policies or

Ř       simply administering processes of distribution, redistribution and care

     but as strategy of shaping spaces of life.

The latter is strongly connected with the specific Dutch tradition behind the approach. The Dutch understanding of social policy is strongly linked to the challenge of providing welzijn, well-being – an idea that is more or less strange in other national traditions (see on the other hand – but as well in support of my interpretation: Alcock, Pete et altera [eds.]: Welfare and Wellbeing. Richard Titmuss’s contribution to social policy; Bristol: The Policy Press, 2001).

As valuable as this approach is, as problematic is a certain tendency of neglecting the contradicting character of the dialectical tensions we are looking at in the meaning of a conflict or even antagonistic contradiction, depending on the overall societal conditions. This goes hand in hand with focusing on “rational exchange” processes. In fact, if we want to talk of exchange, we have to define this as matter of unequal power relationships rather than a matter of rational processes.

To be better able to deal with the challenge – or even to actually make it possible to face the challenge of developing the dynamic of the model further I suggested another combination of the components, emphasising a certain sequencialisation. Regards the objective factors we find the progression


from socioeconomic security to


empowerment to


inclusion to



the dimension of subjective factors is progressing


from social recognition to


participation to


sensibility towards values to



The – dialectically and historically developing – relationship between the two dimensions is a dialectical one insofar as the realisation of the components on the objective dimension being condition for as well as consequence of the realisation of the components on the subjective dimension.

Even, if a dialectical approach is actually hardly compatible with the schematisation we can visualise the dynamic of the main dialectic of the objective and subjective factors as follows

Again, this is a tentative exploration only. However, what should be clear is that social policy (analysis) can only progress by immediately cross-linking the different areas, namely the view on the objective dimension has to be seen in connection with its complementing component respectively. What is interesting in regard of working along the line of well-being is that we get an actually different picture of the individual components themselves. In actual fact, we are getting aware of the immediate – dialectical – linkage between the objective and the subjective dimension. Actually, they are falling together, underpinning the importance of the respective complementary “backing” of the different sides of social policy measures.


This seems at the first glance more or less abstract, but gets clearer when we apply this elaboration to contemporary topics as

  1. the analysis of social policy issues (“social problems”) hyperlink xyz

  2. thoughts about social policy institutions

  3. the analysis and development of social policy measures

  4. the assessment of claimant’s expectations and perception of social measures.

This cannot be undertaken in full; however, the remarks in the following will direct the possible further interpretation. Before we go on with this one further general remark is useful. The Social Quality approach as it is suggested here is a strong step in taking the development of social indicators as method of quantitative empirical social research further, but utilise this for


the further elaboration of the theory of social policy (and even social theory in general) and


the realisation of the claim of the qualitative orientation of social indicators.

Now, for each of the social policy “issues” one example will be mentioned, taking for each just one couple of components.

*** To (a) ***

The dynamic of Social Quality analysis of social policy issues (“social problems”)

Socio-Economic Security       1...     .

Collectivisation                        4       

Taking housing as example we can see that housing is first and foremost a question of shelter, serving one of the basic needs. Talking of basic needs allows a very generalist perspective; in fact we are dealing with an independent and generic need – every being depending on some kind of shelter. Even here, i.e. on this very general level, however, these needs are not solely depending on the nature of the being as such in an absolute sense. It is the interplay between the human – in which we are interested as social scientists – and the physical and social environment. For example climatic conditions can be mentioned, shaping to a large extent the actual needs. In other words, the kind of shelter needed in a warm and dry Mediterranean climate are definitely different to the kind of shelter asked for under harsh conditions of an arctic or alpine climate.

Going on, then, the socio-historical character of these needs is getting clear and becoming a central issue. This refers to the socio-historical space and the socio-relational setting. The first is concerned with the relationship between human beings and the “natural environment” and describes the way people are making use of it. In other words, here we are concerned with the level and mode of appropriation. This is a “natural” process, but at the very same time it is linked to another relationship, i.e. the relation between the different social groups. As such, housing is reflecting a certain mode of collectivisation. Questions of public/private relationships, the different distribution across spaces, the relation to (and between) production and reproduction and, of course, the relationship between centre and periphery. In all these cases, power relationships play an important role. Even if we are dealing first and foremost with politics we are very much concerned as well with policies of collectivisation. As we are talking about housing, we have to mention as “standard” and “indicator” of collectivisation for example issues as the degree of home ownership, the provisions of social housing, the infrastructure in estates, connectivity between estates and places of collective production and reproduction and others.

*** To (b) ***

The dynamic of Social Quality and thoughts about social policy institutions

Inclusion                               3...      

Participation                          2         

Inclusion can actually be seen as the "objective" complement of empowerment and collectivisation. There are, of course, strictly material aspects that can be seen as foundation - thus referring back to socio-economic security. But at the same time the term of inclusion has to refer to a wider area of objective factors - very much expressions and conditions of collectivisation as the structures and patterns of housing and settlement. Going beyond this the institutional system plays a crucial role in this context. Thus, important indicators for the inclusion-component have to take the legal structure, i.e. existing rights into consideration. First, this refers to rights as such - e.g. the right to suitable, adequate housing. Important is the right for accommodation that is not just shelter but at the same instance a space for self-realisation, that allows privacy and building links with the community at the same time. Besides legal provisions guaranteeing inclusion in quantitative and qualitative terms the implementation has to be considered as not less important.

This implementation is largely framed - and secured, moreover made possible - by a whole system of institutions, legal provisions being the one, others being courts acting as guardians and enforcing institutions, but as well actors on other levels - special extrajudicial  instances for out-of-court settlements etc., Ombudsperson, advisory boards and instances from statutory agencies, non-governmental agencies etc. pp. In this context provisions for supporting networks for regional and local development, peer networks, and informal structures - including families - play an important role. It is only here from where participation can start and into which it can feed back - the matter of taking part (which translates, of course, into taking part in an action by taking a "material" part of the "outcome" of a collective action).

Appropriation of the natural and social environment can be developed on such an objective basis of an entire setting as we have developed it in the meantime, namely


socio-economic security,


that has been "translated" into collective forms of living together


and builds as such collective form of security a way into inclusion, the setting up of an "infrastructure of togetherness" with its material skeleton and with the institutional setting


a door to participation.

*** To (c) ***

The dynamic of Social Quality and the analysis and development of social policy measures

Cohesion                           4             

Social Recognition               1           

On grounds of this setting cohesion is possible - not more and not less. This means that cohesion is not an automatic consequence but it has to be set into motion by politics and policies. Understood as component of social quality, cohesion is not a static but has to be seen as process. As such it strongly linked to


needs and



Thus it builds an immediate dialectical relationship with the social recognition - only this makes it possible to acknowledge "special needs" and to provide opportunities that can translate into participation.

The recognition of needs can be as simple as the consideration of climatic conditions which shape very much the actual accommodation needs - for example the dependency of temperature control from the climatic and actual weather conditions. But social conditions play as well an important role in this context - family seize, family structures, the economic activities and their relation to the "home" etc. And of course, all this has to be assessed in the "environmental" context, i.e. the "infrastructure of social networks". Cohesion in such an understanding is very much indicated by for example the guarantee of equal rights, the provision of points of access to services, the establishment of a wide range of infrastructure that can be utilised by basically all people of the target area not on equal grounds but on grounds of their personal needs. The whole area of education and training plays a crucial role in regard of cohesion in such an understanding.

But just as cohesion has to go beyond the granting of formal rights it has to recognise the special conditions - including the different points of departure for the individual and various social groups - to make it possible to participate in equal terms.

*** To (d) ***

The dynamic of Social Quality and the assessment of claimant’s expectations and perception of social measures

Empowerment                  2..           

Sensitivity                         3_           

Empowerment as an objective factor is first and foremost based on socio-economic security - the provision of the means with which the individual and social groups can appropriate their environment and by which they can articulate their interests in the active appropriation of this environment. This environment is being understood as natural and social entity - an entity of which the individual and social groups are immediate part themselves. Thus, empowerment is a fundamental question around the provision of rights - understood in terms of laws but as well in terms of norms and unwritten rules. The work of courts, the objective - legal and material - conditions of establishing "social movements" and "advocacy groups" play an important part as do the provisions of education and training, the infrastructure and not least the "openness" of the given political system. Considerable are regulations on the relationship between centre and periphery. In this regard, the operationalisation of the principle of subsidiarity has to play a crucial role.

In any case, there is a strong overlap and link in particular between empowerment and its subjective complement sensitivity and the other factors of the quadrant.

What is of crucial importance is to see the quadrant and the components not as rigid raster. Rather they are are a working tool to evaluate social reality and at the same time a normative concept to found a reasonable normative concept for social policy that sees itself as an area in and with its own rights, instead being subordinated, an appendix to other areas, in particular economics.