Precisely what counts as a social policy is a matter of debate. Both words are problematic. The term policy commonly refers to a more or less clearly articulated set of ideas about what should be done in a particular sphere, which is often set down in writing, and usually formally adopted by the relevant decision-making body. It differs from a plan in that plans specify in detail the way in which objectives are to be achieved, whereas a policy is typically formulated at a more general level, indicating only objectives and the intended direction of change. In academic contexts, however, the term policy is usually not restricted to formally adopted policies, since lack of action and continuation of the status quo (even if not formally agreed) itself constitutes a policy.
The term social is even more problematic. The most common interpretation is that social policies are government policies (both central and local) that are directed towards meeting the social needs of the population (social needs usually being interpreted as welfare needs), with the list including policies concerning social security, health, housing, education and (sometimes) law and order. However, such a view of social policy is arguably too narrow, since it directs attention to policies generated specifically within the usual list of welfare fields. It ignores key policy areas that also have a profound impact on welfare, especially areas usually assigned to the domain of economic policy, such as fiscal policies and policies on inflation and economic growth. Whilst these are properly labelled ‘economic policies’, they are also ‘social policies’—or policies with major implications for welfare, which cannot be excluded from the field of social policy. Equally, it is argued that exclusive concentration on government policies is mistaken, and that one should also include the policies of religious and charitable bodies as well as of private corporations (as, for example, in consideration of pensions policies)—a position that has become increasingly necessary with the privatization of arrangements for welfare.
There have been a range of approaches to the analysis of social policy, although much of the work has been developed in departments of social administration, outside the framework of sociology. The so-called social administration approach to social policy dominant in the 1950s and 1960s has, however, been widely criticized as atheoretical, and Marxist approaches were especially influential amongst sociologists in the 1970s (see, for example, I. Gough 's The Political Economy of the Welfare State, 1979). More recently, T. H. Marshall's analysis of citizenship (see his Sociology at the Crossroads, 1963) has once again shaped discussions of welfare and social policy. There is also a greater focus on comparative social policy (with the insularity of British writers on social policy showing signs of waning). The impact of feminist scholarship has also been considerable, with much greater analysis of the role women play in welfare provision, for example through informal care of the sick and disabled, and also greater attention given to women as the recipients of social welfare. See also evaluation research; policy research.