The Big Society Debate

The Big Society Debate

A New Agenda for Social Welfare?

Edited by Armine Ishkanian and Simon Szreter

The book is divided into two sections, history and policy, which together provide readers with a historically grounded, internationally informed, and multidisciplinary analysis of the Big Society policies. The introduction and conclusion tie the strands together, providing a coherent analysis of the key issues in both sections. Various chapters in this study examine the limitations and consider the challenges involved in translating the ideas of the Big Society agenda into practice.

Chapter 1: ‘Big Society’ and ‘Great Society’: A Problem in the History of Ideas

Jose Harris

Subjects: social policy and sociology, comparative social policy


Jose Harris 1 INTRODUCTION Everybody uses the word ‘society’, but nobody is quite sure what it means. Over many centuries, great philosophers and religious teachers, economists and sociologists, sublime poets and ordinary folk have all pondered the nature of this mysterious entity. Against this background, how are we to interpret the currently fashionable term ‘Big Society’? Is it a variant of the much older term ‘Great Society’, or a smaller version of the same thing (and, if so, how much smaller?), or is it something quite different? And how does ‘Big Society’ relate to other similar-sounding historical antecedents, such as the ‘Great Community’, the ‘Great Republic’, the ‘Great Commonwealth’, the ‘Good Society’, the ‘Civic Society’ as conjured up by Gordon Brown (Brown, 2000), or simply ‘Society’ tout court, as the arithmetical sum of ‘individuals and families’, famously envisaged by Margaret Thatcher (Thatcher, 1987)? Contributors to the ‘Big Society’ debate, both enthusiasts and critics, often assume quite recklessly that it is closely akin to, or even identical with, such terms as the ‘Great Society’ or ‘Civil Society’.1 But history suggests that ideas and concepts can subtly, or even dramatically, change their meanings in different cultural and historical settings. This paper explores a few of the historical antecedents of the current debate, and suggests that over many generations human understanding of both ‘Great Society’ and ‘Big Society’ has been more variable, complex and unpredictable than initially meets the eye. 2 The historical emergence of ‘society’ Contested views about the virtues of large-scale...

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