A Handbook of Comparative Social Policy
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A Handbook of Comparative Social Policy

Edited by Patricia Kennett

The current context of social policy is one in which many of the old certainties of the past have been eroded. The predominantly inward-looking, domestic preoccupation of social policy has made way for a more integrated, international and outward approach to analysis which looks beyond the boundaries of the state. It is in this context that this Handbook brings together the work of key commentators in the field of comparative analysis in order to provide comprehensive coverage of contemporary debates and issues in cross-national social policy research.
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Chapter 16: Constructing Categories and Data Collection

Patricia Kennett


Patricia Kennett The construction of concepts, categories and definitions of contemporary social issues is a central issue in comparative social research. Not only is it vital to ensure that the concepts and categories being compared mean the same or something similar across the societies being investigated, it is also vital to analyse the processes through which a phenomenon becomes defined as a problem. As Jessop argues, selective narratives of past events generate distinctive accounts of current economic, social and political problems, from which emerge ‘a limited but widely accepted set of diagnoses and prescriptions for the economic, social and political difficulties now confronting nations, regions, and cities and their populations’ (Jessop, 1996: 3). Representations of social issues are subject to political manipulation, and numbers play a central role in constructing and reinforcing discourses around specific social ‘problems’, determining what aspects of a problem are responded to and in what way. May (1997) points to three important elements in the construction of a ‘social problem’ – culture, history and social power. He argues that power is not evenly distributed between groups. The recognition that a ‘problem’ exists and the way that it is defined is often a product of ‘the relative power that the people who define the social problem have over those who are defined.’ (p. 47). Thus it becomes vital to ‘examine the process through which a phenomenon became defined as a problem’ (p. 47), rather than just accept given definitions....

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