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  • The First Social Policy:Alcohol Control and Modernity in Policy Studies
  • Mark Lawrence Schrad (bio)

From modest beginnings in the systematic analysis of social insurance programs of advanced, industrialized countries, the scope of social policy studies has expanded to encompass myriad programs that seek to mitigate potential risks to employment, income, and economic security.1 At the same time, historical interest on policy development has extended back further in time to contextualize the otherwise excessive concentration on social policy developments of the twentieth century.2 Yet, as the boundaries of epistemology broaden, there remains a curious tendency among policy historians to maintain that what they are studying are the origins of modern social policies.3 Perhaps this focus on modernity is the outgrowth of a perceived need to have such research remain relevant to contemporary social policy debates. Whatever the reason, it does raise the question—What makes a social policy modern?4 To assume that particular social policies are modern suggests that there may be social policies that are not. Do there indeed exist social policies that might be thought of as premodern? If so, do such premodern social policies differ from modern ones not only in terms of particular historical epochs but also in terms of more substantive distinctions?

One social policy presents itself as particularly useful in examining such questions: state control of alcohol on behalf of public health. Dating from the initial discovery of the inebriating effects of alcohol on the human body and mind, attempts to regulate the consumption of alcohol [End Page 428] have existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years—thus establishing alcohol control historically as the first social policy. Yet, given its extended history, is it really possible to view alcohol policy before the twentieth century in the same light as more current efforts to curb the threats to health, wealth, and order from alcohol, drugs, diseases, environmental degradation, or other perceived hazards? If so, a deeper examination of the history of alcohol control policy could lend greater insights into what exactly constitutes a "modern" social policy, versus premodern, or even ancient. Before embarking on a brief tour d'horizon of the history of alcohol control policies, it will first be necessary to more closely scrutinize the study of social policy itself. Such an examination usefully serves to redirect our attention to the growth of social policies in the context of state development, pointing in particular to the maturation of state capacity, and the superseding of traditional revenue-generation and social control policy functions by a more general interest in the promotion of the health and well-being of the populace. I contend that modernity, as it relates to social policy, can best be understood as a reflection of the self-conscious attitudes of leaders and policymakers to place concerns for the health and well-being of the population ahead of other pressing political concerns, such as the generation of state revenue.

Social Policy and Modernity

Social policy as a concept is notoriously difficult to define. As a "diffuse, residual category" of academic inquiry,5 definitions of what constitutes (as well as what is outside the purview of) social policy varies considerably depending upon the research interests of any given author. Many work from an understanding that social policy refers to state programs and services addressing economic inequality resulting from risks to income,6 with the analysis of social insurance programs and means-tested social assistance taking center stage.7 More recently, the scope of social policy research has broadened to address responses to other perceived risks to employment, income, and economic security to include education policy,8 taxation policy,9 work programs,10 veterans' benefits,11 and anti-drug and anti-AIDS policies,12 among others. Although seldom mentioned within the social policy research community, a burgeoning literature has developed examining alcohol policy explicitly as social policy, in both comparative and historical perspectives.13 Even as the range of scholarship continues to grow to encompass an ever-broader range of topics, the touchstone of all [End Page 429] conceptions of social policy remains an interest in specific policies to promote the individual and collective well-being of citizens.14



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pp. 428-451
Launched on MUSE
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