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The Big Society Debate

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The Big Society Debate

A New Agenda for Social Welfare?

Armine Ishkanian , Simon Szreter

Edited by Armine Ishkanian, Lecturer in NGOs and Development, London School of Economics and Simon Szreter, Professor of History and Public Policy and Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, UK

2012 240 pp Hardback 978 1 78100 207 0
2012 Paperback 978 1 78100 222 3
ebook isbn 978 1 78100 208 7

Hardback £73.00 on-line price £65.70

Paperback £22.00 on-line price £17.60


Available as an eBook for subscribing libraries on Elgaronline.

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‘There is nothing new about the notion of a Big Society. This book combines historical scholarship, international research and grassroots experience to shine a critical spotlight on the rhetoric behind the coalition government’s big idea.’
– Bill Jordan, University of Plymouth, UK

Contributors: M. Albrow, K. Bradley, L. Charlesworth, R. Fries, J. Harris, M. Hill, M. Hilton, J. Holgate, A. Ishkanian, M. Ketola, D. Leat, D. Lewis, R. McGill, N. Ockenden, J. Page, C. Pharoah, L. Richardson, J. Stuart, S. Szreter, D. Weinbren

Further information

‘. . . the collection provides valuable insights into the use of rhetorical devices and how “real life” examples are distorted and disguised to provide evidence of “what works”. At the time of writing, the Big Society seems to have disappeared from government’s central platform, but if the debate is rekindled in the future or elsewhere in the world, then I strongly recommend the book as a source of criticism and counter-evidence.’
– Alison Gilchrist, Community Development Journal

‘. . . this book offers an absorbing, scholarly and highly readable critique of “Big Society” and is to be recommended to students, academics and readers who want to learn more about current British social policy.’
– Catherine Forde, Voluntas

‘This text is a worthwhile contribution to a burgeoning field we may wish to call “Big Society studies”. The breadth of the discussion, not only regarding the topics covered but in encompassing both sociological and social policy perspectives, makes this text relevant to a variety of readers. The editors have delivered contributions with historical and contemporary claims, as well as providing space for critical writers seeing the Big Society as neoliberal rhetoric alongside those engaged in more detailed perspective on the government’s policy agenda.’
– Matt Dawson, Journal of Social Policy

‘Before the 2010 General Election, David Cameron placed the “Big Society” at the heart of his efforts to rebuild Britain’s “broken society”. The essays in this volume probe the historical origins of the concept and seek to evaluate it in the light of both historical and contemporary evidence. They raise profound questions about the provenance of the “Big Society” and its relevance to contemporary social concerns. They should be of interest to anyone who cares about the past, present or future of British social policy.’
– Bernard Harris, University of Southampton, UK

‘There is nothing new about the notion of a Big Society. This book combines historical scholarship, international research and grassroots experience to shine a critical spotlight on the rhetoric behind the coalition government’s big idea.’
– Bill Jordan, University of Plymouth, UK

‘Armine Ishkanian and Simon Szreter’s fascinating book provides important insights into the way political elites use slogans and imagery to sway public opinion on social policy issues. This highly original work will be a major scholarly resource for years to come.’
– James Midgley, University of California, Berkeley, US

The expert contributors to this detailed yet concise book collectively raise questions about the novelty of the Big Society Agenda, its ideological underpinnings, and challenges it poses for policymakers and practitioners.

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.

By drawing on international examples, from developed and developing countries in order to analyse and discuss Big Society policies, this book will prove invaluable for students, academics and policymakers.

Full table of contents


Introduction: What is Big Society? Contemporary Social Policy in a Historical and Comparative Perspective
Simon Szreter and Armine Ishkanian

1. ‘Big Society’ and ‘Great Society’: A Problem in the History of Ideas
Jose Harris

2. Britain’s Social Welfare Provision in the Long Run: The Importance of Accountable, Well-financed Local Government
Simon Szreter

3. Big Society, Legal Structures, Poor Law and the Myth of a Voluntary Society
Lorie Charlesworth

4. Mutual Aid and the Big Society
Daniel Weinbren

5. Big Society and the National Citizen Service: Young People, Volunteering and Engagement with Charities c.1900–1960
Kate Bradley

6. Charities, Voluntary Organisations and Non-governmental Organisations in Britain Since 1945
Matthew Hilton

7. Charity and Big Society
Richard Fries

8. ‘Big Society’ as a Rhetorical Intervention
Martin Albrow

9. Funding and the Big Society
Cathy Pharoah

10. Government, Foundations and Big Society: Will You be my Friend?
Diana Leat

11. Can we ‘Nudge’ Citizens Towards More Civic Action?
Liz Richardson

12. The Big Society and Volunteering: Ambitions and Expectations
Nick Ockenden, Matthew Hill and Joanna Stuart

13. European Perspectives on the Big Society Agenda
Markus Ketola

14. From ‘Shock Therapy’ to Big Society: Lessons from the Post-Socialist Transitions
Armine Ishkanian

Conclusion: The Big Society and Social Policy
David Lewis



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