In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Welfare State Development in Western Europe

  • Introduction
  • Historical Foundations
  • Overviews on Theories of Development
  • Major Theories of Welfare State Development in Western Europe
  • Welfare Regimes
  • Challenges of Globalization, Europeanization, and Retrenchment
  • Public Support for Welfare State Development
  • The Broad Scope of Changing Populations and Ongoing Challenges

Political Science Welfare State Development in Western Europe
Catherine Bolzendahl
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0202


There has been an increasing focus of research within sociology and political science on the development of welfare states, and the bulk of this work has focused on the origin of this perspective—Western Europe. Understanding welfare state development in Western Europe can provide a number of important benefits, particularly greater insight into state-society relations and greater leverage in studying key issues of stratification and inequality. Theories of the importance of the state for social policymaking, the democratic incorporation of citizens, and the industrial advancement of a nation have a long history; however, theories of the welfare state are relatively more recent. Theories of welfare state development incorporate elements of past state-society theorizing, and push the state more aggressively into the sociological sphere, focusing attention on the ways in which the state affects and is affected by other social institutions. Specifically, welfare states use state power to modify the social or market forces in order to achieve greater equality. They do so unevenly, however, varying in the amount and efficacy of their intervention. Striving to understand why welfare states differ, how they change, and how they matter has led to a vast body of literature and a number of competing theoretical frameworks. In this article, I explore the some of the answers offered to these questions.

Historical Foundations

Contemporary research grounded in comprehensive theories of welfare state development began in earnest in the 1960s, but pulls from a much longer trajectory of thought on social rights and citizenship. In Great Britain, Thomas Paine argued that poverty is a failure of society and should be directly addressed though a social commitment to providing an acceptable standard of living (see Paine 1999). As Asa Briggs discusses with regard to his historical analysis (see Briggs 1961), similar ideas infuse thought across the European continent, and in the late 1800s, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in Germany forged fledgling social welfare policies. After the intervening decades of war, and facing rebuilding societies in poverty and ruin, scholars engaged with these ideas with new vigor. T. H. Marshall issued a now-classic statement emphasizing the necessity of social rights as a guarantee of citizens’ ability to truly hold both political and civil rights (see Marshall 1950), and Richard Titmuss studied the emergent differences in European models of provision that differentially focused on universalism (institutional) and selectivity (residual) approaches (see Titmuss 1958). More recently, Peter Lindert has produced an impressive historical overview of social spending across the broad sweep of modern European development, establishing how and where social spending has been linked to overall economic growth and development (see Lindert 2004).

  • Briggs, Asa. “The Welfare State in Historical Perspective.” European Journal of Sociology 2 (1961): 221–258.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003975600000412

    Historical perspective on the development of social rights and welfare states in Europe.

  • Lindert, Peter. Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Argues that social spending has contributed to, rather than inhibited, economic growth.

  • Marshall, Thomas H. Citizenship and Social Class, and Other Essays. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1950.

    Classic statement on the interdependences of social, political, and civil rights.

  • Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999.

    Early argument for the provision of social citizenship rights.

  • Titmuss, Richard. Essays on “The Welfare State.” London: Allen & Unwin, 1958.

    Along with Social Policy (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974), a body of scholarship that represents the earliest approaches to systematic differences in welfare state models.

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