In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Welfare States

  • Introduction
  • Handbooks and Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Datasets and Websites
  • Classic Works
  • Overviews and Reviews
  • Theoretical Approaches
  • Transnational Influences
  • Consequences of Welfare States
  • New Directions

Sociology Welfare States
Jeremy Seekings
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0065


The growth of the welfare state has been a central feature of the societies—capitalist, increasingly urban, and mostly democratic—that gave rise to sociology as a discipline. Between the late 19th century and the late 20th, states in the more industrialized countries expanded their roles in the provision of public services and the distribution of income, providing varying degrees of protection against the risk of poverty. These services included public education, housing, and health care, as well as programs of contributory social insurance (which protected against risks, especially of ill health, disability, unemployment and old age) and noncontributory social assistance (which maintained the incomes of the poor). A large and vibrant literature has grown around the construction of welfare states in the advanced capitalist countries, and the different forms that the welfare state took in these cases. As the welfare state came under renewed fiscal pressure and political criticism in the advanced capitalist countries in the late 20th century, so political sociologists turned their attention to the resilience and reconstruction of these welfare states. At much the same time, scholars turned to other parts of the world, especially Latin America and East Asia, and began to analyze the origins, development, and form of welfare states in these regions. Taking middle-income and even poor economies into account also has extended further the diversity of forms that must be accommodated within the comparative study of the welfare state. The improving availability of data has facilitated the quantitative analysis of cross-national and even cross-temporal variation in the form of welfare states, especially in the advanced capitalist societies of the global North but also, increasingly, across large parts of the global South. While the systematic study of crossnational variation has progressed rapidly, much of the literature on welfare states, especially in the global South, continues to entail single-country case studies.

Handbooks and Textbooks

The welfare state is well served in terms of handbooks. Castles, et al. 2010 provides an up-to-date review of scholarship on the welfare state, although it is much weaker on the global South than the global North. Pierson and Castles 2007 and Leibfried and Mau 2008 collect classic articles on the welfare state. Textbooks on the welfare state tend to be nationally particularistic, focused on a single country case study. Béland 2010 is a useful text, although focused on the United States, while Hill 2006 provides a more encompassing analysis.

  • Béland, Daniel. 2010. What is social policy? Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Introduction to the welfare state, focused on the United States.

  • Castles, Francis, Stephan Leibfried, Jane Lewis, Herbert Obinger, and Christopher Pierson, eds. 2010. Oxford handbook of the welfare state. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199579396.001.0001

    This is the “state-of-the-art” handbook for students of the welfare state: forty-eight chapters and nine hundred pages, summarizing the scholarship on the welfare state. The volume straddles the Atlantic, but it is weak on the coverage of the global South.

  • Hill, Michael J. 2006. Social policy in the modern world: A comparative text. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Discusses different areas of social policy, including education and health care as well as social security, with a comparative perspective. Also includes discussion of gender as well as ethnic and other social divisions.

  • Leibfried, Stephan, and Steffen Mau, eds. 2008. Welfare states: Construction, deconstruction, reconstruction. 3 vols. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

    Massive, comprehensive collection of classic articles on the welfare state.

  • Pierson, Christopher, and Francis G. Castles, eds. 2007. The welfare state reader. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Collection of classical writings, including foundational works, left- and right-wing views of the welfare state, debates on contemporary issues, and future challenges to the welfare state.

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