Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2005

The Politics of Welfare State Reforms in Comparative Perspective: Parties, Institutions, Interest Organizations and Pressure for Reforms

Lecturer: Associate Professor Christoffer Green-Pedersen,
Department of Political Science, University of Aarhus, Denmark

Main disciplines: Political Science, Sociology

Dates: 1 - 5 August 2005
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

Participants: Ramon Ballester, Agnes Blome, Gerard Cotterell, Danielle Dierckx, Patrick Emmenegger, Claire Finn, Astrid Halsa, Ivan Harsløf, Kristin Henriksen, Zhanna Kravchenko, Linda Løvaas, Rania Maktabi, Astrid Musland, Moira Nelson, Anette Nyqvist, Veronika Pasynkova, Michele Raitano, Jakob Rathlev, Valentina Riegel, Ånen Ringard, Asli Sen, Peter Starke, Sabina Stiller, Stefano Supino, Yoko Tada, Masumi Takeuchi, Mara Yerkes. Lecturer: Associate Professor Christoffer-Green Pedersen, Aarhus University, Denmark


Welfare state reforms have become one of the hottest topics in West European politics. They easily cause mass demonstrations and government crises, but they are often also implemented. At the same time, the welfare state has become one of the most intensively studied issues within social sciences. This interest has produced a rich literature from political science and related disciplines, which can be applied when trying to explain the politics of welfare reform.

Based on this literature, the course takes up a number of issues relating to welfare state reforms: What is reform in the first place and what is the difference between reform and retrenchment? How can we explain cross-national differences in the extent of reforms? How important are sector dynamics for reforms processes? Are pension reforms thus fundamentally different from health care reforms? What role do trade unions and other interest groups play in reform processes?

Exactly because the welfare state is such a hot political topic, studying reforms of it can also teach us a lot about broader issues such as: how do we explain policy stability and change? What role do political parties play in modern politics? What is the effect of political institutions? The course should thus be of interest to students studying the welfare states as well as students with a broader interest in policy change and West European politics.

Basic Readings

Course Outline and Corresponding Readings
The readings marked with * are included in the booklet the participants receive prior to the course. The readings are preliminary as new and relevant articles or books may be included.

Lecture 1: Introduction and Pressures on Welfare States
The first lecture will include a short introduction to the course. What is the plan and what will we cover and not cover? We then move on to focus on pressures for reforms. Few will argue that reform can be explained simply by looking at pressures and challenges, but on the other hand the nature of the pressures that welfare states face must be comprehended in order to understand the reforms they are trying to implement. Therefore, we will take a closer look at pressures such as globalization, European integration, new social risks, and demographic changes.


Lecture 2: What Welfare States do We have and Why?
In order to understand, the politics of welfare reforms we need a thorough understanding of the type of welfare states that exist. This includes their structure, their political foundation and their effects on for example inequality and gender relations. The well-known regime typology is a useful starting point for such an endeavour and will serve as a starting point for the lecture.


Lecture 3: The New Politics of the Welfare State
The publication of Paul Pierson's work on "the new politics of the welfare state" was the starting point for the academic debate on welfare reforms and welfare state retrenchment and Pierson's work still serve as a reference point for the debate. Based on Pierson's own work, the lecture will discuss the idea of a "new politics of the welfare state" and the implications for welfare state reform.


Lecture 4: The Dependent Variable Problem: What is Reform and Retrenchment?
In order to discuss the politics of welfare state reform it is necessary to spend some time on the concept of reform itself. What is a reform and what is retrenchment of the welfare state? How can ideas about small and big reforms be given a precise meaning? How can we actually measure welfare state reforms and retrenchment in a way that allows for solid conclusions about cross national variation in the extent of reform and retrenchment?


Lecture 5and 6: The Politics of Reform: Parties and Institutions
Some of the most central questions within the literature revolve around the relative importance of political institutions and political parties for cross national variation in welfare state reforms and retrenchment. Do politics still matter or are Nixon goes to China logics more important today? Do countries with a strong executive witness more reform because the executive can push reforms through, or do they see less because accountability and thus blame is concentrated? What role does the character of the existing welfare states play? These questions have been the subject of a number of studies which, however, reach fairly different conclusions. As the questions are closely related and are often investigated together, the two lectures will be handled together as it allows for a greater number of studies to include in the discussion.


Lecture 7: Residualism vs. Universalism: Welfare State Changes in the US and Scandinavia
Having focused primarily on theoretical issues, the course now becomes more empirical as we take a closer look at what actually happened with welfare states. First, we focus on what is normally considered two fundamentally different types of welfare states, namely Denmark and Sweden on the one hand, and the US on the other hand. What has actually happened to the welfare states in these different countries? Are reform patterns similar as a "new politics logic" would suggest, or are they different due to the differences in welfare regimes as the power resources theory would suggest?


Lecture 8: Reforms in Continental Europe: Why Is It so Difficult and Is It Actually Happening?
In this lecture we move focus towards continental Europe and Germany in particular. Why do reforms seem more difficult here than in other welfare states. Is it for instance due to the power of the social partners as some will argue or are the problems of Continental Europe simply bigger requiring more fundamental reforms?


Lecture 9: Sector Dynamics
The welfare state literature has always been focused on explaining cross-national differences in welfare state policy and reforms. However, one could also argue that sector dynamics play an important role. Pension reforms are similar across countries but the political logic around them is different from for instance health care reforms. Typologies of pension systems thus differ from welfare regimes as countries such as Sweden, Germany and the US have similar pension systems. The lecture will discuss such arguments with health care and pensions as examples.


Lecture 10: Where do We go From Here
This final lecture will attempt to give an overview of the debate on welfare reforms. What do we know and where is further research urgently lacking. This discussion will partly be based on the conclusions from a large research project on pension reforms which represents one of the most recent and ambitious attempts at understanding the politics of welfare reforms.


Further readings:

The lecturer
Christoffer Green-Pedersen has published The Politics of Justification. Party Competition and Welfare-State Retrenchment in Denmark and the Netherlands from 1982 to 1998, Amsterdam University Press, 2002 and articles in, for instance, Comparative Political Studies, Governance and West European Politics on comparative politics of welfare reforms with focus on Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. His work has recently focused on pension politics and a research project on agenda-setting in comparative perspective. This project focuses on how changes in the electorate increasingly makes party competition a matter of agenda control and how this can explain cross national differences in what issues have become political.

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