Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2009

The Political Opportunities and Constraints in Welfare State Reform

Lecturer: Professor Kees van Kersbergen,
Department of Political Science,
VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Main disciplines: Political Science

Dates: 3 - 7 August 2009
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

The objective of this course is to understand the political opportunities and constraints of contemporary welfare state reform. For this we need to appreciate where the welfare state came from, how it functioned, what the pressures in favour of reform are, why reform is so difficult and politically risky, and why it nevertheless happens. This course offers this broad perspective.

Mainstream scholarly work on the welfare state is characterized by a wide variety of theoretical and empirical schools and explanatory objectives. The interest of political scientists has mostly been in the welfare state as a dependent variable, especially focusing on the political causes of welfare state development and cross-national variation. One can distinguish four types of research: 1) approaches that focus on the causes of the emergence, expansion and cross-national variation of welfare state regimes, 2) theories of the “crisis” of the welfare state, 3) models that capture the political and institutional resilience of social policy arrangements, in spite of mounting pressures, and 4) attempts to understand the conditions under which reforms take place, in spite of resilience and political and institutional sclerosis. This classification not only does justice to the historical development of welfare state research (from the 1960s to the present), but also provides an accurate theoretical context for appreciating current developments.

In the 1990s, the research attention shifted to welfare state reform, a concept around which there has been considerable theoretical and empirical debate. The problem of political and institutional “stickiness” of welfare regimes was the dominant explanatory problem and institutionalist approaches quickly moved to the forefront of the scholarly debate. Institutionalist approaches, however, encountered difficulties in understanding the – sometimes radical – reforms that were occurring in most welfare states. One of the major puz¬zles of con¬temporary welfare state research is why reforms can take place, in spite of the institu¬tional mecha¬nisms and political resistance that seem to work against change. The leading idea for the course is that the constraints and possibilities of reform depend crucially on the welfare state’s architecture, on its positive and negative social and political feedback mechanisms, on the distribution of (political) power, and on the capacity to design reform packages that are not only economically efficient and socially desirable, but above all politically feasible. Welfare state reform is exceedingly difficult, yet it happens. Why and under what conditions does it happen?


Some basic and essential readings (recommended):

LECTURE OUTLINE (and preliminary readings*)

The readings marked with * are included in the compendium (approximately 340 pages; total reading = approximately 900 pages).

Lecture 1: Why Worry about How Nations Deal With Work, Welfare and Social Risks?
On the basics of welfare state research.


An advice is, if you don’t have it already, to get some basic knowledge of the economics of the welfare state. The best book to consult is: Nicholas Barr (2004; fourth edition), Economic of the Welfare State, Oxford: Oxford University Press (Part I is particularly useful for this course).


Lecture 2: Why Did We Need a Welfare State in the First Place and How Did We Get It?
On the origins, development, and variation of welfare state regimes.


Two early, but still very interesting and “classical” studies are: Gaston V. Rimlinger (1971), Welfare Policy and Industrialization in Europa, America and Russia, New York: Wiley; and Hugh Heclo (1974), Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden. From Relief to Income Maintenance, New Haven: Yale University Press.


Lecture 3: Why did We get Different Worlds of Welfare and Do We Still have Them?
On welfare state regimes and decommodification.


Lecture 4: Did the Welfare State Do What It Promised To Do?
On the social, economic and political consequences of the welfare state.


Lecture 5: Why Do We Need to Reform the Welfare State? Part I
The (so far) limited impact of globalization.


A useful collection of essays that explains and tests the two main rival hypotheses on the globalization impact on the welfare state (the efficiency hypothesis and the compensation hypothesis) is Miguel Glatzer and Dietrich Rueschemeyer (eds) (2005), Globalization and the Future of the Welfare State, Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press.


Lecture 6: Why Do We Need to Reform the Welfare State? Part II
On mounting pressures, new social risks, and new inefficiencies


Books you might want to consult are Gøsta Esping-Andersen (with others) (2002), Why We Need a New Welfare State, Oxford: Oxford University Press and Klaus Armingeon and Giuliano Bonoli (eds) (2006), The Politics of Post-Industrial Welfare States: Adapting Post-War Social Policies to New Social Risks, London: Routledge.


Lecture 7: Why are Welfare States so Resilient to Change?
On the stickiness of institutions and the new politics of the welfare state.



Lecture 8: Why Does (Radical) Reform Occur? Part I
On how functional requirements foster a new politics of social policy learning



Lecture 9: Why Does (Radical) Reform Occur? Part II
On how political ideas and discourses matter


A book you might want to consult is: Taylor-Gooby, Peter (ed.) (2005), Ideas and Welfare State Reform in Western Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Lecture 10: Why Does (Radical) Reform Occur? Part III
On why and how political actors pursue risky welfare state reforms – and get away with it (or not).



Reading list (including the readings mentioned for the lectures; relevant books between brackets):


The Lecturer
Kees van Kersbergen is professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science of VU University Amsterdam. He has a Ph.D. from the European University Institute (1991, cum laude). He also teaches at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain) and Sichuan University (Chengdu, China). His main research interests lie in comparative political sociology, politics and economy. He is the author of Social Capitalism. A Study of Christian Democracy and the Welfare State (Routlegde 1995), winner of the Stein Rokkan Prize in Comparative Social Science. He is co-editor (with Robert H. Lieshout and Grahame Lock) of Expansion and Fragmentation: Internationalization, Political Change and the Transformation of the Nation State (Amsterdam University Press 1999) and (with Philip Manow) of Religion, Class Coalitions, and Welfare States (Cambridge University Press, 2009). He has published in the European Journal of Political Research, the European Journal of International Relations, Party Politics, Acta Politica, the Journal of European Public Policy, the Journal of Common Market Studies, and the Journal of Theoretical Politics, among others.

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