It has been questioned that “if welfare states differ, how do they differ? And when indeed is a state a welfare state?” (Esping-Andersen, 1990, p.18, cited in Clasen, 1999, p.16). It could be argued that this is why “comparative studies are absolutely essential” (Holt cited in May, 1997, p.186). It could also be argued that with the increasing reign and influence of globalisation and responses to on today’s societies, it is not surprising that comparisons around the welfare systems cross-nationally, have continued to rise (Clasen, 1999, p.4) aided by quicker technology and a global press and international organisations such as the OECD, for example. However, what can be learnt from such research is a controversial area because of “local circumstance, experience and expectation” of welfare service users (Finer, Chapter 1, in Clasen, 1999, p.19) and differing welfare needs and definitions of the named populations. This essay will examine the benefits and disadvantages of comparative techniques on social policy.

This essay will also examine the welfare state as a social system and how it came about as a unit of comparative analysis. “Studies of this kind are based on correlational approaches and have been used to advance ‘grand theorising’ about welfare state development (Amenta, 1993, cited in Clasen, 1999, p.2). These theories and the problems attached with attempts to categorise countries as a ‘type’, will also be discussed. To conclude this essay will examine the claim that the world is moving “beyond the welfare state” (Pierson, 1998) and thus supplying evidence to suggest that nothing more can be learnt from the comparative study of other countries welfare systems.

As with most social policy terms, definition can be difficult, and it could be argued that the term ‘welfare state’ is no different. The term ‘welfare state’ has been used as an umbrella term for many different meanings such as “a particular form of state, a distinctive form of polity, or a specific type of society” (Pierson, 1998, p.7) and this could be used to suggest that ‘welfare state’ means different things to different people in different countries (Fraser, 1984, xxi).

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This can be confused further by the different types of welfare that can be offered, i.e. social, economic and state as suggested by Pierson (1998, p.6). From this it could be argued that the term welfare state incorporates a “complex socio-economic process involving a variety of forces” (Fraser, 1984, p.1). For the purpose of this essay ‘the welfare state’ equates to an “erratic and pragmatic response of government and people to the practical, individual and community problems of an industrialised society” (Fraser, 1984, p.1), such as Beveridge’s ‘five giants’ of ignorance, disease, idleness, squalor and want (Alcock, 1998, p.9). This is to say that the state has a duty.

It can be argued that there have always been elements of welfare with examples of friendly societies and the poor laws here in the U.K. (Cochrane et. al, 2001, p.2), family self help in the USA (Cochrane et. al, 2001, p.116) and emphasis on the church and charity in Europe (Savikuja, n.d.). This is to say that the development towards a structure commonly known as the welfare state has been a long and historical process (Fraser, 1984, xxi). Although most attribute the welfare state to the response of the Beveridge report of 1942, (BBC, n.d), “Bismarck’s government in Germany in the 1880’s, was actually the first to initiate steps towards a welfare state” (World Socialist Movement, 1996). However, it could be argued that features outlined in the Beveridge Report encouraged countless countries to adopt ‘a form’ of state aid in terms of a “social and economic safety net” (World Democratic Movement, 1996).

It could be argued that the hallmarks of welfare statism (that stemmed form the post war consensus), are that of increased civil, political and social rights and the desire to have a rich capitalist free market (Finer, Chapter 1, cited in Clasen, 1999, p.17). It has been suggested from this that there was a need of governments internationally to settle the social discontent after the war and to dilute the threat of the working class revolution (World Socialist Movement, 1996). This was done by “ensuring that workers’ very basic needs were met” (World Socialist Movement, 1996) and this is to say that the development of a welfare state was an attempt to “sanitise” the runaway capitalism (World Socialist Movement, 1996). It has been suggested that different developed countries took on varying amounts of Beveridge’s recommendations (Finer, Chapter 1, cited in Clasen, 1999, p.19), and thus there is a need to analyse welfare systems cross-nationally. So why use the comparative method?

Despite the problems associated with the comparative method as will be discussed later, this type of research does seem to be growing in popularity. It could be argued that this is a response to the globalisation process and the increasing concerns about variance in administration between countries. The degree to which welfare states are converging (if they are) is a measurable field and requires comparison it could be argued. As described below, this method can be used for a variety of reasons.

It has been suggested that some comparative study has been undertaken with the intention of pilfering seemingly effective policy responses to stimuli, from other countries (May, 1997, p.185) (import-mirror view). This is based on the assumption that “countries that are similar are more likely to borrow from one another” (Teurne cited in May, 1997, p.185). An example of this could be the policy transfer between the USA and the UK in terms of the New Deal and related employment policies. In both countries there were “temporary measures to remedy unemployment through public works schemes……..with longer-term programmes establishing more systematic and more rigorously administered welfare benefits” (Cochrane et. al, 2001, p.114) . This however, was a utopia was transferred from the Roosevelt administration in America to Britain much later.

Whereas other comparative research has been undertaken for the purpose of further theory development (May, 1997, p.185) (theory development view). It could argued that Esping-Andersens work, is a classic example of this.

Other comparative research has been administered in order to highlight differences between welfare systems (May, 1997, p.186) (difference view). For example there are many differences between the UK and Sweden in terms of income maintenance policies. In Sweden typical benefits include 64 weeks maternity pay, (Hansen, 1998, p.44), no limits to sickness benefit (Hansen, 1998, p.20), the same child benefit levels for every child (Hansen, 1998, p.41). Whereas in the UK typical benefits include 18 weeks maternity pay, (Hansen, 1998, p.44), 28 days sickness benefit, (Hansen, 1998, p.20), and decreasing amounts of child benefit, (Hansen, 1998, p.41). It could be argued that differences like these would not be identified without such comparative research. But statistics like these could allow the uneducated eye to make judgements without the full understanding of political and social structures in each country (Cochrane et. al, 2001, p.7).

Other research has been used to predict what may happen as a result of implementing social policy responses (May, 1997, p.185) (prediction view). This is based on the assumption that “fundamental properties” either “unite or divide modern welfare states” (Esping-Andersen, 1990, p3, cited in May, 1997, p.186).

The above reasons behind comparative research are said to be not mutually exclusive however (May, 1997, p.185). Just like Esping-Andersens’ regimes are not mutually exclusive as will be discussed later, the reasons for comparative research may not be either. There may be a collaboration of reasons for why this research is carried out at any one time. For example research may be carries out to identify difference with the intention of using policy ideas that work from another country.

“One aim of comparative research is to understand and explain the ways in which different societies and cultures experience and act upon social, economic and political changes” (May, 1997, p.185) but these changes never stand still and so comparative studies of this nature only offer a snapshot perspective. It has been suggested that this kind of research provides a deeper understanding of our own welfare systems, however this may be hindered by ethnocentricity (Coolican, 1996, p.66). Ethnocentricity is the idea that we view our own situations as the norm and all research of other peoples and systems will be hindered or biased by this view (Coolican, 1996, p.66).

It could be argued that the process of data collection is different in different states. “So far, the comparative study of welfare states and the attempt to construct sophisticated typologies has tended to be focused upon those countries with the most developed economies” (Pierson, 1998, p.177), so this may be hard to observe especially with the development of international organisations which are said to cancel out some of these variables.

There is also a language barrier with studies that go across national barriers. Some of these differences can be impossible to translate. A somewhat trivial example of this can be in the game of snooker: players play in vests and pants (USA) or waistcoats and trousers (UK). Although this example is not related directly to policy, it does highlight the possible language differences that can be experienced by researchers of comparative research.

Different definition of different problems cross nationally will lead to different policy responses by varying governments. What may constitute homeless here in the U.K may be different in other countries such as America and must be taken into consideration by researchers. This problem maybe hindered further by the alleged figure massaging of homeless statistics in the U.K. for pragmatic reasons by government. It seems apparent that homelessness constitutes rooflessness in Britian, (whereas it could be argued that the problems goes much deeper).

It has been suggested that “recent texts on comparative methodology for the study of either policies or welfare states or social research generally have demonstrated the degree to which methodology and conceptual problems are compounded once research crosses national borders” (Clasen, 1999, p.1). However it seems apparent that “why and how which welfare needs, or demands, are being transformed into social policies” is the key idea behind research of this nature (Clasen, 1999, p.4). But if welfare states can be compared, what features can indeed be compared?

It could be argued that the most obvious way of classifying welfare states is by the amount of expenditure spent on public services by each nation state. It could be argued that this would be an indicator of a countries political stance on welfare. This is to say that a countries political stance does indeed affect the welfare types and degrees offered. However, “the existence of a social program and the amount of money spent on it may be less important than what it does” (Esping-Andersen, 1990, cited in May, 1997, p.188). It is important to state that this is not the only point of comparison and not always the most useful especially with the range of demographics globally being experienced.

It could be argued that welfare states can vary in very many different ways, for example in size, in funding, in entitlement, in delivery and in redistributive capacity (Pierson, 1999, p.178). The table below explores the possible differences and how trying to ‘fit’ certain countries into a typology (as Esping-Andersen did) is made so much more difficult:




Universal – selective


Expansive – delimited


Optimal – minimal


Public consumptions – social transfers


Tax-based – contributory

Benefit type

Earnings related – flat rate


Progressive – regressive

(Taken from Pierson, 1998, p.173)

With so many features that can be compared it is not suprising that comparative study is said to be so problematic.

One of the most influential studies of welfare states and their categorisation has stemmed from the work of Esping-Andersen and such typologies can be constructed from comparative research. He made his categorisations based on the degree to which each country studied where deccommodified (the ability of citizens to live without the market at a socially acceptable level) and levels of stratification (levels of inequality). It could be argued that the degree to which these factors are present in a country results in the countries classification by Esping-Andersen. However, in his research the focus was mainly on means testing, pensions and states commitment to full employment. This is to say that the categorisation may change if the evidence is extended to health and income maintenance policies etc. Esping-Andersens regime types are that of the Liberal, the Corporativist/Conservative and the Liberal democratic welfare states.

Under Esping-Andersens’ typology the United Kingdom, The United states of America and Australia all fall in to Liberal welfare states. It has been suggested that the regime “minimises the degree to which individuals….. can uphold a socially acceptable standard of living independently of market participation” (Savikuja, n.d.). This is to say that state support that is offered is minimal and is based on the work ethic of getting people off benefit and back to work at the earliest opportunity. The fact that the assistance offered is so minimal should encourage this to happen, it could be argued. Welfare under this regime curtails strict entitlement criteria (Savikuja, n.d.), and the market is promoted as the first port of call for social assistance (Savikuja, n.d.). This model can be described as a safety net for those that slip through the net of the market.

The conservative/corporatists strand of Esping-Andersens’ regime types, is said to include countries such as France, Austria, Germany, and Italy and other countries in continental Europe (Savikuja, n.d.). In these countries the “church, family and voluntary work have much responsibility for social services” (Savikuja, n.d.). It could be argued that as with conservatism as an ideology there is a high correlation with the conservative welfare state in terms of the “preservation of status differentials and traditional familyhood” (Savikuja, n.d.). It could be argued that the benefits system in conservative welfare states also mirrors this approach with benefits typically being paid to “non-working wives” for example. This is to say that the “standard of social security depends on one’s position in the labour market” (Savikuja, n.d.). The state will only intervene if the capacity of the family to met welfare needs has become diminished.

Esping- Andersen’s third regime type is often called the “Scandinavian model” or the “ideal type” and encompasses the Social Democratic Regime (Savikuja, n.d.). Countries included in this type are Norway and Sweden. It differs from the liberal regime in that it offers a real “commitment to social equality” it has been argued (The Welfare State, n.d.). This is to say that the state is very active in the journey towards equality. “It is envisaged as a welfare state that would promote an equality of the highest standards, rather than an equality of minimal needs” (Esping Andersen, 1990, pp26-33, cited in Pierson, 1998, p.175). Taxes are comparatively high in these countries however. The systems works on the basis that if the majority pays in and the minority takes out, the system will continue to provide for those that really need it.

The transitional nature of the welfare state often means that each state may show elements of all three regimes identified by Esping-Andersen and some countries (such as the U.K.) may be hard to categorise because of this.

Despite being a well-recognised model, Esping- Andersen’s work is not the only attempt at classifying welfare state regimes. Titmuss also describes three models of welfare state. These are the ‘residual welfare model’, the ‘industrial achievement-performance model’ and the ‘institutional redistributive model’ (Pierson, 1998, p174). ‘The Residual Model’ suggests that short-term help should be provided for those needs unmet by the market and the family. ‘The Institutional Model’ suggests that work based programmes are effective but are related to the success of the economy. ‘The Institutional Redistributive Model’ suggests a more universal welfare state and sees need as the most important factor. (Taken from Pierson, 1998, p.174). It soulc be argued that there are similarities between Titmuss’ work and that of Esping-Andersen.

This essay has identified that welfare states differ and some of the ways that this can be seen have been suggested. But why do welfare states differ? “Esping-Andersen (1990) was able to show, using a considerable amount of data an ‘ideal type’ welfare regimes…… countries’ welfare states evolved as a result of different historical forces” (Esping-Andersen cited in May, 1997, p.188). As stated in the introduction the development to a welfare state has been a long and historical process.

Other reasons why welfare states differ can be attributed to a number of different things. The transitional nature of the welfare state only confuses this issue it could be argued. “The mature welfare states were created in societies where pensions were small and the years spent in retirement comparatively few” (Pierson, 1998, p.169). It could be argued that these increased costs of an ageing population means that the welfare states are no longer able to meet the increasing demands. The political orientation of the country in question could also account for welfare state differences.


In conclusion it could be argued that globalisation is said to be “driving all social policy regimes in the same direction” (Pierson, 1998, p.179). So are we now moving beyond the welfare state? “This desire to seek universal explanations across different contexts via an examination of the process of convergence is seen to be counterbalanced by the increased complications of social and political life that have accompanied globalisation” (May, 1997, p181). It could be argued that the social and political contexts of the world are changing as a result of globalisation.

Pierson suggests four reasons why we may be moving beyond the welfare state. These are:

1) The long-term incompatibility of the welfare state with a market economy

This suggests that the market is taking more of a prominent role and it could be argued that this is because of an increasing demand on the welfare state.

2) Changes in the international political economy

It has been suggested that the impact “of an ageing population is likely to vary quite substantially between different countries” (Pierson, 1998, p.170).

3) Changes in class structure and patterns of consumption

4) The incompatibility of a growth based welfare state with the securing of genuine individual and social well-being.

(Taken, from Pierson, 1998, p.167)

This essay has shown the benefits and disadvantages of comparative techniques on social policy cross nationally. This essay has also shown how the welfare state has become a unit of comparative analysis. Theories of welfare categorisation have also been discussed. To conclude this essay has suggested that the welfare state is no longer as prominent as it once was with the claim that we are moving beyond the welfare state. To conclude, it has become apparent that “comparative research is clearly a two-edged sword having both potential and problems” (May, 1997, p.173).


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May, 1997, Social Research: issues methods and process, 2nd edition, London. The Open University Press

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