Who Is the Welfare State? Towards a Sociology of the Public Service Sector

(Last modified September 2010)

This work is a continuation of "Administering Social Life: The New Welfare State and Its Normative Milieus of Care and Service", a study begun in 2006 to examine the status of welfare state policies and the processes that shape them from the perspective of the social sciences. Although the main focus was on how the changing architecture of the welfare state affects society, work on the project showed that not only transformations in social structure warranted further attention, but that there was also a need for developing sociological approaches to investigating the "working state", especially with respect to the actors involved. The project therefore also scrutinized the role of people employed in public services and welfare organizations and their involvement in the transformation of the welfare state. Some of the results of this work are reported on in "Wohlstandskonflikte. Soziale Fragen, die aus der Mitte kommen" [Prosperity Conflicts: Social Issues from the Center of Society], published in 2009 by the Hamburger Edition.

The current project will again take up this thread but concentrate theoretically and empirically on the broad spectrum of public services that are a key element of modern European welfare states, democracies governed by the rule of law, and pluralistic market economies. Praxis-oriented sociological research on the public sector must focus on the future of providing goods and services for the benefit of all. Moreover, such research should consider public service in terms of three distinct functions—as a highly significant employment sector, as a uniquely organized employment market, and as a special sphere of professional opportunities. This focus reveals striking social changes in the public sector, now associated with such catchwords as "new public management" or "public private partnerships". Employment in areas defined by the interests and needs of the greater public good has become increasingly threatened, instable, and unequal in recent years. What are the impacts of these developments on the state, its performance, and its employees? Is the public service sector in European societies still a stable mainstay of social life? Or has it become field for nervous reforms that exacerbate social and economic inequalities? To what extent do employees of public or semi-public services continue to perceive themselves as guardians of the social whole? And can they continue to safeguard the quality of public goods and services in the face of public budget constraints and redefined employment conditions?