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1.1. Social policy as narrative
How does social policy, and the stories it tells, influence the spaces in which we might grow old?
There can be little doubt that narrativity, the use of a "story" metaphor, both as a research technique (Holstein & Gubrium, 2000; Kenyon, Ruth, & Mader, 1999) and as a technique for personal self-construction (McAdams, 1993; McLeod, 1997), is becoming increasingly popular both within and beyond Social Gerontology.
Part of the attractiveness of thinking in terms of stories, is the opening of a critical space between description and intention. It makes it much easier to sidestep social determinacy and take a stance toward positions that might otherwise present themselves as the only possible reality. This does not mean that such narratives should be taken lightly, however, especially when they exist in the public sphere of social policy. They have the power, it is argued, to shape behavior and expectation and, thus, considerable political energy is invested in their promotion and maintenance.
In the last 20 years, western social policy has seen significant shifts in its ideological base. There has been a move away from welfarism, which was found in its classic form in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, toward market-based "mixed economies" of social care. Rationales and mechanisms were adopted from US and Canadian systems, which were themselves undergoing an intensification of these same trends. Methods such as case-management were
used, to "marketize" the unitary welfare state on the one hand, and manage the fragmentation of services and resources on the other. If such methods transform and mediate economic relations, they also influence the perception helping professionals and clients of services have of themselves. They become, to use a Foucaultian term, technologies of the self (Biggs & Powell, 2000).
In each of the countries mentioned above, older people are the majority group using health and social care services (Phillipson, 1998). It would be peculiar, then, if changes in public policy had not been accompanied by changing narratives of old age. The character, significance, and consequences of such narratives, which it is argued make a significant contribution to what Holstein and Gubrium (2000) have referred to as "selves we live by," is the subject of this paper. Particular attention will be paid to the turn, seemingly away from market ideology toward a social-democratic "third way" approach to social issues. This turn will be interrogated in terms of its ideological and material determinants, its focus and what it fails to address, and its consequences for the construction of an ageing identity under contemporary conditions.
1.2. Why is social policy important?
Social policy is not simply a governing body's concerned response to a particular problem or social ill that can then be remedied, however much professional politicians may wish, and sometimes believe this to be the case (Decalmer & Glendenning, 1997). This interpretation positions policy making as a benign rescuer from problems that blow in like a natural disaster or are uncovered by the forward march of progress. It is a story itself about causality and appropriateness of response.
Writers such as Bourdieu (2000) and Foucault (1980) have made it much harder to avoid the fact that policies not only respond to social ills, they also consecrate them. They contribute to the constellation of ideas and evidence that create the problem itself. Creation is being used in at least two senses here: as a contribution toward the material conditions, either through action or inaction, that increases the likelihood that a certain social ill will occur; and in the sense that through the agency of social policy formation, certain issues are legitimized. They are shaped and made visible in particular ways.
For the helping professional, this often means that policy is permissive of certain activities and prohibitive of others. This is especially true for public sector and related professionals who are close to and by degrees dependent upon the political executive. At the most fundamental level, policy makes material resources available to pursue those activities. From an institutional point of view, it allows certain social issues to be "seen," to be recognized and therefore addressed.
However, policy can also do more than that in furnishing a vision or series of visions of experience, such as later life, which legitimize a place in which social subjects are able to form publicly acceptable identities. Such frameworks, according to Charles Taylor (1989) "Provide the background, explicit or implicit, for our moral judgements, intuitions or responses ... My identity ... is the horizon within which I am capable of making a stand" (p. 26).
For Taylor, the possibility of making a moral stand is intimately tied up with the surrounding social framework, and becomes an amalgam of self-directed invention and the degree to which circumstances facilitate the expression of an identity acceptable to one's moral self. Can one, in other words, take a stand toward something and how easy or difficult is that possibility made? In order to take a stand, one has to be able to identify the "something," and have the resources to stand up to or for it.
The interrogation of policy as a contradictory space, both a Foucaultian determinant of legitimizing discourse and as one of Taylor's sites that can enable critical alternatives to emerge, introduces us to a continuum along which the very possibility of being able to conceive an alternative state of affairs is in itself problematic. It links formal policy positions to personal experience in a way that emphasizes the likelihood of critical awareness. At first (or perhaps more accurately when starting from a singularly bleak and repressive point) an existing state of affairs might be unquestioningly accepted. A little further along the continuum, it may be experienced as a troubling sense of "not-rightness" that cannot easily be put into words, but which nevertheless challenges, through intuitions however slight, the status quo. We are dealing in the degree to which words can be found and whether a sense of resistance can make the leap from private, inner discourse to a public statement of belief and agency. It is as if particular narratives invite a series of steps from an inability to conceive of an alternative state of affairs or even open oneself to the intuition that something may not be quite right, to the articulation of resistance and more …