What is a welfare state?

Authored by: Johanna Kuhlmann

Routledge Handbook of the Welfare State

Print publication date:  July  2018
Online publication date:  June  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138631649
eBook ISBN: 9781315207049
Adobe ISBN:


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It is undeniable that today all developed countries provide some form of welfare. Although welfare states are the subject of social, political, economic and academic discussion, it is striking that the question how to define a welfare state has always been and still is subject to debate (Briggs, 1961; Hill, 2013), and that scholars have repeatedly criticised this debate as not significantly moving forward (Titmuss, 1987; Wincott, 2001). It is against this background that – although there have been calls for unequivocal definitions (Veit-Wilson, 2000) – this chapter does not aim to arrive at a definite definition of the term “welfare state”, but approaches the question “What is a welfare state?” in four (partly interrelated) steps. First, it summarises the difficulties of defining the term “welfare state”. Second, it gives a brief overview of the general development trajectories of “established welfare states” (Castles et al., 2010b). Third, it reviews and systematises different conceptualisations of the welfare state. Fourth, it traces dominant trends and patterns in welfare state theorising. Finally, the chapter refrains from a conclusive definition of the welfare state, and argues for a dynamic definition according to the context.

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