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This chapter will:

  • present a discussion of rights-based approaches to human need;

  • critique the established conception of social citizenship as a basis for the right to state welfare and advance an alternative conception of social rights as articulations of human need;

  • offer a critical discussion of the connection between social rights and concepts of social justice and of the relationship between justice and humanity.

Human needs acquire particular meaning when they are expressed in terms of human rights. The idea that needs may be translated into rights has been dismissed by some as ‘a dangerous modern heresy’ (E. Powell, 1972: 12). If so, it is a heresy that may be traced back to Thomas Paine’s (1791) treatise on The Rights of Man, in which he proposed the abolition of England’s Poor Laws and sketched out a scheme that would give the poor a right to relief. The idea that our essential needs may give rise to fundamental rights came of age with the advent of 20th-century social liberalism, perhaps most decisively, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (1944) assertion that ‘freedom from want’ amounts to a human right. Human rights have been characterised not as a modern heresy, but as ‘values for a Godless age’ (Klug, 2000).

We have discussed in previous chapters a distinction that may be drawn between top-down theoretical and bottom-up practical approaches to needs. Correspondingly, there are two ways in which needs may be translated into, or articulated as, rights. Top-down approaches translate needs as ‘doctrinal’ rights, and bottom-up approaches translate needs as ‘claims-based’ rights (H. Dean, 2015).

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This chapter will:

  • present an analytical taxonomy or classification of dominant approaches to human need;

  • apply and adapt the taxonomy in relation to its past and present applications of needs categories within social policy, and examine how different understandings of need and needing are reflected within prevailing ideologies and different kinds of welfare regime.

This chapter will bring together the threads of the various arguments about human need that have been presented so far. This serves a somewhat specialised purpose. Of particular interest of some scholars is how to relate different approaches to, or understandings of, human need to the development of social policy. The taxonomy developed in this chapter encompasses the range of approaches so far discussed within four broad categories, each of which resonates with aspects of policy discourse, and which may also be reflected and supported by popular discourse.

Insofar as we shall be drawing on specific historical and contemporary examples of social policy provision, these will be illustrative, rather than exhaustive. The aim is not exactly to describe or prescribe different approaches in social policy, but to understand how competing premises and assumptions about human need are reflected in the ways they have been and/or are currently being constructed. We shall be addressing the possibility of future alternatives in Chapter 9.

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This chapter will introduce the reader to the contested nature of human needs, but then:

  • explain the importance of human need by:

    • illustrating how concepts of need figure in central, albeit diverse, ways in our everyday lives and everyday discourse;

    • critically reinterpreting the vital yet contested distinction between absolute need and relative need that continues to dominate and constrain social scientific analysis and debate.

  • outline the contents of the rest of this book.

This chapter sets out to explain that ‘need’, though it is a central term in social policy, has proved to be an elusive concept. It will demonstrate how understandings of human need may be reflected not only through social policies but also in wider interpretations – whether commonplace or philosophical – of the ‘human condition’ (Arendt, 1958).

Competing concepts of human need, whether express or implied, are present within all the social sciences. Academic social policy, as an inter- and multidisciplinary subject, draws from across the social sciences including sociology, economics, politics and elements of psychology, philosophy and much else besides. Need, it has been said, is a concept that is ‘central to social policy making’ (Erskine, 2002: 158). Unfortunately, need is also a concept that is interpreted in a mind-boggling variety of ways.

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This chapter will address what may be regarded as ‘bottom-up’ approaches to human need, by:

  • discussing the ways in which need may be socially constructed or interpreted through everyday customs, consumption patterns or lifestyles;

  • outlining relevant social policy perspectives and the practical methods by which policy makers may seek to interpret needs;

  • introduce the notion of insurgent claims making and the ways in which the naming and claiming of needs may be initiated from the bottom-up.

In this chapter we turn from what the last chapter characterised as ‘top-down’ theoretical approaches to inherent human needs to practical approaches that are concerned with needs as they are experienced, perceived or interpreted from the ‘bottom-up’. The contrasting metaphors of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ are intended to capture the sense of controversy and contestation that surrounds understandings of human need; the fluidity and the negotiability of meanings that attach to human need in everyday life.

The last chapter briefly summarised some of the critiques advanced, for example, by Doyal and Gough (1991: Part I) in respect of certain ‘relativist’ notions of human need. In this section we shall address certain key relativist positions, emphasising cultural explanations of need and some critical accounts of the needs created by capitalism; and concepts of need in ‘consumer society’.

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This chapter will address what may be regarded as ‘top-down’ theories of human need, by:

  • considering classic human individualist theories having general relevance for social policy;

  • discussing some more specific perspectives on human need that have been adopted within academic social policy;

  • addressing some critical/alternative theoretical perspectives.

Having in the last chapter considered a distinction between ‘thin’ needs and ‘thick’ needs, we turn now to consider the other broad distinction prefigured in Chapter 1, that between needs that are conceptually or theoretically defined from the ‘top-down’ and those that may be experienced and interpreted from the ‘bottom-up’. It is to top-down theory that this chapter will now turn, while ‘bottom-up’ interpretation will be discussed in Chapter 5.

Specifying needs adjudged to be inherent to the human subject requires suppositions about what exactly constitutes the living and embodied human actor; in other words, an explicit or implicit theory of personhood. But it must be recognised that the distinction between top-down theory and everyday interpretation can never be hard and fast. There is an abundance of theory and endless controversy regarding human need, yet it may be contended that substantive knowledge about human need can ultimately have no epistemological basis: all that we have is inference based on experience (McLeod, 2011). What may be theorised as inherent needs are likely at some stage to have been founded on interpretive assumptions grounded in experience, while interpretive accounts will often draw from theorised definitions of need handed down on the authority of rulers, priests, scholars and philosophers.

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This chapter will:

  • consider a broad-brush anthropological account of the history of the human species;

  • discuss the variety of ‘humanisms’: that is to say, the plethora of conceptual approaches and belief systems that in contrasting ways prioritise humanity;

  • present a radical humanist analysis of the constitutive or ‘essential’ characteristics of the human species as a means by which to define its needs.

This chapter sets out to consider what is distinctively ‘human’ about human need. Its conclusion informs the critical stance that informs the rest of the book: for appraising the distinction between that which is necessary to a human being’s existence, and that which is – in a literal sense – essential to her humanity (to which we shall turn in Chapter 3): and for understanding the dynamic relationship between human needs whose meanings are framed through prescribed beliefs and/or reasoning, and those which are framed through direct human experience, feelings and struggles (to which we shall turn in Chapters 4 and 5, respectively).

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This chapter will:

  • present a reprise of the key arguments that have been developed so far;

  • open a discussion regarding the politics of need;

  • advance the idea of a radical humanist ‘needs-first ethic’ as a basis for future approaches to and understandings of social policy.

This is a book addressed in the first instance – but by no means exclusively – to an academic social policy audience. There is a very obvious sense in which social policy engages with issues of human need: with people’s needs for various forms of human services and to be safeguarded from various kinds of harm. In the ordinary course of our lives we need health provision, education, housing and social security, and at times of special vulnerability we may need personal care and protection. However, the relevance of this book extends beyond academic social policy to substantive political worlds: to the politics of intimate relationships and of everyday life; the politics of local public service planning and delivery; the politics of national policy making; the politics of global governance.

The preceding chapters have revolved around two broad themes: competing understandings of human need; and the possibility of a radical alternative understanding.

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This chapter will:

  • develop a discussion of what may be called ‘thin’ needs, connecting them with ‘hedonic’ philosophical ideas of well-being;

  • develop a discussion of what may be called ‘thick’ needs, connecting them with ‘eudaimonic’ philosophical ideas of well-being;

  • consider, in light of these discussions, competing conceptions of human beings’ need for ‘dignity’ on the one hand and ‘care’ on the other.

This chapter will introduce more fully the particular distinction between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ conceptions of human need first touched upon in Chapter 1.

The distinction we have drawn between thin and thick interpretations of need and needing is similar to that once made by Kate Soper (1993). And it is related in a more general sense to distinctions between absolute and relative need; between basic and ‘higher’ needs; between vital needs and agency needs; between procedural and substantive definitions of need; or between what people need to survive as opposed to what they need to flourish. But the distinction we are making here also resonates with that which ethnographic anthropologists make between thin and thick descriptions of human life (for example, Geertz, 1973). We should not assume that thick interpretations are always better than thin ones: they may be richer, subtler, more complex, but will not necessarily result in just outcomes, and they are no less likely than other interpretations to be misguided.

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This second edition of a widely respected textbook is one of the few resources available to provide an overview of human need, as a key concept in the social sciences. Taking an approach encompassing both global North and South, this accessible and engaging book models existing practical and theoretical approaches to human need while also proposing a radical alternative.

Incorporating crucial current debates and illustrations, the author explores:

  • distinctions between different types and levels of need;

  • how different approaches are reflected in different sorts of policy goals;

  • debates about the relationship between needs, rights and welfare;

  • contested thinking about needs in relation to caring, disadvantage and humanity.

Fully revised and updated, this new edition pays due regard to the shifting nature of welfare ideologies and welfare regimes. Offering essential insights for students of social policy, it will also be of interest to other social science disciplines, policy makers and political activists.

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