Social policy and the context in which it is practised and developed are undergoing significant transformations. Evidence of the increasing influence of the 'market' on social programs is placing considerable pressure on the logic and legitimacy of western welfare states. Welfare state models, characterised by state intervention, are now commonly cast as the villain in a story of welfare dependency and moral decay. In political discourse, a focus on the individual character traits of welfare claimants is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in a marketised social policy environment. In investigating what this 'meta-narrative' of change means in specific local contexts, this thesis empirically examines the influence of a market-orientated discourse on the policy and practice of public housing in Queensland, Australia. The specific instance of market inspired policy change that is examined in this thesis is the public housing 'reforms', introduced by the Queensland Government in 1997.
There are many models and theories that can be used to study social policy change. This thesis begins by reviewing positivist, critical and poststructural approaches. It is argued that 'post-positivist' theories have much to offer existing understandings of policy practice, particularly the linguistic or 'cultural turn' in the social sciences that has placed the category of 'discourse' firmly on the social sciences agenda. Poststructural theories, responsible for promoting the category of discourse, have received a mixed reception in the field of social policy. There are some social policy academics who interpret poststructuralism as depoliticising the critical agenda of social policy research, while others see it as fruitfully opening up new lines of inquiry and new sites of struggle. One of the purposes of this thesis is to engage with this debate by highlighting the implications and effects associated with the discursive dimension of policy practice.
The research design used to investigate this area of policy practice is an exploratory, qualitative case study. The empirical methods used to generate an interpretative account of policy change consist of (1) twenty semi-structured interviews with a range of policy actors from the Queensland public housing 'policy community' and (2) a textual analysis of written policy documents relating to the public housing reforms. The theory and tools associated with critical discourse analysis (CDA) are applied to the data to determine the role of policy language in the change process.
The dimensions of the empirical analysis include: changing 'orders of discourse in the policy community'; power relations and 'discourse coalitions' between policy actors; and the importance of identity and subjectivity in the process of policy development and interpretation. An emphasis on the dialectical relationship between discourse and material practices is a constant theme in the empirical analysis. The analysis concludes with a discussion about the possibilities that critical discourse analysis offers social policy research and policy-making studies. It shows that CDA can usefully be applied to disrupt hegemonies and highlight the constitutive and transformative power of language and its ideological investment.