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Criminology Class, Fall 1999


California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: November 6, 1999
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

Summary and Notes on Quinney's Definition of the Modern Welfare State

Theory from Quinney's "The Prophetic Meaning of Social Justice" in Arrigo's Criminal Justice, Social Justice. Quinney "has written extensively in the areas of crime, law, justice, community, and peace." Arrigo, p. xv.

Quinney speaks of the modern welfare state in terms of how our social system deals with people who are not successful at managing the system and their survival in it. As I understand it, he means by modern welfare state the system we have for dispensing food, clothing, and shelter for those who cannot minimally supply their own. We call this welfare, or giving out of the goodness of our hearts. The term "Lady Bountiful" comes to mind, reminding us that charity is best associated with the voluntary acts we turn to after the serious business of earning wealth and power. Charity often falls to women at the practice stage, though men tend to control at the policy and executive stages.

Quinney suggests that this approach to handling those individuals who are not minimally successful in our system is in fact a product of late capitalism, which tends to support the apologetic position that individuals, in the best of all possible worlds, would take care of themselves, but ho-hum, we'll take care of those who don't succeed, for it offends us to see their failures before us in our success. This, says Quinney, is to take the primary position of seeing our society as a collection of individuals pursuing their own goals, rationally, as capitalism defines our system. (Arrigo, at p. 74)

It would be equally possible to take the approach that the primary goal of society is not to foster the financial and power success of individuals, but to create a society "based on cooperative and collective action. . . This is a philosophy worked out in the course of socialist purpose." In other words, those who are not successful may just be not successful because we have so defined them, and then proceeded to act on our own definition without a good faith hearing of their perspective.

Seen from Quinney's perspective the modern welfare state is a control mechanism to protect the social order constructed by those who were successful. From Quinney's perspective, society would and will survive more effectively when we take collective action for the good of all.

Note that Quinney equates such concepts as the modern welfare state with the individually oriented competitive system typical of capitalism and its accumulation of wealth and power.


Questions to Help You Ponder the Concept:

  1. How does the consideration of how we treat the unsuccessful provide theoretical clues as to our philosophy of success?

    As I see it, the successful and the unsuccessful are two extremes of a continuum. To the extent that we define success as the competitive acquisition of greater wealth and power than others, and to the extent that we define unsuccessful by the opposite, or failure to acquire at least the wealth and power for minimal inclusion in the "good life," we have defined our societal goals. How we treat the unsuccessful reflects the extent to which we believe in those goals, to the exclusion of other operative variables. Perhaps a good example of this is our recent Welfare to Work approach, which would suggest that we frimly believe that all should "work" and "earn their own way." That makes us pretty insensitive to social contexts that do not support individual growth and independence.

  2. How does the modern welfare state relate to crime?

    To the extent that we define crime socially, the social context reflected in those definitions also reflects those in power. That means that the views of those in power are privileged, and consequently crime is defined from the perspective of the successful. Consider welfare. It is not the poor who make the policy for "welfare." It is those who have succeeded in acquiring wealth and power who make the decision as to how resources shall be dispensed to those who have not acquired wealth and power. Our studies on privilege make clear that the perspectives and the social contexts are likely to differ for the two perspectives.

    Habermas would argue that both perspectives, and all in between, should be heard in good faith in the decisions by which all are to be governed. That goes to legitimacy. If our government in fact lacks legitimacy for the lack of a good faith hearing of the poor, is that a crime? Does that lack of legitimacy affect the definitions of crime? No answers. These are the issues that will come before us in the next few decades.