The welfare state and sociology grew up in tandem. The cornerstones of the modern welfare state were erected in the late nineteenth century, first in Germany and soon thereafter across most of Western Europe. This was during the same era in which sociology, as an academic discipline, was founded. Such coincidence is hardly accidental. Both evolved out of prevailing controversies on how to address the ‘social question’ how to ensure order and consensus in an increasingly individualized, atomized, and seemingly polarizing society; how to respond to the commodification of both needs and labor; and how to manage the changing balance of political power that, predictably, would result from democratization.
The Western welfare states did not evolve uniformly as industrialization and democratization unfolded. Indeed, the beginnings of modern social policy appear to belie any connection at all. The pioneers were autocratic Germany and Austria, and the laggards par excellence were the democratic and industrial leaders, such as the United States and Great Britain (Rimlinger, 1971). Furthermore, today's prototypical examples of highly advanced welfare states – the Scandinavian – would, until the 1930s, have appeared comparatively undeveloped. This apparent paradox has stimulated an especially long-standing and intense sociological debate over welfare state development. Certainly, an explanation of the social origins of a phenomenon may not be a good guide to later development. Nonetheless, the very fact that nations, one after the other, eventually converge in adopting and expanding social policies suggests that, yes, there exist common underlying causal forces behind the modern welfare state.