25 Years of ‘Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism’


Why celebrate the 25 years birthday of an academic book? Most books collect dust on library shelves long before reaching that age. However, some books become classics of their discipline. Gøsta Esping-Andersen’s The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism is such a book. It is arguably the most influential contribution to comparative welfare state research ever written.

In this special issue Esping-Andersen contributes what he himself considers the missing piece in Three Worlds, namely an article on the effect of the welfare state on social mobility. Esping-Andersen shows that while social democratic welfare states have enhanced upward mobility chances for working-class offspring, this equalization does not come at the cost of the privileged classes.

The other contributors take issue with one or more of three interrelated arguments that explain the impressive impact of Three Worlds. First, that distinct historical-political developments in capitalist societies resulted in three different types of welfare states. Second, that welfare states types reflect different political ideologies (liberal, conservative and social democratic). Finally, that welfare state types have systematically different economic, political and social consequences.

While reflecting some of the most important arguments put forward in Three Worlds, each article goes beyond analysing these arguments’ impact on the scholarly literature and makes an original contribution to the research agenda initiated by Three Worlds. Jane Gingrich and Silja Häusermann’s analyse class-based voting, Torben Iversen and David Soskice’s discuss the relation of Three Worlds with the influential Varieties of Capitalism literature, Daniel Oesch’s analyse the relationship between equality and employment in post-industrial economies, Philip Manow examine the social and political origins of the ‘fourth’ welfare regime in Southern Europe, Jennifer Hook argue that class inequality is the missing variable connecting Three Worlds and typologies of ‘gender regimes’, and Kees van Kersbergen and Barbara Vis’ reflect on the (dominant) role of Three Worlds in comparative welfare state research.

In an introductory article we show how Three Worlds had an immediate impact on comparative welfare state research, and how its status has grown since to become a a standard reference in virtually all social science disciplines. The group of established scholars and upcoming stars in this special issue not only gauge the impact that Three Worlds has had on different debates, but also look forward and advance the debates initiated by Three Worlds. Check out the special issue.