The aim of this paper is to connect the recent interest in prevention to recent developments in social theory. It begins by recovering some of prevention’s essential features from the realm of common sense, showing that what is taken to be the common sense of prevention is emblematic of modernity. For prevention is built on scientific understandings of cause and effect and the possibility of prediction; on a capacity for controlled intervention by government in social life; on a universal value base; on the authority of professional expertise; on rational, calculating, individual social subjects. As this order develops and changes, many of its constituent elements begin to be threatened by social processes which it has itself set in train. Prevention is affected by (and implicated in) these changes, too. But far from being eclipsed by them it becomes more prominent. Drawing on systems theory, the paper argues that prevention meets the essential purpose of boundary maintenance by which the functioning of social systems is sustained. For reasons both external and internal to welfare agencies, including an increased burden of social risk and increasing organisational complexity, this need to mark and maintain system boundaries is ever more pressing. At the same time, at least part of the problem of the fragility of boundaries is attributable to attempts to maintain them. It is for this reason that preventive policy making can be described as recursive, or self-propelling.

Source: Children and Society 13 (4) 232-241