This article reflects on contemporary social development, and suggests that we need to initiate a process of thinking about a post neo-liberal development agenda. As a step in this direction, it is suggested we need to re-approach the social as a conceptual category in order to consider social analysis not simply as an epiphenomenon of economic development, but as a social sphere in its own right. To start thinking about this process, the social is approached through the metaphor of the middle ground, which acts as a device to help conceptualize a field of action between social life and policy processes. Exploration of this field of action is used to consider changes in the policy community by focusing on the implications of ‘liberal freedom’ and ‘negative freedom’ for people's actions. This provides a basis to take a critical view of concepts such as social capital and approaches such as sustainable livelihoods, reflect neo-liberal social development discourses. This leads us to argue for the need to consider the potential of contemporary biological science and of social movements for reinvigorating our understanding of social development.