Upcoming workshop presentation: ‘XVivo: The case for an open source QDAS’

I will be doing a presentation on the need for qualitative researchers to embrace open source software and my work on Pythia as part of the Urban Studies’ Monday workshops at the University of Glasgow on 26th November.


Qualitative data analysis software (QDAS) has the potential to revolutionise both the scale of qualitative research and the array of possible analysis techniques. Yet currently available software still imposes unnecessary limits that hinder and prevent this full potential from being realised. Additionally, it locks data and the analysis performed on it within proprietary file formats that makes the archiving and sharing of research difficult. Due to similar issues, open source solutions have seen increasing popularity in quantitative research, and it is perhaps time that qualitative researchers joined them. This presentation will therefore discuss both the issues of current proprietary QDAS as well as the potential of open source software for qualitative researchers. To do this, the myriad of issues experienced with NVivo by the Welfare Conditionality project will be used to exemplify the problems created by a reliance on expensive, slow, and poorly designed proprietary software. The second half of the presentation will focus on Pythia, an open source QDAS library written in Python I have been working on. Through covering the design philosophy, current progress, and long-term plans the potential of open source will be highlighted for being able to solve problems with current qualitative software, enable new creative analysis techniques, and allow researchers to reclaim control of their data.

The workshops, as far as I am aware, are open to Urban Studies’ staff and PhD students only. However, as usual I will upload a copy of my presentation slides after the event. Additionally, as part of the preparation for the presentation I will be aiming to write a few short blog posts on the design philosophy of Pythia, elaborate further on why there is a need for an open source QDAS, as well as write-ups and screenshots of progress. Unfortunately, development ground to an absolute halt during the eight months where all my spare time, energy, annual leave, mental health, hopes, dreams, and general will to live were sacrificed at the job hunting altar. I now have around 12 months before that hell begins again, so once I have taken care of the journal article writing backlog that also built up during that time the plan is to filter work on Pythia back into my weekly schedule.

Upcoming conference presentation: ‘The Universal Acceptance of Conditionality?’

I will be presenting next month at the Welfare Conditionality: Principles, Practices and Perspectives conference, 26-28 June 2018, University of York.


Critics and campaigners against conditionality for welfare benefits have highlighted the severe harms resulting from sanctions and the stigmatisation of benefit claimants. In response, proponents of conditionality have oft replied with the refrain that “there has always been conditionality in the system” and point to high levels of support for conditionality from the public, including amongst benefit claimants. Yet, missing from these debates has been a detailed account of how claimants draw upon and construct justifications and critiques of welfare policy and practice. To fill this gap, this presentation explores the ethical arguments made by welfare service users who participated in the Welfare Conditionality project. Drawing on Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) theory of justification to outline the diversity of ethical orders participants called upon to construct their arguments, including the ways compromises and contradictions are defended or denounced. Even amongst the majority of participants who agreed with the general principle that abled bodied claimants should actively be looking for work, they rarely made reference to only one ethical order. Frequently it was argued that the sanctions regime is disproportionate and actively undermining the reciprocal duty to provide claimants with support. Furthermore, participants expressed concern that within the current welfare system there is a lack of a civic ethos amongst DWP and private contractor staff, a predominance of an industrial target driven service model, and a violation of human dignity and universal rights.

Failure to Justify: The absence of a ‘natural situation’ with benefit sanction decisions

Copy of the slides for my presentation on Tuesday 10th April 2018 at the British Sociological Association’s Annual Conference.


UK welfare reform has seen sanctions become a crucial form of punishment for claimants who are judged to have failed to meet behavioural conditions. Drawing on data from an ESRC-funded study (2013-2018) of the efficacy and ethicality of welfare conditionality in England and Scotland (see: www.welfareconditioanality.ac.uk), the paper explores the ethical arguments made by 207 participants who reported experiencing one or more sanctions. These arguments are to be explored through Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) theory of justification, in detailing how participants justified / critiqued sanction decisions through reference to different models of justice. In making their argument, participants often pointed to sanction decisions not being a ‘natural situation’, one which has a clear flow to events in accordance with general principles. Participants reported being unaware their actions were sanctionable, felt that deferring sanction decisions to a ‘decision maker’ disempowered them, and that there was a haste to sanction without adequate opportunity to provide explanation. More broadly, the sanctions system was critiqued for having an industrial model of service provision, where claimants are ‘just a number’, and there being a lack of a civic ethos throughout the system. This pervasive sense of injustice, despite the acceptance amongst a significant number of participants of the general principles of conditionality, brings into question whether the current sanctions system is compatible with the criteria required to be a justifiable order. The paper will therefore also reconsider the debates between pragmatic and critical sociologies, particularly the importance of symbolic forms of domination and violence.