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:, 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.


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