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.