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.

Welfare Conditionality final research findings

The final findings papers for the Welfare Conditionality project, that I was a Researcher and NVivo Lead on, have been published today. As covered in The Guardian, Benefit sanctions [were] found to be ineffective and damaging.

From the Guardian article:

Benefit sanctions are ineffective at getting jobless people into work and are more likely to reduce those affected to poverty, ill-health or even survival crime, the UK’s most extensive study of welfare conditionality has found.

The five-year exercise tracking hundreds of claimants concludes that the controversial policy of docking benefits as punishment for alleged failures to comply with jobcentre rules has been little short of disastrous.

“Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes,” the study concludes.

The Canary has also covered the findings reporting that – The latest news on the DWP has left its reputation in tatters.

From the article:

A groundbreaking study, conducted over five years, has left the reputation and operating practices of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in tatters. Specifically, the report’s authors heap criticism on one part of the department’s operations: the benefit sanctions regime. But a standout point from the report was that the DWP should [pdf, p12] “cease” applying sanctions to disabled people.

[…] The Welfare Conditionality project (2013-2018) was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. ‘Conditionality’ is the idea that people who receive benefits should have to meet certain requirements, such as applying for jobs, or lose their payments. A ‘sanction’, in this context, means the withdrawal of benefits, normally for a fixed period. 

As well as the Overview paper there are separate briefings for the nine policy areas covered in the research –

Anti-social behaviour and family interventions

Disabled people



Lone parents



Social housing (fixed-term tenancies)

Universal Credit

A Qualitative Computing Revolution?

The challenges of data management and analysis on a large longitudinal qualitative research project

Computer aided qualitative data analysis has the potential to revolutionise both the scale of research and possible analysis techniques. Yet, the software itself still imposes limits that hinder and prevent this full potential from being realised. This post looks at the large and complex dataset created as part of the Welfare Conditionality research project, the analytical approach adopted, and the challenges QDAS faces.

The Welfare Conditionality project has two broad research questions in setting out to consider the issues surrounding sanctions, support, and behaviour change. Firstly, is conditionality ‘effective’ – and if so for whom, under what conditions, and by what definition of effective. And, secondly, whether welfare conditionality is ‘ethical’ – how do people justify or criticise its use and for what reasons. To answer these questions, we have undertaken the ambitious task of collecting a trove of qualitative data on conditional forms of welfare. Our work across nine policy areas, each of which has a dedicated ‘policy team’ that is responsible for the research. The policy areas are: unemployed people, Universal Credit claimants, lone parents, disabled people, social tenants, homeless people, individuals/families subject to antisocial behaviour orders or family intervention projects, (ex-)offenders, and migrants. Research has consisted of 45 interviews with policy stakeholders (MPs, civil servants, heads of charities), 27 focus groups with service providers, and three waves of repeat qualitative interviews with 481 welfare service users across 10 interview locations in England and Scotland.

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