High risk families and the ‘amplification of deviance’

On Friday of last week, I presented a paper at a seminar in Cardiff looking at ‘Moral Panics and the State’ which explored the ‘massive expansion’ of the Troubled Families Programme to include 400,000 ‘high-risk’ families.

My presentation, which is available by clicking here or on the image below, used a ‘deviance amplification’ framework proposed by Stan Cohen to explore the expansion. Cohen argued that as well as a traditional deviance amplification framework advocated by Lemert and Wilkins (deviance leading to social control, leading to more deviance, leading to more social control etc) there was a process of amplification within the reaction/control phase itself. He identified a number of parasitic elements of this amplification including sensitization, escalation, dramatization, innovation and exploitation.


I try and argue that each of these elements can be found in the documents and announcements relating to the expansion of the TFP, with  a particular interest in the roles played by the ‘moral entrepreneurs’ Eric Pickles and Louise Casey. I am becoming increasingly interested in the ideological exploitation of the Troubled Families Programme and I find it fascinating that the expansion was predicted by Louise Casey a full 12 months before it was officially announced and before any evaluation of the TFP had even been commissioned (this happened in March 2013). On page 64 of the Listening to Troubled Families report that she produced in July 2012, she wrote:

The next part of the challenge will be to understand more about how the success with families is achieved, and then to seek to widen this approach to a far larger group of families across the country; to reshape, redesign and refocus services.

The day itself was excellent (all of the abstracts can be found here) and there are plans for a fourth seminar in the series to be held some time early in 2014. It is worth checking out the website of the seminar series for further details.

Best wishes,


Arbitrary lines, short-term approaches and small statistical gains

A post I did a while ago in another guise, looking at why tackling poverty isn’t part of the ‘success’ criteria for the government’s Troubled Families Programme, despite it being a ‘core’ part of their child poverty strategy

North East Child Poverty

Last week, the latest figures for ‘troubled families’ whose lives have been ‘turned round’ were released. The figures, showing that 14,000 families had been ‘turned round’ were accompanied by a press release, a written statement to parliament and various interviews where the achievements of the Troubled Families Programme were lauded. Eric Pickles suggested that progress had been ‘phenomenal’ and Louise Casey said

we are finally getting to grips with problems which may have persisted for generations, giving hope to people who have often been failed in the past and relief for the communities that suffered the effects of their behaviour.

The figures, the criteria for the payment-by-results framework and the hyperbolic language prompted me to revisit a couple of statements in the government’s child poverty strategy. Firstly, on p39 of the strategy it is stated that

It has been estimated that there are around 120,000 families in England…

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The commodification of multiple disadvantage


A couple of weeks ago, Iain Duncan Smith delivered a speech at the 2nd annual Social Justice conference organised by the government.

Ther government have, in my opinion, set to out to re-define what social justice is and their concept of social justice is overwhelmingly focused on the most marginlaised members of our society. The Secretary of State highlights how the publication of the government’s Social Justice strategy was

” … about posing a landmark challenge to the status quo … even in the face of scepticism and uncertainty … establishing a radical new vision for how we support Britain’s most disadvantaged indivduals and families

This ‘misappropriation’ is something I am very interested in and am exploring further in a event at Newcastle Law School on the 4th December – more info here – but it isn’t the primary subject of this post. Instead, here I’m interested in the ways in which this government are setting out to ‘help’ these groups of people.

Towards the end of the speech, under the heading ‘Social Investment’, Iain Duncan Smith goes on to say:

This is a historic break from a system that for too long, fostered dependency rather than transforming lives…

… and one which will not happen using the same old methods.

As I said at the beginning, the Social Justice Strategy was always about challenging the status quo.

Encouragingly, I believe one final measure of our progress over the past 18 months has been emergence of radical and creative ways of achieving social change.

We now have over 30 schemes and pilots up and running, where providers are paid at least in part for the outcomes they achieve in improving in people’s lives.

Because the focus is on results, instead of inputs, providers are freed from rigid processes and given scope to innovate.

Spurred on by a growing social investment market, new models are coming to the fore, such as social enterprises and social impact bonds…

… in turn bringing in new investors –  private sector companies, high-net individuals, and venture capitalists… groups who might never before have seen themselves as part of the solution for change.

The introduction of a social investment tax relief will open up that market even further.

Just as Gift Aid has encouraged charitable donations, so my hope is that the tax relief will incentivise anyone with savings to put their money into social investment.

Alongside new infrastructure – a Social Stock Exchange and the Early Intervention Foundation, which is already starting to assess and advise on programmes’ social return on investment…

… this is opening up exciting new prospects.

(my emphases)

It is difficult to know where to begin, but essentially we are seeing some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in our society being ‘re-branded’ as an investment opportunity for ‘high-net individuals’ and ‘venture capitalists’ with the services required to help these people being re-defined as a marketplace where canny investors can make a tidy profit out of other people’s misery. This does not make any sense to me at all, no matter how much I think about it, especially when it is carried out under the banner of ‘social justice’.


Stan Cohen highlighted in his classic 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics that it was possible to exploit ‘deviancy’ for a number of purposes – religious, political, commercial etc and that disadvantaged groups were often “preyed upon” in various ways, some more subtle than others.. He references Lemert who noted the socioeconomic symbiosis between criminal and non-criminal groups” which refers to the direct or indirect profit derived from crime by persons such as bankers, criminal lawyers, corrupt policemen, court officials and lawyers” which seems very appropriate for this situation.

Many people will, of course, be aware that Iain Duncan Smith established the Centre for Social Justice to ‘put social justice at the heart of British politics’. The current Director of the CSJ, Christian Guy, recently spoke at Eton about social justice and also posted a picture of himself with some ex-CSJ colleagues on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. The picture is below. Just to remind you, these are the men who have been tasked with putting social justice at the heart of British politics since 2004.


Kind regards,


***I will be exploring the ideological exploitation of the Troubled Families Programme in a paper to be given at the Moral Panics seminar in Cardiff on 22 November 2013, which I will post here shortly afterwards.

‘Moral panics and the state’ seminar

I have just had a paper accepted for a seminar in Cardiff on Friday November 22nd. The seminar is the third in a series on ‘Moral Panics’ in the 21st century and the full programme can be found here on the seminar series blog, and you can also find the booking form here. You will hopefully believe me when I tell you that the purpose of this post is not self-promotion (although on reflection, that’s arguably the purpose of the entire blog, to some extent…..) but to bring the whole event to your attention. People interested in this blog will absolutely definitely find at least a couple of papers in there that will be of interest to them.

If you don’t believe me, you can view some of the abstracts here

My abstract doesn’t seem to be there (at the time of writing) for some reason, so just to completely contradict myself and do a bit of self-promotion, below is the abstract for my paper.

‘High-risk’ families: The ‘amplification’ of the Troubled Families Programme

The latest episode of a recurring moral panic about a ‘social residuum’ or a ‘problem group’ can be found in the ‘troubled families’ agenda. The recent announcement in June 2103 of the ‘massive expansion’ of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP), to include a newly identified group of 400,000 ‘high-risk’ families’, represents an amplification of the control culture surrounding families living in poverty. Drawing on the press releases and wider press coverage relating to this announcement and recent speeches by the moral entrepreneurs Louise Casey and Eric Pickles, this paper will examine the recent history of the Troubled Families Programme, mobilising the ‘deviance amplification’ model proposed by Cohen, which built on previous work by Wilkins.

The ‘troubled families’ narrative began in the aftermath of the riots in 2011, when David Cameron stated that ‘Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society.’ Since then, regular announcements reporting on the progress of the programme and frequent interviews, media appearances and speeches by Casey and Pickles have ensured a strong and positive ‘feedback loop’ for the TFP, including support from local authorities, national charities and members of the public. Particular attention will be paid to five stages within the deviance amplification model (sensitization, diffusion, escalation, dramatization, exploitation) and the language and rhetoric surrounding the ‘extra £200 million boost’ to help ‘high risk families get to grips with their problems before they spiral out of control’ will be analysed.

This re-definition of ‘troubled families’ to include a (poorly defined) group of ‘high risk’ families can be seen as a ‘widening of the net’,  sensitizing the public to a much larger, more visible group of families who require ‘intensive help’. These families are not ‘at-risk’, they are ‘high-risk’ suggesting a ‘clear and present danger’ to others. Identifying another 400,000 families, in addition to the initial 120,000 families, represents a further diffusion of the ‘problem’ from the relatively small numbers of youths who participated in riots in some towns and cities in England in 2011. The ‘intense approach’ and the threat of ‘consequences’ for non-participation can be understood as an escalation of previous approaches to working with ‘families with multiple disadvantages’, with Casey also accusing ‘rule enforcing’ social workers of ‘colluding’ with families. Strong language has been used to dramatize the activities families with David Cameron alluding to them as ‘neighbours from hell’ and Casey promoting the use of contraceptives for ‘families with lots of children across lots of different age groups.’

Finally, the paper will highlight how the ‘troubled families’ narrative and its subsequent expansion has been ideologically exploited to lend weight to wider discourses around Broken Britain, supposedly demonstrating the necessity of punitive welfare reforms to ‘reduce dependency’ and tackle worklessness amongst, in the words of Iain Duncan Smith, ‘a (steadily rising) underclass in Britain – a group too often characterised by chaos and dysfunctionality…and governed by a perverse set of values.’