Moral entrepreneurs, ‘radical reform’ and factoids

This is a blog I did for the ESRC Moral Panics Seminar Series. It looks in detail at how the case for ‘radical reform’ of family services is being constructed by Louise Casey, the Director of the Troubled Families Unit

ESRC Moral Panic Seminar Series, 2012 - 2014

The current focus on ‘troubled families’ is only the latest episode of a long running concern with a perceived ‘underclass’ in our society. In the true spirit of previous ‘moral panics’ these families have undoubtedly been ‘defined as a threat to societal values and interests’ and, as we will see below, their ‘nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion’ (Cohen 2002, p1).

The role of chief ‘moral entrepreneur’ (Becker 1963) in this episode is arguably held by Louise Casey, the Director of the Troubled Families Unit in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Casey has been successful in helping to secure the ‘massive expansion’ of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) to include 400,000 newly identified ‘high-risk families’ accompanied by £200 million of extra central government funding. The ‘success’ of the TFP has also been used as justification for wider reforms to the way that public services…

View original post 1,292 more words

The ‘new’ (Anti) Social Justice?


Yesterday, I gave a talk at Newcastle Law School as part of a really interesting seminar series they are holding on ‘What is social justice?’

I effectively dodged the question and instead focused primarily on what is not social justice, using the governmental version of ‘social justice’ to argue that the concept has effectively been misappropriated by Iain Duncan Smith and his ‘doxosopher’ friends at the Centre for Social Justice. Bourdieu argued that people working for ‘think-tanks’, or, more accurately, lobbying groups, like the Centre for Social Justice were ‘would-be scholars of the obvious’ and Gramsci called them ‘experts in legitimacy’ and ‘organic intellectuals’. Hayek suggested that they were unable to have original thoughts of their own and suggested they were ‘dealers in second-hand ideas’.

I try and argue that there are at least five key elements of this new version of social justice which differentiate it from more widely held and understood concepts of social justice. These elements are:

  • de-historicization – stripped of, ignorant of and in denial about its historical context and meaning
  • mis-recognition – both research evidence and the lives of disadvantaged individuals have been willfully mis-recognised and mis-represented
  • operationalization – what was often a claim made on government by campaigning groups is now a fully fledged ‘official’ political programme with departmental responsiblity, a government strategy, an annual report, an outcomes framework and annual conferences and awards.
  • individualization – along with familialization, what has generally been a theory relating primarily to the ‘basic structure of society’  is now a concept firmly located in ‘transforming lives’, aided by 33 individual social justice ‘case studies’ on the DWP Social Justice website.
  • commodification – I blogged about the commodification of multiple disadvantage here and social justice now represents an investment opportunity for private sector firms and individuals.

I suggest that, as this ‘new’ version of social justice is entirely keeping with Thatcher’s view that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women, and families’ then the ‘Easterhouse epiphany’ that Iain Duncan Smith underwent must never have happened (HUGE credit here to Kaliya Franklin and her ‘Benefit Scrounging Scum’ blog for highlighting this). Instead, drawing on Hayek, I argue that we have been treated to a ‘mirage’ of social justice and the current governmental use of the term is, as he proposed

intellectually disreputable, the mark of a demagogy or cheap journalism which responsible thinkers ought to be ashamed to use because, once its vacuity is recognized, its use is dishonest

I came across a book called ‘Anti-social policy’ by Peter Squires recently which has helped some of my thinking on this. A couple of quotes, which I use in the presentation, stand out. The first talks of how the New Right governments of the 1980s achieved a ‘dislocation of the social’, and that their

constructed discourses of ‘the social’ wielded by the states ‘social’ institutions and the ‘social’ professions bear precious little relation to the aspirations of civil society that the progressive and democratic socialist tradition has long embraced

Squires goes on to argue that

How might we describe, other than by the designation ‘anti-social policy’, proposals which increase the distance between rich and poor in terms of health, housing and education; proposals which increase dependency upon inadequate means tested benefits and increase the numbers of homeless … or legislation which centralises political power and undermines civil liberties?

The slides from the presentation are below. If anyone has any thoughts or questions about them, please do get in contact, either via the comment box or via e-mail at . I’d be very interested to hear people’s thoughts.

If anyone is interested in having me come and talk/present/spout off about this to them, again, please let me know.

Thanks again to Newcastle Law School – and Kathryn Hollingsworth and Kevin Brown in particular – for the invitation to speak.

Best wishes,




400,000 ‘high risk’ families – policy making by ‘estimate’

I posted a blog a few weeks ago about a Freedom of Information request I had submitted regarding the expansion of the Troubled Families Programme to include 400,000 newly identified ‘high-risk’ families. The response I got to my request for some more detailed information on how the numbers involved had been calculated basically told me it was early days and it wouldn’t be appropriate (‘in the public interest’) to disclose this information to me. I argued in the blog that this amounted to ‘decision-based evidence making’

So I submitted another email asking for a review of the original decision and I received the response to that review a couple of weeks ago. I stated that because the figure of 400,000 ‘high-risk families’ was in the public domain, this presumably wasn’t a figure that was still in the early stages of development. The review found that the initial decision not to disclose the information to me was correct and this decision was therefore upheld. What I found slightly surprising though was that the author of the letter informing me of this decision stated

it is clear to me from the relevant documents that 400,000 is an estimate based on information about a number of provisional criteria for identifying high risk families, and that these criteria may be subject to change following the conclusion of the policy formulation process.

Perhaps I missed something from the original announcements but I could see no information whatsoever which suggested this figure was merely an estimate and may be ‘subject to change’. On the contrary, the figure was repeated on numerous occasions and on no time was any qualification added to it. I had also enquired about the methodology that was used to arrive at the figure of 400,000 but it was explained to me that providing me with this info would not be possible without ‘divulging, as an integral part of that information, the provisional criteria used’. This, despite glimpses of the provisional criteria being offered in the press releases and statements accompanying the announcement and issues such as health problems, parenting issues, attendance issues  at school and children at risk of being taken into care were all mentioned. And surely the criteria could be anonymised in some way (e.g. A, B, C, D etc) whilst still explaining the methodology used?

So, this leaves me no further forward in trying to understand how the government identified these 400,000 families. In the meantime however, I did come across a quote from Stan Cohen which, I believe, will prove more helpful than the DCLG have been. In discussing what happens after the Inventory stage of a moral panic, he argues that the net is ‘widened’ to identify more deviants and elements of social control is extended to these ‘at risk’ groups. He states that ‘The targets are not, of course, chosen randomly but from groups already structurally vulnerable to social control’ (p64 2002)

And, on the other hand, we could argue that decision making based on ‘estimates’ is progress of sorts when one considers that the original figure of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ was essentially a factoid and Louise Casey’s ‘listening to Troubled Families’ report was called ‘dipstick research’ by the DCLG.

I’d be interested to hear any views on this and the responses I have had and whether people think this is worth pursuing or not.

Best wishes,


Cohen, S. (2002) Folk devils and moral panics (3rd edn), Abingdon: Routledge