Benefits Street: Territorial Stigmatisation and the realization of a (tele)vision of divisions

Benefits Street: Territorial Stigmatisation and the realization of a (tele)vision of divisions


Tom Slater and I put our heads together a little while ago and wrote a piece exploring some reactions to the initial series of Benefits Street. We examined the responses to the programme by Iain Duncan Smith, Christian Guy (Director of Duncan-Smith’s ‘think-tank’ the Centre for Social Justice) and Fraser Nelson (Telegraph journalist and Advisory Board member of the Centre for Social Justice) using Bourdieu and his work On Television and Wacquant’s work on terrirotial stigmatisation or ‘the taint of place’.

We think it’s quite a good piece, although the anonymous reviewers who saw it disagreed. Thankfully, Bev Skeggs viewed it more positively and has posted it on her Values & Value blog, which is well worth a browse in its own right. If you do read our piece and like it, or indeed even if you don’t, Bev has written a fascinating short piece on Benefits Street called ‘Legitimizing Slow Death’ which examines Benefits Street, drawing on a ‘theory of monstrosity’…..

I’m having a bit of a break from Twitter for boring reasons which I won’t go into here, so if anyone wants to make Christian Guy, Fraser Nelson and/or others involved with the Centre for Social Justice or the making of Benefits Street aware of our critique, please, be my guest…

Best wishes,


Social workers as ‘bounty hunters’?

lee majors

Go with me on this one….

A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in a workshop on Troubled Families at the SWAN conference held in Durham. The presentation that I used to generate discussions about the idea of ‘troubled families’ looked at the historical constructions of the ‘underclass’ thesis but, given the audience, it also looked at the implications for policy and practice. I shared an idea that I have been thinking about for a while and which I want to elaborate on a little bit more here – the idea that social or, as they’re increasingly referred to, ‘family’ workers, as imagined by the ‘troubled families’ narrative, are akin to and could conceivably operate as state sanctioned ‘bounty hunters’ in the not too distant future. This will probably be a bit messy and might appear to be a slightly flippant way of looking at this issue, but I think there’s enough to go on and the metaphor can be seen as an example of what Loic Wacquant has called the ‘remasculinization of the state’ (p201). So here goes…

In the current Troubled Families Programme, local authorities and their partners are required to go looking for troubled families – we know that the indicative number of ‘troubled families’ provided by DCLG that authorities should be working with is far larger in most cases than the number of families in each area that meet all three national criteria. So local authorities are required to develop their own criteria and then go looking for families that meet these criteria. There is, effectively, a hunt for troubled families going on, with a looming deadline focusing the minds of workers as they trawl through data trying to make a match or ‘find a lead’.

midnight run

Once a ‘troubled family’ is ‘identified’ a single worker is supposed to be allocated to that family. Remember the mantra ‘One family. One plan.One worker’. An attachment fee is then paid to the local authority – with the implication being that the worker will stick to the family and won’t, figuratively speaking of course, leave their side. This chimes with the ‘persistent’, ‘challenging’, ‘assertive’ approach that is required of workers. The Payment By Results mechanism thus effectively operates as a bonus for ‘turning round’ a family – very similar to the bounty paid when a ‘wanted’ man (sic) is ‘brought in’ by a bounty hunter.

If, as Louise Casey argues that “All of what we do turns on something very simple: the relationship between the worker and the family” then the importance of institutional structures and partnerships fades into the background. If one worker, with brilliant personal skills can bring about change in the most troubled and chaotic families in our society, who needs a complex bureaucratic institutional framework to support their work? Just as the source of the ‘problem’ is individualised or, at its most expansive level, familialised, with wider potential determinants being roundly ignored, so the solution is presented as being within the gift of an exceptional individual rather than changes to structural and societal factors.

So, whilst the PBR process currently goes through local authorities and the money is paid to the institution, it is not inconceivable, given recent developments, that family workers could be paid directly depending on the results that they achieve. The Department for Education recently issued a consultation on the outsourcing of children’s services – potentially removing local authorities from the equation (a similar thing also appears to be on the cards for probation officers) and the same government department has (re)introduced performance related pay for teachers – so a precedent has been set for payment by results (or performance) to street-level employees of the state and there is also a direction of travel which will see the delivery of children’s services ‘opened up’ to market forces and increased competition, potentially leading to a ‘need’ for a ‘more flexible workforce’. Casey has also previously stated that PBR ‘makes the transaction between ourselves and what we are trying to do with the family clear’ with a real ‘simplicity’ (emphasis added). What would make the transaction clearer and simpler and, dare I say it, ‘leaner’ and more efficient, is to contract directly with an individual or a private organisation.  Stan Cohen has also argued that in Visions of Social Control that, in instances similar to the one being discussed, state power can be maintained and even extended even whilst the symbolic and simulated withdrawal of the state is taking place (p109). This also links to Wacquants arguments around a recrafting of the state under neoliberalism, as opposed to a shrinking of it.

If this direction is continued, there would be nothing to stop ‘family workers’ going independent (in fact it might be necessary in some areas) and potentially working for whichever agency was willing to pay them to work with the ‘most troublesome’ families. The ‘best’ workers (identified as those with the highest ‘success’ rate in ‘turning round’ a family’) would be able to charge the highest fees. The removal of a state infrastructure also works to prevent the issue of critical or subversive practice what Lemert has called ‘industrial deviance’ – the situation where employees work ‘in and against the state’. It also reflects recent initiatives which have sought to re-brand social work as a cool, hip, masculine career choice for ‘elite’ individuals. Note the gritty, urban images (hoodies, sharp haircuts, concrete urban settings) used to seduce Russell Group students into a life on the ‘Frontline’. No images highlighting administrative or assessment related procedures or old, temperamental computer equipment were used…..

Of course, it would be churlish to suggest that the ‘social’ has no role to play in transforming families lives in this brave new world. As this thought provoking blog post shows, agents of the state who wanted to work as part of a team could set up their own social enterprise, where they could operate as, well, ‘soldiers of (mis)fortune’:

If you have a problem (family), if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the SW-Team…..


I did say it might get messy…. I may well be barking up the wrong tree here or barking up a very old tree or, to really push it, barking where there just aren’t any trees at all. But, I’d be interested to hear people’s views and it does reflect age old concerns about the balance between the ‘care or control’ requirements/expectations of social workers. I also hope(genuinely) that what some may perceive as flippancy in this post might encourage others to consider viewing things slightly differently or reassure those who already do…..



Frontline and symbolic violence


Those who govern are prisoners of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats who often know almost nothing about the everyday lives of their fellow citizens and have no occasion to be reminded of their ignorance. (Bourdieu 1999, p627)

Frontline, the ‘Teach First for social work’ launched last week with the help of Richard Branson’s daughter, amid much positive media attention and much scepticism from social work practitioners and academics. I’m not going to comment too much on Frontline or its criticisms of social work. I’m not a qualified and/or practicing social worker and whilst this didn’t stop Josh Macalister believing he had the answer to its ills, I guess I’m not so self-assured. There have already been a number of thoughtful (and thought-provoking) blogs and articles which have been written by social work students, social work practitioners and social work academics (the latter raises the issue of a lack of involvement of service users in the development of Frontline). There has also been a joint statement written by and on behalf of leading social work academics (JUCSWEC & APSW) expressing concerns about Frontline.

Instead I want to try and offer a slightly more sociological perspective and focus a little bit on how it can be that someone who has been a teacher for a couple of years can write a fairly flimsy document (less than 1 side of A4 on the current policy context for social work – really?) and have it adopted and supported by government all in the space of a year or so, whilst the concerns of existing practitioners and academics are largely ignored. Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of doxosophers, Stabile & Marooka argue that there are spontaneous intellectuals (2003, p333) who act as knee-jerk critics and providers of legitimacy(and) tend to subscribe to the doxic view of the world, repeat political slogans, and make it easier ‘to speak glibly about the world’ (p330). Bourdieu himself wrote that

Social science today is up against anyone and everyone with a claim to interpret the most obvious signs of social malaise … It has to deal with all these people, too clever by half and armed with their ‘common sense’ and their pretensions, who rush into print or to appear on television to tell us what is going on in a social world that they have no effective means of either knowing or understanding (1999, p628)

Macalister was supported by IPPR, a ‘progressive think-tank’ who have previously advocated freezing child benefit for 10 years. I have blogged about IPPR and the role of think-tanks in the development of welfare and anti-poverty policy in another guise but Wacquant sums them up better than I can. He accuses similar organisations and researchers of ‘false thinking and false science’ (2004, p99) jumping from ‘social problem’ to ‘social problem’ at the whim of media and political demand (p100).

Bourdieu highlights the role of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats and half-wise economists (1998, p5) within the right hand of the state (central government), with the left hand being workers and junior civil servants tasked with carrying out the states wishes. He suggests that

I think that the left hand of the state has the sense that the right hand no longer knows, or, worse, no longer wants to know what the left hand does

All that is somewhat shocking, especially for those who are sent into the front line to perform so called ‘social’ work to compensate for the most flagrant inadequacies of the logic of the market, without being given the means to really do their job. How could they not have the sense of being constantly undermined or betrayed?

It should have been clear a long time ago that their revolt goes far beyond questions of salary, even if the salary granted is an unequivocal index of the value placed on the work and the corresponding workers. Contempt for a job is shown first of all in the more or less derisory remuneration it is given.(p2)

In response to a question about the scope for government intervention, Bourdieu argues that their scope is less limited than they would have us believe and that there remains one area where governments have considerable scope: that of the symbolic (p3).

Viewed in this way, it is hard to argue that the development of Frontline and the very explicit support it has been given by government is anything other than an act of symbolic violence against current social work practice and training. I would argue that the choice of the term Frontline is itself an act of symbolic violence against social service users. It is unnecessarily adversarial and suggests the need for flak jackets on a daily basis. (If you google images for ‘front line’ the majority of the images are of combat situations). However, the major act of violence here is in misrecognising the causes of ‘problems’ within families by proposing that social work needs an image makeover and that ‘great people’/’outstanding graduates’ can make a real, lasting difference after spending a few weeks at Social Work Summer Camp – by extension implying that current practice and education in this area has ‘failed’, whilst ignoring the wider socio-economic factors which remain undiscussed and unchanged. Garrett highlights this when he writes

The state is apt to disappear and the resolution of issues partly rooted in (mis)recognition is almost entirely displaced onto micro-encounters. In this way, such encounters become conceptually overburdened with expectation because they are exchanges lacking the capacity to eradicate and combat structurally generated (mis)recognition. (2013, p182)

So what are social workers and academics to do? Judging by the reaction on social media and other forums for their voices to be heard, it seems like there is plenty of appetite for challenging the design of Frontline and what it represents. Bourdieu would have approved. He believed that nothing is less innocent than non-interference (1999, p269) in these matters.


Bourdieu, P. (1998) Acts of Resistance: Against the new myths of our time, Cambridge: Polity

Bourdieu, P et al (1999) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, Stanford: SUP

Garrett, P. M. (2013) Social work and social theory: Making connections, Bristol: Policy Press

Stabile, C.A. & Marooka, J. (2003) ‘Between Two Evils, I Refuse to Choose the Lesser’, Cultural Studies, 17:3-4 pp326-348

Wacquant, L. (2004) Critical Thought as Solvent of Doxa, Constellations, 11:1 pp91-101