Tag: #methodology

A critique of the government’s claimant satisfaction survey

“An official survey shows that 76% of people in the [PIP] system responded to say that they were satisfied. That itself is not a happy position, but it shows that her representation of people’s average experience as wholly negative on the basis of a Twitter appeal does not reflect the results of a scientific survey.”  Stephen Kerr, (Conservative and Unionist MP for Stirling), Personal Independence Payments debate, Hansard, Volume 635, Column 342WH, 31 January 2018 

“The latest official research shows that 76% of PIP claimants and 83% of ESA claimants are satisfied with their overall experience.” Spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Department for Work and Pensions Claimant Service and Experience Survey (CSES) is described as “an ongoing cross-sectional study with quarterly bursts of interviewing. The survey is designed to monitor customers’ satisfaction with the service offered by DWP and enable customer views to be fed into operational and policy development.”

The survey measures levels of satisfaction in a defined group of ‘customers’ who have had contact with the Department for Work and Pensions within a three-month period prior to the survey.

One problem with the aim of the survey is that satisfaction is an elusive concept – a subjective experience that is not easily definable, accessible or open to precise quantitative measurement. 

Furthermore, statistics that are not fully or adequately discussed in the survey report – these were to be found tucked away in the Excel data tables which were referenced at the end of the report – and certainly not cited by Government ministers, are those particularly concerning problems and difficulties with the Department for Work and Pensions that arose for some claimants. 

It’s worrying that 51 per cent of all respondents across all types of benefits who experienced difficulties or problems in their dealings with the Department for Work and Pensions did not see them resolved. A further 4 per cent saw only a partial resolution, and 3 per cent didn’t know if there had been any resolution.

In the job seeker’s allowance (JSA) category, some 53 per cent had unresolved problems with the Department and only 39 per cent had seen their problems resolved. In the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) group, 50 per cent had unresolved problems with the Department, and in the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) group, 57 per cent of claimants had ongoing problems with the Department, while only 33 per cent have seen their problems resolved. 

disatisfied

–  means the sample size is less than 40. 

A brief philosophical analysis

The survey powerfully reminded me of Jeremy Bentham’s Hedonistic Calculus, which was an algorithm designed to measure pleasure and pain, as Bentham believed the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to be a function of the amount of pleasure or pain that it produced.

Bentham discussed at length some of the ways that moral investigations are a ‘science’. There is an inherent contradiction in Bentham’s work between his positivism, which is founded on the principle of verification – this says that a sentence is strictly meaningful only if it expresses something that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical observation (establishing facts, which are descriptive) – and his utilitarianism, which concerns normative ethics (values, which are prescriptive). Bentham conflates the fact-value distinction when it suits his purpose, as do the current Government.

The recent rise in ‘happiness’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘satisfaction’ surveys are linked with Bentham’s utilitarian ideas and a Conservative endorsement of entrenched social practices as a consequence of this broadly functionalist approach. It’s not only a reflection of the government’s simplistic, reductionist view of citizens, it’s also a reflection of the reduced functioning and increasing rational incoherence of a neoliberal state. 

As we have witnessed over recent years, utilitarian ideologues in power tend to impose his/her vision of the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number,’ which may entail some negative consequences for minorities and socially marginalised groups. For example, the design of a disciplinarian, coercive and punitive welfare system to make ‘the taxpayer’ or ‘hard-working families’ happy (both groups being perceived as the majority). The happiness of those people who don’t currently conform to a politically defined norm doesn’t seem matter to the Government. Of course people claiming welfare support pay tax, and more often than not, paid tax before needing support.

Nonetheless, those in circumstances of poverty are regarded as acceptable collateral damage in the war for the totalising neoliberal terms and conditions of the ‘greater good’ of society, sacrificed for the greatest happiness of others. As a consequence, we live in a country where tax avoidance is considered more acceptable behaviour than being late for a job centre appointment. Tax avoidance and offshore banking is considered more ‘sustainable’ than welfare support for disabled people. 

This utilitarian problem, arising because of a belief that a state’s imposed paradigm of  competitive socioeconomic organisation is the way to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, also causes the greatest misery for some social groups. This is a problem that raises issues with profound implications for democracy, socioeconomic inclusion, citizenship and human rights. 

My point is that the very nature and subject choice of the research is a reflection of a distinctive political ideology, which is problematic, especially when the survey is passed off as ‘objective’ and value-neutral’.

There are certain underpinning and recognisable assumptions drawn from the doctrine of utilitarianism, which became a positivist pseudoscience in the late nineteenth century. The idea that human behaviour should be mathematised in order to turn the study of humans into a science proper strips humans down to the simplest, most basic motivational structures, in an attempt to reduce human behaviour to a formula. To be predictable in this way, behaviour must also be determined.

Yet we have a raft of behavioural economists complaining of everyone elses’ ‘cognitive bias’, who have decided to go about helping the population to make decisions in their own and society’s best interests. These best interests are defined by behavioural economists. The theory that people make faulty decisions somehow exempts the theorists from their own theory, of course. However, if decisions and behaviours are determined, so are the theories about decisions and behaviours. Behavioural science itself isn’t value-neutral, being founded on a collection of ideas called libertarian paternalism, which is itself a political doctrine. 

The Government have embraced these ideas, which are based on controversial assumptions. 

The current government formulates many policies with ‘behavioural science’ theory and experimental methodology behind them, which speaks in a distinct language of individual and social group ‘incentives’, ‘optimising decision-making’ and all for the greater ‘good of society’ (where poor citizens tend to get the cheap policy package of thrifty incentives, which entail austerity measures and having their income reduced, whereas wealthy citizens get the deluxe package, with generous financial rewards and free gifts.) 

There are problems with trying to objectively measure a subjectively experienced phenomena. There are major contradictions in the ideas that underpin the motive to do so. There is also a problem with using satisfaction surveys as a measure of the success or efficacy of government policies and practices. 

A little about the company commissioned to undertake the survey

The research was commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and conducted by Kantar Public UK –  who undertake marketing research, social surveys, and also specialise in consultancy, public opinion data, policy and also economy polling, with, it seems, multi-tasking fingers in several other lucrative pies

Kantar Public “Works with clients in government, the public sector, global institutions, NGOs and commercial businesses to advise in the delivery of public policy, public services and public communications.” 

Kantar Public will deliver global best practice through local, expert teams; will synthesise innovations in marketing science, data analytics with the best of classic social research approaches; and will build on a long history of methodological innovation to deliver public value. It includes consulting, research and analytical capabilities.” (A touch of PR and technocracy).

Eric Salama, Kantar CEO, commented on the launch of this branch of Kantar Public in 2016: “We are proud of the work that we do in this sector, which is growing fast. Its increasing importance in stimulating behavioural change in many aspects of societies requires the kind of expert resource and investment that Kantar Public will provide.”

The world seems to be filling up with self-appointed, utilitarian choice architects. Who needs to live in a democracy when we have so many people who say they’re not only  looking out for our ‘best interests’, but defining them, and also, helping us all to make “optimum choices” (whatever they may be). All of these flourishing technocratic businesses are of course operating without a shred of cognitive bias or self-consciousness of their own. Apparently, the whopping profit motive isn’t a bias at all. It’s only everyone else that is cognitively flawed. 

Based on those assumptions, what could possibly go wrong right?

I digress. 

The nitty-gritty

Ok, so having set the table, I’m going to nibble at the served dish. Kantar’s survey – commissioned by the Government – cited in the opening quotes – by the Government.  The quotes have been cited in the media, in a Commons debate and even presented as evidence in a Commons Committee inquiry into disability support (Personal Independence Payments and Employment and Support Allowance).

It seems that no-one has examined the validity and reliability of the survey cited, it has simply been taken at face value. It’s assumed that the methodology, interpretation and underlying motives are neutral, value-free and ‘objective’. In fact the survey has been described as ‘scientific’ by at least one Conservative MP.

There are a couple of problems, however, with that. My first point is a general one about quantitative surveys, especially those using closed questions. This survey was conducted mostly by telephone and most questions in the used questionnaire were closed

Some basic problems with using closed questions in a survey:

  • It imposes a limited framework of responses on respondents
  • The survey may not have the exact answer the respondent wants to give
  • The questions lead and limit the scope of responses 
  • Respondents may select answers which are simply the most similar to their “true” response – the one they want to give but can’t because it isn’t in the response options – even though it is different
  • The options presented may confuse the respondent
  • Respondents with no opinion may answer anyway
  • Does not provide us with information about whether or not the respondent actually understood the question being asked, or if the survey response options provided include an accurate capture and reflection of the respondents’ views.

Another problem which is not restricted to the use of surveys in research is the Hawthorne effect. The respondents in this survey had active, open benefit claims or had registered a claim. This may have had some effect on their responses, since they may have felt scrutinised by the Department for Work and Pensions. Social relationships between the observer and the observed ought to be assessed when performing any type of social analysis and especially when there may be a perceived imbalanced power relationship between an organisation and the respondents in any research that they conduct or commission.

Given the punitive nature of welfare policies, it is very difficult to determine the extent to which fear of reprisal may have influenced peoples’ responses, regardless of how many reassurances participants were given regarding anonymity in advance.

The respondents in a survey may not be aware that their responses are to some extent influenced because of their relationship with the researcher (or those commissioning the research); they may subconsciously change their behaviour to fit the expected results of the survey, partly because of the context in which the research is being conducted.

The Hawthorne Effect is a well-documented phenomenon that affects many areas of research and experiment in social sciences. It is the process where human subjects taking part in research change or modify their behaviour, simply because they are being studied. This is one of the hardest inbuilt biases to eliminate or factor into research design. This was a survey conducted over the telephone, which again introduces the risk of an element of ‘observer bias.’

Methodological issues

On a personal level, I don’t believe declared objectivity in research means that positivism and quantitative research methodology has an exclusive stranglehold on ‘truth’. I don’t believe there is a universally objective, external vantage point that we can reach from within the confines of our own human subjectivity, nor can we escape an intersubjectively experienced social, cultural, political and economic context.

There is debate around verificationism, not least because the verification principle itself is unverifiable. The positivist approach more generally treats human subjects as objects of interest and research – much like phenomena studied in the natural sciences. As such, it has an inbuilt tendency to dehumanise the people being researched. Much human meaning and experience gets lost in the translation of responses into quantified data – the chief goal of statistical analysis is to identify trends

An example of the employment of ‘objective’ and ‘value-neutral’ methods resulting in dehumanisation is some of the inappropriate questions asked during assessment for disability benefits. The Work and Pensions Select Committee received nearly 4,000 submissions – the most received by a select committee inquiry – after calling for evidence on the assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). 

The recent committee report highlighted people with Down’s syndrome being asked when they ‘caught’ it. Assessors have asked insulting and irrelevant questions, such as when someone with a progressive condition will recover, and what level of education they have.

This said, my own degree and Master’s, undertaken in the 1990s, and my profession up until 2010, when I became too ill to work, were actually used as an indication that I have “no cognitive problems” in 2017, after some 7 years of being unable to work because of the symptoms of a progressive illness that is known to cause cognitive problems. My driving licence in 2003 was also used as evidence of my cognitive functioning.

Yet I explained that have been unable to drive since 2004 because of my sensitivity to flickering (lamp posts, trees, telegraph poles have a strobe light effect on me as the car moves) which triggers vertigo, nausea, severe coordination difficulties, scintillating scotoma and subsequent loss of vision, slurred and incoherent speech, severe drowsiness, muscle rigidity and uncontrollable jerking in my legs. I usually get an incapacitating headache, too. I’m sensitive to flashing or flickering lights, certain patterns such as ripples on a pond, some black and white stripe patterns and even walking past railings on an overcast day completely incapacitates me. 

The PIP assessment framework is claimed to be ‘independent, unbiased’ and objective.’ Central to the process is the use of ‘descriptors’, which are a limited set of criteria used to ‘measure’ the impact of the day-to-day level of disability that a person experiences. Assessors use objective methods such as “examination techniques, collecting robust evidence, selecting the correct descriptor as to the claimant’s level of ability in each of the 10 activities of daily living and two mobility activities, and report writing.”  They speak the language of positivism with fluency.

However, positivism does not accommodate human complexity, vulnerability and context very well. In an assessment situation, the assessor is a stranger to the person undergoing the assessment. How appropriate is it that a stranger assessing ‘functional capacity’ asks disabled people why they have not killed themselves? Alice Kirby is one of many people this happened to.

She says: “In this setting it’s not safe to ask questions like these because assessors have neither the time or skills to support us, and there’s no consideration of the impact it could have on our mental health.

The questions were also completely unnecessary, they were barely mentioned in my report and had no impact on my award.”

So, not only an extremely insensitive and potentially risk-laden question but an apparently pointless one. 

It may be argued that some universal ‘truths’ such as the importance of ‘impartiality’, or ‘objectivity’ are little more than misleading myths which allow practitioners and researchers alike to claim, and convince themselves, that they behave in a manner that is morally robust and ethically defensible.

A brief discussion of the methodological debate  

Quiz 1 Quiz 2 Quiz 3 All Quizzes

Social phenomena cannot always be studied in the same way as natural phenomena, because human beings are subjective, intentional and have a degree of free will. One problem with quantitative research is that it tends to impose theoretical frameworks on those being studied, and it limits responses from those participating in the study. Quantitative surveys tend not to capture or generate understanding about the lived, meaningful experiences of real people in context.

There are also distinctions to be made between facts, values and meanings. Qualitative researchers are concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding  rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena and attempting to establish basic cause and effect relationships.

Qualitative research tends to be exploratory, potentially illuminating underlying intentions, responses, beliefs, reasons, opinions, and motivations to human behaviours. This type of analysis often provides insights into social problems, helps to develop ideas and establish explanations, and may also be used to formulate hypotheses for further quantitative research.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) in sociology, for example, is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many social researchers recognising the value of both means of data and evidence collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism.

Qualitative methods of research tend to be much more inclusive, detailed and expansive than quantitative analysis, lending participants a dialogic, democratic and first hand voice regarding their own experiences.

The current government has tended to dismiss qualitative evidence from first hand witnesses of the negative impacts of their policies – presented cases studies, individual accounts and ethnographies – as ‘anecdotal.’ This presents a problem in that it stifles legitimate feedback. An emphasis on positivism reflects a very authoritarian approach to social administration and it needs to be challenged.

A qualitative approach to research is open and democratic. It potentially provides insight, depth and richly detailed accounts. The evidence collected is much more coherent and comprehensive, because it explores beneath surface appearances, and reaches above causal relationships, delving much deeper than the simplistic analysis of ranks, categories and counts. It provides a reliable and rather more authentic record of experiences, attitudes, feelings and behaviours, it prompts an openness and is expansive, whereas quantitative methods tend to limit and are somewhat reductive.

Qualitative research methods encourage people to expand on their responses and may then open up new issues and topic areas not initially considered by researchers.

Government ministers like to hear facts, figures and statistics all the time. What we need to bring to the equation is a real, live human perspective. We need to let ministers know how the policies they are implementing directly impact on their own constituents and social groups more widely.

Another advantage of qualitative methods is that they are prefigurative and bypass problems regarding potential power imbalances between the researcher and the subjects of research, by permitting participation (as opposed to respondents being acted upon) and creating space for genuine dialogue and reasoned discussions to take place. Research regarding political issues and policy impacts must surely engage citizens on a democratic, equal basis and permit participation in decision-making, to ensure an appropriate balance of power between citizens and the state.

Quantitative research draws on surveys and experimental research designs which limit the interaction between the investigator and those being investigated. Systematic sampling techniques are used, in order to control the risk of bias. However not everyone agrees that this method is an adequate safeguard against bias.

Kantar say in their published survey report: “As the Personal Independence Payment has become more established and its customer base increased, there has been an increase in overall satisfaction from 68 per cent in 2014/15 to 76 per cent in 2015/16. This increase is driven by an increase in the proportion of customers reporting that they were ‘very satisfied’ which rose from 25 per cent in 2014/15 to 35 per cent in 2015/16.

Sampling practices

The report states clearly: “The proportion of Personal Independence Payment customers who were ‘very dissatisfied’ fell from 19 per cent to 12 per cent over the same period. 

Then comes the killer: “This is likely to be partly explained by the inclusion in the 2014/15 sample of PIP customers who had a new claim disallowed who have not been sampled for the study since 2015/16. This brings PIP sampling into line with sampling practises for other benefits in the survey.

In other words, those people with the greatest reason to be very dissatisfied with their contact with the Department for Work and Pensions  – those who haven’t been awarded PIP, for example – are not included in the survey. 

This introduces a problem in the survey called sampling bias. Sampling bias undermines the external validity of a survey (the capacity for its results to be accurately generalised to the entire population, in this case, of those claiming PIP). Given that people who are not awarded PIP make up a significant proportion of the PIP customer population who have registered for a claim, this will skew the survey result, slanting it towards positive responses.

Award rates for PIP (under normal rules, excluding withdrawn claims) for new claims are 46 per cent. However, they are at 73 per cent for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reassessment claims. This covers PIP awards made between April 2013 and October 2016. Nearly all special rules (for those people who are terminally ill) claimants are found eligible for PIP. 

If an entire segment of the PIP claimant population are excluded from the sample, then there are no adjustments that can produce estimates that are representative of the entire population of PIP claimants.

The same is true of the other groups of claimants. If those who have had a new claim disallowed (and again, bearing in mind that only 46 per cent of those new claims for PIP resulted in an award), then that excludes a considerable proportion of claimants registering across all types of benefits who were likely to have registered a lower level of satisfaction with the Department because their claim was disallowed. This means the survey cannot be used to accurately track the overall performance of the Department or monitor in terms of whether it is fulfilling its customer charter commitments.

The report clearly states: “There was a revision to sample eligibility criteria in 2014/15. Prior to this date the survey included customers who had contacted DWP within the past 6 months. From 2014/15 onwards this was shortened to a 3 month window. This may also have impacted on trend data.” 

We have no way of knowing why those peoples’ claim was disallowed. We have no way of knowing if this is due to error or poor administrative procedures within the Department. If the purpose of a survey like this is to produce a valid account of levels of ‘customer satisfaction’ with the Department, then it must include a representative sample of all of those ‘customers’, and include those whose experiences have been negative.

Otherwise the survey is reduced to little more than a PR exercise for the Department. 

The sampling procedure is therefore a way of only permitting an unrepresentative  sample of people to participate in a survey, who are likeliest to produce the most positive responses, because their experiences have been of a largely positive outcome within the survey time frame. If those who have been sanctioned are also excluded across the sample, then this will also hide the experiences and comments of those most adversely affected by the Department’s policies and administration procedures, again these are claimants who are the likeliest to register their dissatisfaction in the survey. 

Measurement error occurs when a survey respondent’s answer to a survey question is inaccurate, imprecise, or cannot be compared in any useful way to other respondents’ answers. This type of error results from poor question wording and questionnaire construction. Closed and directed questions may also contribute to measurement error, along with faulty assumptions and imperfect scales. The kind of questions asked may also have limited the scope of the research.

For example, there’s a fundamental difference in asking questions like “Was the advisor polite on the telephone?” and “Did the decision-maker make the correct decision about your claim?”. The former generates responses that are relatively simplistic and superficial, the latter is rather more informative and tells us much more about how well the DWP fulfils one of its key functions, rather than demonstrating only how politely staff go about discussing claim details with claimants. 

This survey is not going to produce a valid range of accounts or permit a reliable generalisation regarding the wider populations’ experiences with the Department for Work and Pensions. Nor can it provide a template for a genuine learning opportunity and committment to improvement for the Department.

With regard to the department’s Customer Charter, this survey does not include valid feedback and information regarding this section in particular:

Getting it right

We will:
• Provide you with the correct decision, information or payment
• Explain things clearly if the outcome is not what you’d hoped for
• Say sorry and put it right if we make a mistake 
• Use your feedback to improve how we do things

One other issue with the sampling is that the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) groups were overrepresented in the cohort. 

Kantar do say: “When reading the report, bear in mind the fact that customers’ satisfaction levels are likely to be impacted by the nature of the benefit they are claiming. As such, it is more informative to look at trends over time for each benefit rather than making in-year comparisons between benefits.” 

The sample was intentionally designed to overrepresent these groups in order to allow “robust quarterly analysis of these benefits”, according to the report. However, because a proportion of the cohort – those having their benefit disallowed – were excluded in the latest survey and not the previous one, so cross comparision and establishing trends over time is problematic. 

To reiterate, the report also says: “When reading the report, bear in mind the fact that customers’ satisfaction levels are likely to be impacted by the nature of the benefit they are claiming. As such, it is more informative to look at trends over time for each benefit rather than making in-year comparisons between benefits.” 

With regard to my previous point: “Please also note that there was a methodological change to the way that Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payment customers were sampled in 2015/16 which means that for these benefits results for 2015/16 are not directly comparable with previous years.” 

And: “As well as collecting satisfaction at an overall level, the survey also collects data on customers’ satisfaction with specific transactions such as ‘making a claim’, ‘reporting  a change in circumstances’ and ‘appealing a decision’ (along with a number of other transactions) covering the remaining aspects of the DWP Customer Charter.These are not covered in this report, but the data are presented in the accompanying data tabulations.” 

The survey also covered only those who had been in touch with DWP over a three month period shortly prior to the start of fieldwork. As such it is a survey of contacting customers rather than all benefits customers.

Again it is problematic to make inferences and generalisations about the levels of satisfaction among the wider population of claimants, based on a sample selected by using such a narrow range of characteristics.

The report also says: “Parts of the interview focus on a specific transaction which respondents had engaged in (for example making a claim or reporting a change in circumstances). In cases where a respondent had been involved in more than one transaction, the questionnaire prioritised less common or more complex transactions. As
such, transaction-specific measures are not representative of ALL transactions conducted by DWP”.

And regarding subgroups: “When looking at data for specific benefits, the base sizes for benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance (circa 5,500) are much larger than those for benefits such as Carer’s Allowance and Attendance Allowance (circa 450). As such, the margins of error for Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance are smaller than those of other benefits and it is therefore possible to identify relatively small changes as being statistically significant.”

Results from surveys are estimates and there is a margin of error associated with each figure quoted in this report. The smaller the sample size, the greater the uncertainty.

In fairness, the report does state: “In the interest of avoiding misinterpretation, data with a base size of less than 100 are omitted from the charts in this report.” 

On non-sampling error, the report says: “Surveys depend on the responses given by participants. Some participants may answer questions inaccurately and some groups of respondents may be more likely to refuse to take part altogether. This can introduce biases and errors. Nonsampling error is minimised by the application of rigorous questionnaire design, the use of skilled and experienced interviewers who work under close supervision  and rigorous quality assurance of the data.

Differing response rates amongst key sub-groups are addressed through weighting. Nevertheless, it is not possible to eliminate non-sampling error altogether and its impact cannot be reliably quantified.”

As I have pointed out, sampling error in a statistical analysis may also arise from the unrepresentativeness of the sample taken. 

The survey response rates were not discussed either. In the methodological report, it says: “In 2015/16 DWP set targets each quarter for the required number of interviews  for each benefit group to either produce a representative proportion of the benefit group in the eventual survey or a higher number of interviews for sub-group analysis where required. It is therefore not strictly appropriate to report response rates as fieldwork for a benefit group ceased if a target was reached.” 

The Government says: “This research monitors claimants’ satisfaction with DWP services and ensures their views are considered in operational and policy planning.” 

Again, it doesn’t include those claimants whose benefit support has been disallowed. There is considerable controversy around disability benefit award decisions (and sanctioning) in particular, yet the survey does not address this important issue, since those experiencing negative outcomes are excluded from the survey sample. We know that there is a problem with the PIP and ESA benefits award decision-making processes, since a significant proportion of those people who go on to appeal DWP decisions are subsequently awarded their benefit.

The DWP, however, don’t seem to have any interest in genuine feedback from this group that may contribute to an improvement in both performance and decision-making processes, leading to improved outcomes for disabled people.

Last year, judges ruled 14,077 people should be given PIP against the government’s decision not to between April and June – 65 per cent of all cases.  The figure is higher still when it comes to ESA (68 per cent). Some 85 per cent of all benefit appeals were accounted for by PIP and ESA claimants.

The system, also criticised by the United Nations because it “systematically violates the rights of disabled persons”, seems to have been deliberately set up in a way that tends towards disallowing support awards. The survey excluded the voices of those people affected by this government’s absolute callousness or simple bureaucratic incompetence. The net effect, consequent distress and hardship caused to sick and disabled people is the same regardless of which it is.

Given that only 18 per cent of PIP decisions to disallow a claim are reversed  at mandatory reconsideration, I’m inclined to think that this isn’t just a case of bureaucratic incompetence, since the opportunity for the DWP to rectify mistakes doesn’t result in subsequent correct decisions, in the majority of cases, for those refused an award. 

Without an urgent overhaul of the assessment process by the Government, the benefit system will continue to work against disabled people, instead of for them.

The Government claim: “The objectives of this research are to:

  • capture the views and experiences of DWP’s service from claimants, or their representatives, who used their services recently
  • identify differences in the views and experiences of people claiming different benefits
  • use claimants’ views of the service to measure the department’s performance against its customer charter

The commissioned survey does not genuinely meet those objectives.

Related

DWP splash out more than £100m trying to deny disabled people vital benefits

Inquiry into disability benefits ‘deluged’ by tales of despair

The importance of citizens’ qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

Thousands of disability assessments deemed ‘unacceptable’ under the government’s own quality control scheme

Government guidelines for PIP assessment: a political redefinition of the word ‘objective’

PIP and ESA Assessments Inquiry – Work and Pensions Committee

 

There is an alternative reality being presented by the other side. The use of figures diminishes disabled peoples’ experiences.”

 


 

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The Conservative approach to social research – that way madness lies

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I’ve written more than one lengthy critique of Tory notions of what passes for “research” methods (so I’ll make this one relatively short), and often criticised Tory refusals to accept the research findings of academics regarding, for example, established links between the Work Capability Assessment, increased suicide and mortality, the link between sanctions and increased mortality. The Tory plea for the universal and unqualified dismissal of whatever they deem to be criticism of their policies is often based on the claim that “no causal link has been established.”

As I have pointed out on many occasions previously, whilst correlation certainly isn’t quite the same thing as cause and effect, it quite often strongly hints at a causal link, and as such, warrants further investigation.

It is therefore inaccurate to say that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It quite often does. The tobacco industry has historically relied on exactly the same dismissal of correlational evidence to reject any discussion of an established link between tobacco and lung cancer.

The standard process of research and investigation doesn’t entail, at any point, a flat political denial that there is any relationship of significance to concern ourselves with, nor does it involve a systematic and deliberate withholding of relevant data, attempts at censoring democratic dialogue, and a point blank refusal to investigate further. Furthermore, the government claims that there is “no evidence of a causal link ” is unverified. There is no evidence to support government claims that there isn’t such a link, either.

I’ve observed more than once that when it comes to government claims, the same methodological rigour that they advocate for others isn’t applied. Indeed, many policies have clearly been directed by ideology and traditional Tory prejudices, rather than being founded on valid research and empirical evidence.

The fact that no cumulative impact assessment has been carried out with regard to the welfare “reforms” indicates a government that is not interested in accountability, and examining the potential negative outcomes of policy-making. Policies are supposed to be about meeting public needs and not about inflicting Conservative dogma and old prejudices in the form of financial punishment on previously protected social groups. How on earth can taking lifeline income from people who are already poor ever cure poverty or unemployment?

Where is the causal link between work and improved health outcomes? One confounder there is the effect of the ideologically-driven Tory welfare cuts that massively reduce the quality of life for those who need to claim social security. It’s not “worklessness” but rather, it is Tory “reforms” and a refusal to accept that sometimes people cannot work that lead to poor health outcomes, and all too often, the somewhat traditional Conservative habit of refusing to listen to the public they are meant to serve democratically results in premature deaths.

And what about the discredited theories that stereotype the poor – as a diversionary and scapegoating convenience – like the “cycle of deprivation,” “cycle of dependency” made-up words and pre-loaded concepts such as “worklessness” and “workshy” presented as a fictitious medical condition or personality disorder, or the deliberately divisive “culture of entitlement”? There is NO empirical evidence that these categories exist as the Conservatives claim.

Sir Keith Joseph researched the “cycle of deprivation” theory extensively some years back and found NO evidence to support it, despite his dogmatic assertion of its existence. Again there are confounders. How do you separate the effects of policies and ideologically-driven political decision-making, subsequently discriminatory socio-economic conditions and of course, pure bad luck from people’s politically constructed “innate” traits or maliciously ascribed character “flaws”?

People exist in structural contexts, no amount of political pretending that they don’t will ever hide the fact that every single Conservative budget has taken money from the poorest citizens and our publicly funded services and gifted it to the wealthiest. It’s inconceivable that ministers don’t recognise that such policies create economic enclosure, perpetuate crass inequality and extend poverty.

Where is the causal link between welfare sanctions and people getting jobs? Or between the Work Capability Assessment and disabled people being “supported” or better off? Or between workfare and people finding appropriate, secure, quality jobs with fair wages that actually alleviates poverty?

Where is the causal link between austerity measures and economic growth? Or between austerity and a reduced national debt for that matter? Or between tax cuts for the wealthy and “trickle-down” prosperity for everyone else?

Where is the causal link between privatisation and better, more “efficient” services? Not to be found in examples such as Atos, Maximus, G4S, A4E, Circle, Serco, City Link, and many more, that’s for sure. Private companies by and large make hefty profits by inflating prices, radically cutting jobs and the quality of services delivered (“efficiency”), whilst generating scandal after scandal.

As a vast social and economic experiment, privatisation has massively failed the British public, and has grotequely rewarded a handful of unscrupulous, greedy, wealthy people – grotesquely rewarded, grotesquely undertaxed – whilst ordinary people in the UK face spiralling living costs and the obscene, cruel limitations of austerity to prop up the fraternity of vulture neoliberals and perpetrators of a toxic rhetoric that attempts to justify decreasing public inclusion in a shrivelling economy.

From a government that has been rebuked many times for manufacturing and misusing statistics, making claims that are fictions, inventing testimonies regarding the fake impacts of their draconian policies, sneaking through controversial and undemocratic policies via statutory instruments because they KNOW that those policies won’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s remarkable that any member of the Conservative party have the cheek to claim “no causal link has been established” when confronted with empirical evidence and strong correlational links from meticulous academic research.

The inherent contradictions of Conservative discourse and the construction of ideological mythologies that are translated into stigmatising mechanisms and anti-humanist policies are seen at their most stark in Conservative anti-welfarism, and themes of social Darwinism.

Neoliberal mythologies are manifested in a narrative of meritocracy and in extended in notions of “deserving and “undeserving”, whilst rapidly expanding social inequalities and increasing poverty, and increasingly limited access to justice and remedy, reflect a broader political refusal to engage in democratic dialogue with the electorate and a dogmatic determination to pursue anti-progressive, neoliberal programmes, which empirical evidence informs us, are socially harmful and destructive.

 

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A critique of Conservative notions of social research

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The goverment’s archaic positivist approach to social research shows that they need a team of sociologists and social psychologists, rather than the group of “libertarian paternalists” – behavioural economists – at the heart of the cabinet office, who simply nudge the public to behave how they deem appropriate, according to a rigid, deterministic, reductive neoliberal agenda and traditional, class-contingent Conservative prejudices.

 

Glossary

Epistemology – The study or theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits, reliability and validity. It’s invariably linked with how a researcher perceives our relationship with the world and what “social reality” is (ontology), and how we ought to investigate that world (methodology). For example, in sociology, some theorists held that social structures largely determine our behaviour, and so behaviour is predictable and objectively measurable, others emphasise human agency, and believe that we shape our own social reality to a degree, and that it’s mutually and meaningfully negotiated and unfixed. Therefore, detail of how we make sense of the world and navigate it is important.

Interpretivism – In sociology, interpretivists assert that the social world is fundamentally unlike the natural world insofar as the social world is meaningful in a way that the natural world is not. As such, social phenomena cannot be studied in the same way as natural phenomena. Interpretivism is concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena, and establishing basic cause and effect relationships.

Libertarian paternalism – The idea that it is both possible and legitimate for governments, public and private institutions to affect and change the behaviours of citizens whilst also [controversially] “respecting freedom of choice.”

MethodologyA system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity to collect data. In the social sciences there has been disagreement as to whether validity or reliability ought to take priority, which reflected ontological and epistemological differences amongst researchers, with positivism, broadly speaking, being historically linked with structural theories of society – Emile Durkheim’s structural-functionalism, for example – and quantitative methods, usually involving response-limiting surveys, closed-ended questionaires and statistical data collection, whereas interpretive perspectives, such as symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, tend to be associated with qualitative methods, favoring open-ended questionaires, interviews and participant observation.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many sociologists recognising the value of both means of data collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism. Qualitative methods tend to be more inclusive, lending participants a dialogic, democratic voice regarding their experiences.

Ontology – A branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of reality and being. It’s important because each perspective within the social sciences is founded on a distinct ontological view.

Positivism – In sociology particularly, the view that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws, and that all authentic knowledge is that which is verified. However, the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Positivism tends to present superficial and descriptive rather than in-depth and explanatory accounts of social phenomena. In psychology, behaviourism has been the doctrine most closely associated with positivism. Behaviour from this perspective can be described and explained without the need to make ultimate reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. Psychology is, according to behaviourists, the “science” of behaviour, and not the mind.

Critical realism – Whilst positivists and empiricists more generally, locate causal relationships at the level of observable surface events, critical realists locate them at the level of deeper, underlying generative mechanisms. For example, in science, gravity is an underlying mechanism that is not directly observable, but it does generate observable effects. In sociology, on a basic level, Marx’s determining base (which determines superstructure) may be regarded as a generative mechanism which gives rise to emergent and observable properties.

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) – RCT is a positivist research model in which people are randomly assigned to an intervention or a control (a group with no intervention) and this allows comparisons to be made. Widely accepted as the “gold standard” for clinical trials, the foundation for evidence-based medicine, RCTs are used to establish causal relationships. These kinds of trials usually have very strict ethical safeguards to ensure the fair and ethical treatment of all participants, and these safeguards are especially essential in government trials, given the obvious power imbalances and potential for abuse. A basic principle expressed in the Nuremberg Code is the respect due to persons and the value of a person’s autonomy, for example.

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting research and testing public policy interventions. Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed. It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the theory of “loss aversion,” for example.

There is nothing to prevent a government deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies. How appropriate is it to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example?

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The increasing conditionality and politicisation of “truths”

The goverment often claim that any research revealing negative social consequences arising from their draconian policies, which they don’t like to be made public “doesn’t establish a causal link.”  Recently there has been a persistent, aggressive and flat denial that there is any “causal link” between the increased use of food banks and increasing poverty, between benefit sanctions and extreme hardship and harm, between the work capability assessment and an increase in numbers of deaths and suicides, for example.

The government are referring to a scientific maxim: “Correlation doesn’t imply causality.” 

It’s true that correlation is not the same as causation.

It’s certainly true that no conclusion may be drawn regarding the existence or the direction of a cause and effect relationship only from the fact that event A and event B are correlated. Determining whether there is an actual cause and effect relationship requires further investigation. The relationship is more likely to be causal if the correlation coefficient is large and statistically significant, as a general rule of thumb. (For anyone interested in finding out more about quantitative research methods, inferential testing and statistics, this is a good starting point – Inferential Statistics.)

Here are some minimal conditions to consider in order to establish causality, taken from Hills criteria:

  • Strength: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.
  • Coherence: A relationship is more likely to be causal if it is compatible with related facts and theories.
  • Analogy: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there are proven relationships between similar causes and effects.
  • Specificity: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is no other likely explanation.
  • Temporality: A relationship is more likely to be causal if the effect always occurs after the cause.
  • Gradient: A relationship is more likely to be causal if a greater exposure to the suspected cause leads to a greater effect.
  • Plausibility: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.

Hill’s criteria can be thought of as elements within a broader process of critical thinking in research, as careful considerations in the scientific method or model for deciding if a relationship involves causation. The criteria don’t all have to be met to suggest causality and it may not even be possible to meet them in every case. The important point is that we can consider the criteria as part of a careful and relatively unbiased research process. We can also take other precautionary steps, such as ensuring that there are no outliers or excessive uncontrolled variance, ensuring the populations sampled are representative and generally taking care in our research design, for example.

However, it is inaccurate to say that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It quite often does.

Furthermore, the government are implying that social research is valid only if it conforms to strict and archaic positivist criteria, and they attempt to regularly dismiss the propositions and research findings of social scientists as being “value-laden” or by implying that they are, at least. However, it may also be said that values enter into social inquiry at every level, including decisions to research a social issue or not, decisions to accept established correlations and investigate further, or not, which transforms research into a political act. (One only need examine who is potentially empowered or disempowered through any inquiry and note the government response to see this very clearly).

It’s noteworthy that when it comes to government claims, the same methodological rigour that they advocate for others isn’t applied. Indeed, many policies have clearly been directed by ideology and traditional Tory prejudices, rather than valid research and empirical evidence. For example, it is widely held by the Conservatives that work is the “only route out of poverty”. Yet since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Tory-led Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards. Many people in work, as a consequence, are now in poverty, empirically contradicting government claims.

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So what is positivism?

Positivism was a philosophical and political movement which enjoyed a very wide currency in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was extensively discredited during the twentieth century.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857,) who was regarded by many as the founding father of social sciences, particularly sociology, and who coined the term “positivism,” was a Conservative. He believed social change should happen only as part of an organic, gradual evolutionary process, and he placed value on traditional social order, conventions and structures. Although the notion of positivism was originally claimed to be about the sovereignty of positive (verified) value-free, scientific facts, its key objective was politically Conservative. Positivism in Comte’s view was “the only guarantee against the communist invasion.” (Therborn, 1976: 224).

The thing about the fact-value distinction is that those who insist on it being rigidly upheld the loudest generally tend to use it the most to disguise their own whopping great ideological commitments. In psychology, we call this common defence mechanism splitting.  “Fact, fact, fact!” cried Mr Thomas Gradgrind. It’s a very traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of priority and order, to assure their own ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many who are exiled from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Comte’s starting point is the same as Hayek’s, namely the existence of a spontaneous order. It’s a Conservative ideological premise, and this is one reason why the current neoliberal Tory government of self-described “libertarian paternalists” embrace positivism without any acknowledgement of its controversy.

However, positivist politics was discarded half a century ago, as a reactionary and totalitarian doctrine. It’s is true to say that, in many respects, Comte was resolutely anti-modern, and he also represents a general retreat from Enlightenment humanism. His somewhat authoritarian positivist ideology, rather than celebrating the rationality of the individual and wanting to protect people from state interference, instead fetishised the scientific method, proposing that a new ruling class of authoritarian technocrats should decide how society ought to be run and how people should behave. This is a view that the current government, with their endorsement and widespread experimental application of nudge theory, would certainly subscribe to.

Science, correlation and causality

Much scientific evidence is based on established correlation of variables – they are observed to occur together. For example, correlation is used in Bell’s theorem to disprove local causality. The combination of limited available methodologies has been used together with the dismissing “correlation doesn’t imply causation” fallacy on occasion to counter important scientific findings. For example, the tobacco industry has historically relied on a dismissal of correlational evidence to reject a link between tobacco and lung cancer, especially in the earliest stages of the research, but there was a clearly and strongly indicated association. 

Science is manifestly progressive, insofar as over time its theories tend to increase in depth, range and predictive power.

Established correlations in both the social and natural sciences may be regarded, then, as a starting point for further in-depth and rigorous research, with the coherence, comprehensiveness and verisimilitude of theoretical propositions increasing over time. This is basically a critical realist position, which is different from the philosophical positivism that dominated science and the social sciences two centuries ago, with an emphasis on strictly reductive empirical evidence and the verification principle (which is itself unverifiable).

Positivist epistemology has been extensively critiqued for its various limitations in studying the complexities of  human experiences. One critique focuses on the positivist tendency to carry out studies from a “value-free” outsider perspective in an effort to maintain objectivity, whilst the insider or subjective perspective is ignored. There is no mind-independent, objective vantage point from which social scientists may escape the insider. A second critique is that positivism is reductionist and deterministic. It emphasises quantification and ignores and removes context, meanings, autonomy, intention and purpose from research questions by ignoring unquantifiable variables.

It therefore doesn’t extend explanations and understanding of how we make sense of the world. A third critique is that positivism entails generalisation of data which renders results inapplicable to individual cases; data are used to describe a population without accounting for significant micro-level or individual variation. Because of these and other problems, positivism lost much favour amongst sociologists and psychologists in particular. 

Verification was never the sole criterion of scientific inquiry. Positivism probably lost much more methodological and epistemological currency in the social sciences than the natural sciences, because humans cannot be investigated in the same way as inert matter. We have the added complication of consciousness and [debatable] degrees of intentionality, so people’s behaviour is much more difficult to measure, observe and predict. There’s a difference between facts and meanings, human behaviours are meaningful and purposeful, human agency arises in contexts of intersubjectively shared meanings. But it does seem that prediction curiously becomes easier at macro-levels when we examine broader social phenomena, mechanisms and processes. (It’s a bit like quantum events: quite difficult to predict at subatomic level, but clarifying, with events apparently becoming more predictable at the level we inhabit and observe every day.)

Now, whilst correlation isn’t quite the same as “cause and effect”, it often strongly indicates a causal link, and what usually follows once we have established a correlation is further rigorous research, eliminating “confounding” variables and bias systematically (we do use rigorous inference testing in the social sciences). Correlation is used when inferring causation; the important point is that such inferences are made after correlations are confirmed as real and all causational relationships are systematically explored using large enough data sets.

The standard process of research and enquiry, scientific or otherwise, doesn’t entail, at any point, a flat political denial that there is any relationship of significance to concern ourselves with, nor does it involve withholding data and a refusal to investigate further.

Positivism and psychology

Positivism was most closely associated with a doctrine known as behaviourism during the mid-20th century in psychology. Behaviourists confined their research to behaviours that could be directly observed and measured. Since we can’t directly observe beliefs, thoughts, intentions, emotions and so forth,  these were not deemed to be legitimate topics for a scientific psychology. One of the assumptions of behaviourists is that free-will is illusory, and that all behaviour is determined by the environment either through association or reinforcement. B.F. Skinner argued that psychology needed to concentrate only on the positive and negative reinforcers of behaviour in order to predict how people will behave, and  everything else in between (like what a person is thinking, or their attitude) is irrelevant because it can’t be measured.

So, to summarise, behaviourism is basically the theory that human (and animal) behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to wider socioeconomic contexts, consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s dystopian novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. Quite properly so. All totalitarians, bullies  and authoritarians are behaviourists. Skinner has been extensively criticised for his sociopolitical pronouncements, which many perceive to be based on serious philosophical errors. His recommendations are not based on “science”, but on his own covert biases and preferences.

Behaviourism also influenced a positivist school of politics that developed in the 50s and 60s in the USA. Although the term “behavouralism” was applied to this movement, the call for political analysis to be modeled upon the natural sciences, the preoccupation with researching social regularities, a commitment to verificationism, an experimental approach to methodology, an emphasis on quantification and the prioritisation of a fact-value distinction: keeping moral and ethical assessment and empirical explanations distinct, indicate clear parallels with the school of behaviourism and positivism within psychology.

The political behaviouralists proposed, ludicrously, that normative concepts such as “democracy,” “equality,” “justice” and “liberty” should be rejected as they are not scientific – not verifiable or falsifiable and so are beyond the scope of “legitimate” inquiry. 

Behaviourism has been criticised within politics as it threatens to reduce the discipline of political analysis to little more than the study of voting and the behaviour of legislatures. An emphasis on  the observation of data deprives the field of politics of other important viewpoints – it isn’t a pluralist or democratic approach at all – it turns political discourses into monologues and also conflates the fact-value distinction.

Every theory is built upon an ideological premise that led to its formation in the first place and subsequently, the study of  “observable facts” is intentional, selective and purposeful. As Einstein once said: “the theory tells you what you may observe.”

The superficial dichotomisation of facts and values also purposefully separates political statements of what is from what ought to be. Whilst behavouralism is itself premised on prescriptive ideology, any idea that politics should include progressive or responsive prescriptions – moral judgements and actions related to what ought to be – are summarily dismissed.

Most researchers would agree that we ought to attempt to remain as objective as possible, perhaps aiming for a relative value-neutrality, rather than value-freedom, when conducting research. It isn’t possible to be completely objective, because we inhabit the world that we are studying, we share cultural norms and values, we are humans that coexist within an intersubjective realm, after all. We can’t escape the world we are observing, or the mind that is part of the perceptual circuit.

But we can aim for integrity, accountability and transparency. We can be honest, we can critically explore and declare our own interests and values, for example. My own inclination is towards value-frankness, rather than value-freedom – we can make the values which have been incorporated in the choice of the topic of research, and of the formulation of hypotheses clear and explicit at the very outset. The standardised data collection process itself is uncoloured by personal feelings (that is, we can attempt to collect data reliably and systematically.) However, the debate about values and the principle of objectivity is a complex one, and it’s important to note that symbolic interactionists and post modernists, amongst others, have contended that all knowledge is culturally constructed. (That’s a lengthy and important discussion for another time.)

Nudge: from meeting public needs to prioritising political needs

The idea of “nudging” citizens to do the “right thing” for themselves and for society heralds the return of behaviourist psychopolitical theory. Whilst some theorists claim that nudge is premised on notions of cognition, and so isn’t the same as the flat, externalised stimulus-response approach of behaviourism, my observation is that the starting point of nudge theory is that our cognitions are fundamentally biased and faulty, and so the emphasis of nudge intervention is on behaviour modification, rather than on engaging with citizen’s cognitive or deliberative capacities.

In other words, our tendency towards cognitive bias(es) render us incapable of rational decision-making, so the state is bypassing democratic engagement and prescribing involuntary and experimental behavioural change to “remedy” our perceived cognitive deficits.

Behaviourists basically stated that only public events (behaviours of an individual) can be objectively observed, and that therefore private events (intentions, thoughts and feelings) should be ignored. The paternal libertarians are stating that our cognitive processes are broken, and should be ignored. What matters is how people behave. It’s effectively another reductionist, instrumental stimulus-response approach based on the same principles as operant conditioning.

Nudge is very controversial. It’s experimental use on an unconsenting population has some profound implications for democracy,  which is traditionally based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Conservative policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly all about instructing us how to be.

The context-dependency and determination of value-laden nudge theory

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural theories” are merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour; as a mechanism of explanation and in terms of capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

Furthermore, in relying upon a pseudo-positivistic experimental approach to human cognition, behavioural economists have made some highly questionable ontological and epistemologial assumptions: in the pursuit of methodological individualism, citizens are isolated from the broader structural political, economic and sociocultural and established reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a deeply problematic duality between context and cognition.

Yet many libertarian paternalists reapply the context they evade in explanations of human behaviours to justify the application of their theory in claiming that their “behavioural theories” can be used to serve social, and not necessarily individual, ends, by simply acting upon the individual to make them more “responsible.” But “responsible” is defined only within the confines of a neoliberal economic model. (See, for example: Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policyDavid Halpern, Clive Bates, Geoff Mulgan and Stephen Aldridge, 2004.)

In other words, there is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and a person’s perceptions, intentions and actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The ideological premise on which the government’s “behavioural theories” and assumptions about the negative impacts of neoliberalism on citizens rests is fundamentally flawed, holding individuals responsible for circumstances that arise because of market conditions, the labor market, political decision-making, socioeconomic constraints and the consequences of increasing “liberalisation”, privatisation and marketisation.

Market-based economies both highly value and extend competitive individualism and “efficiency”,  which manifests a highly hierarchical social structure, and entails the adoption of economic Darwinism. By placing a mathematical quality on social life (Bourdieu, 1999), neoliberalism has encouraged formerly autonomous states to regress into penal states that value production, competition and profit above all else, including attendance to social needs and addressing arising adverse structural level constraints, the consequences of political decision-making and wider socioeconomic issues, such as inequality and poverty.

As a doxa, neoliberalism has become a largely unchallenged reality. It now seems almost rational that markets should be the allocators of resources; that competition should be the primary driver of social problem-solving, innovation and behaviour, and that societies should be composed of individuals primarily motivated by economic conditions and their own economic productivity. Despite the Conservative’s pseudo-positivist claims of value-neutrality, the economic system is being increasingly justified by authoritarian moral arguments about how citizens ought to act.

The rise of a new political behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

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Image courtesy of Tiago Hoisel

 

Miliband: hope, humanism, joined-up thinking and integrity.

 

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One of Miliband’s virtues is that he re-humanises politics. For him, people’s individual experiences matter, and he always cites many examples throughout his speeches. He includes qualitative accounts from real people. It’s a particularly contrasting quality to Cameron’s unempathic, dehumanising, quantitative and negative labelling approach.

To the Tories, we are all reducible to their often cited, fake statistics. The numbers tell us what the Tories want us to “know”, and not what actually is. And we know that the Tories have never been big on free speech – see the Gagging Act, for example. They like to exclude “inconvenient” voices of truth from the grand, overarching Tory narrative. Miliband listens to accounts of people’s realities, and accommodates those accounts. Cameron imposes both accounts and realities upon us.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the right-wing bitcherati press have taken the piss once again and tried to make Miliband’s approach to the paramount importance of everyday people look small. Littlejohn in particular is being his pernicious, old, fascist self. How anyone that writes for the Mail for a living has the cheek to criticise anyone at all is beyond me. But it shows that the right are determined to portray any strengths that Ed Miliband has as a weakness. Propaganda at its worst. But its so blatant, superficial and unsophisticated, at least.

I have criticised Tory ontology and methodology previously, using social science as a frame of reference. Politics is a social science, and not a “stand-alone” one: it draws on the disciplines of psychology and sociology, too. As a critical interpretivist, I believe that social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically, there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context: a systematic dehumanisation. The Tories have depopulated social policy. This is a characteristic of authoritarianism, and other hallmarks include stigmatisation of social groups, moral disengagement, moral exclusion, impunity, and a societal “bystander apathy”, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

In the social sciences, there was a big shift away from Cameron’s approach to “understanding the social world” from the 70s onwards. Mostly we realised that  counting people’s responses doesn’t give us any clue about meanings and intentions, it can only turn up statistics. And these are open to reductionist and determinist interpretations and inferences from the persons gathering them, as we know.

Qualitative researchers aim to gather an in-depth understanding of human behaviour and intention – the reasons that govern such behaviour. The qualitative method investigates the why and how of our decision making, rather than just what. And we get to interpret our own reality and experiences. We are each experts in our realm of experiences, and Miliband understands this. He invites our expertise, Cameron stifles it.

The social researcher and the politician do not stand apart from or outside of the intersubjectively constructed universe they wish to describe/measure: there is no “objective” vantage point, because we all participate personally within it.

Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist said: Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.

And in Thick Description, which compared the “thin” descriptions of measurements with the “thick”, densely layered description of context and meaning that qualitative research can provide in any given situation, he said : “The difference between a twitch and a wink is vast.  From a purely physiological perspective, a wink is the contraction of the muscles of a single eye that cause the eyelid to close.  So, of course, is a twitch.  And so is a slow-motion, exaggerated parody of a wink; a fast motion parody of a twitch; and any number of parodies of parodies of twitches and winks that a group boys sitting in the back row might engage in to amuse one another on a spring afternoon”.

And any measure of the interactions that include and are driven by these twitches and winks is bound to measure the wrong things and fail to measure the right ones.

No-one but the Tories would try to argue that poverty is an intentional act of the poor, that food banks are a symptom of rising greed rather than need. I have never known a government to be so blatantly insouciant with the measurable social phenomena it causes via its policies. Or with its own credibility, for that matter.

In contrast to quantitative research, qualitative research involves the collection and analysis of information that focuses on the meanings attached to people’s actions and behaviours, often referred to as the lived experience.It defines us as active participants in the world, instead of merely reducing us to statistics and preferences.  It makes priority of our perceptions and experiences and the way we make sense of our lives.

First-hand experiences matter. And quite properly so. It puts us, the people, in the driving seat, we construct our own meanings, rather than having authoritarians like Cameron imposing meanings, definitions, convenient labels and Tory ideology upon us. Quantitative methods tend to hammer the world into a presupposed state  – as Einstein once said: the theory tells you what you may observe. How very Cameron. All quantitative studies can yield are conventionalised expressions of the experience of the author, or the one commissioning the research.

Quantitative, positivist paradigms share commensurable assumptions but are largely incommensurable with critical, constructivist, and participatory paradigms.. In other words, they don’t accommodate any critical  approaches or analysis, nor are they inclusive. How very Cameron.

Furthermore, quantitative methodology in the social sciences depends upon faith in the “verification principle”. Which is itself unverifiable…

How very  cul-de-sac, and how very Cameron.

Quantitative methodology objectifies us, whereas the qualitative method draws on a humanist, hermeneutic/phenomenological approach: understanding moves from the outer manifestations of human action and productivity (the superficial) to the exploration of their inner meanings and references. Numbers cannot convey human experiences: it is thought, language and our expression that converts experience into meaning.

Humanist thinkers within the discipline of psychology, such as Ronald D Laing, drew on a qualitative  approach, and in his earliest works, he starts from the experience of the individual ego, in “The Divided Self” (1961) and moves towards existential phenomenology , and in his later work, such as “The Politics Of Experience And The Bird Of Paradise“(1967), he manages to integrate these perspectives within a Marxist framework.

Laing, along with others who led the anti-psychiatry movement in the late 50’s and early 60’s, such as Erving Goffman and Thomas Szasz, had a profound and hugely significant impact within the field of psychology, which had been dominated by associationism, behaviourism, psychometrics and eugenics and of course, psychoanalysis.

At a time when theorists from social sciences maintained that their perspectives were premised on scientific (usually positivistic) principles, Laing offered a humanist critique of these approaches, which he said trivialised psychology and dehumanised its subjects. Laing shifted the emphasis from an experimental approach, and a searching for “facts” and “predictability” regarding human behaviours to dialogue, intersubjectively constructed and reconstructed meanings and human experience. Laing and others challenged established categories of behaviour deemed pathological or abnormal, by meaningful explorations of individual accounts of their experience of being.

Laing in particular gave a rational voice to those individuals who had experienced exploitation within family relationships, which he studied extensively, discovering sets of interactions that often involved complex tactical games, relationship knots and strategies, with family members making alliances with some and creating enmity with other members. Within the nexus of the family there is an unremitting demand for constant strategic interpersonal interaction based on mutual reciprocal concern and attention. Individuals are therefore vulnerable to existential harm. They are emotionally imprisoned via the nexus, internalising other family members, and the interaction patterns.

Laing believed that some families acted like gangsters, offering each other protection against each other’s violence. Some governments do, too.  He also believed that the internalisation of family interaction patterns becomes our world – and it restricts the development of the self, with individuals carrying the emotional blueprint of their family for the rest of their life, which may inhibit any real autonomy or self awareness. This blueprint may manifest as expression through behaviours that are clinically identified and diagnosed as schizophrenia. Laing and others exposed the negative labelling processes, and ritualised humiliation directed towards those experiencing self-fragmentation because of the internalisation of negative family interaction patterns. For Laing, madness is simply a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. Of course that world exists within a political framework.

In sociology, phenomenology was expressed in the work of Alfred Schutz (1899 – 1959) who studied the ways in which people directly experience everyday life, and imbue their activities with meanings. In contrast to the predominant structural and somewhat deterministic perspectives within the discipline, Schultz moved away from the tendency of subordinating everything within disaffecting, abstruse and overarching ideologies or grand narratives, and he emphasised a multiplicity of new and often spontaneously co-authored ideologies lived out day-by-day and based on common sense and intersubjectively constructed values.

Schultz expressed a vitalism that engendered an organic way of thinking, with characteristics such as intuitive insight as a way of perceiving things from within, and placed emphasis on understanding as a holistic grasp of the widely varied, often complex and subtle elements of situations, and on experience as something that is lived through in common with others.

Schultz says that we draw on a common stock of knowledge – “typifications” and common sense which orientates us, helps us navigate socially, and achieve a reciprocity of perspective with others. Socialisation processes mediate and normalise this common stock of knowledge.

Phenomenological Sociology went hand in hand with a preference for a qualitative methodology that emphasised authentic everyday accounts of social reality, with agency and meaning being the focus. Quantitative methodology, on the other hand, had primarily focused on measurement, notions of the predictability of behaviours due to these being determined by social structure for example, as was the case with many advocates of Functionalism, such as Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, and a socially detached and “objective” researcher.

Such a researcher was evidently armed with the belief that he/she possessed the somewhat unique ability to stand outside of human experience and values, unlike the subjects of enquiry, and would thus gather “social facts” and then interpret them from this independently existing standpoint. For example, a sociologist studying drug use amongst young people may gather statistics and hand out closed questionnaires with short directive and directed yes/no type questions. From the information gathered, the researcher may conclude that anomie and alienation lead to drug use, because, for example, many young drug users singled out for study live in deprived inner city areas.

Most young drug users, however, would not use terms like anomie to explain or give meaningful accounts of their drug use. This imposed conceptual framework of the researcher demonstrates very well how detachment and objectivity is not possible, in sociological enquiry. Indeed, some have extended this criticism to scientific enquiry. We each operate within idioms of belief, and Michael Polanyi has proposed that Western Science is such a self-sustaining idiom. (“Personal Knowledge”, 1958). He compares science with Azande Witchcraft, (Evans-Pritchard’s anthropological study: “Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande”), noting that each conceptual framework is “segregated’ by a logical gap” (they are incommensurable), but from within each idiom, beliefs tended to be circulatory, self-confirming and self-sustaining.

This is true of all ideologies. We can make inferences from sociological research, for example, but every sociologist knows about the Hawthorne effect: that the very fact that people know they are being observed changes their behaviour and distorts the result.

Polanyi had become acutely aware of the extent to which worldviews penetrate into language, and that he had sensed that this may have important ramifications for relations between frameworks of belief. As the basis of his argument, Polanyi gives a precis of his epistemology in “Science, Faith And Society” (1946) and “Scientific Beliefs” (1951). Polanyi considers that discovery, verification and falsification of propositions in science do not obey “any definite rule” but proceed with the aid of “certain maxims” which defy both precise formulation and rigorous evaluation. The maxims are “premisses or beliefs … embodied in … the tradition of science”.

Sustained by this tradition, science is governed by the coherent opinion of its practitioners, who employ the “idiom of science” in which its interpretative framework, Polanyi concludes, is an entrenched tangled and negotiated reciprocity of perspective, and all founded on the the belief of scientists that science is true: a personal conviction which they cannot factually justify. And again, how can we verify the principle at the heart of scientific methodology: verificationism itself, for example?

It is also possible to identify imported scientific metaphors operating at the heart of social science. For example, the shift from “structure” to “events” in physics is reflected in a similar shift in theoretical focus in sociology. There was a marked shift in structural and deterministic accounts of human behaviour and a move to study small scale interactions, social events, context bound interactions and situations, which can be linked with phenomenology. Behaviour was relativised by a multiplicity of contexts, which meant that more descriptive methodologies were employed.

A phenomenologist would ask open-ended questions, preferring interviews and the use of dialogue. Responses would be directed as little as possible, ensuring that the account given is a true and meaningful reflection of the direct experience of the person/social agent. This kind of research also reflects immediacy – the here and nowness of the social world, that has a full potential yet to be explored, rather than the positivist emphasis on a narrowing predictability and replicating results to try and determine their’ “accuracy.” It is also democratic and founded on notions of equality.

The person/agent has the centre stage and is the author of the research. Furthermore, phenomenologists have pointed out that sociologists are also embedded in everyday life and cannot therefore escape the shared norms, values and meanings of the life world they inhabit. Phenomenologists value valid accounts, rather than social “facts”, as it is not possible to be “objective” when one occupies a completely intersubjective realm of enquiry.

Miliband, of course, recognises this, he values authenticity, inclusion, equality, democracy and spontaneity over and above ideology. Cameron is completely driven by ideology. and the ghastly assumptions that Tory dogma entails.

Social existence is not one dimensional; it is complex, ambiguous, poorly defined, deceptive, fragmented, emotional and often unpredictable. It is animated by a plurality of perspectives. It is often based on what we take for granted – tacit knowledge – that which is self-evident that informs our intellectual constructions. A phenomenological approach can uncover those taken for granted underpinning assumptions – quintessentially cultural phenomena, in that these assumptions are what societies are built upon.

Miliband understands this. He acknowledges that human experiences are complex, multidimensional, inter and intrasubjective, and multipersonal, many layered events, where both “verifiable statement” and valid existential account each have an important place in our endlessly creative narratives, and of the endless possibilities of our being in a social universe of expansive potential. Cameron only reduces that potential. And he really has, in just four years.

In a sense, we’ve all been doing such qualitative research our whole life, and therefore have very much to contribute to a pluralist, socially democratic society. Miliband knows this, Cameron freely chooses not to. Cameron is an epistemological and ontological fascist: he predefines what we “know”, and what is “acceptable” as “knowledge”, and he predefines social reality, excluding its’ members accounts.

Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen  is a critical approach in all social sciences, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects and not human subjects of their policies.

My own starting point is that regardless of any claim to value-freedom in political science, we cannot abdicate moral responsibility, and cannot justify moral indifference. We see this positive approach exemplified in our laws, human rights and democratic process. We are also seeing an erosion of this tendency to a globalisation of values, and inclusion of a recognition and account of the full range of human experiences in policy making. Indeed Tory policy has become an instrument of social exclusion and increasing minoritization.

We are being reduced to little more than economic statements here in the UK. We have a Government that tends to describe vulnerable social groups in terms of costs to the State, and responsibility is attributed to these social groups via media and State rhetoric, whilst those decision-makers actually responsible for the state of the economy have been exempted, legally and morally, and are hidden behind complex and diversionary scapegoating propaganda campaigns.

Sartre once said that oppressors oppress themselves as well as those they oppress. Freedom and autonomy are also reciprocal, and it’s only when we truly recognise our own liberty that we may necessarily acknowledge that of others. Conservatism has always been associated with a capacity to inhibit and control, and never liberate. We need to take responsibility for the Government that we have. In fact we must.

Miliband is offering us social democracy. The accusations of political “cross-dressing” from the fringes of the left are utter nonsense, hence the persistent right-wing media smear campaign. Miliband is offering us inclusivity, he speaks with an obvious decency and passion, and has consistently presented us with a  comprehensive and coherent narrative, if only we will listen.

Socialism for a Sceptical Age, by Ralph Miliband was about the continued relevance of socialism in a post-communist world. Ed Miliband has said that the final few sentences of this book are his favourites of all his father’s work:

In all the countries there are people in numbers large and small who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and co-operation – the essential values of socialism – would be the prevailing values of social organization. It is in the growth of their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope for mankind.”  

“Socialism is not a rigid economic doctrine, but ‘a set of values’ It is ‘a tale that never ends’. Indeed, the strange fact is that  while there’s capitalism, there’ll be socialism, because there is always a response to injustice.” Ed  Miliband. (Source)

He’s right.

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant pictorial truths