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Illness, disability, welfare and psychology – a critical social view

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 11:00

This week’s blog is from Prof John Cromby, one of the social psychologists whose work is discussed in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). John presents a critical view of a current social issue to show how psychological knowledge can be used politically.

The government are cutting benefit payments to people who are ill and who have disabilities. For over a year now, the journalist Frances Ryan has been documenting the frequently devastating effects of these cuts upon the lives of vulnerable people – see here, for just some of the many instances she has uncovered.

Since 2008 we have repeatedly been told that these cuts are necessary because we can no longer afford ‘profligate’ welfare spending. We have been told that it was this spending – and not the hundreds of billions we paid to bail out the banks – that created the UK’s current spending deficit. Ministers have made speeches that distinguish between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’, and suggested that there are many families where three entire generations have never worked. These speeches imply that all those who claim benefits are cheats, living off the hard work of others.

The truth, as usual, is more complex. Research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation failed to find any evidence for entrenched inter-generational cultures of welfare dependency. Some benefits help keep people in work, or out of hospital, and this generates savings elsewhere. The government’s own figures show that, in 2016-16, benefit overpayments due to either fraud or error were estimated at £3.1billion. This was just 1.8% of total government spending on benefits – and was offset by an estimated 1% in underpayments. By comparison, in the same year tax evasion is estimated to have cost the government £36billion. And in any case, cutting welfare budgets is not the only way to balance the books. So removing benefits from ill and disabled people is an ideological choice – not an economic necessity.

Broadly speaking, psychology is being used in two kinds of ways to make this ideological choice seem more acceptable. I have already touched upon the first: to create social identities that pit those in work against those who claim benefits. Elements of the media have furthered this psychological project by producing and broadcasting what are widely called ‘poverty porn’ programmes.

The second way in which psychology is being used to make this ideological choice seem more reasonable is by shaping the experiences of benefit claimants themselves. Strategies have included relatively obvious changes such as replacing sick notes with ‘fit notes’. But they have also included more subtle changes with no overt political agenda, such as requiring benefit claimants to undergo personality testing. As Martin Willis and I show in our paper (Cromby and Willis 2013) this apparently innocuous initiative can in fact be seen as an instrument of political power – one that is all the more effective for being difficult to recognise.

You can read more about the social and political power of psychology in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can watch a video on the module here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk



Cromby, J. and Willis, M. (2013) ‘Nudging into subjectification: governmentality and psychometrics’, Critical Social Policy, vol. 2, no. 34, pp. 241–59.

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