Conference abstract for Nordic Research Network 2012 (and some pontification about research dissemination and ‘relevance’)

This is the abstract of the paper I’ll be presenting at the the Nordic Research Network’s 2012 conference, held at Edinburgh University’s Department of Scandinavian Studies on the 23rd and 24th of next month. It’s a bit of a change of scene for me – being an area studies conference rather than social policy generally or labour market/welfare policy specifically – but it has encouraged me to think more about the distinctiveness and opportunities of a British-Danish comparison and what in particular a study of Danish policy brings.

Judging from the papers presented at previous NRN conferences, I think it will also be a good early test of whether the way I have formulated the research makes the topic understandable to those outside the welfare reform field.  I take seriously the notion that a research project that is supported by public funds must be relevant to, understandable and even usable by researchers in other fields of research and by policymakers.

Consequently, I’m trying to be innovative in the way that I disseminate the research’s ideas and findings.  There is a widespread tendency, I think, to treat ‘dissemination’ as a hermetically-sealed couple of months at the end of the three years which you amble around the conference circuit presenting your findings before you disappear off into your next job. Unless your next job is in academia or policy looking at similar issues, there doesn’t appear to be a way of building feedback into the research.  This is why I am choosing to disseminate rather early – before, even, I’ve finished my fieldwork – so that I have the chance to consider other people’s views in the course of the rest of the fieldwork and writing-up. There is a democratic feel to this as well that appeals to me: as much as doctoral theses (whether privately or publicly funded) are personal projects there should be an onus on the researcher of public problems to ensure that there is mechanism for public sphere discussion of the research to be incorporated into the research itself.

‘Activation’, for example, is a concept that I understand well but one which is very opaque to those not in the immediate field of study; opaque, even, to other social policy researchers.  I can’t really get away without using the term, but I am taking the NRN  conference to to test-run a more accessible conceptualisation of the term.

Activation for all? Sick and disabled benefit claimants, the institutionalisation of activation regimes, and economic downturns in the United Kingdom and Denmark

Both the United Kingdom and Denmark have made moves towards making the receipt of a disability or sickness benefit contingent on the claimant becoming more ‘work-focused’ and while much is now known about the individual legislative and programmatic changes that governments have made to active labour market policy (ALMP) for these claimants, there is more to be said about what types of regimes these individual changes have resulted in and how the need for claimants to become more ‘work focused’ becomes institutionalised. We know much less, for example, about what role a claimant’s classification as sick or disabled influences what demands are made on her and what assistance is provided in return and how this has been affected by recent extensive institutional
changes in both countries. Given that measures to activate sick and disabled claimants were conceived as a way of boosting the labour supply in a time of low unemployment but are being implemented when unemployment is higher, the question of how such an agenda fares in more difficult times and how this is mediated by the way it has previously been institutionalised is a compelling one. With their long-standing experience of ALMP but significant differences in welfare traditions, benefit regimes and governance arrangements, the two together provide an opportunity for an insightful comparative analysis in a field where cross-national comparison has been lacking

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