Rethinking the Sociology of Stigma in the transition to postwelfare states

I am delighted and honoured to have been awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize, which means that from September 2015 I will have some relief from my day job (teaching and administration) for three years to focus on my new research project on stigma and inequalities (click on link to see my previous longer blog ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ which explains some of the ideas and impetus behind this new project).

Why research stigma today?

All the major institutions of ‘free-market’ capitalism have warned that escalating inequalities (of income, health and education) pose the gravest threat to future social and political stability. The premise of this project is that to combat this threat we require a much better understanding of relationship between stigmatisation, inequalities and capitalism—that is we urgently need to theorise stigma as a cultural and political economy.

Stigma is one of the most frequently used but least developed concepts in the social sciences. Although stigma is employed to describe a vast array of scapegoating practices and shameful identities, deeper theoretical understandings of stigma are frequently absent from sociological analysis. Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1964) was pivotal in the emergence of a sociology of stigma, yet it is striking how little understandings of stigma have developed in the intervening 50 years. Further, the centrality of stigma in producing economic and social inequalities has been obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses have generally developed in separate domains’ (Hatzenbuehler, 2013). In short, stigma is widely accepted to be a major factor in determining life chances, yet research on stigma is fragmented and dispersed across academic disciplines. This research project will produce a new theoretical account of stigma, to address this lacuna and to consider the relationship between growing inequalities and ‘heightened stigmatization in daily life and public discourse’ (Wacquant, 2010). The project has the following aims:

  • develop a new social theory/sociology of stigma
  • examine the relationship between stigmatisation and escalating inequalities
  • consider ‘behaviour change’ policies through the lens of stigma
  • deepen understanding of the role of stigma in generating a ‘post-welfare’ consensus

Outcomes from this project will include:·

  • The establishment of an interdisciplinary research network on Stigma & Inequality
  • A monograph: The Stigma Doctrine (provisional title)·
  • A special journal issue: ‘Sociology of Stigma’ (to be edited with Tom Slater)
  • Three peer-reviewed articles

What distinguishes this project from existing research is its explicit focus on stigmatization as a central dimension of neoliberal state-crafting. The project will focus in particular on welfare reform, the neoliberal de/recomposition of class, poverty, work and dis/abilities.

In due course there will be a new wordpress site with blog updates, events and findings from this research project as it develops.

The Economics of Illegality: Who Profits

Originally posted on Social Abjection :


Coffins in Lampedusa 2013

This post is “notes and data”, rather than a polished piece of writing , which I gathered together for a short talk at the Transeuropa festival in October. Thanks to Alina Muller for inviting me. I will not have time to write this up into a more formal academic paper for some time so decided to post the notes here for now.

This talk was motivated by the deaths at sea near Lampedusa in October 2013, and my intention was to reflect on the at European sea borders–something I have written about before—and connect this to my work on border controls and immigration detention in the UK.

We hear a lot about what migrants “cost us” and how they “cheat us” but conversely accounts which attempt to trouble this narrative of cheating often reinforce governmental categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrants-refugees versus economic migrants. I don’t want…

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The Business of Immigration Detention: The Conference – Jan 22-23rd 2015

The Business of Immigration Detention: Activisms, Resistances, Critical Interventions

The Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe)

 Lancaster University, January 22-23th 2015


To book a place see links below- you need to book separately for the Ice&Fire public performance (free) and for the conference (small fee).

The Centre for Mobilities Research at Lancaster University (CeMoRe) is hosting an ESRC sponsored conference “The Business of Immigration Detention: Activisms, Resistances, Critical Interventions” (which is the final event in part of a larger series of workshops titled  ‘Exploring Everyday Practice and Resistance in Immigration Detention’). Bringing together a range of leading academics, post-graduate researchers, practitioners, artists, activists and former detainees this seminar series will investigate the ways in which the UK experience of detention reflects and re-produces the contradictory logics inherent in contemporary global detention practices.  “The Business of Immigration Detention” will consider the challenges facing academics and activists in the area of immigration detention and related border-security practices.

The administrative detention and deportation of adults classified as ‘illegal’ escalated in the late 1990s with a policy shift from the detention of very small numbers of migrants in mainstream prisons to the development of specialist migrant detention facilities. Successive UK governments have argued that this escalation in detention is ‘an essential, everyday facet of immigration control’ and ‘regrettable but necessary’ (see Silverman 2012). However, while arguments about the ‘necessity’ of detention are grounded in notions of deterrence, threat and security, the expansion of immigration detention, and the practices that determine who is taken into detention, are also driven by business interests.

Detention is a business, and the profits to be made are key determinants of both transnational and state-level policy formation and everyday detention practices. Further, this global business is proliferating new markets for global securities companies which extend outside the detention estate into the provision of services, such as housing and welfare for migrant and increasingly ‘citizen’ populations (for example in running prisons, policing and schools services).

At this conference we will consider what Frances Webber describes as ‘the vexed question of when, if and how we should engage with statutory bodies and whether it is possible to do so without jeopardising the principles which led us to get involved in this work in the first place’? (Weber, 2012).

Should activism and activist-scholarship aim to resist state practices of detention entirely, or work with private and state actors in order to change detention practices? What forms of critical intervention and resistance are useful or possible in this field?

To address these and other questions, we have invited leading scholars, artists and activists to address to share their research and experience, and to reflect, listen, learn and debate questions of resistance to immigration detention, from local, national and global perspectives.

Public Lecture: Thursday 22th January 4.30 pm

Professor Alison Mountz, Professor of Geography and Canada Research Chair in Global Migration, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. Professor Mountz’s work explores the tension between the decisions, displacements, and desires that drive human migration and the policies and practices designed to manage migration. She is author of Seeking Asylum: Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border (2011) and leads the ‘Island Detention Project’

Public Performance: Thursday 22th January 6.30pm

Ice&fire will be performing specially adapted version of their ‘asylum monologues’ at the Lancaster University Chaplaincy Centre at 7pm on Thursday 24th January, followed by a wine reception and book launch. It is FREE to attend this event – but you must register as numbers are strictly limited. Book here:

Conference Friday 23th January at Lancaster Conference Centre, 9.30am- 5pm(online booking required, limited spaces) at Lancaster University FASS building rooms 2/3, 5pm (building 21 on campus map)


Closing Keynote 4pm: Friday 23rd January

Dr Jenna Loyd is an Assistant Professor in Public Health Policy at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, as well as a prison and detention abolitionist activist. She is the author of Health Rights Are Civil Rights: Peace and Justice Activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978 (2014) and co-editor of Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis (2013). Beyond Walls and Cages takes an explicitly abolitionist and transnational political approach to issues of detention and forced imprisonment. Inspired by Jenna’s activist-scholarship, we are seeking to emulate the philosophy of Beyond Walls and Cages at this conference, with scholars, activists, artists, and the formally imprisoned speaking together form a range of disciplines, experiences and perspectives—from local struggles against immigration detention and strikes and protests against the privatisation of policing and prison-services, to trans-national networks which seek to expose and undo the increasing hold of global securities companies within the fabric of the state.

Other Confirmed Speakers:

Christine Bacon is Artistic Director of ice&fire, who will be performing at a free public event at Lancaster University chaplaincy Centre on the evening of Thursday 23rd of January to mark the beginning of our conference.  Christine has been involved in numerous grassroots campaigns, including Actors for Refugees Australia. She moved to the UK in 2004 to complete an MSc. in Forced Migration at Oxford University. She founded ice&fire‘s outreach network Actors for Human Rights. Plays for ice&fire include On the Record (with Noah Birksted-Breen); Afghan Monologues, Rendition Monologues; The Illegals; Broke; Seven Years with Hard Labour (with Sara Masters); and Listen to Me (with Sara Masters).

Dr Mary Bosworth is Director of Graduate Studies at the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University, where she is a Reader in Criminology and, concurrently, Professor of Criminology at Monash University, Australia. Dr Bosworth conducts research into the ways in which prisons and immigration detention centres uphold notions of race, gender and citizenship and how those who are confined negotiate their daily lives. Dr Bosworth is currently heading a five-year project on “Subjectivity, Identity and Penal Power: Incarceration in a Global Age” and with colleagues from Monash is conducting research in Greek Immigration Detention Centres. Details of both of these projects can be found on the website

Dr Maja Sager is a COFAS Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Gender Studies, Lund University and, between 2012 and 2015, a visiting researcher at the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, UK. Her PhD ‘Everyday Clandestinity: Experiences on the Margins of Citizenship and Migration Policies’ (2011) is based upon an ethnographic study with irregular migrants and migration rights activists and discusses how national belonging, citizenship and social organising are practiced and represented in the Swedish welfare state. Maja is currently undertaking her postdoctoral research with migrant activist groups in the UK, Sweden and Denmark.

Pa Modou Bojang (Prince) is the Director of Kibaaro Radio, a journalist, writer and refugee. Prince is also a former immigration detainee and a founding member of Migrant Artists Mutual Aid, a Liverpool based activist organisation comprised of migrant and ‘citizen’ artists, poets, writers and performers.

Dr Alex Hall is a lecturer in Politics at the University of York. Her research focuses on the international securitisation of mobility and contemporary border politics in the west, drawing on interdisciplinary work from international relations, anthropology and critical security and border studies. She has conducted research into the everyday production and experience of security within immigration detention, and the rise of ‘smart’ e-border targeting systems in the UK and Europe. Alex is currently conducting research on the role of discretion within smart border targeting programmes, as a way of understanding the contemporary working of sovereign power at the border and the international governance of mobility.

The Detention Forum is a network of over 30 NGOs who are working on immigration detention issues.  We are working together to build a momentum to question the legitimacy of immigration detention which has become such a normal part of the British immigration system.  We are now a membership-based network, a collective of organisations who want to work together to challenge immigration detention.  One of the aims of our work is to engage more politicians about this issue.  We now host regular Parliamentary Network Meetings on immigration detention twice a year, have written joint letters to influence and individually lobbied local MPs to be more vocal about detention issues.

John Grayson  is an independent researcher and adult educator. He was Senior Tutor for research at the Northern College for residential adult education until 2006 and taught Housing Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. He lives in Barnsley and is an activist and campaigner with SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group). John has published widely on anti racist issues for the Institute for Race Relations news service; and on immigration issues, especially on privatisation and asylum housing. He has been involved with the transnational ‘Stop G4S’ activist network.


Professor Alice Bloch is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on understanding the lived experiences of forced migrants with a focus on marginalisation and exclusion, rights and agency, engagement in transnational relations, social and community networks, economic strategies and labour market experiences. Recent publications include, ‘Sans Papiers: The social and economic lives of undocumented migrants in the UK’ (Pluto Press with Nando Sigona and Roger Zetter). She has recently completed an ESRC funded study (2011-14), with Professor Sonia McKay from the Working Lives Research Institute, London Metropolitan University, ‘Undocumented Migrants, Ethnic Enclaves and Networks: Opportunities, traps or class-based constructs’. Her current research is a collaboration with Professor Milena Chimienti, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland and Professor Catherine Withol De Wenden Sciences Po Paris, on a project funded by the Swiss Network for International Studies, ‘Children of refugees in Europe: Aspirations, social and economic lives, identity and transnational linkages’.


From “The Shock Doctrine” to “The Stigma Doctrine”: Imogen Tyler

I am currently developing a new research project titled ‘The Stigma Doctrine’, which is the “sister project” to Revolting Subjects.


In 1964, Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity transformed scholarly and wider public understandings of how stigma impacts upon well-being, social relations and community cohesion. Goffman made two central claims: 1) stigma is not an essential quality of a person or thing but rather describes a ‘special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype’ (Goffman, 1963:4); and 2) individuals manage the shame of stigma by employing strategies of passing, concealment and refusal.

Goffman’s work has been pivotal in the development practical initiatives designed to combat social stigma, for example in programmes designed to reduce the social stigma of conditions such as HIV and Aids, and in the area of mental health and disability policy development and activism.  Indeed, in the fifty years since Stigma was published, social and political movements, such as the disability rights movement, have radically transformed public perceptions and understandings of what might have been considered ‘deviant’ or ‘marked’ bodies and behaviours. However, despite these sometimes successful practical applications of Goffman’s work, it is striking how little our theoretical understandings of stigmatisation have developed in the intervening 50 years (but see the important work of Graham Scambler on Stigma including his 2009 Review article: “health-related stigma” in Sociology of Health and Illness 31 441-455)

Further, the centrality of stigma in producing economic and social inequalities has been obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses have generally developed in separate domains’ (Hatzenbuehler, 2013). In short, stigma is widely accepted to be a major factor in determining life chances, yet research on stigma is fragmented across academic disciplines.


In ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’ (2007), Naomi Klein details the ways in which ‘the policy trinity’ of neoliberalism, ‘the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations and skeletal social spending’ has been enabled through the invention and/or exploitation of crises, be they natural disasters, terrorist attacks or global economic recession. In my new project, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ I revise Klein’s analysis, researching the claim made by the sociologist Loïc Wacquant (2010), and extended in Geographer Tom Slater’s work on territorial stigma (follow this link to Tom’s incredible bibliography on this topic), that “neoliberalism is characterised by heightened stigmatization in daily life and public discourse” (Wacquant).

Focusing on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.

‘The Stigma Doctrine’ will involve an extensive review of the literature on stigma from several disciplines, including sociology, political theory, psychology, anthropology, disability studies, health research and the arts, alongside some new empirical research on the role of stigma in policy design and implementation in the UK today.

‘The Stigma Doctrine’ has five aims: 1) to develop a new cogent theoretical account of social, political and economic function of stigma; 2) to examine the relationship between stigma and growing inequalities; 3) to develop new methodological approaches to the study of stigma; 4) to explore the policy implications of ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ 5) to deepen wider public understanding of the centrality of practices of stigmatization in maintaining and reproducing social inequalities.

Poverty, Shame and Stigma

Existing empirical research demonstrates that the social dimensions of poverty are as significant as economic hardship. Economist Amartya Sen, for example, has developed rich and detailed understanding of the disabling effects of poverty shame. ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ will bring this work into dialogue with recent psychosocial research on the politics of affect and emotion. It will also examine existing empirical research on poverty and shame, including the findings of the Oxford University project, ‘Shame, social exclusion and the effectiveness of anti-poverty programmes’ (ESRC-DFID 2010-2012). However, what distinguishes ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ from existing research is its explicit focus on stigmatization as a central dimension of neoliberal state-crafting.

This project aims to develop a better understanding the production of stigma in relationship to the prevailing ‘post-welfare consensus’ (Peck 2010). Indeed, one area I want to examine in this project is whether stigmatization is designed into policy in order to ‘nudge’ citizens off state benefits. The ‘behaviourist turn’ in policy formation, and the accompanying intensive social, political and media focus on ‘behaviourally recalcitrant’ social groups, has not been researched from the perspective of stigma. ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ will offer an important critical analysis of ‘behaviour change’ approaches to policy design and the emergence of what has been coined ‘neuroliberal’ forms of governmentality (see Rhys Jones et al 2013, and Lynne Friedli’s work in this area).

The written Romani language – never say “never”

Originally posted on ROMEDIA FOUNDATION:

IN the light of the Romani situation in present day Europe, the history of the Romani language- Romanès, as we call it- may not seem like an especially important issue. Arguing about whether or not this language has a history of being written down might seem less important still. Yet the claim that the Romani language has never been written down until very recent times remains untrue, and this claim is dangerous for precisely the reasons that people assume it to be correct.

by Damian Le Bas

Letter composed in the Romani language by the English Romanichal Sylvester “Westerous”Boswell, 1874

Letter composed in the Romani language by the English Romanichal Sylvester “Westerous”Boswell, 1874


Roma people are struggling for basic civil rights, equality in education, and equality before the law in many European countries. Thinly veiled talk of the “Gypsy question” rises like a spectre masking the reality of murderous anti-Roma violence. The mediaeval myth that Romani people steal non-Romani children has reared…

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Welcome to the revolution

Originally posted on womantheory:

What is ‘WomanTheory’?
  • WomanTheory is a challenge to the predominance of ‘boy theory’ and male voices and knowledge in academia.
  • WomanTheory calls attention to the elision of women’s contribution to social theory and knowledge.
  • WomanTheory is an epistemological and political project.
  • WomanTheory is disruptive.
  • WomanTheory is collective.
  • WomanTheory is a movement, a revolution.


How did WomanTheory start?

WomanTheory started as a challenge on twitter to name three women theorists, using the hashtag #womantheory.

Within hours, twitter was full of the names of great women theorists, thinkers and writers.  See the story of how things erupted here.

WordItOut-word-cloud-344265 copy

Through our twitter account and this website want to galvanise feminist energy and creativity to keep disrupting the gendered academy.

Who ‘is’ WomanTheory?

This movement was initiated by Imogen Tyler (Lancaster) and colleagues at the Centre for Gender and Woman’s Studies at Lancaster. The idea for this website emerged from…

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The 2014 Shortlist is announced

Originally posted on The Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing:

We are delighted to announce the seven books which have made the shortlist for the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2014. The winner will be announced at the London Radical Bookfair, on Saturday 10th May 2014.

‘Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police’
by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis
(Faber and Faber, 2013)


The gripping stories of a group of police spies – written by the award-winning investigative journalists who exposed the Mark Kennedy scandal – and the uncovering of forty years of state espionage.

This was an undercover operation so secret that some of our most senior police officers had no idea it existed. The job of the clandestine unit was to monitor British ‘subversives’ – environmental activists, anti-racist groups, animal rights campaigners. Police stole the identities of dead people to create fake passports, driving licences and bank accounts. They then went deep undercover for years…

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write 500 words for @womantheory for International Women’s Day

This term (inspired by a screening of the film “Woman, Art, Revolution”) the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Lancaster created a hashtag #womantheory to encourage Twitter users to name the three women theorists who had most inspired them. This had an unprecedented response and continues to elicit new tweets.

We now have a Twitter account @womantheory – follow us and tweet your selection.

Kim Allen from MMU set up a wordpress site for those of us who don’t use social networking sites.

For International Women’s Day 2014 we want to encourage more people to contribute by submitting a My WomanTheory story online using this form:

We ask you to tell us about  why a particular woman theorist / thinker / writer matters to you: for example, how did you encounter their work? how did their work change the way you think about an issue? how do you use their ideas in your own work? It can be as long or as short as you like. 500 words would be great.

You can be anonymous if you’d prefer.

What is ‘WomanTheory’?

  • WomanTheory is a challenge to the predominance of ‘boy theory’ and male voices and knowledge in academia.
  • WomanTheory calls attention to the elision of women’s contribution to social theory and knowledge.
  • WomanTheory is an epistemological and political project.
  • WomanTheory is disruptive.
  • WomanTheory is collective.
  • WomanTheory is a movement, a revolution.

Protesting ATOS: The Right Not to Work #Atos #Kills



Today across the UK protests are taking place against ATOS, the French based Information Technology and Health multi-national first commissioned by the Government in 2008 to carry out the discredited work capability assessments (WCAs) with those claiming or seeking disability related welfare benefits. These ‘points-based’ tests –comprising of a combination of computer based questionnaires, short face-to-face interviews and minimal physical examinations– determine whether people are fraudulently claiming benefits when they are ‘fit for work’. To date ATOS has been funded to the tune of 500 million pounds for carrying out these tests. In July 2012 the British Medical Association Conference voted unanimously for an end to the WCAs in their current form. However, they continue unabated despite sometimes horrific and deadly consequences.

Many hundreds of thousands of people which ATOS has reclassified as ‘fit for work’ (around 40%) have had that decision over-turned on appeal (Gentleman, 2012). As well as being expensive the appeals system often takes several months during which time poverty and stress often has a serious impact on the health of appellants. There is also growing evidence of a rise in the number of suicides and attempted suicides by people whose benefits have been withdrawn. These include truly heart-breaking cases, such as the suicide of Jacqueline Harris, a 53-year-old former nurse from Bristol, in 2013 .

In this blog post, I want to return us to the ‘inclusive spectacle’ of the Paralympic Games in 2012 (a moment when the British State produced itself as the inclusive state extraordinaire), in order to briefly explore the deeply toxic mix of rhetorics of inclusion and mechanisms of exclusion which people with disabilities endure in post-welfare Britain.

David Cameron, for example, recently claimed that “Britain’s Paralympic Games opened the eyes of the world to see disability in a different way”  (David Cameron 2013).


What sense can we make of Cameron’s boasts about Britain’s pride in being “disability inclusive” in the context of fiscal measures which seemingly target people with disabilities, and welfare reforms which function through the production of stigma and fear–as though fear itself might somehow generate paid work for people with disabilities.

Highlighting the recent work of colleagues Chris Grover and Linda Piggot at Lancaster University, I will argue that it is critical that we stand in solidarity with Black Triangle, Disabled People Against the Cuts and other disability protest groups today as they defend rights to not work.

A Spectacle of Inclusion: The London Olympic Stadium August 29th 2012

On the evening of August 29th 2012, the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games saw thousands of performers and volunteers stage a spectacular commemoration of the historical achievements of disability rights movement in Britain. The highlight for many viewers was a raucous mash-up of Ian Dury’s 1981 punk disability anthem ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ performed by the electronic dance duo Orbital and the Graeae Theatre Company. During this exhilarating routine dozens of disabled performers enacted an abstract montage of disability rights protests, holding up placards which spelled out ‘RIGHTS’, ‘Equality’, ‘Look Beyond Appearances’ and ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover’. The sequence culminated in the inflation of a 40ft reproduction of Marc Quinn’s sculpture of the disabled artist Alison Lapper, ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’(2005), in the centre of stadium, whilst a young woman was simultaneously lifted into the air — smashing a metaphorical glass ceiling with her walking stick. The ceremony finally ended with fireworks and a rendition of the queer musical song ‘I Am What I Am’. Many commentators hailed this opening ceremony, which attracted UK television audiences of 11 million, a watershed moment in the history of disability rights in Britain which promised to challenge stigmatising cultural perceptions and attitudes around disability. Yet earlier in the day hundreds of disability activists took to the streets to stage the first of a series of rather different protest performances to make manifest their rage that the Paralympics where being sponsored by ATOS, an Information Technology and Health multi-national.

The mechanisms of exclusion

ATOS are currently in receipt of a £100 million a year contract (£500 million cumulatively) from the Government Department of Work and Pensions to undertake work capability assessments (WCAs) with those claiming or seeking disability related welfare benefits. These ‘points-based’ tests –comprising of a combination of computer based questionnaires, short face-to-face interviews and minimal physical examinations– determine whether people are fraudulently claiming benefits when they are ‘fit for work’. The Paralympic protestors, from Disabled People Against the Cuts and UK Uncut, sought to draw attention to the thousands of people who have died after ATOS tests determined them capable of finding and undertaking paid employment. Their protests began on August 29th with the staging of a memorial service outside ATOS’s London Headquarters and continued with ‘die-in’ protests outside ATOS buildings in Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast and Hull. The following day they escalated the direct action staging a ‘Closing ATOS Ceremony’ which culminated in the occupation of Caxton House, the home of the Government Department of Work and Pensions. Activists used wheelchairs to lock themselves into the lobby of Caxton House, while hundreds of protesters on the street, carrying ‘ATOS kills’ placards and chanting ‘shame on you’ and ‘you can stick your work assessment up your arse’, created a human barricade to stop riot police from gaining access to the building.


WCAs where introduced in 2008 as part of a package of austerity-driven welfare reforms which to date have seen £18 billion worth of cuts made to the UK benefits system. As part of these cuts the existing benefits system for the long term sick, the physically and mentally disabled has been replaced with what the Government describes as ‘an active benefits system where individuals are provided with greater support and in return take greater responsibility for their own circumstances’ (The Department for Work and Pensions, 2009, p. 1). A series of independent reports by charities, trade unions and medical associations, the collection of hundreds of personal testimonies by activist groups and two investigative television documentaries, Don’t Hate Us! (ITV, 2012) and Disabled or Faking It? (BBC, 2012), have variously detailed the devastating impact which WCA’s are having on the lives of people with disabilities in Britain, driving many thousands into poverty and despair. Whilst the policy rhetoric centres on the presentation of ‘evidence’ of the health-benefits of paid-work (The Department for Work and Pensions, 2009), disability activists and their allies have questioned not only the testing procedures but the ideology of a policy agenda which determines welfare entitlement by assessing individuals’ capability for work in the absence of suitable employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  Writing on the impact of these changes, Richard Hawkes, the Chief-Executive of disability charity Scope, notes:

“We have seen evidence of declining mental health, exacerbated by fear for the future; of physical and emotional strain […] we are seeing it become increasingly difficult for disabled people to participate in everyday family and civic life. This has all take taken place against a backdrop of growing hostility towards those who claim disability and welfare support” (Hawkes in Wood, 2012, p. 10).
Stigma produces consent for exclusion

In 2011 researchers from Strathclyde University’s Centre for Disability Research and the Glasgow University Media Unit analysed changes in the way the newspapers reported and represented disability and the impact of stigmatising coverage on public attitudes (Briant, et al., 2011). Comparing their data against a similar study undertaken five years earlier, their research reveals a ‘significantly increased use of pejorative language to describe disabled people, including suggestions that life on incapacity benefit had become a “Lifestyle Choice”’ (Briant, et al., 2011, p. 5). They also noted a surge in the number of newspaper articles that invoked ‘the “burden” that disabled people are alleged to place on the economy – with some articles even blaming the recession itself on incapacity benefit claimants’ (Briant, et al., 2011, p. 5). By undertaking a series of focus groups, what this research further detailed is how this pejorative visibility has created a consensus amongst the British public that the majority of disability benefits claims are fraudulent (Briant, et al., 2011). Indeed, as I have detailed elsewhere (Tyler 2013), since the disability welfare reform programme began in 2008, there has been a massive increase in disability hate crimes on the streets of Britain. Official police data reveals recorded incidents of disability hate crime grew by 60% between 2009 and 2011 and are now at their highest levels since records began (The Guardian, 2012). By 2012 it was estimated that disability hate crimes had risen to 65,000 per year as a consequence of the continued and incessant portrayal of people with disabilities as ‘welfare scroungers’. It was in the context of enforced destitution, stigma and growing public antipathy that activists set out to wreck ATOS’ ability to capitalise on any positive publicity generated by their Paralympic sponsorship.

Writing in The Guardian this week in Feb 2014, Shiv Malik and Patrick Butler revealed that “Atos may lose fit-for-work tests contract as ministers line up rival firms”–among these firms are, incredibly, “G4S, Serco, A4E and Capita Group, who are all listed on the government’s existing “framework” group of preferred bidders for outsourced welfare work”.

The right not to work

As Chris Grover and Linda Piggot argue in their paper “A right not to work and disabled people” (2013), attempts over 70 years to increase the number of disabled people in paid employment have failed. This paper is an important intervention, and forms part of a series of activist and academic voices from the disability movement which are beginning to challenge the rhetoric (which came in part out of the mainstreaming of disability rights movements) that only paid employment could grant ‘full citizenship’ and ‘equal rights”.

As Grover and Piggot suggest, it is crucial that the disability rights movements–ideally working in collaboration and solidarity with other social movements against austerity,  rigorously defend “the right not to work”. Indeed, as neoliberal remakes the social worlds we live in, and leaves increasing numbers of people disenfranchised and seemingly ‘discardable’, we need to radically re-think our basic understandings of work (paid, and unpaid), citizenship, equality and value.

As disability activist Sunny Taylor argues:

“The right not to work is the right not to have your value determined by your productivity as a  worker, by your employability or salary… What I mean by the right not to work is perhaps as much a shift in ideology or consciousness as it is a material shift. It is about our relation not only to labor but the significance of performing that labor, and to the idea that only through the performance of wage labor does the human being actually accrue value themselves. It is about cultivating a skeptical attitude regarding the significance of work, which should not be taken at face value as a sign of equality and enfranchisement, but should be analyzed more critically” (cited in Grover and Piggot).

The refusal to be defined by your value on the labour market

These kinds of arguments –which refuse the association between human value and labour value–are supported by feminist scholar Kathy Davis in her book The Problem With Work, who powerfully makes the case for ‘getting a life’ (as opposed to “a job”). Davis argues, and I agree, that we need together to develop ‘post-work ethics’ with which to fight the dehumanising consequences of post-welfare, neoliberal orthodoxy…

Lovely Review of ‘Revolting Subjects’ by Daniel Whittall in Green World (83) Winter 2014


 Imogen Tyler

Revolting Subjects

Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain 

Zed Books, 224pp, £17.99

‘There is clear evidence’, wrote Oxfam in its 2013 report Walking the Breadline, ‘that the benefit sanctions regime has gone too far and is leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale.’ Much ink has been spilled exposing the brutal effects of current government policies. However, until now we have lacked a detailed, historically informed account of the rise of the social attitudes and government policies that lie behind these attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Imogen Tyler’s Revolting Subjects is such an account, and ought to be read by all who seek to contest the current direction of neoliberal Britain.

Tyler works by combining a theoretical framework centred around the notion of social abjection with a reading of the shifting contours of British citizenship since the 1981 British Nationality Act. She demonstrates convincingly that, since the 1981 act, British citizenship has been redefined to ostracise specific groups and populations, producing paralysed, dejected and ‘deportable’ populations of non-citizens within the internal borders of the nation. To support her case, Tyler re-enacts a series of episodes in the recent history of British citizenship, exploring how the Dale Farm eviction of 2011, the 2012 British riots, and repeated bouts of media frenzy over ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘Chavs’ have all played their part in shifting the boundaries of British citizenship.

The great strengths of Tyler’s work lie in her ability to combine harrowing stories of real social distress with an attention to the possibilities of resistance that remain available. To be sure, she does not shirk the difficulties here – her powerful account emphasises the ways in which material circumstances and rhetorical framing combine to drive forward the neoliberal agenda, and to ensure that ‘in contemporary Britain protest itself has been incrementally criminalised’. For anybody wishing to challenge this consensus, Tyler’s work provides a fine example of just how bad things have become in this country, and how hard we must work to enact change.

Daniel Whittall