Reconsidering ‘What Works’: ‘Relational Inequality’ and Applied Social Policy Research

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society. Click here to access the article. 

A vast and still increasing amount of research has been examining the question of ’what works’ in terms of bringing long-term unemployed individuals into work. However, this research offers little clarity in terms of identifying effective interventions and policy approaches. In our article we argue that the concept of relational causality can help facilitate research that get closer to what actually happens when policy is becomes practice. Such research will therefore hold more potential for informing effective policy efforts.

In the second part of this blogpost we will introduce the concept of relational causality. First, though, a few departures in existing research is needed. In the following we present a short outline of three strands of research within the field and their main limitations.

Existing research offers few directions for policy makers.

Quantitative studies of the effects of specific programmes and policies have engaged most directly with the question of ‘what works’. Several studies find contradictory or only slightly positive effects of unemployment policies in terms of encouraging unemployed individuals find work. If the results of this research are seen in isolation not much seems to be working.

However, if we take into account the insights of research into the policy work of street-level organisations, it becomes clear that these studies have limited potential to inform policy makers.

For one, the focus on ‘effects’ in terms of labour market participation is too narrow a lens to evaluate unemployment policies . We see this demonstrated in the street-level research that have extensively documented the many perverse effects of policy interventions. Policies affect people’s lives in complex ways and can impact unemployed individuals in terms of poverty and mental well-being as well as labour market participation.

Second, policy measures cannot be expected to ‘work’ in linear ways, as is the assumption embedded in the methodological approaches of quantitative studies of effect. Though policy delivery has become increasingly more standardised, the implementation of a certain policy or programme does not happen as the administration of a ’pill’ that can be expected to ‘work’ in certain and uniform ways.

This is further illuminated through a third strand of studies, which take a micro-discursive approach to meetings between frontline workers and unemployed individuals. These studies demonstrate how policy implementation also happens in meetings between professionals and unemployed individuals with complex and unique life situations.

Together, these two strands of qualitative research bring forward how policy implementation happens as processes of translation and transformation at every level of policy, organisation, local organisation and face-to-face meetings.

However, neither the street-level literature nor the micro-discursive studies offer much guidance for policy makers either, as they do not directly engage with the question of ’what works’.

Overall, then, we have little conclusive knowledge about ‘what works’ in terms of bringing the vulnerable unemployed into work. What we do have, however, is research that demonstrates the challenges of examining causal mechanisms in highly contextual, and transformational processes at both policy-level, local organisations and situated meetings between individuals.

A relational approach may be a more promising alternative.

How then can we move towards research that offers better knowledge on what works?

We suggest that the concept of relational causality holds potential in this regard. Relational causality is the idea that policies gain their effects in relational processes in which different (human and non-human) actors continuously perform, (re)produce and enact given practices across various contexts.

This is different from the linear causality assumed in quantitative studies of ’what works’. Linear causality in this context is the idea that a policy is a defined and limited entity, which can be implemented in standardised ways with uniform effects across local contexts and individual circumstances.

However the complexities of both unemployment as a problem and policy delivery as an intervention is well documented in research.

As researchers looking to conduct applied social policy research, we need to take into account that policy implementation is influenced by endless factors at policy- and organisational levels, as well as the face-to-face encounters between professionals and unemployed individuals. The effects of such policies not only depend on the various choices made at those levels, but also on the private situation of the unemployed individual in terms of socioeconomic, health status and so on.

A relational approach is interested in how policy is made to work at every level and with the many effects these processes have.

How do we move towards a more relational approach to social policy research?

To capture the many processes of causality, a relational approach underlines the importance of using a range of different perspectives and methodologies. The aim is to facilitate examination of the many ways in which policy is working in practice. This does not mean that every study should incorporate a range of methodologies. Rather, it is a call for a more modest recognition of the fact that each single study can only provide insights on some of the actors, activities and mechanisms that constitute change.

Different methodologies have different strengths and will produce different – yet equally important – insights into the workings of policy. It is in the combination and accumulation of research and methodologies that knowledge about relational processes of causality can be achieved.

For the quantitative literature on ’what works’ a starting point could be to include ‘effects’ or consequences other than the narrow objective of labour market participation. Furthermore, a broader understanding of how a given measure gains its effect – that is, not in isolation, but in relation with other variables – is warranted.

For qualitative researchers, a more direct engagement with the question of what works is needed. A crucial part of such an engagement is the inclusion of the actors that are involved in making policy work. Frontline workers and unemployed individuals are directly involved in the relational processes of social policy implementation. Their knowledge on how policy is continuously performed, produced and reproduced in daily activities and practices hold unique and important insights we cannot miss out on.

About the authors

Tanja Dall is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Aalborg University.

Sophie Danneris is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Aalborg University.


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