Accepted paper:

'They're just making it harder and harder': agency, productivity and personhood in welfare applications


Susanne Langer

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how in the UK the redefinition of state welfare as a form of emergency provision, notions of personhood emphasising individual autonomy and culturally-specific forms of productivity, and bureaucratic technologies coalesce in the application process for disability benefits.

Paper long abstract:

In this paper I want to disentangle some of the discourses, practices, and assumptions inherent in applying for a form of mobility benefit in the UK. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with people with multiple sclerosis (MS) I argue that a number of elements combined to make the application process a bewildering and often frustrating experience that left claimants feeling disempowered and excluded. Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is intended for those with difficulties getting around or with personal care, both of which are common consequences of MS. Furthermore, for most of the people I got to know, their DLA application was the first time they were asking for state assistance and they were doing so because of a medical condition. Taken together, these factors should have meant that the participants were exactly the kind of people for whom DLA was intended and that a positive response to their application was only a matter of time. However, their expectations were generally disappointed, and although many were eventually successful in their claim neither was the process straightforward nor was the resulting entitlement permanent. I want to use these experiences to illustrate how- irrespective of an official rhetoric of empowerment - the redefinition of welfare as a stop-gap measure that enables claimants to rejoin the labour economy, the increased interconnectedness of the public and private sector, and the application of bureaucratic technologies for the 'objective' management of people - left the applicants with a profound sense of loss and personal failure.

panel W047
Understanding welfare and well-being in a globalised world