Despite fewer people in unemployment, there were approximately 1.54 million people without jobs and claiming benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) in 2016. In the face of austerity measures, welfare spending has decreased and welfare claimants have been thrown into the political and media spotlight, to detrimental effect. This LSE Research Festival Popular Prize winning MSc research from Celestin Okoroji (currently being developed further through his PhD) explores the stigmatizing effects of contemporary representations of the unemployed and shows that these views anchor the unemployed in poverty, laziness and criminality.
We are surrounded by social representations, some we are aware of, and some not. Social representations are constantly being negotiated between groups and help us to communicate within society. This study focussed on the representations held between those who have claimed benefits and those who have not. In interviews with thirty six JSA and non-JSA claimants from around London, participants were asked to write down the first words that came to mind when they thought of a person who ‘signs on at a job centre’. Okoroji found that between the two groups, both claimed that poverty was both a prerequisite and consequence of claiming unemployment benefits; and laziness and criminality were identified as two key characteristics: claimants were unwilling or lacking effort, or using the system to cover criminal activities.
Cause obviously the reason why they're in the Jobcentre is because it's their worst-case scenario, do you know what I mean? They don't have nowhere to turn.
The second part of study looked at why people become unemployed and Okoroji identified two groups: the deserving and the undeserving. Classism was seen as a main cause of unemployment and a barrier to finding work. Specifically, unemployed interviewees stated that people who had enough wealth to not need to claim benefits. Employed interviewees stated that unemployment was due to a person’s actions.
Okoroji highlights that these key findings are important in understanding that while the representations may differ, the processes are the same, and the cause and burden of unemployment is placed outside of one’s self by invoking classism as discussed above or by association with individual failing. Where unemployed participants invoked the latter they were keen to differentiate themselves by stating that ‘unemployed benefit claimants’ were like this, but they were not one of them.
Negative representations also impact the behaviours and mindset of unemployed benefit claimants. Individuals in the study described who they would use strategies to differentiate themselves from others, such as foregoing claiming benefits, or avoiding the Job Centre environment altogether during times they might see people from their social circle.
It's embarrassing, bro, you look around like - every Tuesday I had to sign on, yeah… and I'd usually try and make the appointment as early as possible so no-one can see me. Every time they tell me, 'what time do you want?' '8:30.' 'We're not even open 8:30.' 'What time do you open?' '9.' 'Alright, 9:05. 9:10.' As early as possible. And then I would go there, look around, like, and [then] I'll go in.
Okoroji is currently developing this topic further. In his PhD, having proven that benefit claimants are indeed stigmatized, Okoroji will try to identify to what extent do unemployed people see themselves in relation to poverty, laziness and criminality, and to what extent does that stop them from getting into employment.
This research won the Popular Prize at the LSE Research Festival 2016.