The University of Edinburgh -


Project III: Social Justice

Shifting Paradigms of Social Justice

1. Rationale and Contribution to the Programme

European welfare states face severe pressures from globalisation, changing labour markets with high unemployment or inactivity rates, demographic change and shifts in social structure. Under these conditions the traditional ambitions and objectives of welfare state intervention need readjustment. Projects I and II focus on policy changes and their implications. This project deals with attitudes towards normative principles of state provided welfare. Popular understanding of social justice contributes to the stability and resilience of the welfare state by defining acceptable policy directions. Two factors are important. First, public opinion in this field is changing and the existing societal contract of the distribution of burdens and benefits becomes increasingly contested. Second, movement towards a new European welfare settlement requires conceptions of social justice that differ from those that underpinned previous settlements.

The European Union plans to become the most competitive and knowledge-based economy in the world. New concepts of social justice emphasising responsibility, activation and the enhancement of human and social capital have moved up the agenda. However, marked differences between national welfare arrangements remain. The slowly-changing Bismarckian social insurance settlement in Germany and the Beveridgean settlement, developing more rapidly on Third Way lines, in the UK, lie at opposite ends of the spectrum of European welfare states. Findings from a comparison of these two will have wider implication for European welfare states.

2. Aims and research questions

This project addresses three main questions:

A. What are the conceptions of social justice that correspond to the traditional welfare state models in Germany and the UK?
B. How have they changed in recent years and to what extent do the attitudes to social justice correspond to these changes?
C. How are the new themes in welfare reform (social investment, reciprocity and accommodation to greater social diversity) viewed and discussed by the ordinary citizen?

In relation to the first question, the project will give a detailed account of the normative aspects of the traditional programmatic structures of the British and the German welfare state (see Mau 2003). We will use the tripartite scheme of David Miller (1999) distinguishing three types of justice norms, namely, need (allocating resources according to peoples’ needs), desert (people should be rewarded for performing socially valued activities or for the contributions they make or have made),and equality (there should be an equal distribution of resources). These terms represent different principles which underpin welfare state arrangements and justify the distribution and redistribution of resources. However, within the different welfare systems these norms are combined in a specific way, giving priority to one or another principle. Taking this scheme as a heuristic device we will carry out a systematic and detailed comparison of the two systems with the aim of highlighting similarities and differences. We will also explore how different justice norms are used as to justify the distribution of burdens and benefits in the respective systems.

In relation to the second question, we will examine the normative implications of the institutional readjustments of recent years, and consider how they are viewed and approved by the public, using secondary analysis of a range of existing surveys. Few surveys capture the normative rationales of social policy fully, but we can make use of some proxies. Different surveys provide perceptions and preferences on conditionality of the benefits, equality and redistribution, welfare state disincentives, the role of activation in social policy, and behavioural expectations vis--vis the beneficiaries. For example, recent emphasis on the importance of public support for welfare state reform has led to surveys of attitudes to pensions, benefits for the disabled, single parents and unemployed people in the UK, i.e. policy fields covered in projects I and II. On the basis of these data, we will investigate the question of the compatibility of these changes with the current conceptions of social justice in the two countries, and seek to identify relevant differences between groups in approaches to social justice.

In relation to the third question we will first seek to identify some new themes that have emerged within the context of the transformation of the welfare state. As a result of the economic, social and political pressures on national welfare systems such as the ageing of the population, migration, de-standardization of work, changing family patterns, much greater diversity in values and life-styles, and the processes of Europeanization and globalization, the old concepts of social justice are seriously challenged. Both countries, the UK and Germany, have introduced reforms in order to enhance the sustainability and adaptability of their welfare systems. We start from the hypothesis that the long term goals of welfare state intervention have moved up the agenda. Increasingly future-oriented criteria such as the enhancement of human and social capital, the impact of welfare on work incentives and individual conceptions of responsibility and the management of an increasingly diverse population are important in policy-making (Esping-Andersen et al, 2003).

Three key themes are central: social development, reciprocity and adjustment to diversity.

Social development: Welfare spending is oriented less towards consumption, and more to the social and economic development of households, communities, and the society. Investment-oriented social policy does not focus primarily on catering for current needs, but on the long term effects of social intervention. Such a paradigm shift entails that specific groups and life circumstances are identified as more “deserving” of help because they have differing potentials for development. On the one hand, policies are developed to support low-waged workers, to eliminate ‘poverty traps’ and to constrain taxes on earned incomes to enhance work incentives. Education and training policies and women and family-friendly work-place policies are also developed. On the other hand, benefits for non-working people of working age are constrained and mechanisms for monitoring unemployed people and ensuring that the responsibility to seek paid work are intensified.

Reciprocity: Rights to a certain level of welfare (economic security, care, protection against various risks) are granted on condition that the beneficiary fulfils certain legal duties and normative obligations vis--vis the community: contributing to the welfare of society, performing paid work, taking responsibility for and undertaking care for children and other dependants, participating in other socially valuable actions, ensuring that one pursues appropriate training opportunities, and so on.

Accommodation to Diversity: The higher levels of migration resulting from globalisation produce more diverse populations in European countries. The guarantees of equal treatment and equal opportunities for all citizens and tensions between different ethnic groups generate challenges. A number of writers (Alesina and Glaeser 2004, Goodhart, 2004,) have argued that greater diversity undermines the solidarity on which the commitment to welfare is based (see Taylor-Gooby 2005 for counter-arguments). Attitudes to minorities and to the treatment of different ethnic groups will form an important part of the project.

A welfare settlement based on social development and reciprocity couples welfare policy and economic policy: the former is no longer a financial burden on the latter, but is linked to it in a virtuous circle, whereby social spending provides the basis for future economic growth and enhanced competitiveness by ensuring that the work force is large, available, highly motivated and well-trained. Successful accommodation to diversity will enable the welfare system to remain sustainable in a more globalised world.

3. Methods and data sources

Research Question 1: What conceptions of social justice correspond to the traditional welfare state models in Germany and the UK?

We will seek to identify the principles followed within each of the main social policy programmes and by the national welfare regime for the period from the 1950s (when modern welfare states were established) to the late 1970s (when they began to face economic crises). The main programmes considered will be cash benefits (pensions and benefits for unemployed, disabled people, single parents and anti-poverty benefits), health services and social care for the elderly and for children. We will distinguish between the regimes for particular programmes and for particular groupings in the population, taking account also of non-state provision and of assumptions about gender roles. We will identify the values corresponding to the central themes of other projects in relation to family (project I) and pensions (project II) but also labour markets and employment, which are important aspects for the sustainability of mature welfare states.

Research Question 2: How have they changed in recent years and to what extent do attitudes to social justice correspond to these changes?

First, we will establish a comprehensive account of the recent changes of the two welfare systems, emphasising the change in the normative concepts. The institutional analysis will be complemented by an analysis of survey data, using the ALLBUS and the International Social Justice Project (ISJP) for Germany, the British Social Attitudes for the UK, supplemented by MORI polls and British Election Survey material, where appropriate, and Eurobarometer, and ISSP and ESS surveys for both countries and to provide a cross-national context. Since the German case is not as well covered by existing data sets we will put 10-12 item questions from the British Social Attitudes into a representative established social survey (Ipsos SOWI-Bus, face-to face interviews, sample size 1500). These data-sets will form the basis of analysis by service area, by user group and in relation to state and non-state provision for the period.

It is intended to establish a comprehensive descriptive account of the attitudes towards the different welfare schemes and their normative principles and link it to the specific programmatic structures of the two welfare regimes. For highlighting group differences and identifying socio-economic determinants of normative preferences we will also apply multivariate modelling. We will focus particularly on the programme areas covered by projects I and II, as well as unemployment and labour markets, and examine the extent to which policy change in these fields is reflected in attitude structures. This work will be available to the other projects by the mid-project conference and we will use their comments in developing it.

Research Question 3: How are the new key themes in welfare reform viewed and discussed by the ordinary citizen?

The third phase will use qualitative methods, particularly focus groups, with some follow-up, one-to-one interviewing. We will conduct 8 focus groups of 8-10 participants (4 UK, 4 Germany). On the basis of our quantitative analysis in part two and the socio-demographic information we will select two groups of participants likely to offer contrasting attitudes: leaders and laggards. The discussion session will last between 1 and 1.5 hours and will be led by a moderator. The question guide will cover the following themes:

  • Understanding of the role of the welfare state, to check the range of conceptions of welfare state used by participants. Normative justification of welfare state intervention;
  • Who should get what and why?
  • The role of desert, need and equality;
  • The extent to which social development is an objective;
  • The welfare state as 'enabler' of self-improvement and self-support (hand-up or hand-out?)
  • Reciprocal obligations of the beneficiaries;
  • Other conceptions of the role of the welfare state;
  • Participants own experiences with the welfare state;
  • The willingness to contribute to welfare provision and how this differs between services and groups of recipients.

Again, the treatment of these themes will take into account the preliminary findings and comments of the other projects as presented at the mid-project conference. Drawing on this material, this project will provide a concise and detailed account of current views of social justice. It will go on to identify the attitude structures likely to support desirable policy developments. Finally it will provide new information on the potential for change among relevant groups. This material will be relevant to understanding the normative structure that is guiding current policy development at a time of rapid change and the patterns of attitudes that are likely to influence the acceptability of future policy directions. Because Germany and the UK lie at opposite ends of the key dimension of welfare state provision in Europe, both in terms of their traditional settlements (Bismarck versus Beveridge) and in terms of their current trajectories of development (reluctant adjustment vs. enthusiastic new directions), this project offers a valuable and original opportunity to examine normative issues.


The 'Institutional Trust and Health Care Reform' document (pdf) can be downloaded from here.