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Legitimation as justification: Foregrounding public philosophies in explanations of gradual ideational change: FOREGROUNDING PUBLIC PHILOSOPHIES IN EXPLANATIONS OF GRADUAL IDEATIONAL CHANGE


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In accounts of institutional change, discursive institutionalists point to the role of economic and political ideas in upending institutional stability and providing the raw material for the establishment of a new institutional setup. This approach has typically entailed a conceptualisation of ideas as coherent and monolithic and actors as almost automatically following the precepts of the ideas they hold and support. Recent theorising stresses how ideas are in fact composite and heterogeneous, and actors pragmatic and strategic in how they employ ideas in political struggles. However, this change of focus has, until recently, not included how foundational ideas of a polity, often referred to as ‘public philosophies’, are theorised to impact on institution‐building. Drawing on French Pragmatic Sociology, and taking as a starting point recent efforts within discursive institutionalism to conceptualise the dynamic nature of public philosophies, this article seeks to foreground moral justification in accounts of ideational and institutional change. It suggests that public philosophies are reflexively used by actors in continual processes of normative justification that may produce significant policy shifts over time. The empirical relevance of the argument is demonstrated through an analysis of gradual ideational and institutional change in French labour market policy, specifically the development from the state‐guaranteed minimum income scheme of 1988 to the neoliberal make‐work‐pay logic of the 2009 scheme, Revenu de solidarité active. The analysis shows that public and moral justifications have underpinned and gradually shaped these radical changes.
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European Journal of Political Research rr
,2018 1
doi: 10.1111/1475-6765.12302
Legitimation as justication: Foregrounding public philosophies
in explanations of gradual ideational change
1Copenhagen Business School, Denmark; 2Roskilde University, Denmark
Abstract. In accounts of institutional change, discursive institutionalists point to the role of economic and
political ideas in upending institutional stability and providing the raw material for the establishment of a
new institutional setup. This approach has typically entailed a conceptualisation of ideas as coherent and
monolithic and actors as almost automatically following the precepts of the ideas they hold and support.
Recent theorising stresses how ideas are in fact composite and heterogeneous, and actors pragmatic and
strategic in how they employ ideas in political struggles. However, this change of focus has, until recently, not
included how foundational ideas of a polity, often referred to as ‘public philosophies’, are theorised to impact
on institution-building. Drawing on French Pragmatic Sociology, and taking as a starting point recent efforts
within discursive institutionalism to conceptualise the dynamic nature of public philosophies, this article
seeks to foreground moral justication in accounts of ideational and institutional change. It suggests that
public philosophies are reexively used by actors in continual processes of normative justication that may
produce signicant policy shifts over time.The empirical relevance of the argument is demonstrated through
an analysis of gradual ideational and institutional change in French labour market policy, specically the
development from the state-guaranteed minimum income scheme of 1988 to the neoliberal make-work-pay
logic of the 2009 scheme, Revenu de solidarité active. The analysis shows that public and moral justications
have underpinned and gradually shaped these radical changes.
Keywords: ideas; legitimacy; France; labour market policy; reform
During the ideational turn of the 1990s, ideas were reintroduced to mainstream political
science to help explain the processes of change that new institutionalist approaches
struggled to account for within their stability-oriented frameworks.Scholars thus argued that
ideas work on multiple levels – as policy ideas,programmatic ideas and public philosophies
(Schmidt 2008; see also Campbell 2004) – that come to impact on policy making through
processes of delegitimisation, battles between contending paradigms and institutionalisation
of new ideas (Blyth 2002; Hall 1993). Recent work seeking to push beyond the earlier
focus on punctuated equilibria-style change has produced signicant progress by developing
a more dynamic understanding of political and economic ideas as malleable, composite
and locally anchored hybrids (e.g., Schmidt & Thatcher 2013; Ban 2016; Matthijs 2011)
and actors as both pragmatic and strategic (e.g., Béland & Cox 2013; Carstensen 2011a;
Jabko 2006; Schmidt 2008; Wood 2015) to help account for gradual ideational changes
following in the wake of the ascendance of neoliberalism (Campbell & Pedersen 2015;
Seabrooke 2006; Carstensen & Matthijs forthcoming). However, in terms of the well-
established distinction between three levels of policy ideas as frames, programmes and
public philosophies (Schmidt 2008), the turn toward a more dynamic understanding of ideas
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has largely been limited to the two former levels. Although scholars assign transformative
potential to public philosophies in the sense that actors may connect their preferred policy
ideas to ideas located in the ‘background’ of the polity (Carstensen & Schmidt 2016),
in accounting for the extent to which ideas come to impact in national settings, public
philosophies – understood as the deeper core of organising ideas, values and principles of
knowledge and society (Schmidt 2008) – are generally conceived as stable, coherent and
placed in the ‘background’, and thus primarily important in how they limit which ideas may
be introduced in the rst place (Béland 2009).
This article follows on the back of recent discursive institutionalist efforts to theorise
how public philosophies play into processes of policy change (Boswell & Hampshire
2017; Kornprobst & Senn 2017; Schmidt 2016). Taking these conceptual advances as our
starting point, we utilise insights from French Pragmatic Sociology (FPS) to argue, rst,
that discursive institutionalist analysis may benet from conceptualising public philosophies
as composite and in need of continuous justication. In this view, the public philosophy
of a polity is not structured by a coherent set of foundational ideas but instead is
made up by competing beliefs and norms – what we term ‘repertoires of evaluation
– the meaning of which actors continually establish in compromises related to policy
problems (see also Boswell & Hampshire 2017: 135). Second, and following on from this,
we suggest that appreciating ideational heterogeneity at the level of public philosophies
is key to understanding how these deeper level ideas of a polity play a direct role in
policy making. Specically, we employ four analytical concepts from FPS – repertoires of
evaluation, qualication,justication and compromise – to show how policies are gradually,
but radically, changed through compromises between competing moral understandings of
the world, that then in turn over time undergo a similar process of evaluation, critique
and compromise. In this way, employing FPS in discursive institutionalist analysis may
lend further insight to the role of public philosophies in setting in motion processes
of gradual ideational and institutional change. It underscores how a key driver of such
processes of change is the interaction between the different levels of ideas – policy ideas,
programmatic ideas and public philosophies – that is set off by political agents activating
‘repertoires of evaluation’ in efforts to forge compromises between competing moral
repertoires that address the often quite practical problems arising from the policy-making
Finally, we demonstrate the empirical relevance of the framework of FPS in an analysis
of the introduction and gradual reforms of the French minimum income system from the
end of the 1980s to the last major reform in 2009. The case is particularly relevant for the
arguments pursued in this article since it presents a least-likely situation: in contrast to, for
example, British liberal public philosophy, the republican French ‘public philosophy’ has
traditionally been considered a bulwark against neoliberal reform efforts in the area of
social policy, since it departs so clearly from neoliberal conceptions of members of society –
notably in their role and position in relation to market and state. One should thus expect to
see public philosophies cast in the role of limiting what policy ideas may be introduced,
whether overtly or covertly. Arriving instead at the result that a heterogeneous set of
historically anchored repertories of moral justication helped facilitate the neoliberal turn
in the minimum income scheme,thus strengthens the argument that public philosophies may
play a central role in accounting for ideational and institutional change.
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The analysis is presented in two parts. In the rst part, we focus on the creation of the
rst state-guaranteed minimum income in France, the Revenu minimum d’insertion (RMI)
in 1988. Specically, we show how the rise of long-term unemployment created a situation
with substantial uncertainty as to the ‘whatness’ of the phenomenon and how to handle
it politically. Subsequently we reconstruct the efforts of qualifying the phenomenon by
demonstrating how political actors mobilised three co-existing and competing repertoires
of evaluation. The three qualications resulted in the justication of various instruments
and policies to deal with the problem put together into the composite arrangement of the
RMI. The second part of the article focuses on the continual process in the 1990s and
2000s of putting the RMI to the test and gradually requalifying and adjusting it accordingly,
culminating in the replacement of RMI with the make-work-pay logic of Revenu de solidarité
active (RSA) in 2009. We nally zoom in on a number of test situations illustrating tensions
between and within the repertoires of evaluation.
From static to dynamic policy ideas
The spread of economic ideas has long been a main focus of ideationally attuned scholarship
seeking to understand how actors develop preferences for specic institutional setups (for
a useful overview, see Hirschmann & Popp-Berman 2014). In this context, the rise of the
nancial crisis in 2007, along with its ramications in terms of a slew of post-crisis reforms,
has thrown up a number of pressing questions – most notably, how despite having lost
theoretical and intellectual authority, neoliberalism and its supporters have remained at
the helm of policy making in Western economies (Crouch 2011; Fourcade et al. 2013;
Schmidt & Thatcher 2013; Blyth 2013; Ban 2016). Understanding the continued resilience
of neoliberalism has necessitated some rethinking of how ideas are structured and how
actors work with them to effect change or stave off the onslaught of their critics. Thus, while
earlier approaches to the political power of economic ideas argued that ideas were tightly
structured, coherent and typically shifted in large ruptures,in turn explaining how economic
ideas become so politically powerful in policy making, (e.g., Hall 1993; Blyth 2002; Schmidt
2002; see also Parsons 2007), later contributions have stressed that abstract economic ideas
need to be translated and adjusted to make them work in a national setting (Campbell 2004;
Campbell & Pedersen 2015;Ban 2016). In this perspective, actors’ employment of ideas takes
a more pragmatic (Carstensen 2011b) and strategic (Jabko 2006) tack.
To understand how ideas play into processes of institutional change and stability,
it is helpful to distinguish between different levels of generality in which policy ideas
are cast. Here we follow Schmidt (2008) in her distinction between public philosophies,
programmatic ideas and specic policy ideas. In this conceptualisation of ideas – which is
broadly in line with other inuential approaches to ideas (e.g.,Campbell 2004;Mehta 20 11) –
policy ideas refer to the specic policies proposed by policy makers, programmatic ideas
encompass the more general programmes (or policy paradigms) that underpin the policy
ideas, while public philosophies are argued to ‘undergird the policies and programs with
organizing ideas, values, and principles of knowledge and society [that] generally sit in the
background as underlying assumptions that are rarely contested except in times of crisis’
(Schmidt 2008: 306). According to the literature, public philosophies generally persist over
long periods of time, while programmatic ideas tend not to have as much staying power but
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are more lasting than policy ideas, which are open to more rapid shifts because they may be
compatible with many different wider programmes and philosophies (Schmidt & Thatcher
2013: 21). In terms of dynamics of institutional change, public philosophies typically remain
stable over long periods of time and thus help explain why despite crisis – and the changes
in policy ideas and programmes that such moments of uncertainty may entail – signicant
national differences among political economies often endure (Campbell & Pedersen 2015).
From this vantage point, public philosophies are generally seen as constraining rather
than facilitating institutional change, whether as a full blockage on change or as pushing
developments along a more evolutionary trajectory.
In an effort to break with the understanding of background ideas and public philosophies
as essentially immovable objects, a number of recent interventions have sought to bring
greater attention to how public philosophies may develop signicantly over time and how
such processes may help account for institutional change. Kornprobst and Senn (2017),
for example, ask how agents change the public philosophies in which they are embedded,
but they uphold a distinction between times of stability, where foundational ideas remain
decontested, and periods of greater uncertainty that offer actors opportunities to contest
public philosophies. Boswell and Hampshire (2017) argue that strategies of selective
mobilisation may over time bring about adjustments to public philosophies themselves,
while Schmidt (2016) and Carstensen and Schmidt (2016) also highlight the possibility of
changing public philosophies as certain elements of such foundational ideas may eventually
lose their central role, with others gaining in importance. Scholars have thus begun teasing
out the ways that the constraining and enabling dimensions of ideas may intersect at the
level of policy and programmes, resulting in signicant advances towards a more dynamic
conception of background ideas. Seeking to contribute to this promising research agenda
within discursive institutionalism, this article suggests that FPS may be a particularly useful
starting point for understanding the role of public philosophies in processes of gradual,
transformative change in ideas and institutions.
Introducing FPS
To elucidate the process through which public philosophies facilitate ideational and
institutional change, we employ insights drawn from FPS – a research programme founded
in the late 1980s by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot outlined in their landmark
publication On Justication (Boltanski & Thévenot 2006). This approach is particularly
suitable since,much in line with recent developments in discursive institutionalism, it offers
an account of ideas and their role in enabling collective action and overcoming disagreement
that emphasises the continued need for political actors’ normative justication.
The starting point of FPS is a conception of social reality as uncertain in the sense that the
upholding of coordination between individuals is a fragile and continual process subject to
breakdowns and unease about the right way forward.In this perspective, uncertainty is not a
relatively rare instance, as in Blyth’s (2002) periods of ‘Knightian uncertainty’,Hall’s (1993)
paradigm shifts or the ‘critical junctures’ that more generally dominated explanations of
change in earlier historical institutionalism (Capoccia & Kelemen 2007). Rather,in periods
of general (or seeming) stability, FPS posits that even well-established norms and beliefs
can be contested and routinely are (Cloutier & Langley 2013). This means that practices of
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justication – whether among coordinating elites or elites communicating with the public
(Schmidt 2002) – are paramount for understanding the degree and direction of change in a
policy area.
Uncertainty occurs when questions about ‘what is’ and ‘what is valid’upends order until
compromises are reached among the involved actors and, for the time being, the dispute is
settled. In this way,the uncertainty emphasised by FPS resembles the necessity of continued
interpretive work on the part of the actors to practice,enforce and uphold institutional rules,
as presented in the work of Streeck and Thelen (2005). Here, too, actors continually need
to adapt interpretations to unforeseen developments, underlining the importance of ideas
to keep coalitional actors in line (Capoccia 2016). Similar to recent efforts within discursive
and historical institutionalism to bring more active agency into explanations of ideational
and institutional change, FPS thus suggest that actors are neither passive nor dominated,
but instead have to actively employ critique as they inhabit a social space ‘shot through
by a multiplicity of disputes, critiques, disagreements and attempts to re-establish locally
agreements that are always fragile’ (Boltanski 2011: 27). This is encapsulated in the key
concept of test in FPS. First, a test signies a device with a particular yardstick to evaluate
the worthiness of objects, subjects, actions and so on. Second, test signies an uncertain
and fragile situation, that entails an ontological uncertainty to the ‘whatness of what is’
(Boltanski 2011: 75) preventing actors from simply relying on what is taken-for-granted or
appropriate.Finally,the concept points to the actions and process by which reality is ‘put to
the test’ (Boltanski & Thévenot 2006: 132).
The ideational and institutional resources that are at the disposal of actors in handling
test situations and participating in struggles about giving meaning to political problems and
their solution are captured in the concept of ‘repertoires of evaluation’(Lamont & Thévenot
2000). Repertoires of evaluation comprise abstract and philosophical elements as well as
concrete and everyday elements, thus encompassing the three levels of ideas developed in
the discursive institutionalist literature. Thus, on the one hand, repertoires of evaluation
contain a normative test and a conception of the common good; on the other hand, the
test is underpinned by an array of material and immaterial worthy and unworthy objects
and subjects. For instance, depending on the repertoire taken into use, a person that is not
working may be considered to be someone who had an accident or, alternatively,someone
in need of further incentives to work. In turn,the benet he or she receives may be regarded
either as compensation or as a potential unemployment trap.
Hence, repertoires of evaluation provide the equipment that make two forms of action
possible, of which the latter prerequisites the former. First, repertoires of evaluation enable
actors to qualify reality – that is,to recognise what is relevant in a particular situation, tosee
differences and similarities, thus ‘valorising’ reality ‘(Boltanski & Thévenot 2006:131). The
workings of repertoires of evaluation therefore differ substantially from those of ideologies.
Where ideologies, in the common-sense understanding, work ‘on top’ of reality by masking
or obscuring it, repertoires of evaluation provide the means to make sense of it (Hansen
2016). This practical dimension of repertoires of evaluation similarly distinguishes it from
the rich literature on the role of framing in public policy (e.g., Baumgartner & Jones 1991;
Schon & Rein 1994; Benford & Snow 2000). Little doubt remains that studies of framing
have successfully demonstrated the centrality of framing processes for establishing and
maintaining collective action. However, while taking due consideration of this important
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insight, the analytical framework set out in this article focuses on the ways in which policy
making often traverses the three levels of ideational generality,from the more general values
of a polity to the specic policy ideas employed by actors, both to address policy problems
at a more practical level as well as frame policies in ways that persuade elites and the public
alike. A discursive institutionalist analysis inspired by FPS would view policy making as
an equally strategic, moral and practical endeavour, where the object of persuading the
public and competing elites is crucially intertwined with the process of working out practical
compromises that may (for the time being) offer resolution to a situation of uncertainty.
Second, qualication opens the way for a set of actions related to justication and
critique, which enables moving from the question of ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be’ –
that is, the way adjustment of existing policies or the introduction of new measures are
justied. Furthermore,it ‘foregrounds’ the repertoires of evaluation to a contested arena.Test
situations give rise to tensions and conicts between a plurality of repertoires of evaluation
that demand justication and give rise to critique. Repertoires of evaluation can thus be
used to conrm or defend as well as to challenge given orders, and can be mobilised in
reformative and corrective actions and adjustments within the premises of the repertoire
as well as in radical critiques of other repertoires by questioning the very principles that
the arrangements are built upon (Thévenot 2002). For example, even when unemployment
benets are developed following an insurance logic, there can be great dispute about the
levels of compensation and contribution, what it takes to be entitled and how to deal with
fraud. On the other hand, the insurance repertoire can also be radically challenged by a
fundamentally different moral repertoire that, for instance, qualies unemployment as a
matter of lack of economic incentives. Thinking of these ideational dynamics in terms of
repertoires of evaluation is helpful for getting at the interaction taking place between the
different levels of ideas in processes of justication and dispute. Viewed from this vantage
point, we may thus recognise how the values and norms of a polity are not only constraining
in terms of which new ideas get a hearing, but in fact interact with more specic ideas as
actors try to work out the concrete meaning of otherwise abstract notions of morality.
The repeated public disputes and testing of repertoires of evaluation in test situations
result in compromises. Compromises, here, should not primarily be understood as a
balancing of the interests of various actors, but as settlements where elements from several
repertoires are concurrently recognised. FPS suggests that a society at any one point will
contain a limited plurality of mutually conicting moral structures that are continually
employed to provide justication and resolve uncertainties and conicts, resulting in
ideational tensions over time being institutionalised in policy (Blokker 2011: 253). The
unexceptional role of test situations and ongoing compromises suggest a more dynamic and
unstable relation between actors’ political engagement and ideas compared, for instance, to
the advocacy coalitions approach (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith 1993) in which a shared and
rather stable set of beliefs establish specic policy positions (Holden & Scerri 2015).
Compromises make two or more repertoires compatible by establishing ‘composite
arrangements that assuage the tension between them (Boltanski & Thévenot 2006: 277ff).
For instance, although the French contribution-based unemployment system was initially
qualied as an insurance,elements have gradually been introduced that focus on improving
incentives through reduction in duration and levels of compensation (cf. Hansen 2017).
Compromises are thus fragile since they never completely satisfy the principle of one
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Table 1. Public philosophies versus repertoires of evaluation
Public philosophies Repertoires of evaluation
Legitimacy Because they are decontested Because they are used to contest
Enactment Passive Active
Morality Homogenous, cultural, taken-for-granted Plurality, political, put to the test
Location Background Foreground
Agency Actors connecting programmes and policy
ideas with public philosophies
Actors criticising reality and justifying
repertoire – for example, there can never be full compensation and monetary incentives
to work – and compromises risk being challenged by tests based on repertoires that are not
recognised in the original compromise, such as criticising the aforementioned compromise
for neglecting the problem of skills in relation to unemployment. This conceptualisation
thus provides a view of the interaction taking place between the different levels of ideas that
suggests an active role by political actors in working out compromises between otherwise
competing public philosophies.It also emphasises how such work may be conducted as much
bottom-up (i.e., begin from issues arising from the use of concrete policy instruments and
in that process come across more foundational and normative tensions between competing
accounts of right and wrong) as through top-down processes of collective puzzlement of
how to practically form society in accordance with abstract, normative notions. In sum, the
ongoing institutionalisation of compromises implies that institutions rarely follow the logic
of just one repertoire. There is, rather, an often composite and contradictory hybridisation
and layering of the mobilisation of different repertoires over time. While these enduring
tensions between contending repertoires enable actors to resolve uncertainty at one point
of time, it likewise creates impetus for future reform efforts as these unstable compromises
bring up new uncertain test situations that need to be worked out.Table 1 outlines the main
differences between the concepts of ‘public philosophies’ and ‘repertoires of evaluation’.
Gradual ideational and institutional change in the French minimum income system
The gradual but radical changes in French social policy from the 1980s onwards, in which
the minimum income scheme came to play a pivotal role, provides a puzzling and critical
case to the study of public philosophies.Today scholars generally agree that by introducing
a neoliberal make-work-pay logic and punitive measures, the reform of RSA marks a
radical break with what was considered French public philosophy (Clegg 2014; Lazzarato
2011; Palier 2010; Vlandas 2013). The RSA introduced an in-work benet providing a
substantial reward for working recipients;it replaced the relationship of reciprocity between
the recipient and the state to one of conditionality emphasising the ‘rights and obligations’
of the recipient; and it introduced much stronger obligations including a sanction of non-
compliance and intensied control of not only the recipient but the entire household
(Vlandas 2013: 122). However, preceding the introduction of the RSA, scholars argued
that French public philosophy would delay or even inhibit the neoliberal reform pressure.
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Barbier and Théret (2001: 177),for example,pointed to the French ‘Rousseauist’conception
of citizenship, which implies that the state is indebted to the citizens (to provide a secure
life), which in turn is ‘inconsistent’ with the idea that citizens have obligations to the state.
France was thus ‘bound to experience limited pressure for job search, and the absence of a
consistent punitive orientation’ (see also Barbier & Fargion 2004:457; Enjolras et al. 2000).
Béland’s (2007) analysis of the discourse of social exclusion in France reached a similar
conclusion suggesting that consistent with the French republican model,policy makers opted
for a participatory approach to activation based on a contractual model.In this view, policy
makers ‘rejected the [punitive], moralistic and neoliberal logic of workfare that became
dominant in the US and, later,in Britain’ (Béland 2007: 129).
Although Schmidt (2002: 253) sees clear neoliberal changes, she points to how a lack
of moral justication followed from the strength of French public philosophy, arguing that
‘governments of the right or the left, have all provided the same justication for why changes
have been economically necessary but insufcient legitimisation of its appropriateness in
terms of social values’. Schmidt (2002: 253) further argues that this gap between policy
programme and public philosophy increasingly created a tension-lled situation in which
‘the neo-liberal policy programme [was] seen to conict with long-standing values related
to social solidarity’. Where Schmidt sees the public legitimation of French reforms as largely
failed, Palier (2005) argues that changes nonetheless became acceptable to elites and the
French public because they were the result of ‘ambiguous agreements’. The new policy
instruments were ‘polysemic’ – that is, imbued with multiple meanings – and thus actors
‘agree on the same measure, but for very different – often contradictory – reasons.’ (Palier
2005: 137–138).1Palier concludes that it is precisely the lack of justication and explicit
compromises that make reforms acceptable. We do not object to Schmidt’s argument that
reforms continue to be contested, nor do we contend with Palier’s emphasis on the polysemic
nature of new policy ideas. However, we argue, and try to show in the following, that both
accounts underestimate the reexive,public and moral justications and compromises that
have underpinned and gradually shaped radical changes. By taking into account the ongoing
qualications and justications, while recognising that the national public philosophy may
not be as homogenous as expected, the ‘puzzle’ of radical gradual change becomes much
less puzzling.
How, then, can one more specically go about studying the role of public philosophies
in these reform processes? As a starting point, studying test situations of qualication,
justication and compromises requires a ‘non-normative’approach cleared from any ‘ought
tos’ and judgements based on externally given principles of what is best,just, legitimate and
so on (Hansen 2016). Rather,the reading and presentation of the empirical material adheres
to a principle of acceptability in which the researcher’s analysis should, in principle, be
acceptable to the actors (Boltanski 2011: 25). This entails practicing a ‘descriptive pluralism’
(Bénatouïl 1999:382) in which the researcher pays ‘careful attention to the diversity of forms
of justication’ (Boltanski & Thévenot 2006:12). The case study of the basic income scheme
in France presented below is based on Hansen’s (2017, 2019) study, inspired by FPS, of
one of four major policy reforms in France and Denmark. The study aimed, rst, to map
the variety of repertoires of evaluation that were mobilised in public debates surrounding
the reform processes. This was carried out through an in-depth study of statements in
newspaper articles from the announcement of reform programmes to their adoption. Over
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1,300 articles were coded and analysed using nVivo software (for details, see Hansen 2017:
32ff). In order to initiate coding, a tentative model of repertoires was developed from
normative literature and current debates about the welfare state. A coding scheme was
developed on the basis of a tentative model which was gradually recongured throughout
an iterative coding process until reaching a moment of saturation. Second, the coded
material was analysed to see how the co-existence of repertoires of evaluation resulted in
test situations and compromises. The analysis below presents a simplied version of the
model but it is extended by tracing the mobilisation of repertoires of evaluation further
back in history, specically to the debates leading up to the rst state-guaranteed minimum
income in 1988, and by supplementing with other sources of qualication, justication and
compromises such as parliamentary debates, governmental reports, intellectual works and
Test situation: The problem of long-term unemployment
The story begins in the 1970s when a socioeconomic phenomenon was gradually qualied
and politicised. The phenomenon consisted of a growing number of long-term unemployed
without any entitlement to nancial support. These people were situated inconveniently
between the two main components of the French postwar unemployment system: the
corporatist contribution-based scheme, Assurance chômage, and a locally organised and
nanced system of assistance for the most needy. This hitherto marginal group came to
be labelled as the ‘new poor’ subject to ‘social exclusion’ (Béland 2007). While the gap
was instigated by economic crisis, it was extended by subsequent tightening of eligibility
critieria and the raising of contributions to counter mounting nancial pressures on
Assurance chômage. In the 1970s and 1980s the gap was addressed politically by the
ad hoc establishment of state-led ‘regime of solidarity’, including the unemployed who had
exhausted their rights without access to the system of assistance (Eydoux & Béraud 2011:
However, in the 1980s, there were still groups without any rights to support (Eydoux &
Béraud 2011:132). This created a longstanding test situation in which the ‘usual’instruments,
especially those based on the insurance logic of contribution and compensation, were
deemed inappropriate causing substantial uncertainty as to how to qualify and handle
these groups politically. The major substantial political response only came in 1988 with
the establishment of the Revenu minimum d’insertion (henceforth RMI). To understand
the outcome of the reform and subsequent changes we return to the question of how the
phenomena of social exclusion and poverty were qualied in the years preceding the reform
and how it allowed for new conceptions of poverty, unemployment and the role of the state.
The RMI can thus be seen as a compromise between three repertoires of evaluation that
qualied the phenomena and put policies to the test in each of their way. Table 2 provides
an overview of the three repertoires.
Qualications and justications: The ‘whatness’ of social exclusion and how to handle it
In the context of the RMI, the rst and most inuential repertoire of evaluation was that
of redistribution. This repertoire entailed qualifying social exclusion as mainly a problem
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Table 2. Repertoires of evaluation (based on Hansen 2017)
Redistribution Prevention Incentives
Common good Citizenship through
Equal opportunities Maximise supply of
labour, society that
makes work pay
Test Are
policies …
… increasing or
decreasing material
… increasing the
employability of the
labour force?
… generating incentives
to stay unemployed?
Subjects Citizen Human capital Economic man
Objects Rights, security,
inequality , taxation,
universal, property,
greed, civic
Investments, complexity,
knowledge society,
education, skills, life
chances, social heritage,
long-term, personalise,
Inactivity traps, negative
tax, motivation effect,
carrots, get up early,
perverse incentives,
monetary stimuli
of citizenship (Barbier & Fargion 2004: 442). In the French context, this involved social,
economic and political participation; all of which the group was excluded from and to which
poverty was seen as the main barrier (Béland & Hansen 2000: 56).The test was thus whether
policies were capable of guaranteeing an income above the poverty threshold, in turn
rendering political citizenship possible. The test was not as such new but had been debated
at least since the economist and businessman, Jacques Duboin, in the 1930s, introduced the
notion of a ‘distributive economy’ calling for a state-guaranteed basic income. In the 1980s,
increasingly popular Christian associative movements such as Emmaüs and ATD Quart
Monde were pivotal in qualifying social exclusion as a problem of redistribution.
In 1985, ATD Quart Monde, an organisation established by the Catholic priest Joseph
Wresinski in the 1950s, initiated a local experiment in Rennes with an additional minimum
income. Later, Wresinski chaired an inuential government council on ‘poverty and social
and economic precariousness’. The council’s nal report published in 1987 proposed a policy
very similar to what became the RMI (see, e.g., Palier 2002: 306), which clearly mobilised
the repertoire of redistribution. While the report estimated that around 400,000 people
were without social protection coverage, the work in the commission went beyond statistical
descriptions of poverty. By visiting and documenting accounts of people living in extreme
poverty, Wresinski challenged the traditional division between the unworthy and worthy
poor. Rather the poor were qualied as ‘partners’ and citizens with rights. The need for
redistribution and a guaranteed minimum income beyond the most basic needs was justied
in the additional costs of a ‘physical’ urban life as well as of ‘social participation’ (Wresinski
1987: 64).
The repertoire of redistribution was mobilised in the government’s justication of RMI
where it was presented as in line with a long French trajectory. In parliament, the socialist
minister of solidarity, health and social protection justied RMI as the ‘prolongation of great
republican principles’ in which ‘the right to insertion, was naturally rst the assurance of
minimal resources’ (Assemblée nationale 1988b: 633).He also referenced President François
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Mitterrand’s famous ‘Letter to all Frenchmen’ from earlier the same year which called for
a tax-nanced minimum income making sure that ‘a means of living, or rather surviving,
is guaranteed to those who have nothing, who can do nothing, who is nobody. This is the
precondition for their social reinsertion’ (Assemblée nationale 1988b: 633).
The second repertoire inuencing the creation of RMI can be labelled the ‘repertoire
of prevention’ and it grew directly out of the debate on social exclusion. One of the
most important intellectual contributions that mobilised this repertoire was a book by
Claude Lenoir, a civil servant, from 1974 entitled Les exclus: Un français sur dix (Lenoir
1974). Although Lenoir recognised material inequality as an element of social exclusion,
he claimed it was not the main driver of exclusion. According to him, social exclusion
followed from a complex array of factors related to urbanisation and industrialisation,
aggravating and concentrating processes of mental, physical and social ‘unsuitability’. In this
qualication, policies were worthy if they ‘prevent, rather than cure’ ( Lenoir 1974: 84) and
were able to address the complexity of the phenomenon of social exclusion, by engaging
various ‘craftsmen of social action’ such as teachers, psychologists, social workers and
associations. The prevention repertoire also informed Wresinski’s aforementioned report,
which recognised that apart from the disposal of ‘means of existence allowing to prepare
the future for oneself and one’s children, it was necessary to be able to ‘make bear fruit
one’s human capital in order for the social and cultural exclusion to deteriorate’ (Wresinski
1987: 64).
The third repertoire of evaluation, which we term the ‘repertoire of incentives’, a l s o
gained impetus from the social exclusion debate in the 1970s. One of the earliest and most
inuential contributions to mobilising the repertoire was the economist Lionel Stoleru’s
book Vaincre la pauvreté published the same year as Lenoir’s Les exclus. In the book,Stoleru
(1974: 138) argues that the problem of poverty was rst and foremost a problem of ‘how
to discourage idleness’. As opposed to the prevention repertoire, social exclusion was not
complex, but instead a rather simple problem of a lack of monetary incentives to take on
a job. Stoleru presented the idea of a ‘negative tax’ – an idea that was earlier proposed by
Milton Friedman (1962),which is a benet in that it that gradually decreases until a certain
income has been reached. Rather than a policy solution, the negative tax should be seen
as a way of putting policies to the test by asking whether ‘everyone always has an interest
in working, and in working more, in order to improve his nal income, which is the sum of
his earnings and the benet he receives’ (Stoleru 1974: 206). While the idea of the negative
tax accepted a lower threshold, a ‘vital minimum’ (Stoleru 1974: 23), it was thus inherently
sceptical towards whether the encouragement to work was sufcient. Further, it denounced
the repertoire of prevention in deliberately disregarding the complexity of the origins of
poverty. The negative tax was about ‘coming to the assistance of those who are poor without
seeking to know where the fault lies,that is to say based upon the situation and not on the
origin’ (Stoleru 1974: 206).
Compromise: The creation of RMI
Although the specic content of RMI was widely debated, it was unanimously adopted by
the National Assembly. The RMIwas a composite and tension-lled arrangement containing
elements from all three repertoires. The most contested compromise was between the
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repertoires of redistribution and prevention. In order to receive the minimum income the
recipient had to sign an ‘insertion contract’ with ‘society’ in which the recipient committed
to engaging in an ‘insertion project’. The activities encompassed health, housing, counselling
and activities that targeted employment, such as job search and professional or educational
internships (Barbier & Théret 2001: 161–162; Palier 2002: 324). Mobilising the prevention
repertoire, the government justied the contract as a an instrument to ensure a project
‘adapted to the social situation, adapted to the capacities of the persons, and in particular
discussed with them’ (Assemblée nationale 1988b: 633). The National Assembly went
through heated debates about whether the signing and compliance of the contract ought
to be a precondition for receiving the benet. Mobilising the repertoire of redistribution,
the socialist rapporteur argued that the minimum income ought to be a ‘right’ and hence
non-negotiable and unattached to a contract (Assemblée nationale 1988b: 641). The RMI
did introduce conditionality, but only the possibility of sanctions, in case the recipient
was not committed to the contract – a possibility that was offset in periods and places
with low job creation (Barbier 2011: 52). The benet was hence positioned ‘somewhere in
between a totally nonconditional benet and a benet that was conditional on compliance’
(Barbier 2013: 163),leaving it to the local authorities to decide the balance between the two
The repertoire of incentives was not signicant in shaping the key instruments of RMI but
it was mobilised to justify certain delimitations, especially to the redistributive aims, of the
scheme and that would continue, in the decades to come, to function as a qualied target
of critique. Importantly, this concerned the threshold between the guaranteed minimum
income and the minimum wage,the so-called ‘SMIC’,as a potential factor of discouragement
to work. In justifying the RMI the minister of solidarity, health and social protection thus
assured that it would not ‘lead to effects of disincentives to work or disorganisation of the
labour market’ since the government would ‘take into account the level of SMIC in order
to set the level of RMI’ (Assemblée nationale 1988a:720). Incentivising elements were also
integrated, though in a rather marginal scale,in a ‘differential’ component that made the size
of the benet dependent on whether the recipient received other benets (Vlandas 2013).
In practice, though, RMI mainly served the redistributive aim, and with substantial
success. When after three years the scheme was evaluated, it was deemed effective in
improving recipients’ living conditions (Barbier & Théret 2001:168–169) and it managed
to cover more than one million people during the 1990s (Palier 2002: 84). Meanwhile, the
prevention instruments of personalised counselling and social up-skilling were challenged
by the problem of a lack of resources and overloaded institutions. Only half of the recipients
signed a contract, and very few of those were sanctioned (Barbier & Théret 2001: 162).
Critique from the repertoire of incentives
While the repertoire of redistribution was effective in practice, it was marginalised in the
subsequent qualication and testing of RMI. This may explain why the repertoire did not
play a leading role in reforms to come. In the 1990s and 2000s the ‘success’ of the scheme
was increasingly questioned. RMI marked an experimental phase with permanent state-
led evaluations of the effects of social policy instruments (Castel 1995: 697; Palier 2002:
235). At the end of the 1990s, RMI was intensely criticised in evaluations mobilising the
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repertoire of incentives justifying subsequent gradual adjustments. Analyses, for instance
by the Conseil d’analyse économique, showed that recipients of RMI were losing income if
they took up low-paid part-time jobs (Palier 2005: 139). To take one example of a problem
that the analyses raised, the RMI was connected to a number of ‘secondary social benets’,
so-called ‘droits connexes, such as housing benets, which, allegedly, further disincentivised
the recipients to take low-paid jobs (Vlandas 2013: 120). One of the rst adjustments, in
accordance with the repertoire of incentives, gave recipients who found a job (if the wage
was very low) the right to keep the allowance for three months, then later six (Palier 2005:
139). The most important reform following in the footsteps of the critique of disincentives
was the Prime pour l’emploi (PPE, ‘Premium for employment’) in 2001 (Palier 2010: 90).
Based on the negative tax logic, this offered a (minor) tax credit to encourage low-paid jobs
to counter ‘inactivity traps’ (Palier 2005: 139). While these evaluations were pushing on for
rather minor adjustments,they entailed a radical denunciation of the morality underpinning
the repertoire of redistribution. The citizenship based on economic redistribution was now
merely (dis)qualied as a potential ‘trap’. At the level of public debate,the French republican
virtues of citizenship were thus openly contested.
The PPE reform,however, did not radically change the belief among policy makers that
RMI performed poorly (Palier 2010: 85). In 2005, the government commission on families,
vulnerability and poverty – chaired again by a representative from the Christian associative
movements, the then president of Emmaüs, Martin Hirsch – proposed a scheme, labelled the
Revenu de Solidarité Active (RSA,‘Income of active solidarity’), which aimed to strengthen
incentives to work with in-work benets for low-paid and often part-time employees (Hirsch
2005). At this point, RSA was supported by all centrist parties – notably, the socialist
presidential candidate Ségolène Royal,who included RSA in her campaign (Auguste 2008) –
and soon after his inauguration in May, President Nicholas Sarkozy adopted the idea and
initiated an experimental phase lasting ve months rolling out the RSA scheme in 17
départements (territorial authorities).
Proting from almost 20 years of mobilisation of the repertoire of incentives, he further
extended the moral implications of the qualication. In the election campaign Sarkozy had
promised to ‘rehabilitate work’ for ‘the France that gets up early’. One of the slogans of the
campaign was thus ‘work more to gain more’ (Linhart 2009). This entailed erce criticism of
RMI and of the repertoire of redistribution.Sarkozy argued that increasing social expenses
and taxes had done nothing but ‘serve to buy the silence of those that live on the fringes of
society’ (Serani 2007). This kind of criticism was widespread on the right. A commentator
from Le Figaro newspaper spoke of the ‘generous allocations of the nourishing state’
where ‘the suicidal social minima policy had brought about a phenomenon of a descending
social elevator‘ (De Kerdrel 2008), while a Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) deputy
stressed that they should ‘nally break with this ‘French preference for unemployment and
exclusion’ that maintains, with the help of some billions of social benets, several millions
of our co-citizens far away from the labour market, that is, away from society full stop’
(Carrère-Gée 2008). This diagnosis qualied RMI and its recipients as the ‘assistanat’–
a term similar to ‘welfare dependency’. The diagnosis of RMI also entailed a critique of
the instruments justied by mobilising the repertoire of prevention. According to Hirsch,
the high commissioner for the creation of RSA, the system of RMI had ‘stiffened’, leaving
people in a ‘permanent pseudo-insertion’.2Since two-thirds of the recipients of RMI were
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capable of working, ‘the system had wrapped up and shut up a population that it was not
created for. These people are not in need of social care’ (Chevallereau 2007).
The mobilisation of the repertoire of incentives entailed a radical requalication of
the recipient and his or her relation to the rest of society. First, inclusion was no longer a
matter of income, but of work. In justifying the RSA, Sarkozy emphasised the inadequacy
of redistribution: ‘I want to tell the Frenchmen, it’s you who pays for RMI, but with RMI
you don’t live, you survive. What I will do is give these people a chance to rehabilitate
through work and not through the assistanat.’3‘The exit road’ was thus ‘work, again work,
always work’ (Auffray 2008). While the work ethic rewarded the working recipient, it
(dis)qualied the non-working recipient as potentially unwilling to work and thus subject
to ‘obligations’ and control.Sarkozy noted that ‘with 2.2 million unemployed, it is absurd to
have around 500,000 vacant jobs without any takers’ (D’Orcival 2008). ‘The vast majority of
the unemployed try to nd a job. There are some who don’t want to set out for work. It’s a
minority, but it’s a minority that shocks.4Hence, Sarkozy argued for a ‘sanctioning process
for an unemployed person who refuses two jobs that correspond to his qualications and
his salary aspirations’.5In Hirsch’s view, the ‘rule of active search for employment [would
contribute to] putting an end to the imbalance between rights and obligations’ (Serani
2008) The ‘assistanat’ would thus be ‘replaced by a logic of rights and obligations applicable
to beneciaries,public authorities and to companies (Chevallereau & Leparmentier 2008).
Besides a strengthening of the use of sanctions, the ideas were used to justify an
intensication of the control of the recipient,or rather the household of the recipient, which
would encompass an evaluation of whether there is a ‘clear disproportion’ between a ‘way
of life’ and the ‘resources declared’ (L’Assemblée nationale et le Sénat 2008: Art.L. 262-41).
The evaluation takes into account a list of ‘elements’ connected to the household (Premier
ministre 2009: Art.R. 262–74) such as maintenance of buildings and means of transport, as
well as more intimate elements such as appliances,objects of art, jewellery and spending on
holidays.It is thus in fact not the actual resources of the household that determines whether
the household deserves the benet, but its behaviour, including the most intimate behaviour.
The entitlement test is thus permanent and implies, for instance, that it is forbidden for
relatives to support the recipient nancially in any kind of way (Helfter 2015). It is thus no
longer the state that is indebted to the citizen but the recipient being indebted to the state
(Lazzarato 2011).
Second, the justication of RSA radicalises the repertoire of incentives’ conception of
poverty and ultimately of inequality. According to Hirsch (2007), the experimentation with
RSA marked a ‘ght against poverty’ but it was rst of all a ght against ‘poverty traps’ in
encouraging an inquiry into the variety of behavioural responses to monetary stimuli within
the targeted population of two million: The experimentation would draw ‘special attention
towards the working poor.Why? Because it is a transitional population.’ Hirsch thus ‘insisted
that only the persons that work will benet from augmenting benets.With the RSA we will
not put one cent towards inactivity’ (Hirsch,quoted in Périvier 2013: 74).
Test situations within the repertoire of incentives
The reality of poor and socially excluded people were now qualied as economic men
responding behaviourally to monetary incentives. The experimental phase was launched
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with a green paper (Hirsch 2008) inviting stakeholders and citizens to contribute to solving
a number of specic challenges related to RSA. The green paper initiated a detailed
evaluation process of the local experiments, effectively, inducing a number of tests within the
repertoire of incentives. Hirsch thus claimed that ‘facts’ showed that ‘the rate of return to
employment in test zones is 30% superior to that of control zones’ (Vlandas 2013: 128). The
experiments also sparked controversies. For instance, the socialist president of a département
complained that the government’s rate of decrease of RSA would be higher than the one
his département had experimented with, which would make ‘the incentive to return to
employment a lot smaller’ (Chevallereau 2008a). The economist Thomas Piketty questioned
whether the rise in ‘prots’ from around 150 in the PPE to 200 for taking a part-time job,
as well as the abandonment of the maximum duration of one year, would ‘boost the rate of
exit from RMI to part-time work’ (Piketty 2008).
The testing also sparked debate about the incentives to take on part-time work, raising
the issue of whether the thresholds from part-time to full time work were potentially
disincentivising. According to Piketty (2008), RSA would lead to a ‘strong reduction in the
difference between working 20 and 35 hours a week’. UMP members had similar concerns.
The difference between part-time and full-time work of around 200 was ‘too weak’ and
‘not consistent with ‘work more to gain more’ (Guélaud 2008). Another spoke of the ‘risk
of perpetual part-time work’ (Waintraup 2008). Another economist was even harsher in
criticising the ‘perverse’ effects of incentivising part-time work:
A person working at 60% [of a full working week] on an RSA contract can have the
same resources available as a wage earner working full time and paid SMIC (…)
How was it possible to transform the good intentions of the active solidarities into
unjust, useless, and perverse transfers? By enriching the working poor, one risks in fact
maintaining them in the trap of part-time work and discourage full-time wage earners.
The latter will be rebellious from not gaining more while they work more.(Godet 2008)
Not only did RSA lead to ‘perverse’ incentives, it also infringed on the work ethic of
the full-time workers paid close to the SMIC rate, and while the criticism questioned
the appropriateness of details of the scheme it only further legitimised the repertoire of
incentives.This illustrates well the importance of looking into the way policies are qualied
and criticised. Doing so helps us appreciate that what matters to the direction of gradual
changes is not so much whether polices fail or not in any objective sense, but instead how
they are put to the test – that is, which repertoire of evaluation comes to structure the
evaluation of whether a policy ‘works’ or not.
Critique from the repertoire of redistribution
The repertoire of redistribution was not completely absent from the debate surrounding the
reform of RSA.The ‘perverse effects’were also qualied as a matter of increasing part-time
work and thus a symptom of increasing precariousness in the labour market.According to a
sociologist, RSA would ‘multiply bad odd jobs by institutionalising a second labour market
based on the precariat’. This was mainly due to incentives for employers to be ‘content with
hiring part-time workers knowing that the employees benet from assistance’.6Also, the
socialists warned against an ‘increase in precariousness’ (Bourmaud 2008). The problem
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was thus qualied as a consequence of exploitative employers. An economist argued for
‘sanctioning employers who prot from RSA in order to multiply unworthy jobs’, and also
called for measures that ‘oblige the industries to open negotiations on minimum wages and
the reduction of part-time work’ (Chevallereau 2008b). Also, the Workers’ Force (FO), one
of the largest unions, wanted the government to ensure that ‘capital would genuinely be
harnessed‘ (Barroux & Fressoz 2008). Rather than questioning RSA as such, these criticisms
pointed towards solutions outside of the scheme and current reform process, specically
minimum wages and regulation of part-time work.
Despite the fact that the majority of political actors supported the content of RSA, the
adoption of the law nonetheless ended up being controversial. The controversy surrounded
the question of how to nance the RSA. Initially, Sarkozy wanted to nance it partly by
abolishing PPE. The nancing led to criticism, mobilising the repertoire of redistribution,
from both the left and the right. For instance, the social liberal and third largest party,
MoDem, argued that ‘RSA was perfectly well-founded but the solidarity cannot rest on
the most poor without calling on the most rich’ (Barotte 2008). The socialists complained
that ‘RSA in reality is an arrangement that undresses the poor full-time workers in order to
dress the poor part-time workers!’ (Royal 2008).
The government nally responded by proposing to nance RSA by raising taxes on
property. The proposal, however, did not stop the criticism. Because of a ‘scal shield’, the
richest part of the population would not be paying the additional tax. The government’s
nal proposal, which was adopted by the national assembly, accommodated the critique
and installed a ‘global ceiling’ on tax breaks that would work outside of the scal shield.
Somewhat paradoxically, the criticism resulted in both substantial changes in the nancing
of RSA while also legitimising its content, which, as shown earlier,was justied by a rather
strong critique of the redistributive elements of RMI. It may have become nanced in a
less unequal manner, but RSA itself strengthened instruments that would fundamentally
contradict the aim of more material equality – at least between the non-working recipient
and the rest of society.
Despite its political prominence, the RSA has so far failed to effectively ‘ght poverty’
(Eydoux & Gomel 2014). It can thus seem paradoxical that the scheme was extended in
2009 to include 18–25 year-olds and has remained unchallenged by subsequent presidencies.
The short answer is that the qualication of poverty and work that underpins the scheme
– that is, the moral need for incentives to work, regardless of whether they actually
make more people work – has not been radically challenged. When ‘economic men’ did
not respond to incentives, the answer was to strengthen incentives. The lack of results,
however, has put this logic to the test.While there are still calls for strengthening incentives
even further, marginalised repertoires may become revitalised. The 2017 presidential
elections exhibited more profound criticisms, from both the left and the extreme right,
mobilising the repertoire of redistribution and suggesting radical reforms – ranging from
universal basic income (Socialist Party) and increase of minimum income levels and job
creation through massive public investments (La France insoumise), to protectionism and
conning social rights to ‘cultural’ Frenchmen excluding ‘foreigners’ (Front National).
Meanwhile, inspired by Scandinavian ‘exicurity’, President Emmanuel Macron recently
argued for a revitalisation of the ‘repertoire of prevention’ calling for addressing
unemployment as a human capital problem, hence aiming towards further up-skilling of
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long-term unemployed. Thus far, however, such ambitions are not directed towards RSA
Conventionally, politics concerns who should get what, when and how. Such interest-
based struggles are in turn intimately connected with questions of how society should be
organised, and what makes this organisation fair and justiable according to foundational
ideas and norms of a polity. Clearly, this moral dimension of politics was never lost on
discursive institutionalists. To the contrary, the work of ideational scholars emphasised the
importance of the ideas that inform political battles about fundamental questions of what
the world is and should be,and how such legitimacy battles revolve around contending causal
beliefs, theories and values. Despite a broad recognition of the central role of normative
ideas for the institutions that actors establish, scholars have until recently tended to place
this type of ideas in the background as stable, historical meaning structures of a polity –
in the terminology of this article, ‘public philosophies’ – that constrain the kinds of ideas
that may gain support and acceptance. We have made the case for foregrounding issues
of moral and normative justication in explaining processes of ideational and institutional
change. Rather than viewing public philosophies as stable, coherent and constraining, we
suggest that in political struggles such ideas typically exhibit signicant heterogeneity. They
are also continuously used by actors to evaluate,critique and create compromises that over
time undergo a similar process of evaluation, critique and compromise. Such an approach
suggests that moral justication plays a pivotal role in setting off processes of ideational and
institutional change.
Analysing the rise, spread and resilience of neoliberal ideas likewise requires an acute
appreciation of how moral commitment is integral to the justication of neoliberalism.
Contrary to the post-crisis bemoaning of a lack of morality on part of market actors, it is
rather the case that appeals to certain ethics and values are key to understanding processes of
legitimisation of neoliberal institutions and capitalism (Amable 2011; Fourcade et al. 2013),
whether in accounting for everyday acquiescence to austerity (Stanley 2014) or, as has been
the focus of this article,in public, elite-driven debates and reform processes.In the case of the
French minimum income system analysed above, different forms of moral justication also
played a key role in setting in motion a neoliberal turn in how recipients were conceived
and the dominant notions of how to combat long-term unemployment. The analysis has
shown how actors used a mix of contending repertoires of evaluation to, rst, establish and
justify the state-guaranteed minimum income scheme of 1988, and subsequently to employ
these self-same repertoires of evaluation to justify the need to change the law in a way that
increasingly put the onus on incentives in motivating people to take up employment.Actors’
employment of competing moral justications thus lies at the basis of both the creation and
change of these institutions.
By foregrounding moral justication in processes of ideational and institutional change,
FPS lends important insights to ideational scholarship. Perhaps most importantly, it
presents us with a set of concepts that help us understand how public debate and
contention translates into political compromises that breed future uncertainty,test situations
and evaluation. It thus offers support for, and further theorises, Schmidt’s (2002) and
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Seabrooke’s (2006) contention that to understand the character and direction of political
change, it is necessary to take processes of legitimisation seriously, as opposed to more
singularly studying elite-driven processes taking place in specialised forums of professions
and experts. Reaping the full analytical benet of such insights requires, however, ideational
scholarship to foreground public philosophies and develop concepts useful for capturing
the heterogeneous compromises produced through public debate. As argued in this article,
utilising insights from FPS and adapting them to a discursive institutionalist framework
offers one such route to greater appreciation of the key role of public philosophies in pushing
ideational and institutional change.
The authors wish to express their gratitude to the editors and three anonymous reviewers
for their helpful and constructive comments.Thanks are also due to Daniel Béland, John L.
Campbell and Laurent Thévenot for reading and commenting on previous versions of the
1. The argument thus resembles the Réferentiel School’s emphasis on the ambiguity of ‘frames of reference’
enabling each actor to ‘interpret it in its own terms’ (Jobert 1989: 380).
2. T. Serani, Hirsch et Sarkozy vantent le RSA en Côte-d’Or le département est volontaire pour tenter
l’expérience du revenu de solidarité active, Libération, 2 October 20 07.
3. En direct de L’Elysée: Entretien avec le Président de la République Nicolas Sarkozy,April 24, France 2,
2008. Available online at:
4. En direct de L’Elysée, France 2, 20 08. Available online at: 1
5. En direct de L’Elysée, France 2, 20 08. Available online at: 1
6. Les syndicats plutôt satisfaits,Le Figaro, 29 August 20 08.
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Universitetsveg 1, 25.2, 40 00 Roskilde, Denmark. Email:
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... Drawing on these researches, the analytical approach to the morality of welfare should acknowledge the negotiation and contestation of normative ideas operating in particular political economy contexts (Greve, 2018;Carstensen and Hansen, 2019). Thus, the understandings of moral and normative ideas of welfare should go beyond both the expert-led and purely philosophical perspectives to include more public values and sentiments (Morris, 2016;Béland, 2018). ...
... The second body of literature adopts the moral economy approach to investigate the role of normative ideas and justification in different fields of social policy (Morris, 2016;Carstensen and Hansen, 2019). On one hand, they unveil the ideational foundation and organising normative principles underlying welfare policies, delving into the moral meanings and power dynamics within welfare justification (Hansen, 2019). ...
... On one hand, they unveil the ideational foundation and organising normative principles underlying welfare policies, delving into the moral meanings and power dynamics within welfare justification (Hansen, 2019). Drawing on the ideational and discursive institutionalism (Schmidt, 2008;Greve, 2018), this perspective foregrounds the ideational heterogeneity of morality and the competing norms underneath the 'repertories of evaluation' from the critical mass (Béland, 2018;Carstensen and Hansen, 2019), including problem-defining, causal beliefs, and framing languages. On the one hand, it puts policy ideas as normative principles and hierarchies of worthiness that qualify and legitimise welfare policies (Hansen, 2019); on the other hand, actors' evaluations and justifications lay the ground of moral dynamics embedding the policies (Sayer, 2018). ...
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Informed by moral economy theories, this article presents a qualitative study of the normative construction of and contestation over a new in-work benefit in Hong Kong, the Low-income Working Family Allowance (LIFA). Using a policy stakeholder approach to examining the public’s ideas and justifications of LIFA, the findings reveal the eligibility-defined entitlement shared by claimants, scepticism towards long working hours conditionality required by LIFA, complex understanding of deservingness and self-reliance, and dissatisfaction with the closing gap between welfare and wages. This article connects moral economy theories to the normative basis of a social security system, offering insights for capturing the dynamics of consensus and controversies about social welfare. It also extends the research on morality and social welfare from Western countries to an Asian context. The case of Hong Kong evidences how policy stakeholders make moral sense of a new welfare in the absence of social right language.
... These effects of the active turn on the experience of unemployment are largely unsurprising since the active turn is legitimized and permeated by a moral economy that reevaluates the phenomenon of unemployment according to new normative standards that put the worth (behavior) of the unemployed to the test (Carstensen & Hansen, 2019;Hansen, 2019;Nielsen, 2021). Studies inspired by Foucault's work on governmentality (Foucault, 2007) have thus shown how the active turn has led to the (re)invention of a plethora of instruments designed to conduct the behavior of the unemployed and create a certain kind of subject (Dean, 1995;Lessenich, 2011;Pultz, 2017;Walters, 1997) such as the "job seeker" (Boland & Griffin, 2015), the "at-risk client" (Caswell et al., 2010;Pultz, 2016), the responsible self (McDonald & Marston, 2005), and the indebted self (Lazzarato, 2012). ...
... French pragmatic sociology has been applied in mapping the plurality of normative orders of worth or repertoires of evaluation that have been used to justify the active turn in public debates (Carstensen & Hansen, 2019;Hansen, 2019;Nielsen, 2018Nielsen, , 2021. However, by adopting the framework of regimes of engagement, we delve below the public debate and address the question of morality from the perspective of the experience and actions of the unemployed. ...
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Like most OECD countries, unemployed people in Denmark have been subject to activation policies imbued with rights and obligations for decades. However, during the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, activation and conditionality were temporarily suspended. This article explores what happens to the experience of unemployment when part of the system is put on hold. Based on in-depth interviews conducted during the COVID-19 crisis with 25 unemployed people, we apply the theoretical framework of regimes of engagement developed by Laurent Thévenot to explore how unemployed people cope with and reflect on their situation. In doing so, we explore how the plans of the unemployed to find a job interact with or create tension between other engagements related to everyday life (family life, ideas about quality of life, etc.) as well as living up to the demands of public employment services. In this way, the suspension provides an opportunity to examine the effects of the active labor market programs through their absence.
... A 'frame' denotes 'an interpretative schemata that signifies and condenses the "world out there" by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of action in one's present or past environment' (Snow & Benford, 1992: 137 cited in Gahan & Pekarek, 2013: 761). Frames are used to rally constituencies and supporters while demobilizing adversaries and will typically draw on higher normative principles such as justice, fairness, protection, and democracy (Gahan & Pekarek, 2013: 759; see also Carstensen & Hansen, 2019). ...
... In the context of ER, power in ideas concerns ideas deeply engrained in capitalist society, for example about the legitimacy of managerial prerogative, founded on rarely questioned (at least until recently) notions of capitalist systems, or generally stable identities based on 'us' versus 'them' logics (Kelly, 1998). Despite the structural qualities of these meaning systems, they do need to be continually upheld by agents to naturalize what are contingent and historically specific systems of meaning (Carstensen & Hansen, 2019). Another example of this form is corporate discourses that legitimize and normalize atypical work as individual freedom and independence rather than precarious work (Boltanski & Chiapello, 1999). ...
Motivated by the efforts to understand shifting dynamics of change and stability in employment relations—not least ones brought on by a decade of crisis in what was a neoliberal consensus—scholars increasingly focus on the role of ideas, discourses, and identities. This paper argues for the potential of continuing down this path of employing ideational explanations in employment relations. First, it highlights four key weaknesses of employing more pure materialist–institutionalist approaches that have traditionally dominated employment relations scholarship. Second, it argues that to recognize and build on existing efforts to bring in ideas to employment relations, it is useful to place these on the macro‐, meso‐, and micro levels. Third, to further advance an ideational perspective on employment relations, it proposes to place more centrally the concept of ideational power. Fourth, it presents key insights from the papers that make up the Special Issue and fleshes out how the individual papers of the Special Issue contribute to this agenda.
... 28 Paradigmatic ideas are often far more dynamic than is recognised, changing significantly in order to remain relevant in the face of emerging challenges and foregrounding different aspects of their ideational formation at different times. 29 What is required, therefore, is sensitivity to the 'micro-structure' of ideas to account for incremental and paradigmatic forms of ideational change. 30 ...
Over the last 50 years there has been a paradigmatic shift in the climate of ideas and governing orthodoxy from Keynesian-corporatism to neoliberalism. Such paradigms provide the philosophical goals that are pursued by policy and practice and determine what are considered to be the legitimate means of attaining those goals. We use evolving policy and practice relating to the protection and management of street trees as a vehicle for examining the relations between the competing paradigms of corporatism and neoliberalism, and the ways that they are expressed ‘on the ground’. In doing so we highlight the tensions between the amenity value and the economic value of street trees and between techniques for their estimation. The legitimacy of the former, such as Helliwell and CAVAT, that embody corporatist concepts are subject to continuing challenges based on their (lack of) scientific rigour or economic principle. The strengths of the latter, such as i-Tree, are emphasised on the same grounds. Such is the success of these efforts that the equation of the value of a street tree with an estimation of the price that people will pay for the ecosystem services it delivers is not seen as controversial.
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Based on an employer-focused political economy framework, this qualitative study investigates how employers are represented in and affected by the policymaking of in-work benefits (IWBs), given employers’ political status and labour market conditions. Respondents addressed the importance of employers’ tacit support of the wage subsidies funded by the government. Arguably, it was considered that IWBs did not have a direct impact on wages, but they subsidised employers as a constraint against the minimum wage, boosted the workforce’s availability, and reduced recruitment costs for employers. This research substantiates the understanding of IWBs by integrating the perspectives of policy stakeholders and expands IWBs’ case studies in an authoritarian context.
In the context of post-crisis global economic governance, the global financial inclusion agenda is widely supported by international organizations, states, and civil society organizations. Some scholars attribute the rise of this agenda to the logic of neoliberalism and power of global financial actors, yet these accounts often obscure the role of ambiguity in facilitating broad support. In scholarship on coalition politics, ambiguity is often attributed to the strategic behaviour and framing techniques of central actors (e.g. entrepreneurs). In this article, I develop the novel framework of participatory ambiguity to explain the origins of the financial inclusion agenda and theorize the co-production of ambiguity among members of the supporting coalition. By tracing the development of the agenda, I identify the origins of its ambiguity in the efforts of disparate actors to shape the purposes and direction of the agenda in favourable ways across development, economic, and security domains. This article thus offers a more complete explanation of the origins of financial inclusion at the global level. It also provides an original theoretical perspective on the construction of ideas, agency, ambiguity, and global coalitions that can be used to better explain the development of other global policy agendas.
In recent decades, several important contributions have been made to further our understanding of whether and how ideas affect policies. More recently, research have turned towards the question of why certain ideas gain prominence in policymaking processes at the expense of others. However, in answering this question there seems to be a continuing blind spot in terms of fully understanding the role of knowledge production within state bureaucracies in determining which ideas are inscribed into policy and which are not. This article offers new insights to the ideational literature by showing how the use of institutionalised and systematic production of knowledge within state bureaucracies is pivotal for explaining the power of ideas. This is demonstrated through an in‐depth and illustrative case study of the policymaking process leading up to a major reform of Danish activation policies in 2014. In this case, an evaluation system institutionalised within the Ministry of Employment significantly shaped the types of knowledge utilised in the policymaking process and the final design of the policy reform. Consequently, the evaluation system instated a bulwark against ideational shifts in every phase of the policymaking process. Thus, ultimately steering the policymaking process in the direction of ideas grounded in a Work First approach rather than the Human Capital approach initially promoted by the Minister of Employment.
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Building on recent work in the sociology of intellectual interventions, the study of cultural boundaries of science, and the role of ideas in politics, the article develops a theory of public epistemologies as argumentative tools people use to support or oppose political positions. Two prominent public epistemologies that have recently crystallized in Italian politics are taken as illustrations, with special attention paid to the role of two academics (an economist and an immunologist) turned public intellectuals. The article argues that the rise of populism in Italy has contributed to unusual alignments between political and epistemological positions, which has made questions about science and expert knowledge much more relevant in contesting and supporting political decisions.
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How do ruling policy paradigms persist over time and why do they often undergo significant internal ideational changes? While the impact of Peter Hall's approach to policy paradigms on the study of governance has been immense, there is a burgeoning consensus that a "Kuhnian" understanding of paradigms makes punctuated equilibrium style shifts the only game in town. While Hall's approach can account for inter-paradigm change with reference to exogenous shocks, it does not allow for significant ideational shifts to occur intra-paradigm. To remedy this, we place ideational power dynamics at the heart of the study of policy paradigms. We demonstrate the general applicability of our approach by examining the evolution of British macroeconomic policy-making since 1990. We show how key policy-makers were able to employ their institutional and ideational power to reinterpret and redefine the dominant neoliberal understanding of the economy to match their own specific ideas and policy priorities.
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How do ruling policy paradigms persist over time and why do they often undergo significant internal ideational changes? While the impact of Peter Hall’s approach to policy paradigms on the study of governance has been immense, there is a burgeoning consensus that a ‘Kuhnian’ understanding of paradigms makes punctuated equilibrium style shifts the only game in town. While Hall’s approach can account for inter-paradigm change with reference to exogenous shocks, it does not allow for significant ideational shifts to occur intra-paradigm. To remedy this, we place ideational power dynamics at the heart of the study of policy paradigms. We demonstrate the general applicability of our approach by examining the evolution of British macroeconomic policymaking since 1990. We show how key policymakers were able to employ their institutional and ideational power to reinterpret and redefine the dominant neoliberal understanding of the economy to match their own specific ideas and policy priorities.
Full-text available
Since the late 1980s, European welfare states and labour market regulation have gradually but radically been transformed into ways of underpinning a more “active society” where active usually entails paid work or activities, such as training and qualification, that aim towards work. The thesis investigates the transformation towards the ‘active society’ through the spectre of unemployment and how it is governed. Two puzzles in the transformations have motivated the inquiry: firstly, the co-existence of a plurality of different, and often contradictory, conceptions of who the unemployed are and why they are unemployed; and secondly, the co-existence of wills to emancipate the unemployed alongside the justification of using coercive measures towards them. This thesis argues that if we want to understand the varieties within the transformations, the “what?” question, it is necessary to address the “how?”; i.e., how transformations are legitimised. Here, ideas and morality are pivotal. Inspired by French pragmatic sociology (Boltanski and Thévenot), the ideas are approached as cities of unemployment that are mobilised to justify and criticise policies related to the governing of unemployment. In these situations where the question of what is the best way to govern unemployment is put to the test, cities of unemployment enable actors to prepare and qualify the reality of the situation for critique and justification. Each city of unemployment is founded on a principle with specific principles to try or test both those who govern and the subjects inhabiting each city, thus entailing a specific understanding of what emancipating the unemployed involves, i.e., what kind of moral subject the unemployed person is with what kind of needs and characteristics. The thesis thus asks which cities of unemployment are mobilised in contemporary reform processes of the governing of unemployment, how are the cities mobilised to justify and criticise, and how do the cities sediment into instruments and institutions governing the unemployed? The questions are operationalised through an in-depth comparative study of four key contemporary reform processes: two in Denmark and two in France. The thesis is the first systematic investigation into the test situations that unfold in the public debates with a focus on the plurality of ideas that are mobilised to qualify and evaluate existing policies and justify changes. The thesis shows how the governing of unemployment is the result of an ongoing sedimentation in the cities tied together in compromises. This makes the governing inherently composite and unstable. The thesis identifies and maps seven distinct cities of unemployment that are mobilised in all debates surrounding all four reforms: the cities of Demand, Redistribution, Insurance, Incentives, Mobility, Investment and the Paternal city. Regardless of differences between the four cases, all analyses show that reforms are particularly driven by justifications from the Paternal, Mobility, Investment and Incentives cities, which are all tied together in multiple ways. The other three cities do not vanish completely, but in the qualification of the unemployed they are increasingly put to the margins. Finally, the thesis shows how the tensions between the cities that are mobilised for justificatory purposes are mitigated in categorisations and various institutionalised tests that continuously evaluate the behaviour of the unemployed. The tests, such as triage, screening, interviews and contracts, thus question and settle what kind of subject the unemployed person is, i.e., what city he lives in, how worthy he is, and what instruments will bring him closer to emancipation (i.e., the ‘active society’). In this way, the possibility of requalifying the unemployed is made permanent. A similar experimentalist dynamic is identifiable in the public debates concerning justification and critique. Here unemployment is increasingly seen as a multi-causal phenomenon that, in the end, is a matter of how to make the unemployed act in certain ways. The result is a constant uncertainty as to how to attach particular causes to particular categories of unemployment. Hence, the demand for targeting or “personalising” the governing in order to make the unemployed respond to it results in increasingly intimate and often coercive instruments.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Nicolas Jabko suggests, the character of European integration altered radically, from slow growth to what he terms a "quiet revolution." In Playing the Market, he traces the political strategy that underlay the move from the Single Market of 1986 through the official creation of the European Union in 1992 to the coming of the euro in 1999. The official, shared language of the political forces behind this revolution was that of market reforms-yet, as Jabko notes, this was a very strange "market" revolution, one that saw the building of massive new public institutions designed to regulate economic activity, such as the Economic and Monetary Union, and deeper liberalization in economic areas unaffected by external pressure than in truly internationalized sectors of the European economy. What held together this remarkably diverse reform movement? Precisely because "the market" wasn't a single standard, the agenda of market reforms gained the support of a vast and heterogenous coalition. The "market" was in fact a broad palette of ideas to which different actors could appeal under different circumstances. It variously stood for a constraint on government regulations, a norm by which economic activities were (or should be) governed, a space for the active pursuit of economic growth, an excuse to discipline government policies, and a beacon for new public powers and rule-making. In chapters on financial reform, the provision of collective services, regional development and social policy, and economic and monetary union, Jabko traces how a coalition of strange bedfellows mobilized a variety of market ideas to integrate Europe.