Language, Ideas and Policy: Insights From the Periphery. Melbourne, Australia

Language Ideas PolicyIn this paper Dina Bowman draws parallels between her initial encounters with the jargon and assumptions of employment services policy and the treatment of ‘invalid’ survey responses. The paper was presented at the Australian Sociological Association annual conference in 2010.

Dr Dina Bowman

Research and Policy Manager, Brotherhood of St Laurence, and fellow (honorary) in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne


My early encounters with the language of employment services policy highlighted the challenge researchers and analysts face in seeking to change how policy conversations are framed. That is, if we do not use language that has currency within a field we may not be heard or understood. Such language may incorporate assumptions that are at odds with the understandings and analyses that we wish to promote, but if we resist and avoid using accepted terminology we may be cast as illegitimate or irrelevant. This process of marginalisation is similar to the way in which unorthodox responses of research participants may be disregarded or considered ‘invalid’. In this paper, I emphasise the importance of looking at marginal perspectives—those understandings external to the dominant frame within which policy or research is shaped and analysed. I suggest that the identification of the processes by which some voices are heard, while others are excluded and marginalised is a key part of understanding the nature of policy frames and of shifting or reshaping them.

Key words: reflexivity, misrecognition, resistance, applied research, policy, public sociology


In this paper I draw parallels between my initial encounters with the jargon and assumptions of employment services policy and the treatment of ‘invalid’ survey responses. I reflect on the conundrum that many applied sociologists encounter, especially those who seek to achieve change: How can we effectively conduct innovative research and engage with policies without adopting the language and assumptions of the policy framework that we wish to critique? In order to be heard and understood we need to use accepted terminology and concepts, but in so doing we may not be able to express what needs to be said. Furthermore as researchers, if we rely uncritically on the accepted framing of ‘issues’ we risk reproducing ‘evidence’ rather than developing new insights. I suggest that the identification of the processes by which some voices are heard, while others are excluded and marginalised is a key part of understanding the nature of  policy frames and of shifting or reshaping them[i].

Language and fields

When I joined the research and policy centre of a large non-government organisation, I experienced a profound shift in perspective, having changed the focus of my research from the pursuit of wealth to a focus on poverty and disadvantage. I also experienced a shift in field, moving from the field of higher education and academic research to a more applied research environment. Like any newcomer to an organisation, I was struck by the effortless use of initially impenetrable acronyms and jargon. Not surprisingly, there are many acronyms that are specific to the organisation, which initially caused me considerable confusion and bemusement. There are also acronyms that are specific to employment services in Australia such as JSA, PSP, ISP, and Stream 4. For those unfamiliar with the Australian employment services these terms will have as little meaning as they then did to me.

More importantly, there are everyday words that have specialised meaning within the field of employment services. As a newcomer I was initially confounded by words such as ‘outcome’ which has a quite specific meaning in Australian employment policy, and refers to various elements that trigger a payment for the employment services provider (for example, a jobseeker staying in a job for 13 weeks is an ‘outcome’). The way in which the word ‘barrier’ is used in employment policy was also unfamiliar to me. It is a strange term which appears to have morphed from an earlier focus on structural barriers (Braddock & McPartland 1987). It now appears to acknowledge ‘personal barriers’ and ‘social barriers’ and yet the focus is on individual solutions rather than structural change.

‘Worklessness’ is a good example of the social meanings that are embedded in terms that are taken for granted and remain unchallenged. My almost visceral reaction to the idea of worklessness, especially when applied to sole parents, reflects my understanding that such a notion fundamentally misrecognises and misrepresents the situation of those to whom it is applied. It does so in at least two ways: first it casts paid employment as the sole form of productive activity and disregards unpaid work in the home or community. Second, it rests on the unquestioned assumption of the moral worth of paid employment. As Ruth Lister (2007:158) points out increasingly paid work is considered ‘the primary citizenship obligation for all those capable of it’. Furthermore, as Matthew Cole (2008) observes, paid work is seen as the path out of poverty, despite arguments about the ‘best route’. Cole suggests that the ideological privileging of paid work has been ‘legitimated by the legacy of social research that demonstrates the suffering, deprivation, marginalization or social exclusion that results from unemployment’ (2008:28). In this way, he suggests, the consequences of poverty are conflated with the consequences of unemployment and no other solution to poverty is envisaged. Thus, as McDonald and Marston (cited in Cole 2008:28) put it, ‘work is equated with worth’ and worklessness is equated with worthlessness.

Within employment services policy terms such as ‘worklessness’ are generally accepted as commonsense. Consequently, any challenge or questioning of the assumptions on which these terms are based is difficult—as I discovered when I first attempted to challenge the construction of sole mothers as ‘workless families’. Engaging with a field requires the use of the language that has currency within it. I have resisted using  the term worklessness, but, of necessity, I have begun to use terms such as ‘outcomes’ and ‘barriers’, even if I consciously put them in quotation marks.

A specialised language serves to define what is legitimate within a field and reflects and reinforces accepted understandings. Familiarisation with acronyms and jargon is part of the process of moving from the outside to the inside of a group and investing in the ‘rules of the game’ that shape a field. Bourdieu uses the metaphor of the ‘game’ to refer to the struggle for positions of power within a field. He argues that individuals implicitly accept and reinforce the value of the game by participating in it. As he puts it: ‘Those who take part in the struggle help to reproduce the game by helping—more or less completely, depending on the field—to produce belief in the value of the stakes’ (Bourdieu 1993:74).

Using the language of a field can constrain meaning. Cole points out that the trend towards evidence based policy, or what ‘works’ means that the parameters of social research have become narrowed to the confines of existing policy frameworks (2008:29). He argues for greater reflexivity that ‘could free policy research from rather narrow critiques of government policy’ (2008:29). Reflexivity requires an awareness of the way in which a field is shaped, and one’s position within the field. Such an approach not only recognises practical and ethical research issues, it can also reveal the connections and contradictions, which can inform an understanding of the processes that shape how we make sense of social phenomena, and open up a wider range of possible policy responses. For example, Cole provides a guaranteed minimum income as an alternative policy approach to poverty.

Misrecognition and resistance

The taken for granted assumptions within a field not only shape the nature of the questions that are asked but also affect the research processes. Here I draw on my experience in working on a research project that seeks to identify the factors that assist with job retention and advancement of people who have been unemployed or out of the labour market. It is important to note that I am not criticising the implementation of the research methodology, rather I am reflecting on the limitations of surveys as a method. Further, I am emphasising the importance of multi-disciplinary teams. As a sociologist working with economists I have been able to highlight the insights that can be gained from the notes in the margins.

The study began in 2007 and is jointly conducted by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (part of the University of Melbourne) and the organisation where I work. Funding assistance is provided through the Australian Research Council Linkage program. Part of the project involves examining the employment experiences of people who have moved into paid employment after participating in a Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) funded employment services program. I joined the study as a partner investigator in 2009.

Participants were recruited from amongst the clients of three partner organisations on the project. Questionnaires were developed and mailed out to 8302 clients in JuneNovember 2008, 1265 were returned, a response rate of 15 per cent. Follow-up questionnaires were sent to these clients in 2009, and will be sent again later this year 2010. The questionnaire covers a range of topics including the health of participants; their education; parents’ work history; attitudes to work and advancement; information on their current job; their satisfaction with their employment assistance case manager; their work history; income; and personal details. The surveys also include a space where respondents can provide their assessment of ‘what would help’ them get and keep a job, and advance in their chosen career. In addition to the surveys, semi-structured interviews with a small subsample of the respondents provide further insight into the aspirations, opportunities and constraints of low-paid workers.

In the first survey wave, 60 per cent of respondents were female, around one-quarter of respondents were sole parents. Forty-one per cent of respondents were aged 46 or more, while only 15 per cent were aged 25 years or younger. Two-thirds lived in metropolitan areas, with a little over a quarter born outside Australia; only 65 respondents identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. Levels of schooling were low, with almost 70 per cent of people having not completed Year 12. Most were employed at the time of the survey. Just over half worked in small businesses. The respondents worked in intermediate clerical, sales and service roles (49%), as labourers (23%), and as intermediate production and transport workers (10%). They were low paid, with most (78%) earning AU$600 or less per week, which was just over half the average weekly full-time earnings in 2008, AU$1145 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008). Only 37 per cent were employed on a permanent or ongoing basis; half of the sample was employed on a casual basis, 10 per cent were on a fixed-term contract, and 3 per cent were self-employed or had temporary employment arrangements.

As John Law (2009:239) points out, surveys can shape how we understand a phenomenon; we get the answers to the questions we ask, which can limit our understanding to what we already know. He argues that research methods such as surveys ‘do not simply describe realities but also tend to enact them into being’. It is for this reason that comments and responses that ‘don’t fit’ are important; they can shed light on what we don’t know and inform innovative responses. Here I reflect on the notes in the margins, letters, and other forms of communication from respondents.

As an incentive to complete and return the surveys, which were provided with a reply paid addressed envelope, respondents were paid $10. Several people returned completely blank surveys, including some with an accompanying explanatory note. For example, one respondent attached a politely hand written letter, which read in part:

I am writing this letter to you all. So please understand when I tell you this … I have read through your questions on your survey and I find that it has no relevance to helping anyone getting casual or permanent work. As far as I am concerned you are wasting money that could be used elsewhere … I am returning your questions to you. That is all I have to say.

This respondent also noted that a $10 payment for returning the survey was inadequate:  ‘what could you buy for $10 these days?’.  Several other respondents made the same point including one who forthrightly challenged us:

As an exercise, go to a … supermarket and buy $10 of groceries. Didn’t get much? To make a difference you need to get out there amongst real people at street level—if you dare. But can you leave the glass bubble of your fellow academics?

Others returned surveys that were filled in with obviously false information, and several completed the surveys but did not provide their names or addresses. Several respondents provided critiques of the survey, commenting on questions that could have been asked, but were not; and some respondents explained why they did not answer some questions. For example, one man wrote ‘I will tell you everything except what I earn’. These kinds of responses could be ignored as irrelevant or invalid, but I think they indicate a resistance, a refusal to comply and an expression of anger. What is interesting is that this resistance was directed to the researchers, even though the comments suggest a broader sense of frustration about their circumstances.

Respondents also included notes and requests for assistance, in part this may be due to a misunderstanding about the nature of the research, but it also may be an indication of real need, even if these requests were couched in apologetic or joking language. For example, one man asked for furniture, ‘modern appliances, modern curtains’ and added ‘only if available. I hope I am not being greedy!’. Another respondent requested work related items but in a joking manner—as if he did not expect such assistance:

I wouldn’t mind some more Hi-Vis safety vests — Size 3XXXL as its starting to warm up please. A wide brimmed hat would also be appreciated. Maybe some fly repellent would be most appreciated too, as it is forecast to be 37 degrees on Monday — please — do your best. Maybe some knee supports for my left knee. THANK YOU!

These kinds of remarks reveal the respondents’ assessment of the researchers. We may be out of touch, but as a charitable organisation, we may also be a source of practical assistance.

On the other hand, several respondents provided details about why they had completed the surveys, for example one man said ‘I am responding to your research forms because I think it is important for society records and [to] further conditions for people in my situation’. These kinds of responses suggest that the survey was seen as a vehicle by which they could make their voices heard. Many respondents wrote lengthy explanations of their situations. Some asserted their competence and explained how they were different from others in similar circumstances. For example, one respondent added a note to the question about training to assert ‘I am in a position to assist others (employees) in these areas organising and running training’. Others explained their circumstances as a way of resisting assumed categorisation. For example, one young man who had had four jobs in the past twelve months asserted his identity as a taxpayer who had a right to receive unemployment payments: ‘I’m not a bludger and I pay taxes and don’t feel I shouldn’t’. Another respondent attached a neatly typed letter including his critique and analysis of the employment services system. He explained:

I am not attacking Job Network, but expressing my feeling, I never heard of anyone getting job with the help of job network and they are pretending to be doing anything that can even put Centrelink payment in jeopardy. I don’t like talking about Job Network because they are working because of me/ job seekers. And if they get us job, what is going to be their work next? This is what they are think and trying to delay/waste my times attending unsuccessful appointments.

From his perspective, the employment services system had a vested interest in his continuing unemployment. He may have misdiagnosed the reasons for his continuing unemployment, but his comments do highlight the interrelationships of jobseekers and those that are contracted to assist them.

Some respondents remarked on what they saw as the deep unfairness of a ‘messed up’ society, and took the opportunity to voice their opposition to the dominant discourses of self-improvement through paid employment and critique the employment services system. For example, a 56 year old woman, who was a qualified nurse, wrote that the opportunity to articulate her thoughts was a relief. She added ‘Don’t know if I feel better, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to write about it’. Very few comments referred to solidarity, but those that did tended to underline its absence and the heightened sense of competition amongst low-paid workers. For example, a forty-seven year old sole father, who had been an IT specialist but now worked as a contract labourer railed against ‘the useless self-centred business pricks’ who profited while hard working people suffered. He added ‘unfortunately people are scared, hence no solidarity in Australia’. And 43 year old woman wrote:

There’s not much else to say. It won’t make any difference; the government doesn’t care if I’m in pain everyday – as long as I WORK!! And cost them nothing!! Yes I’m very bitter about PAYOUTS to people I know who use it badly. What about us WORKERS who at least try to get back to work? Zero again…!! 🙁

The way the comments were written—in capitals with exclamation marks and the deep indentations of the pen—reflect the physical and emotional pressure experienced by these respondents.

So what?

Michel Peillon (1998) has argued that the structures of domination within the welfare field are misrecognised as care. In a similar way, structures of domination within the interrelated fields of employment, employment services and income support can be misrecognised as ‘assistance’. As Peillon points out, this process is ‘not accidental: it activates symbolic structures which are incorporated in the habitus and are likely to ensure compliance’. Nevertheless, he cautions against exaggerating the effectiveness of this process, because ‘the strategies of control which are used by welfare agencies, and to which misrecognition belongs, are often met with strategies of resistance’ (1998:221). The comments in the margins of the survey can be seen as small acts of resistance in the face of strategies of control. The respondents who wrote notes in the margins were asserting themselves, they were actively challenging, in however modest a way, the constraints of the survey and the parameters of the research.

The rules of the research and policy ‘game’ mean that often where ‘evidence’ doesn’t fit the reality constructed by the research framework, it is considered invalid, set aside or not even recognised. As researchers we are affected by the ‘unspoken and unspeakable rules for what can be legitimately said—or perceived—within the field’ (Moi 1991:1022), which is why critical thought and reflexivity are so important. As Loïc Wacquant (2004:101) passionately argues, they provide researchers with ‘a chance to think the world, rather than being thought by it, to take apart and understand its mechanisms, and thus to reappropriate it intellectually and materially’.

Working in multi-disciplinary teams can enrich the research process, but as a sociologist working with economists and social policy analysts, I have found that the pressure to conform to dominant ‘economic’ and policy analyses can be strong. Understanding these pressures, as well as the pressures we all experience in seeking to keep our jobs, build our careers and maintain our values as individuals and our identities as sociologists, is important because it enables us to better negotiate and challenge the rules of the applied social research and policy game.


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Law, J. (2009) ‘Seeing Like a Survey’, Cultural Sociology 3(2):239256.

Lister, R. (2007) ‘(Mis)recognition, Social Inequality and Social Justice: A Critical Social Policy Perspective’, in T. Lovell (ed.) (Mis)recognition, Social Inequality and Social Justice: Nancy Fraser and Pierre Bourdieu. Hoboken: Routledge.

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[i] This paper draws on a presentation made to the UK Social Policy Association conference in 2010 which was then presented as a refereed paper at The Australian Sociological Association conference in 2010.

Editorial Credits

SAW logoArticle copyright: © Dina Bowman 2011. Republished by Sociology At Work.*

All rights reserved.

Working Notes ISSN: 1838-5214

Article citation: Bowman, D. (2011) ‘Language, Ideas and Policy: Insights From the Periphery. Melbourne, Australia,’ Working Notes, Issue 2, June, online resource:

*This paper was originally published by The Australian Sociological Association: Bowman, D. (2010) ‘Language, Ideas and Policy: Notes From the Periphery’ in Velayutham, E. and S. Watkins (Eds) Proceedings of the Annual Conference of The Australian Sociological Association, Social Causes, Private Lives,  6–9 December, Macquarie University, Sydney. Republished with permission from the author.

Image credit: Lowjumpingfrog (2008) ‘Shadow of a Writing Hand’, Flickr. Online resource last accessed 3 June 11: