Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Research Student: Jack Newman

The Ontological Assumptions in Government Welfare Policy since 2010

Photo of Jack Newman

Marsh and Furlong (2010) argue that our ontological assumptions (assumptions about the nature of being) are a ‘skin’ that cannot be removed, rather than a ‘sweater’ that can be changed on a regular basis. While social researchers are increasingly exposing their own founding assumptions, little attention is given to the ‘ontological skins’ worn by politicians and other policy makers.

However, rather than questioning the individual political actors, this work will seek to uncover ontological assumptions through critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 2003) of welfare policy documents, allowing more space to discuss the ideas themselves.

Taking a critical realist approach, my thesis will explore the connections between these assumptions and the dominant models of political analysis (especially behaviouralism and rational choice theory), using Roy Bhaskar’s ontological stratification and Margaret Archer’s morphogenetic model of social change (Archer 1995) as a contrasting standpoint.

The primary material for the research will be publications from the Department of Work and Pensions since 2010, with a specific focus on policy solutions to unemployment and underemployment.

The focus on ontology is expected to be particularly fruitful for two reasons: firstly, the growing conditionality of unemployment benefits (Newman 2011; Wiggan 2012)  is expected to rely on an intentionalist model of social change and (perhaps contradictorily) a rational model of the individual; secondly, the ‘successful’ implementation of welfare conditionality is expected to be increasingly dependent upon models of human behaviour (Slater 2012) and ultimately, therefore, ontological assumptions.


I studied for my undergraduate degree at the University of Liverpool, focusing on British politics and political theory, and graduating in 2010.

What motivated me to undertake PhD study?

I was motivated to undertake a PhD by my keen interest in the subject matter and my desire to pursue a career in academia.

What makes me passionate about my subject?

Throughout my MA degree, I became increasingly drawn into the theoretical debates about ontology and epistemology, structure and agency, ideas and institutions etc. and found these abstract, irresolvable disagreements fascinating.

From personal experience and a previous engagement with the literature, I am also interested in the workings of the current British welfare system. 

What are my plans once I have completed my PhD?

Once I have completed my PhD, I hope to continue a career in academia.

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