Visiting Professor of the CSDA Trudie Knijn’s keynote presentation at the 20th Annual ESPAnet Conference

Trudie Knijn; Emeritus Professor of Utrecht University and Visiting Professor of the CSDA, University of Johannesburg.

The 20th Annual ESPAnet conference was held in Vienna, from 14-16 September 2022. ESPAnet is the European Social Policy Analysis network that offers young and upcoming social policy scholars –master students, PhD’s and postdocs – an opportunity to present their research results and to receive critical constructive feedback from senior researchers. The theme for this 20th anniversary of the conference was Social Policy Change between Path Dependency and Innovation and was accompanied by the publishing of a volume Social policy in Changing European Societies (Edward Elgar Publishers, 2022).

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic it has been three years since the last ESPAnet conference was held. The conference drew in an overwhelming 500 social policy scholars from all over Europe and some outer-continental countries. The paper presentations were excellent, topical, important and covered a wide range of themes. Scholars demonstrated qualitative and quantitative studies on welfare benefits, new and tested proposals on the restoration of deficits in welfare provisions after a period of retrenchment, challenging analyses of the huge inequalities brought forward by the economic and financial crisis and the underlying mechanisms of financial capitalism, critical reflections on the sustainability of our welfare states in times of climate change and immigration, and on social services that either hamper or stimulate human capabilities.

ESPAnet is the academic community I most feel confident with, having been its co-chair with Steffen Mau for seven years. Therefore, it was my pleasure to be invited to present the final keynote lecture of this anniversary conference. Inspired by my latest European research project ETHOS ( I choose to focus on Justice and Vulnerability in Social Policy Research. Because, without losing our sound methodological basis, and without becoming toxic, subjective and pre-occupied in our analyses, also without formulating suggestive research questions in questionnaires and interviews we as empirical social policy scholars should admit that we aim for a better world. Like environmental scientists who do not hide that they prefer to save Mother Earth, and like medical scientists who admit that they aim for healthy bodies, we as social scientists can no longer pretend to be value free in our aims, purposes and drives.

With ETHOS we reacted to a call by the European Commission to develop ‘An Empirically Based European Theory of Justice’. In doing so we discovered that justice as a concept has disappeared from all peer disciplines of social policy; legal theory mainly focuses on procedural justice by ignoring substantive justice, and on human rights while neglecting social rights. Sociology and political science drown in rational choice theory, methodological nationalism, stratification ranking and descriptive data analyses while marginalising theoretical reflection on the how and why of soaring inequalities; economics in its turn succeeded in ‘economising justice’ by offering justifications for huge inequalities based on self-interest, market mechanisms and contract theory.

It was political philosophy that offered a heuristic Weberian framework for empirical research on justice. We selected Nancy Fraser’s definition of justice as ‘participatory parity’ meaning that justice exists in the combination of redistributive, recognitive and representative justice, all three together are needed for participating in society on an equal footing. Only with sufficient means and resources (income, education, health, housing, employment) plus the acknowledgement and valuation of one’s identity (ethnicity, gender, nationality, class, religion) and a voice to represent oneself in the public and political domain, can people participate as a peer.

With this heuristic lens our ETHOS team performed a lot of small-scale studies; discourse analysis of memorisation practices and education for minority group children; analysis of European human rights policies and practices, European Charters and definitions of minority groups, welfare benefit and care for elderly practices in six European countries, as well as housing and labour market policies.

We cannot simply speak of less or more justice in some practices, discourses or policies. Instead, many cases are characterised by contradicting justice mechanisms and ethical, social and cultural dilemmas. For instance, social policies aiming for equality easily lose track if equality is confusingly interpreted as sameness, not counting for difference in starting position, cultural background, national belonging or religion (recognition). On the other hand, recognition of differences should not be reason to withhold just redistribution, which might happen if minority children (or in the case of South Africa, marginalised majority children) lack good quality education. Another dilemma concerns what currently is called the ‘nation state privilege’; political representation on basis of national citizenship is increasingly problematic because national political decisions no longer only target national citizens, because in multi-cultural societies dominant ethnic groups have to take into account the interests of others, and because huge flows of labour migrants contribute to national welfare states without having a say.

Traced tendencies in justice practices and policies are, among others, the substitution of redistributive by recognitive justice policies. Some may say that this fits in with neo-liberal thinking that has more attention for identities than for living conditions and wealth disparities. Also, what identity politics contributes to social policy thinking is intersectionality. Clearly, the categorisation of difference in social policy research – global categories of gender, ethnicity, religion – is increasingly contested while for social policy in practice it should be clear that social (minority) groups are not monolithic but heterogenic.

Mechanisms that impede justice can be divided in entities (with their properties) and activities. Due to national competency, the complicated issues of path dependency, and dispersed responsibilities by outsourcing public services we see a low degree of redistributive justice at the EU level in spite of initiatives for social investments, social minimum incomes, minimum wages or the confirmation of the basic rights. At the same time, there is a high degree of recognitive justice at the EU level, e.g. diversity rights (gender, LGBTI, ethnicity (ROMA), disabled people, etc.), enforced by European Court of Human Rights / Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). Nonetheless there are minimised possibilities for realising these principles at the lower constitutional levels (national, regional, local) because of the decentralisation of policies, ignorant and/or denying national, regional and local civil servants, and the lack of means of those whom it concerns.

Ultimately participatory parity is about justice principles in a pluralistic society with different aspirations of identity groups concerning participation in society while at the same time accounting for non-homogeneity of group identity.

Further Readings:

Nelson, K, R. Nieuwenhuis and M, Yerkes (2022) Social Policy in Changing European Societies. Research Agendas for the 21st Century. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Knijn, T. and D. Lepianka (2020) Justice and Vulnerability in Europe. An Interdisciplinary Approach. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

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