Journeys on Universal Credit and through participatory, visual research

Ruth Patrick, Mark Simpson & Dan Farley with UC:Us

Almost ten years ago, then Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith set out his plans for welfare reform, which included the introduction of Universal Credit. Duncan Smith promised (or perhaps warned) that the reforms he would usher in would ‘transform lives’, concluding:

‘We want a system which isn’t see as a doorway to hopelessness and despair but instead as a doorway to real aspiration and achievement’.

We all know what happened next. Universal Credit, beleaguered by problems and delays, has been gradually rolled out, with a sudden and dramatic upsurge in claimants after the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. The benefit – and the wider reforms that underpin it – are all tied to a conceptualisation of the agency and behaviours of recipients as deficit. As Sharon Wright argues, benefit recipients have been (mis)characterised as becomings, not beings. Through a decade of dwindling real incomes for social security recipients,  the extension of stiff and strict conditions and harsh sanctions for non-compliance with benefit rules and some limited increased in financial support for people entering low-paid work, welfare reform sought to nudge or rather push people to make transitions from ‘welfare’ and into ‘work’; taking their place as responsible members of a lauded ‘hard working majority’.

This imagined (and it very much is imagined) journey through benefit reforms and Universal Credit clashes very starkly with people’s experiences. In an ongoing, participatory research project, we have worked as a participatory team including recipients of UC in Northern Ireland, academic researchers (Ruth and Mark), an illustrator (Hannah Miller) and a graphic designer (Dan) to document people’s experiences of the benefit, and to collectively develop recommendations for policy change. In a series of participatory workshops, we came together, ate pizza and far too many sweets, played Pictionary and – most importantly – documented and shared journeys through Universal Credit.  Through conversations, participants drew out images that represented key moments through their journey: spiralling debt; parents’ fears about the impact of poverty on their children; and clashes between the demands of a Universal Credit adviser and the everyday realities of life with health problems or caring responsibilities. Together, we sketched out a collective journey through Universal Credit, developing policy recommendations grounded in these experiences. We have shared this journey and recommendations in printed form, but also through speaking at events – where the expertise that comes with experience is brought into a fruitful if sometime difficult conversation with other forms of expertise. Out of the project has emerged a group –UC:Us –  who are working together to seek changes that improve the benefits system, while at the same time providing one another with invaluable forms of informal and everyday support.

Illustration: Hannah Miller

This project, and other forms of participatory research, which adopt visual and arts-based methods, remind us of the power and potential (as well as the challenges) of mobilising the expertise that comes with experience. It can lead to unexpected new knowledge, focusing on areas that the researchers themselves might not have deemed especially important, but which are central to people’s own experiences. The process of coming together to work through experiences together, and to generate plans and proposals for change, can be as (if not sometimes more) important as the final outputs. Coming together is itself a radical act; the opportunities it provides to validate experiences and to collectively make demands for a different future can be galvanising for people whose recent experiences may have given little cause for optimism.  The finished leaflet is a source of pride, and the conversations with policymakers are important, but so too are the steps we take to get there. As Zine artist Jean McEwan reflects:

The most powerful moments have come not through outcomes of the ‘things’ that have been made (such as the artwork, banners, zines, poems – though these are valuable and beautiful things), but through the open sessions we’ve had… where anyone can come in, meet others, talk, share stories, be creative on their own terms.

In looking at experiences of Universal Credit, we drew out (both figuratively and literally) key moments on people’s journeys. An illustrator, Hannah Miller, helped bring rough sketches and ideas from participants into print. This creative, exploratory process – and its adoption of visual methods – was incredibly helpful in recasting expertise. Ruth and Mark might be able to write passably well (others might disagree) but they are anything but creative, and struggle to convert an idea from their heads into a picture on the page. By contrast, many of the participants found that by visualising their experiences they were able to open up about an aspect of their life they had seldom discussed before, and through Hannah’s illustrations, and their role in developing these,  share their stories with others.

As Laura Harris and Paul Jones argue, and as our own work definitely confirms:

“visual sociology…has potential to engage new publics in research collaborations and conversations, to open up inquiry of elements of social life typically overlooked, and to democratise sociological research practices.”

At the same time, though, we have to be careful that the rush to visual, isn’t then experienced as a trivialisation of people’s experiences and desires for tangible and formal policy change, which we traditionally expect to see delivered through hard text: policy reports and letters demanding change. In an early workshop, one participant looked on aghast as we pulled out the coloured felt tips and tissue paper: “I thought we were here to influence people” he said “not do a wee art project”. By including multiple outputs for this project, which includes a formal written report, we managed to allay fears such as these, which are themselves testament to the fact that people respond to and prefer to work in different way: and this is as true in participatory research as in any other area. Ultimately, the artwork produced provided a striking backdrop and talking point during the group’s engagement with politicians and senior officials with a role in social security in Northern Ireland.

For us, though, the use of visual approaches also helps to soften power differentials within the research process, a precious tool, when these differentials are so heavily and decidedly stacked in the favour of the academic researcher. But it is also vital to remember – as Joanne Hill acknowledges – that while visual and participatory methods can challenge traditional power relations, they are not a panacea and these dominant differentials tend to endure in some form. It can be too easy to talk of processes of co-production and co-creation; almost masking the enduring power and privileging of the usual types of expertise. In this project, despite our best efforts, we still often found participants deferring to what Ruth, Mark and Dan thought they ‘should do’, although this was perhaps lessened over time, as the group itself grew and developed its own identity.

Through their work on this project, UC:Us developed a vision for  “a social security system that treats everyone with dignity and respect as valued members of society.” At face value, this vision is not at odds with Duncan Smith’s decade-old soundbite. But it represents a rejection of many aspects of a social security system that governments have claimed they were redesigning to in support of “aspiration and achievement,” yet too often is itself the cause of “desperation and despair.” It is a vision that has come out of collaboration and connections, and which is grounded in shared experiences of hardship, getting by and doing without. We hope that we can continue our work with the group, working creatively and in different ways to share their vision and recommendations; and to include their perspective in policymaking discussions.

For more information about this project, see www.ucus.org.uk

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