Journal of Social Policy


The ‘Deserving’ and the ‘Undeserving’: Practice in an Urban, Local Social Security Office*

L.E.A. Howea1

a1 Research Fellow, Department of Social Anthropology, Queen's University of Belfast.


This article describes the processes of assessment and administration of certain aspects of the supplementary benefit scheme in a social security office in Northern Ireland. Based on evidence obtained observing staff-claimant interaction and interviews with over fifty unemployed claimants, the analysis attempts to demonstrate that a combination of resource constraints, staff attitudes and beliefs, and claimant tactics gives rise to practices which sustain and reproduce the categories ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ at the very same time that staff insist that such practices are actually intended to vitiate this distinction.


* I should like to thank Michael Hill. Hastings Donnan. Graham McFarlane and Karen Trew for their help and advice in writing this paper. I wish also to acknowledge my debt to the staff of the social security office used for the research: without exception they were courteous, kind, patient and frank. The research was made possible by a generous grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.