Understanding benefit fraud : a qualitative analysis
The concern to understand why people act in the way they do has preoccupied the social sciences since their very inception. At the heart of this concern is the question of how we might best theorise the relationship between individual action (agency) and social context (structure). This relationship is the focus of this thesis and it has been explored theoretically and empirically through a qualitative study of benefit fraud. Theoretically, four sociological concepts - discourses, resources, normative guidelines and identity - are argued to be central to the relationship between structure and agency. Taken together, these concepts offer a valuable template to explore social action in general and, in particular, why people engage in fraudulent action. The research involved in-depth interviews with a socially diverse snowball sample of 16 people engaged in benefit fraud. Three key points emerged from the analysis of the interview narratives. First, benefit fraud (and social action more generally) can be understood through acknowledging the resource-configurations within which individuals exist. Resources are conceptualised as financial, social and/or ontological and their contingent nature is highlighted. The research demonstrates how the availability, accessibility and acceptability of resources changes with time and place, as well as being influenced by discourses, normative guidelines and self-identity. Second, discourses are shown to have a shaping influence upon the normative guidelines underpinning individual action. However, this does not occur in a straightforward way, since actors critically negotiate with the discursive matrix within which they are embedded. Third, it is argued that individual accounts of fraudulent action are about much more than motivation - their primary purpose for the individual is the (re)construction of moral adequacy in the context of lives lived at the margins - socially, materially and normatively. This research aims to present a more robust theorisation of benefit fraud than much previous work in this field and, in addition, to contribute new empirical insights on the complex and contingent nature of resources and moral accounts. The thesis ends with an exploration of the theoretical, methodological and policy implications of the research.