The essays in this book are about new approaches to welfare in an era of globalization. By approaches, I mean both forms of governance and ways of studying them.
Charles Lemert has eloquently reminded us that we need new methods of study for these times of globalization.1 For Lemert, “global methods” means getting close while achieving critical distance at the same time so as to better understand diverse people and practices in the fluid contexts of globalization. It could be argued that we should have been practicing this sort of double work whether there was globalization or not. Placing social action in context to make it interpretable is an idea that finds strong resonance in certain traditions in the social sciences.
My particular approach emphasizes the importance of examining the power of discourse to invoke contexts that make some actions seem appropriate and others not. Discourse situates isolated actions in context so as to give them a meaning they would not otherwise have. Discourse invokes context in the way it frames, narrates, and positions policymakers, their policies, and the effects those policies have on people. The terms of contemporary welfare policy discourse, such as “dependency,” “self-sufficiency,” “personal responsibility,” “labor activation,” and even “contract,” or “assetbuilding,” invoke historical and social contexts associated with western, liberal capitalism that impart particular meanings to isolated actions. While discourse is open to multiple readings, some resonate more than others to invoke more widely shared, established contexts. The power of discourse is represented in iterated discursive practices that reinforce themselves to the point that we can say they “make themselves real,” privileging their way of saying and doing things, while marginalizing others. Iterated discursive practices can make for a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. The
1. Charles Lemert, Social Things: An Introduction to the Sociological Life (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), pp. 176–206. Also see Michael J. Shapiro, Methods and Nations: Cultural Governance and the Indigenous Subject (New York: Routledge, 2003).