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Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme


'Procurement and Precarity'

13 May 2015

On 13 May, Professor Catherine Barnard and Dr Amy Ludlow hosted a workshop to explore how public services can be procured in ways that secure social objectives, such as the payment of a living wage, a reduction in the use of zero hours contracts and the employment of disadvantaged or under-represented social groups (such as ex-offenders). The workshop brought together policy makers, procurement and legal practitioners, social partners and academics (approximately 60 delegates in total).


Together we discussed the challenges and potential for social procurement within the new procurement directives and regulations, explored social value in two case study contexts (criminal justice and social care), and considered ways forward by reference to examples of current good social practice and innovation. We are immensely grateful to everyone who participated in the day and to the Philomathia Foundation for funding the event.


‘The definition and measurement of austerity policies’

9 June 2015

The Philomathia Forum ‘The definition and measurement of austerity policies’ was held in Cambridge, on the afternoon of 9th of June 2015. It was organised by Andrew Gamble, Juan Muñoz-Portillo, Helen Thompson and Pieter van Houten of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, who are also responsible for the Philomathia project ‘The consequences of fiscal austerity policies in the European Union’.

Three papers were discussed during the workshop. First, Rozana Himaz and Christopher Hood (Department of Politics and International Relations and Department of Economics, University of Oxford) presented their work ‘From surgery without anaesthetics to boiling frogs: a century of UK fiscal squeezes’. Using time series data on revenues and expenditures in the United Kingdom during the 1900s and the 2000s, complemented with qualitative accounts, they aim to disentangle the political effort put on fiscal adjustments throughout this time period, and provide explanations for the trends. One of their preliminary findings is that despite of all the political rhetoric, ‘fiscal squeezes’ tend to be softer in more recent years.


The second paper was ‘Fiscal squeeze processes in the European Union, 2009 – 2014’, by Juan Muñoz-Portillo, Helen Thompson and Pieter van Houten. To classify fiscal adjustments in the member states of the European Union (EU), they use the definition of ‘fiscal squeeze’ and methodology proposed by Christopher Hood, David Heald and Rozana Himaz (in When the party's over: The politics of fiscal squeeze in perspective, Oxford University Press and British Academy, 2014). Using quantitative and qualitative data, the paper reconstructs the fiscal squeeze paths in the 28 EU member states after the financial crisis of 2007 – 2008 and the Greek debt crisis that ignited in 2009. It classifies these paths based on information available on the subjacent political efforts and the magnitude of the spending cuts and/or revenues rises. The data show a significant amount of variation from very hard fiscal squeezes to no squeezes at all during their timeframe of study. In further research, the authors aim to explain this variation by investigating possible economic, social and political explanatory factors.

The last paper, titled ‘The political economics of austerity’, was presented by Suzanne J Konzelmann (Birkbeck, University of London). Through the study of official documents and an extensive literature, this work traces the social, political and economic developments that have together shaped the evolution of ideas about austerity, from the earliest theorising by the classical political economists some 300 years ago.

The discussions were enriched by the contributions of three other participants: Paul Johnson (Institute for Fiscal Studies), Jonathan Hopkin (Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science) and Jeremy Green (School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol). Overall, the group of attendees was composed of academics and policy analysts with backgrounds in economics and political science.


Figuring disparity: The measurement of inequality in historical perspective

8 May 2015

The aim of the workshop was to chart the state of the art in terms of the history of the measurement of inequality, and bring different sets of expertise (in terms of disciplines, periods and regional focus) together to identify profitable avenues for new research, collaboration and for wider impact in the public sphere and policy domain. In what was a lively and engaging day, a number of themes emerged that will guide the forthcoming work of the project, and serve as the basis for a larger conference to be held in 2016-2017 and subsequent publication.

The central themes for the conference included:

Abstraction, intelligibility and political power: the rhetorical and political power of quantification rests with its capacity for abstraction and generalisation in ways that are intelligible to its audience. Yet, the process of aggregation and abstraction comes at a cost of portraying complexity and granularity.  What are the benefits and costs of such generalisations? How do particular abstractions, from the GINI to HDI come to define issues, and at what cost? Can the past offer any insights on how to produce measures and generalisations (including the visualisation of inequality) that are more transparent, take into account causal and contextual diversity and yet retain their rhetorical power?

Sites and processes of production: the processes of categorisation, observation, enumeration and calculation involved in measurement do not take place in a vacuum, but in specific geographical, political and social contexts. How do these influence the making of measurement? What kinds of measurement are created in more or less equal sites of production, and how does the ownership of measurement influence the knowledge it produces? Equally, and thinking from the perspective of the consumption and reception of the measure – how do different sites influence how they are interpreted and used?


Disparity, poverty and equality: the contemporary concern for inequality should itself be analysed and historicised. How and why do societies in different places and times frame the issue of distribution? How and why do dominant debates shift from aiming towards equality (however defined) to condemning excesses of inequality (however defined)?  How do different framings of the political subject of disparity condition how societies approach and measure them?

 Disparity and the body: the human body is a recurrent site for the measurement of disparity and its effects. Anthropometry, IQ and experimental psychology have all been used at different times to measure, justify and legitimise, or condemn social and economic disparities. Even abstract economic indices can trace their measure to attempts to measure physiological need. What are the histories and consequences of such embodiments of disparity? How are biological fundamentals mobilised to establish both equality and inequality? And what are the biological consequences of such choices?

For more on these themes, visit the project's blog:

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History of Wealth Project

This project, co-funded by the Philomathia Foundation and the Isaac Newton Trust, investigates the broader significance of wealth an inheritance in 19th and early-20th century Britain.

Masters in Public Policy

This programme was launched by POLIS in October 2013, and aims to train future policy-makers to value and promote evidence-based policies that can most benefit society.