Qualitative-Reconstructive Social Research on Lived Experiences of UBI Recipients
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The UBI-lived Research Network is an international & interdisciplinary network of scientists working on different aspects of the lived experiences of people who have received a Universal Basic Income (UBI),1 or at least a regular cash payment of a substantial amount, without having to meet conditions regarding their behavior (in the past, present, or future).2 Our network also focuses on the lived experiences of people without UBI, insofar as these are informative for an understanding of UBI.
We explore these experiences and the associated life practice with qualitative-reconstructive methodological approaches that foster the unbiased appraisal of the specificity of real cases and their actual life circumstances.3
Why do we think this is a worthwhile endeavor?
In recent years, interest in empirically testing the idea of a UBI has grown rapidly in a number of countries around the world, and it seems to be increasingly spreading into politics. As in the 1960s and 1970s, when the historically first basic income experiments were conducted in the U.S. & Canada on a remarkably large scale, today’s trials are dominated by a scientific approach that relies primarily on statistical data. This includes that it is sometimes supplemented by a few case stories. However, they rarely meet the requirements of professional case-reconstructionist research. The naturalistic data of cases are rather analyzed “quick and dirty,” if at all, often using the simplistic approach of “qualitative content analysis,” which tends to look at the content, for example, of utterances in too much isolation and does not make sufficient effort to reconstruct utterances as part of a specific sequential communication practice (as a structural analysis would do). Statistical approaches, of course, can make valuable contributions for obvious reasons, but too many people believe that they represent the “gold-standard of scientific evidence”.4 This is especially true for so-called “randomized controlled trials” (RCTs), which are very common today.5 From a professional, epistemological perspective, however, this is a naive superelevation and exaggeration, a mystification of the meaning of numbers in social science research.
At the end of the 1960s, when the historical experiments in North America were designed, this naivety was actually widespread in the social sciences in general. Since the 1970s, however, it has been overcome with the “interpretative turn”.6 Scholars such as David Riesman, Anselm Strauss, Theodore W. Adorno, Ulrich Oevermann, and many others demonstrated the importance of analyzing rich, naturalistic case material to obtain “grounded theories” and realistic-differentiated insights into the real dynamics of human life practice. For this, it is not sufficient to give case studies only a subsequent and supplementary role within research, let alone a merely illustrative or anecdotal one, or to perform them in a cursory, superficial manner. In a sense, professional case analyzes must build the intellectual center of any ambitious empirical research in the social sciences.
In basic income research, however, statistical approaches have remained dominant to the present day, primarily for two external reasons:
1.) Many economists are involved in basic income research, for good reasons, and the discipline of economics has still not adopted the “interpretive turn” of the social sciences in general – which is one of the points that seems to provoke increasingly critical discussions within the discipline itself.7 For this reason, economists often lack methodological expertise for professional case-reconstructionist research and tend to take primarily a statistical approach, sometimes supplemented by some illustrative case studies, which are, however, systematically not decisive for the main statistical part of the research and are carried out in a methodologically superficial and cursory manner.
2.) Another reason is that people within the sphere of public politics (politicians, activists, journalists, etc.) love numbers because they are powerful weapons in public disputes and seem to present facts in an easily understandable and compelling way, i.e. without a necessity for complicated interpretation, although in reality, it is rather an illusion that they do not need to be interpreted.
Exploring (with a qualitative-reconstructive methodological approach) the lived experiences and the associated life practice of people, who receive(d) a UBI or at least a regular cash payment of a substantial amount without having to meet any conditions regarding their behavior will help answer a key question:
What effects do an unconditionally provided economical basis of existence (in the sense of a UBI) and the individual freedom that comes with it have on citizens’ lives? (Not just in terms of their labor force participation or “family stability,” on which historical basic income experiments in North America have selectively focused against a backdrop of pronounced social bias). Are they positive or negative, in individual and societal terms?
This is a complex question because the manifold effects must be set in the context of concrete life constellations and different forms of life conduct. A qualitative-reconstructive approach is the way to explore this diversity in an empirically ambitious, differentiated, and unbiased way. Experimental settings in behavioral economics, by comparison, are often too artificial to produce comparable results. Furthermore, with the findings of such qualitative-reconstructive research based on “naturalistic” case material, statistical approaches are enabled to select (new) relevant items for their operationalization procedures and to ask fruitful questions for their frequency-analytic contributions.
1. A “Universal” or “Unconditional” or “Citizens” Basic Income “is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.” (Basic Income Earth Network 2021) In the 1960s and 1970s, the term “Guaranteed Income” was used primarily. It has a broader meaning and also includes direct cash payments only to groups in need of income. Milton Friedman’s idea of a “Negative Income Tax” (NIT) is the best-known concept. In technical terms, the differences between UBI and NIT do not appear to be large. At the level of the discourse of justification, however, the differences are considerable: A UBI treats all citizens equally. An NIT addresses only the needy and therefore still implies stigmatization, even if it is granted generously without behavioral control. In the 1960s and 1970s, both UBI and NIT were discussed under the umbrella term of a “Guaranteed Income.”
2. In these cases, eligibility conditions such as age, place of residence, income level, or membership in a particular community could have played a role, but not, for example, the requirement that the recipient has paid into a fund or has demonstrated a willingness to work in the past and shows a willingness to work in the present, etc.
3. What do we mean by qualitative-reconstructive social research? By this, we mean research that works with naturalistic data of real cases, that is, with rich, coherent, natural expressions of a life practice that have been recorded or transcribed (e.g. non-standardized interviews, natural documents, video recordings, photographs, etc.). The term “reconstructive” refers to methods of analysis that first attempt to actually “reconstruct” or identify the specificity of real cases. The reason for this is to avoid a premature assignment to pre-existing categories and theories, also to ensure that new, previously unknown realities of life practice have a chance to be recognized appropriately. Such methods of analysis try to discover “grounded theories” in concrete case material, i.e. theories that are tailored to real-life constellations. This research takes an exemplary approach. Strategically selected cases are analyzed in detail to understand the complex reality of life practice in an exemplary and analytically precise manner, to obtain realistic answers to general research questions.
Technically speaking, the term “reconstructive” refers to methods of analysis that are committed to the “logic of reconstruction”, as opposed to the “logic of subsumption”. In the former, the leading logical form of conclusion is “abduction” (i.e., hypotheses generating), as named by the American logician and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce in the context of his “Logic of Discovery”, as opposed to the logical forms of conclusion “deduction” and “induction”, which dominate within subsumption-logical research. “Reconstructive” or “abductive” research strives for openness and does not selectively research with predefined hypotheses, although with specific research questions.
By the term “qualitative” we refer only to rich case material. The latter offers the greatest opportunities for open-minded reconstructive social research. However, the term “qualitative” was rightly criticized as too vague and imprecise because “qualities” are also constitutive for statistical research (without qualitative items, numbers are meaningless). Nevertheless, we decided to use it because it is common usage in the social sciences, and we want to avoid being misunderstood.
5. In recent years, RCTs have experienced a major resurgence in the social sciences. In 2019, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded for the research of Esther Duflo, Abijit Banerjee, and Michael Kremer, who have brought this approach to economic research in the field of development assistance. See: URL, URL Abijit Banerjee is involved in the UBI experiment in Kenya, which is the largest of its kind to date and is run by the NGO givedirectly. Most basic income experiments of the present try to follow the RCT approach.
6. The term “interpretive turn” is used in this text in a very general sense, referring to the establishment of interpretive, case-reconstructive research methods in the social sciences. The term does not refer specifically, as it is sometimes used, to the emergence of social constructivism, which has been accused of a tendency toward relativism.
7. To name at least one prominent example: