Government Minister says definition of child poverty is flawed. What does that mean?

David Laws speaking on behalf of the Government says that the definition of Child Poverty is flawed and needs changing. But to understand what he means you need a ‘map’ about the nature of definitions

Tudor Rickards

The Government Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith will say in a speech today [15th Nov 2012] that simply focusing on income levels is too narrow and other factors should be considered.

The newly appointed Schools Minister David Laws added:

“Traditionally we have defined poverty simply by income. But this is not enough. The experience of child poverty is about more than whether their family income this week is low.”

Debate on the nature definitions may seem abstract and academic while children in deprived financial circumstances are in need of practical measures to help.

In one sense I agree. Progress is less likely if a subject is not understood.

Working definitions

I find it useful to think in terms of ‘working definitions’ which are provisional and useful ways of promoting conversation. If we agree in discussion, we have reached a common ‘platform of understanding’.

Lexical definitions

A dictionary provides a set of lexical definitions, sometimes indicating which are archaic [no longer of common usage].

‘Correctness’ of definitions

Based on the context of the Minister’s remarks, he was talking about a search for a definition that would be ‘correct’, that is to say a true representation of something which may be empirical or conceptual. Politicians and law-givers can create one form of legitimacy for a definition ‘Child Poverty is as it was defined under the Poverty of Children act’, or ‘the Poverty of Children investigation’. Politicians would naturally prefer to have a say in what the ‘correct’ definition is. This makes it easier to defend policies by reference to the definition.

It is important to be aware of a pervasive belief that there is a ‘correct’ definition in the stronger sense of capturing the essential features of whatever is being defined.

Essentialism

Professor Keith Grint has argued in his books that definitions of leadership assume ‘essentialism’, [the ‘real stuff’] whereas it may be more value to consider leadership as being defined in terms of non-essential terms such as interpretations of reality ‘as we see it’.

Theoretical definitions

Investigative research requires yet another kind of definition which makes clear the ‘map’ being examined in the research, and offers scope for further enquiry or ‘map-testing’. In this case, the ‘map’ is that of Child Poverty. IThe politicians are attempting to help in the drawing up of the new map.

Where’s the pain?

The clinical and ‘scientific’ approach sets aside real world suffering and pain. Political scientists have the trickier task of indicating they are primarily concerned with more than definitions.

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