The welfare state at stake

An interview with Silja Häusermann, Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich

What the welfare state tells us about power in society, what an ERC Grant can contribute to social reforms and why is it politically crucial to overcome social inequality.

Silja Häusermann, social welfare is one of your favourite research topics. Why is welfare of such great interest to you as a political scientist? 

Political science is about power, about understanding how a society structures, controls and executes power. The welfare state is one of the objects where you can study this distribution of power at the core. Many people think social policy is about helping the poor and about solving problems. However, when you study social policy, you realise it is about the distribution of scarce resources and those who organise better, who have superior power resources, get a bigger share. The welfare state is where the biggest chunk of public money is distributed and that is why power plays such an eminent role. Therefore, for me, social policy is the most important area to look at as a political scientist. This is where the big decisions are taken, which very directly affect the distribution of resources and opportunities among citizens. Additionally, I have always been fascinated by the welfare state as a political achievement. It is a democratic way of dealing with inequality and that is a great achievement of the 20th century.

You published a book on the politics of welfare state reform in Continental Europe. What are the conclusions you draw in this book? *

For my PhD degree, I studied many pension reforms carried out over a period of about 40 years in several European countries. The main conclusion I presented in my thesis and later in this book was that the politics of pension reform are multidimensional. This means that they do not just oppose those who want high pensions versus those who want lower pensions. Rather, there are several conflict lines – between those who want higher occupational pensions versus basic public pensions, those who want better pensions for women versus better pensions for employed men, for the poor or for the middle class, etc., -– and these conflict lines are all cross-cutting. They do not divide political actors in the same way and this multidimensionality of conflicts allows for very flexible coalition building. Those actors who manage to negotiate reforms that play across these conflict lines are able to push through reforms. The idea of multidimensionality is the core idea the book introduced in the field, and it proposed methodological tools to study it empirically. 

Thanks to an ERC Grant, you will now extend and deepen your research on the welfare state. What would you wish to achieve? 

The main goal is to establish a new perspective in the theory of welfare policy, to move our thinking and conceptualisation away from looking at the opponents and advocates of certain policies to an approach that focuses on priorities and ranking orders of preferences. I think such a new perspective is crucial today. If you look at the preferences of citizens in all European countries, there are less than five percent who want to cut back on social benefits. Nobody wants to cut back on pensions, nobody wants to cut back on education, and yet the current economic and financial context requires tough choices. So I would argue that the conflict in welfare states today is no longer about Yes or No, it is about the ranking order, about how much importance people attribute to specific social needs. First, how much money do you allocate to the welfare state? How much are you willing to extract via taxes? Who do you tax? Consumption, labour, wealth or income? That is a matter of priority. 

«The welfare state is a democratic way of
dealing with inequality and that is one of
the great achievements of the 20th century.»

Second, whose needs do you prioritise? The needs of the elderly, the young, the unemployed, the employed? This is the innovative approach I would like to introduce to welfare state theory: To think in terms of conflicts between priorities and to see whether we find different conflicts in different European countries. Once we think about conflicts regarding priorities, we may better understand reforms, for instance by weighing preferences. What we do have right now are data – mostly survey data – on who is in favour of expanding, let’s say, childcare infrastructure. Now, what I would like to think through theoretically and measure empirically is how important is expanding childcare to different social groups, different parties, trade unions, etc. Once you know this, you can put a weight on this position and see whether these weighted preferences explain more than the blunt preferences do.

You started the ERC Project in September 2017. What will be the concrete steps in the next five years to reach the goals?

The first phase of the project is about identifying conflicts. What divides citizens and politicians, what creates conflicts, disagreement? The second part will be about the reforms. Once you have mapped the conflicts, the second part asks how we get to reform. What creates political majorities that are strong enough to reform the welfare state and what are the conditions so that citizens are willing to support reforms even if they do not benefit from them directly. 

Additionally, there is a methodological goal you would like to achieve by this ERC Grant.

Yes, the project has two goals in terms of innovation. The theoretical one is about priorities. However, there is also a measurement innovation for the field of welfare state research, because so far we do not really have the tools to measure such priorities. 

«The most direct practical goal of my ERC Project is
to generate knowledge on reform opportunities.»

All we have are survey questions that ask people if they are in favour or against certain benefits. That does not take us very far. Hence, I would like to try new methods that are quite established in marketing research, in economics and in sociology. They are generally called conjoint survey experiments or choice set experiments. It is an experimental survey method. In our case, we may show respondents different combinations of policy reforms. Let’s say one reform option preserves pension levels and expands education but cuts back on unemployment benefits and you compare that to a second reform strategy that contains different elements. Then you ask respondents to prioritise them: do you like this one better or that one? If you have many of these comparisons of different alternatives, you can estimate the contribution of the individual components to the support of a welfare reform strategy. At the end, we would be able to say for instance how important unemployment benefits are for the support of the welfare state overall, as well as for specific groups, such as the employed, the elderly, the young, the unemployed. It is a new way of measuring these priorities.

Will this research also have an impact on society and policy makers?

Very much, I would say. The most direct practical goal is to generate knowledge on reform opportunities. What works? Which reforms have a chance of receiving a democratic majority among citizens and in parliament? You can have the best scenario, the best economists in the world telling you what to do with the welfare state – it has no impact in a democracy unless you get the required majority. Especially in the second part of the project, we will analyse the different elements or proposals that generate alliances and solidarity between different political groups. These findings could be very useful for policy makers. 

Apart from deepening research on welfare state, what other opportunities does this ERC Grant open to you? 

The most important benefit of an ERC Grant is the time and freedom it gives you. I will teach slightly less, I can profit from an additional sabbatical, I have this long five-year perspective and I do not have that much pressure of attracting more money immediately. I can really focus on this immense project for quite some time. It also gives me time to do empirical research myself, not just to manage the project as a project leader.I want to design the questionnaire myself together with the team. I want to talk to the survey company myself and I want to do interviews myself. I have not conducted a face-to-face interview myself for ten years! I am looking forward to that. Finally and importantly, an ERC Grant allows you to think big and take risks. Many of these survey methods are new to me and have certainly not been tried in this field. I cannot wait to learn, to develop them further and to see how far they will take us. 

You have been Professor of Political Science for five years now. What motivated you to study the subject when you finished high school?

There was always a personal interest in social science – political science, economics, sociology – that I cannot fully explain. Additionally, I was politicised in the 90ies. At that time, there was a heavy economic recession, also in Switzerland, and a major period of deindustrialisation. I grew up in an area in Central Switzerland where the industry, especially the textile industry, was very important, and this industry and the people depending on it faced very hard times over several years. Many people I knew, including my own family, were affected. So on the one hand I observed this decline year after year, and on the other hand it was a time of educational expansion, new fields, new fancy jobs, etc. This parallel development of deindustrialisation and the boom of a new post-industrial economy and labour market was very visible and impressively tangible. You could feel that society was radically changing, creating winners and losers. That awoke my interest in political science and political economy: how do we distribute the gains and losses in a time of such radical structural change and why?

Many people write a PhD thesis but then their academic career somehow does not pick up pace. You succeeded and became a professor. How did you manage?

I think the key that paved my way into academia was the opportunity to publish my first book – a revised version of the PhD research – with Cambridge University Press. This book quickly became visible in the academic field; it won two prizes, and turned out to be a kind of entry ticket. Once I had the book and well-known international scholars in the field agreed it was important, the door to academia was open. I think you cannot fully plan this, of course. Nevertheless, I would say it is worth to greatly invest in your PhD – to make an impact, a splash when you enter the field. After this, I got a prestigious postdoc position, third-party funding for two new projects, I was invited to join international research projects, and then one thing lead to another…

We live in challenging times. Where will we be in ten years?

I think we find ourselves in a very dangerous period. For the first time since the Second World War, we are facing a real decline in jobs and earnings possibilities for social groups that are politically organised and visible, especially the lower middle class in many countries. It is a relative decline, not poverty, but there is lower growth and growing insecurity for many people who are well organised and who have much to lose. When powerful groups feel that they are losing privileges and status, it is politically quite dangerous. The welfare state can be an answer to this challenge. 

«It is politically quite dangerous,
when powerful groups feel
that they are losing privileges and status.
The welfare state can be an answer
to this challenge.»

What it needs to do in such a context of growing inequality is to temporarily support the status of those who lose out. At the same time, in order to allow for peaceful structural change and prepare the society for the future, the welfare state also needs to invest a lot of money in social upward mobility and in education. Balancing these different needs is extremely difficult and controversial.  

Where do you think you will be in ten years?

A short answer is: I will be where society takes me. My research agenda is based on these structural changes and how they affect politics, distributive policy and people’s opportunities in life. In ten years, different specific questions may be at the forefront, but this overall question will certainly be no less fascinating and important.

Interview with Silja Häusermann
Silja Häusermann

Silja Häusermann studied Political Science at the University of Geneva where she received her degree in 2001. From 2001 to 2003, Silja Häusermann completed a master’s degree in Public Administration and Public Management at the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration in Lausanne. From 2003 to 2007, she worked as a PhD student and academic assistant at the Universities of Lausanne and Zurich. In 2006, she was a Visiting Fellow to the Government Department of the Harvard University, Cambridge, USA and in 2007 she received her PhD degree in Political Science at the University of Zurich. Between 2008 and 2009, she was a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. After this, she held a position as reader and postdoctoral researcher in Comparative Political Science at the University of Zurich until 2011. From 2011 to 2012, she was a Junior Professor in Comparative Political Economy at the University of Konstanz, Germany. In 2012, Silja Häusermann was nominated Full Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. Her key research interest is in comparative political economy with a special focus on the welfare state.


In times of austerity, the politics of the welfare state involve tough choices and even trade-offs: whose risks should benefit from social solidarity in a context of shrinking resources? Should the welfare state prioritise the needs of the elderly or those of the young? Those of people in the workforce or outside of it? Of natives or of immigrants?

The project is supposed to break new theoretical and methodological ground in comparative welfare state research. It conceptualises and studies both the trade-offs and the potentials for coalitions, which will determine the fate of the European welfare state in the 21st century. 

Duration: 2017-2022

Financial contribution from Horizon 2020: € 1,5 m.