Reframing and Re-enacting Welfare: An Empirical Exploration of Small-scale, Horizontal Forms of Help

Nihalani, Kiran (2021). Reframing and Re-enacting Welfare: An Empirical Exploration of Small-scale, Horizontal Forms of Help. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis examines some ways in which ‘help’ is being done differently outside mainstream statutory and voluntary helping organisations within contemporary British society. Particular attention is paid to attempts made by grassroots groups situated in the British Left to move away from top-down helping practices and to create welfare in ways that challenge the foundations of an unequal society. The organisational frameworks used by these groups, which include non-hierarchical, mutual and collective forms of organising help across social difference, are examined in six London-based groups. Data generated in interviews with group members are analysed to examine how frameworks and principles are enacted in practice, and with what outcomes.

I contribute an empirical evidence base that demonstrates some of the problems with dominant forms of help as well as the benefits, challenges and dilemmas that can arise when attempting to enact alternatives. I argue that doing help in these alternative ways can be transformative for all involved but can also generate contradictions and frustrations, with a constant risk of slipping back into ‘learned’ top-down behaviours. I then suggest three shifts in dominant rationalities that could make these forms of help more sustainable: moving to a framework of ‘cooperative time’ in which ‘efficiency’ is not seen as an ultimate good; creating a sense of a collective subject and deepening frameworks of interdependence rather than valorising ‘independence’; and making interrogating and challenging of oppressive power dynamics a key part of frameworks of help.

This analysis contributes to an activist praxis in considering how to make alternative practices sustainable while also arguing for a shift in how help is currently conceptualised and practised in statutory and voluntary sector organisations. It contributes to welfare and care literature about meanings of ‘help’ in the welfare state and to social movement literature focused on non-hierarchical organising.

Viewing alternatives

Download history


Public Attention

Altmetrics from Altmetric

Number of Citations

Citations from Dimensions

Item Actions