Paradoxes of Universalism: The Case of the Swiss Disability Insurance

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Paradoxes of Universalism: The Case of the Swiss Disability Insurance


  • Emilie Rosenstein Department of Sociology, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • Jean-Michel Bonvin Department of Sociology, University of Geneva, Switzerland


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Abstract:  Social policies rely on specific expectations vis-a-vis their beneficiaries, who have to abide by certain eligibility criteria or behavioral standards to access the benefits or services provided. As such, they draw boundaries between the deserving and undeserving, which results in the following paradox: While social policies claim to be universal, they actually exclude potential beneficiaries by imposing on them the compliance with these eligibility criteria and behavioral standards. In other words, purportedly universal social policies may have exclusionary effects, in the form either of selectivity (street-level bureaucrats select what they perceive as legitimate beneficiaries) or of self-exclusion and non-take-up (people entitled do not claim benefits or services). Based on the case of the Swiss disability insurance, this article explores the extent of, and the reasons underlying, the paradoxes of universalism within active social policies. It relies on a mixed-methods research design, combining sequence analysis (showing the selectivity of active reforms regarding people’s access to disability benefits) and in-depth interviews. The conclusion of this article suggests that not all forms of universalism are equally exposed to such paradoxes and proposes a hypothesis to be explored in further research: The more requiring and precise in terms of eligibility criteria and behavioral standards social policies and activation strategies are (hard universalism), the higher the risk that they lead to selective practices in contradiction with their universal ambition. By contrast, fuzzier eligibility or behavioral criteria (soft universalism), which allow for adjustment to individual circumstances, may lead to more genuinely universal and inclusive social policies.

Keywords:  activation; capability; disability policies; selectivity; social policies; universalism

Published:   18 March 2020


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v8i1.2499


© Emilie Rosenstein, Jean-Michel Bonvin. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.