The increased comparative research on perceptions of public welfare deservingness studies the extent to which different subgroups of citizens are deemed worthy or unworthy of receiving help from the welfare state. The concept of deservingness criteria plays a crucial role in this research, as it theorizes a universal heuristic that citizens apply to rank people in terms of their welfare deservingness. Due to the mainly quantitative nature of the research and despite the indisputable progress it has made, the subjective existence and actual application of these deservingness criteria remain a bit of a black box. What criteria of deservingness do citizens actually apply, and how do they apply them? This article opens the black box of welfare deservingness and sheds light on the nature and practice of deservingness criteria. Empirically, the paper explores how the deservingness of immigrants is discussed and established within 20 focus groups conducted in Slovenia, Denmark, UK, and Norway in 2016 with a total of 160 participants. All 20 focus groups discussed the welfare deservingness of immigrants based on similar vignette stimuli. Our analysis shows that (1) deservingness criteria are used both to construct images of target groups and as normative yardsticks; (2) deservingness criteria do not work independently of each other, but rather co-function in specific hybridized discourses; and (3) the moral logic of deservingness is supplemented by alternative moral logics, at least in the case of migrants.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)112-126
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • Deservingness
  • deservingness criteria
  • focus groups
  • immigration
  • social policy


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