Building Dignity?

Tracing Rights, Discretion, and Negotiation within a Norwegian Labor Activation Program

in The International Journal of Social Quality
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  • 1 Oslo and Akershus University College erika.gubrium@hioa.no
  • 2 Oslo and Akershus University College leah.johnstone@hioa.no
  • 3 Oslo and Akershus University College ivar.lodemel@hioa.no
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Abstract

Within a Norwegian labor activation program for social assistance, we explore how the presence of a work-oriented ethos shapes and changes the balance of rights, discretion, and negotiation available to and marking the interactions between service providers and program participants. We trace connections between changed delivery interactions and heightened shame or enhanced dignity for participants. Two themes emerge, the first related to an imagined institutional trajectory of progress attached to labor activation in which participants were offered “more” and the second to whether participants and caseworkers had a meaningful voice in co-negotiating the terms of activation. Unrealistic optimism and an institutional focus placed on individual participants’ new responsibilities fueled a longer-term negative impact. Descriptions of enhanced rights, new possibilities for negotiation, and reported feelings of shame and frustration depended both on the participant’s distance to the labor market and on the point at which respondents were interviewed.

Contributor Notes

Erika Gubrium is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Oslo and Akershus University College. She uses comparative, qualitative methodologies to study the interactional dynamics between sociocultural norms, policy measure intentions, and system ethos. Her work has in recent years focused on measures attached to labor activation within Norway and internationally.

Leah Johnstone is a PhD fellow in social work and social policy at Oslo and Akershus University College. Her work applies an institutional ethnographic approach to the field of labor activation, with a focus on local labor market contexts, institutional understandings, and the interactions taking place between the service provider and service user.

Ivar Lødemel is a Professor within the Faculty of Social Sciences at Oslo and Akershus University College. He leads the project “Poverty and Shame: Perspectives and Practices Concerning Anti-poverty Measures” and is an expert on international comparative approaches to antipoverty measures, particularly in the area of labor activation. He is the coeditor of two groundbreaking volumes comparing minimum income approaches across the European Union and the United States.

The International Journal of Social Quality

(formerly The European Journal of Social Quality)

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