Studying the benevolence of welfare work: Extending and experimenting with fruitful concepts

Across our research projects concerning welfare work with different target groups in different welfare areas such as education and social work, we are puzzled about a common feature of welfare work. This feature concerns welfare work’s intent of ‘doing good’. We are trying to come to grips with how to understand and study this benevolent quality of welfare work and not least the dynamics associated with it. The shared puzzle has increased our interest in understanding the interplay between welfare work’s avowed intent and its unheeded effects and practices, for instance the effect that in order to ‘inject good’, it is necessary to shape and mark out a social group that does not possess ‘the good’ and needs it to be advanced or remedied. We understand this interplay as an intricate and concurrent social and cultural matter within welfare state provision. This means that the effects are not understood as ‘unintended consequences’ but as concurrent phenomena occurring in the same move of avowing good intent, acknowledging disciplinary intents and the importance of welfare being available.

Up until now, we have predominantly defined this research interest as an interest in welfare work as a social relation that is related to social dynamics of order and disorder, i.e. an interest in investigating how the relations between the helping welfare worker and the one who needs help are formed in processes and manifestations that involves investments and rationalisations. To that end, anthropologist Tess Lea’s work on function and distraction within different areas of welfare policy and practice has been fruitful and supportive, and sociologist Georg Simmel’s classical work on sociation processes, and social types such as the poor and the stranger, have played a key role.

The purpose of this seminar is to discuss our preliminary analytical experiments concerning welfare work as a social relation and to extend these experiments further to advance our understanding of welfare work’s dynamics. A number of presentations from research group members and Tess Lea’s comments fuels the discussion.

The analytical experiments will use and extend concepts from the works of Tess Lea (2008, 2012) and/or Georg Simmel (1971, 1965), but probably also Emma Kowal (2015), Lauren Berlant (2004), Summerson Carr (2010) and others. The concepts and conceptual thought figures are for instance: remedial circularity (Lea), remediable difference (Kowal), the ‘outsider within’ as society´s corpus vile (Simmel), generalised objectivation (Simmel), vampyric dependence (Lea), compulsory intervention (Lea), coordinating uncoordination (Lea), compassion as a social relation (Berlant), and emotional compulsiveness (Lea).

Prior to the seminar, presenters will submit papers (5-7 pages) describing the presentation’s object of study (or the encounter the research engages in), the concepts invented, reinvented and used, and the analyses (or the writing) where the concepts are put to use. This will function as material for all seminar attendees to prepare comments, joint discussions, and statements and questions to advance our further engagements and understandings of welfare work.

At the seminar, each presenter will have 15 minutes to present the paper.

The seminar organized by The History and Sociology of Welfare Work Research Group,  Section of Education, University of Copenhagen in collaboration with Associate Professor Tess Lea, University of Sydney.


Deadline for papers is no later than 3 September, 2019. Please send the papers to Trine Øland,


09:00 - 09:30
Coffee and welcome to the seminar
Between yesterday’s lecture and today’s papers - Tess Lea’s opening comments

09:30 - 10:15
Presentation by Stine Grønbæk Jensen (related to a project about experiences of self-determination, care and coercion by persons with intellectual disabilities in residential care, based on historical sources and qualitative interviews)
Discussion by Tess Lea and all

10:15 - 10:45

10:45 - 11:30
Presentation by Stine Thygesen (related to a project concerning developmental logics, compulsory interventions, and the (re)production of the outsider within in the sphere of welfare work with foster children, based on documents, interviews and field work in municipalities)
Discussion by Tess Lea and all

11:30 - 12:30

12:30 - 13:15
Presentation by Trine Øland (relating to a project about the production of school, ordering disorder and coordinating uncoordination, in the wake of interdisciplinarity and enactments of ‘problem based learning’ in a public school, based on documents, interviews and field work)
Discussion by Tess Lea and all

13:15 - 14:00

14:00 - 14:45
Presentation by Bjørn Hamre (relates to a project about perceptions of the child in examinations of the child and proposed interventions within school psychiatry in the1950s, based on case records)
Discussion by Tess Lea and all

14:45 - 15:00

15:00 - 16:00

  • Comments on recurrent methodological or writing issues (by Tess Lea)
  • Further comments summarizing and developing the conceptualizations that have been presented (all)
  • Looking ahead, including to a possible publication (all)


Berlant, L. (ed.) (2004). Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion. New York & London: Routledge.

Kowal, E. (2015). Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigeneous Australia. New York: Berghahn Books.

Lea, T. (2008). Bureaucrats and bleeding hearts: indigenous health in northern Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Lea, T. (2012). When looking for anarchy, look to the state: Fantasies of regulation in forcing disorder within the Australian Indigenous estate. Critique of Anthropology 32(2), 109-124.

Simmel, G. (1965). The Poor. Social Problems, 13(2), 118–140.

Simmel, G. (1971). The Stranger. In D. N. Levine (Ed.), On Individuality and Social Forms. Selected Writings (pp. 143–149). Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Summerson Carr, E. (2010). Scripting Addiction: The Politics of Therapeutic Talk and American Sobriety. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.