How can "young drugs misusers" become "persons"?

Presentation to the First International Symposium: Health, Humanity, and Culture - Comparative Social Practices, Malibu, Cal., October 2003

Morten Nissen



This paper reflects on a decade of social work with young drug users in Copenhagen. In 1993, I was attached as evaluator to a development project called "Project Street Kids" which addressed the reemerged issue of young people's drug misuse in a daring innovative way that would challenge the way the institutions and knowledges of social work were distributed and organized. The past couple of years, in the context of an ongoing "practice research" cooperation with "Wild Learning", a network of social workers which partly developed from that project, I have surveyed the City's provision for young drugs users and commented on its most recent plans and policies.

One of the most fundamental questions that have kept reappearing is that of the troublesome relations between a holistic approach to social problems and persons and a specifically targeted intervention into drugs misuse. This problem is probably fuelled by the special cultural significance of "youth" and "youth subcultures" as a temporal "moratorium" as well as spatial "heterotopia" (Foucault, 1986; Hetherington, 1997) , an exceptional phase and place where universal issues are projected or dealt with; youth somehow epitomizes modernity, and in the face of youth, all other organizing categories seem to sway or dissolve. This is even the case with drugs misuse. In the 1960's, when social work with drug users in Copenhagen began, it was regarded as an intrinsically youth related and "subcultural" problem (Winsløw, 1984; Winsløw, 1972) . Gradually, it was professionalized and subsumed to the therapeutic discourse of the addictive personality. As the policy of "harm reduction" and methadone maintenance took over, the young were marginalized from the drugs treatment system, and, by the 90's it had become problematic to approach even young heroin users as "drug addicts" in need of "treatment".

But it is also a more general issue that permeates all educational, health, and social services in today's Danish welfare state. The "Street Kids Project" of the 90's was part of a general surge of  services reforms, carried by local development projects, that aimed to reorient public services flexibly toward the individual user and on the other hand educate those individuals as responsible subjects of a new form of "active society" (Dean, 1995; Rose, 1999) .

Through reflecting on some of the obstacles and the alternative realizations of these "holistic" and "social" ideas in a decade of Copenhagen's social work with young drug users, this paper seeks to understand the intricacies of constructing subjectivity and objectivity in practice.

Methodologically, the general idea in this branch of "practice research" is to view the field and the research as reflected social practices engaged in more or less well-defined joint ventures generally aimed at social development. In these joint ventures, certain references are introduced and transformed, such as experience, knowledge, views, problems etc. on the part of practitioners (often referred to as 'data'), or on the part of researchers (often referred to as 'theoretical concepts' and 'methods'). The term 'reference' points to the fact that these meanings are indexically established, which implies also that the joint venture is itself continually reconstituted in the process. The transformation of references is relevant insofar as it is consequential, that is, it objectifies (in texts, images, and other inscription devices), and thereby also subjectifies: contributes to the practical self-understanding of participants.

Researchers engaged in practice research deliberately seek out platforms of cooperation and try to let 'their' research agendas emerge in a constant, and constantly reflected, tension and movement between the scientific communities and the (other) communities of practice. The various specific methods of establishing dialogue, inscribing, computing, analysing etc. that become useful or demanded are all reflected not only according to their own intrinsic standards (e.g., qualitative interviews establishes certain rules for respectful dialogue etc.), but also and primarily as practices in the context of the overall joint venture. This very decentred and profane attitude towards methods does not imply a watering-out of scientific aspirations. Far from it, some kinds of reference transformation are specifically theoretical, that is, directed at seeking out contradictions behind practical dilemmas and mediating them in the building of consistent theories that accumulate knowledge, and these (analytical/synthetic) processes are carried out as visibly and rigorously as possible. Thus, research distinguishes itself by its inherent ability and tendency to question and rework even the most fundamentally presupposed, taken-for-granted 'practice concepts' encountered as references; this includes, contrary to hermeneutic interpretations of action research (Argyris, Putnam, & Smith, 1985; Guba & Lincoln, 1989; Whyte, 1991), but in line with poststructuralist approaches, questioning the very constitution of subjects and the concepts that organize practices as intervention in the first place, its ends, means, subject positions, and objects (Mørck, 2000; Nissen, 1997; Nissen, 2000) .

The Reflective User, the Wonders of Expertise, and Humanism

As mentioned, one of the important organizing ideas of the development projects in the middle 90's was that of a "user orientation". I was hired to ascertain that by collecting "user perspectives" that were to be fed back to the professionals and officials in a kind of formative evaluation.

The "Street Kids Project" consisted primarily of two rather diverse organizations: Tjek-Punkt (Check-Point), a specialized professional outreach facility for the most marginalized drug addicts, criminals and prostitutes primarily in Vesterbro, the 'red lights district' of Copenhagen, and Sjakket (The Crew), the City's (and the Danish state's) support to and cooperation with community of self-appointed social workers, self-helpers, and young volunteers who worked by way of ad-hoc cooperation projects with groups of young people (Nissen, 1998; Nissen, 2002b; Nissen, 2003a; Nissen, 1999b; Nissen, 2003b). It is the latter, Sjakket, which developed into the community of social workers that I have kept following up to the present. Originally an "oppositional", "grassroots" community, it was gradually recognized by the City and its heirs in the "Wild Learning" network now organize what the City officials think of as the front line in its policy regarding young drug misusers and socially excluded. In this paper, we shall first consider Tjek-Punkt, since this is in many ways the simplest form that is also included in the work of the other organizations.

In Tjek-Punkt, user orientation was realized in street-level, outreach work, in the careful and patient establishment of dialogical relations with individual youngsters, and a mediation or "bridging" between them and various institutions of social work. Tjek-Punkt also had a "drop-in centre" open three evenings a week. I spent many an evening in Tjek-Punkt, observing events, discussing with staff, and interviewing users (that was quite a challenge, since the place was tiny – two small rooms – and the users were mostly intoxicated and in acute need of help).

One evening in January 1995 Dorothy enters Tjek-Punkt's shop. We've spoken before, and since the common room is filled with a soccer game on the TV and a very noicy young man, it's easy for me to persuade Dorothy to make a follow-up interview. The timing is good, just after a she has had her fix, but before she gets too drowsy. She gets a serving of the warm meal to take along with her out back in the kitchen. As we talk, she absentmindedly stabs it with her fork from time to time. Dorothy is 19 and very reflective and talkative, which makes hers a brilliant "user perspective". It feels a bit strange, though, to make use of her talents as "user", for both I and the social workers in Tjek-Punkt are pretty worried for her. She is extremely pale and thin, and she seems to be getting rapidly worse these days. But she is quite willing to sacrifice herself for the cause.

Some time into the interview, these words are exchanged[1]:

But do you think of this as a service that you are receiving from professionals?

If, you mean, I get from Tjek-Punkt that which I feel they should give me, right?

Well, - OK, go ahead,-  it wasn't quite that, but I can come back to that later

OK – let's just say I'd come down here and think: "Tjek-Punkt, they're supposed to make things better for people who come here, and try to help them"-

And you, in particular!

Yes – and then I'd think about whether I felt they'd done that – then I'd be able to answer; but I've never seen Tjek-Punkt like that, you see, I've never seen them like "Now I've started to come here in Tjek-Punkt, and so, I must have somewhere to live after some time, and I just have to feel well, and preferably this will get me clean, and-" – I never did that, in fact, I've used Tjek-Punkt a bit as a place to rest (varmestue). When I've had problems I've tried to get them to help me, like when I didn't get any welfare money and Suzanne was to help me, if I'd then said "Tjek-Punkt are here to help me, and if they can't get me my welfare money, then they are no good at their job" – If I'd thought that, then I may have been able to say "Yes, I do think they are professional" or "I do not think they are professional" – but I didn't think that, I thought: "OK, so I lost my welfare,-" – I guess it's to do with, you know, as I tend to say: If people are professional, then I expect them to work wonders. And I never expected that from Tjek-Punkt, because I never regarded them as professionals, like when Suzanne was to help me get my welfare – if I'd thought: "They are professionals within their field, which they know all about, so they have to get me my welfare back." I didn't think that, I just thought that Tjek-Punkt, if they can get me back my welfare, that's fine, and if they can't, well that's just, like, tough luck. But I never saw them as professionals. So I don't expect them to work wonders.

But – OK, -

But it's different with my case manager – she is case manager officially, if, like, she'd promised me she'd find me a place to live, they ought to be able to do that at a welfare office – I'd expect her to be able to find me somewhere to live, 'cause that's their job. It's like, Tjek-Punkt, - like, professionals I don't really see quite so much as human beings, they just have to – of course they're human beings, but they're the kind of creatures who just have to be able to do what I ask of them!

Yes, yes-

I never saw Tjek-Punkt like that, I've seen them as human beings, and, since I've never seen them as professionals, I can't really answer your question

But you did, that was exactly what I asked about

Dorothy hit a sore spot when she described Tjek-Punkt as non-professional. The ambitions of the social workers were to combine the humanism of a dialogical relationship with a supreme expertise; Tjek-Punkt was not to be a decline of social work professionalism but its epitome. The officials and professionals who designed Tjek-Punkt had fought hard, but in vain, to ward off the government's demand that the introduction of non-skilled and even volunteer social workers must be part of the project. Still, they regarded themselves as not just progressive and well-meaning, but also superior experts on the (recently coined) phenomenon of "street kids"; the superiority of their expertise, however, was not so much a question of specialized knowledge, as it was one of a broader, more holistic and more reflective understanding of the youngsters (as young, and as persons, rather than as drugs misusers, criminals, prostitutes, mentally ill etc.) and of the workings of the system of institutions of social work.

In a way, then, Dorothy sided with the specialized professionals in the drug treatment institutions and welfare offices whom she trusted to work wonders for her, even if she was quite enthusiastic about Tjek-Punkt and its "human beings", and even though her dire situation was very apparently a result of the "double social exclusion" – the exclusion not just from "normal" society and "normal" institutions such as schools etc., but even from the very services that were supposed to help her – which Tjek-Punkt had set out to overcome.

In fact, the specialists of the in-patient de-tox centres and street-level counselings of the drug treatment system had not worked wonders for Dorothy. This was not, as Tjek-Punkt staff sometimes suggested to me, because they did not know what they were doing. They possessed the knowledge that an absolute requirement for any treatment was "motivation" on the part of the user. The user proved this "motivation" by meeting certain demands: showing up regularly for specific appointments to remain on a "waiting list", then, if admitted, staying inside a closed institution suffering a "cold turkey"[2], subjecting to a schedule of group psycho-therapy and a strange and strict set of behavioral rules. These requirements were designed to match the "weak ego structure" of drug misusers, even if that psychological disposition would cause them to complain. This "therapeutic community" version of subjectifying holism – a kind of local absolutism – had the serious flaw, however, that only very few young drug misusers proved "motivated" enough. So young heroinists such as Dorothy on the streets – and sometimes on tabloid front pages – coexisted with half-empty, extremely expensive, round-the-clock staffed treatment services. Not surprisingly, City officials had begun to question that expertise, like the social workers in Tjek-Punkt, and they wondered whether the rules of therapeutic communities might not really be expressions of staff self-interest, and whether it would not be a better idea to provide services which the young users, even with their "weak egos", would actually use.

Now, Dorothy's belief in the wonders of the professionals did not make har leave Tjek-Punkt and approach the de-tox centres. In that sense, we can see it as relatively superficial. And her impression that the Tjek-Punkt social workers were just "human beings" can be regarded as the ultimate proof of a superior professionalism, like that of a truly professional magician. The hard work and the complicated knowledge must hide itself from the user interface if a user orientation is to be achieved. This interpretation would not be far from the ideal that the social workers in Tjek-Punkt subscribed to. But if we zoom out from the specific contents of her talk to the situation of the interview, that story runs into problems.

First, there is the fact that I was actually interviewing Dorothy because the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs wanted her perspective to be represented and used to develop social services. We can easily say, of course, that this does not entail simply taking all user statements at face value; it did not in Tjek-Punkt, and it did not in my evaluation. But this would be to miss the point of how constitutive those user perspectives were, as we have just seen in the way Tjek-Punkt was supposed to solve problems created by the drug treatment professionals' re-interpretation of their users' views by basing on a dialogue that precisely moved towards taking the espoused views of the users seriously. The widespread quoting of Kierkegaard's phrase that "the secret of any art of helping is to meet the person where he is" (Kierkegaard, 1906) , also used as title for the 1984 government report which first sanctioned methadone maintenance as official drug treatment policy) typically carries the same message. Tjek-Punkt and I were, more or less professionally, taking Dorothy seriously as a "human being", not only in the meaning of some core of potentials which we can bring to flourish, but in the stronger and more immediate sense of someone whose views should matter in spite of any imperfections.

Second, there is the problem that this recognition does not change the facts of Dorothy's situation much. The way she espouses her views as a "user", performing herself (and we performing her) as a rational choise-making, discursive agent, leaving the food that she needs so badly to get cold while describing all the very sensible deliberations that she makes on her way down the road to complete misery or death – aptly illustrates what Tjek-Punkt's humanism always threatened to boil down to. This was not a result of a cynical idealism or a naïve belief in some "talking cure" on the part of the social workers. Rather, it was the consequence of the way in which that humanism, if it were to be realized in practice, must be far from just a feature of the social workers as individuals, or even just of Tjek-Punkt's way of working. It had to mobilize resources outside of itself, and in particular, those of the very institutions which were criticized. This was a tricky combination of diplomacy and critique which very often failed, resulting in bitter mutual allegations of lack of professionalism etc., and, worst of all, in Tjek-Punkt against intentions becoming a kind of residual last-instance social service for the hopeless cases.

Still, Tjek-Punkt was declared a relative success, not only in the sense that I could report how its users praised it, but also in that it managed to do a kind of mediation that worked to loosen up problems that in some cases had seemed insurmountable, and, not least, in the sense that now the City politicians and officials always knew whom to ask when the media demanded explanations or measures in one of the frequent scandals (periodically, the media seem to discover alarming rises in drug use among youngsters). But the experience from Tjek-Punkt also showed that the scale of intervention easily became too narrow.

Obstacles to a Holistic Policy of Shared Responsibilities

Tjek-Punkt, by itself, was only a handful of social workers in a shabby drop-in center. But it represented the development aspirations of the Danish welfare state and the City of Copenhagen. In the specific and particular work of "bridging" gaps between individual youngsters and institutions, what Tjek-Punkt faced – and were meant to face – were general and systemic problems such as that of the "double social exclusion". Solving those problems entailed reforms in the other institutions, not just regarding specific problems identified as obstacles (like specific admission procedures or rules[3]), but in terms of general features of the social work that was carried out in the system as a whole.

One immediate form of this "general social work" was to be various attempts at coordination of activities and decisions between organizations, both at the levels of general policies and of individual cases. As can be imagined, this proved relatively inefficient. The general negotiations in the coordination forum which was established at the initiative of the Street Kids project (and to which I contributed with some documentary research) stiffled in diplomacy and inconsequential or vague discussions, and in the individual cases, the youngsters typically moved a lot faster than their professional helpers could ever hope to coordinate their responses, even if they did agree on a concerted approach.

This stalemate of the coordination from below, together with the steady increase in media scandals over the 1990's[4], formed the background of the policy paper on young people and drug use which the City of Copenhagen issued in 1999. The policy paper declared a focus on young people’s problem drug use, and then, paradoxically, immediately announced that the problem should be dissolved in general social issues:

"If we look at the background of the problems of the individual youngster, it is not the misuse in itself which causes the youngster's troubles – that is, rather, an additional problem, albeit a big one. Young people with a genuine misuse have a complex of social and personal problems (…) If we view the issue in the light of youth culture and the perspectives mentioned above, the strategy in relation to young people and drugs misuse must be first and foremost embedded in the social work which is already carried out with the youngsters. To put it slightly provokingly, it must be slipped in through the back door."[5]

In short, the strategy was not to create new and specialized institutions to deal with the young drug addicts, but instead to qualify and intensify the social work already carried out, to mould it into a comprehensive system of shared responsibilities, and to intervene directly at street level and in the everyday lives of youngsters.

A newly appointed official reopened the coordination forum and sought to include boarding homes, youth clubs etc. to find ways to implement this policy of shared responsibilities. Even with the clout of the increased polical and leadership backing, however, the attempt failed miserably. The only thing everyone agreed to was "more knowledge": the whole thing was about to be reduced to a teaching of the signs and procedures which would help social workers identify and get rid of the problem, rather than integrate it through changing their normal ways. The responsible official resigned and the whole "systemic" approach was, in effect, abandoned. The two alternatives which emerged and which now characterize the field are, on the one hand, the network of Wild Learning, and, on the other, the establishment, after all, of a specialized institution for young drugs misusers; I shall return to both of these below.

When we dug into some of the background of this policy failure (among other things, by a series of key-person interviews carried out by C. Vinum[6]), we could identify some of the organizational problems which Tjek-Punkt had also encountered. 

First, there is the issue of "contagion": who will take responsibility for placing an innocent youngster with hard-core drug users, even the so-called "heavy hash smokers"? To prevent this contagion problem, most institutions choose to get rid of youngsters known as persistent drug users. Interviews with social workers at these institutions suggest that this is not the result of simplistic epidemiological models that depict the spreading of drug use as a similar to that of a virus or a technological innovation (Winsløw, 1972; Winsløw, 1984). It more likely results from the structural features of those institutions, in particular, the very fact that decisions must continuously be made regarding the referral of particular individuals (in / out), and the absolute divide between staff and client group regarding access to information, responsibilities, and general everyday life (Foucault, 1997; Goffman, 1961). In other words, overcoming this problem would require transforming a key feature of these organizations: the "group" as an artificial collection of "target group" individuals.

Secondly, it appears that the organizational changes that promote a discourse of "shared responsibility" also work against its realization. Generally, the form of "responsibility" in welfare services is changing from a hierarchical and compartmentalized structure, through a historically accelerating proliferation of target groups / specialties, towards a decentralized structure combining market-like features with governance by specific negotiations, both between organizational top and bottom and between different institutions at the same level (Hulgård, 1997; Prahl, 1993; Rose, 1999). In this structure of decentralized competition/cooperation, each particular organization tends to be given or assume "general" or "holistic" responsibilities or tasks, and this leads to fights over who best represents the "truly universal" values of the system; fights, then, which take on a certain openly "ideological" flavour. Some organizations, such as Tjek-Punkt, may specialize in being able to align both with users and with fashionable discourse. Others find other ways to manage their position in a competitive field of institutions. A simple method is to concentrate on the cases which promise the most clearly demonstrable success and avoid difficult cases. Short of the specialists, then, nobody wants to become known as the "garbage bin" that deals with the drug issues and the drug fiends that all the others manage to avoid or to get rid of. This is a question of tightly evaluated quality management (Järvinen, 1998), but also of the institution's reputation among youngsters and their parents or among potentially referring social worker colleagues (case managers, school counsellors etc.). Both are features which have become more salient with decentralization.

Thirdly, it is not only drug users, but also the issue of drug use, which is marginalized. If social workers openly allow drug use even as a debatable theme, many will have to face the fact that a majority of their clients / users engage in illegal activities. At this point, there is the simple option to "forbid" drug use, i.e., in effect, re-taboo it (as one production school motto significantly stated: "Hash is prohibited because it is prohibited!"). This way, a cultural marginalization is intimately connected with the social exclusion. In youth work, a traditional problem is that of a choice between cultural and social approaches (Mørch, 1993; Williamson, 1997). The cultural approach seems to lead to an emphasis on colorful subcultural activities that attract youngsters, but disregard education and employment, whereas the social focus leads to "normalization", in the – perhaps reassuring – assumption that what the kids really want, behind their sometimes bizarre appearance, is a normal life. In terms of drug use, a social approach will, generally, either focus on education and employment and taboo drug use, or focus directly on the drugs in the form of treatment or counseling. This is a rather straightforward implication of the fact that the social approach does not challenge the deep-rooted cultural dichotomy between taboo and stigma that pervades the issue of drug use to the point where it is continuously forgotten that the instrumental use of chemistry as part of strict bodily regimes and of "technologies of the self" is something that characterizes modern Western culture and not just some exotic minority subculture (see, e.g. (Nissen, 2002a; O'Malley & Mugford, 1991; Plant, 1999). A cultural approach that takes up this challenge, and attempts to enable social workers to circumvent the "drug use taboo" without turning drug use into a fixed object of treatment, on the other hand, will typically imply that the fact of social marginalization is left unchanged – either in various uncommitted "Youth Club" activities where social problems are in effect tabooed – or in forms of care that accept social exclusion as a given premise, such as those known from street level work with homeless etc., something which is (still) politically untenable in the youth field. Thus, those who attempt to face social exclusion and cultural taboo at once run the risk of self-marginalization and an eventual drying out of financial sources and political backing.

Fourthly, the compartmentalization and segregation of responsibility is a generic and pervasive quality of the welfare state, and not just a feature of the dozen or so social work organizations whom it is no small achievement to gather in Copenhagen. The biggest problematic lines of rupture which were directly addressed in the Street Kids Project, but very far from overcome, were those that seperated social work from the way the same individuals and the same issues were dealt with in the school and in the health sector. But even more problematic, and largely out of sight of the Street Kids Project, was and is the division between the penal system and the various helping effords. The bulk of state resources that are spent on drugs misusers are spent in prisons, even in a relatively liberal country such as Denmark. Any social work with street kids must deal with the hard facts of criminal communities, law enforcement, frequent arrests, sentences, probation, criminal records etc. etc.; and typically, it does this on the assumption that any such exertion of power is completely external to social work itself. The dichotomy of power from social work (as from education and health care) is so constitutive that social work is founded with one eye firmly shut (cf., on this issue, Donzelot, 1979). Even when social workers, such as those in Tjek-Punkt, encounter the very tangible power effects of the ways social work institutions include and exclude their users, they seek to overcome the problem by once again founding another supposedly free space of a more "authentic" dialogical social work.

Finally, the pressure for evidence-based practices in the context of the "New Public Management" wave is intrinsically a pressure for efforts and knowledges that are specialized, distinctly localized and standardized on globally recognizable dimensions (body, chemistry, "psyche", pathology etc. rather than, say, features of local cultures) even if it originated as a technology of governance that would allow officials and politicians to circumvent the power held by professional experts. This proves the flip side of the holistic meta-expertise which Tjek-Punkt dreamt of. For some years, several private counseling facilities have emerged in Copenhagen, and there has been a constant political pressure for the City to finance them as visibly efficient measures, a pressure that gains momentum every time the scandal of young drug misuse hits the tabloid headlines. This is probably the strongest force behind the recent (spring 2003) decision of the City to embark, after all, on a genuine specialized counseling for young drugs misusers. The irony being, of course, as the City officials in charge know only too well, that such specialized counseling facilities work directly against all the efforts to share responsibilities and reinstates a social segregation between those "motivated" and the rest.

Sjakket and Wild Learning

As mentioned above, another side of Copenhagen City's efforts with street kids and young drugs misusers have been unfolded in the network of organizations that grew out of the other half of the Street Kids Project, Sjakket. Sjakket was founded in 1991 as a self-appointed organization to help young people in trouble. Its mostly unskilled participants had various experience in political or community organizations and many from a project that mobilized youngsters to large-scale "total theater" performances, a kind of pseudo-political movement invented by three students from a school of social pedagogy. In its first years, Sjakket, with deliberate strategic interventions, succeeded in attracting large numbers of youngsters with severe social problems as well as a benevolent media attention to its mostly cultural activities, usually culminating in big events such as music festivals, theatre shows, or open hearings. All participants were recruited as "resource persons", and it grew into a mixture of a self-help organization and a radical political community engaged in powerful opposition to the City's social policies and its provisions for young people. In 1993, the Ministry, against the strong warnings of the City officials, decided to fund Sjakket with a third of the Street Kids Project money[7]. Sjakket became part of the City's social services, and at the same time maintained a significant autonomous force in the ongoing negotiations with City officials, based both on its ability to recruit youngsters and on its political strategy and constituency. In the years that followed, the City gradually shifted the emphasis of its policy and increasingly recognized the social work that was done in Sjakket and its later derivatives (Nissen, 1998; Nissen, 1999b; Nissen, 2003b).

The Wild Learning initiative was launched in 1999 (see and Langager, 2000; Langager, 2003; Mørck, 2000; Mørck & Nissen, 2001; Mørck, 2003; Nissen, 2003a; Nissen, 2002b; Nissen, 2002a; Nissen, 1999a). The organization is small, but significant on a number of counts. First, it organizes an informal network of institutions, projects, and loosely coupled communities of social workers, self-help groups and youngsters all over the city, not comprehensive, but selected and used strategically as a driving force; second, it is the as yet most ambitious cooperation of the municipal officials with the grassroots organizations – some of which have been "municipalized", but still with vital network connections to volunteer organizations (such as sports clubs, labour unions) and informal groups and communities (such as the local Muslim communities or the political radicals) etc.; third, it is highly mobile in providing street level and social system intervention in the same process, so that it aims to work with youngsters in the street, train street-level (often "bare-foot") social workers, and achieve system reforms (cooperating with social centers, youth clubs and one school), all in one stroke.

Evidently, my work as evaluator was quite different in Sjakket than in Tjek-Punkt. Not only did the very scale of the organization immediately require an ethnographic dimension, its political identity also immediately posed the question of interests and alliances. After all, I was the state-appointed controller and I symbolized the concession to the "system" which many of Sjakket's participants still hardly had accepted. After some time, however, I managed to establish a kind of practice research cooperation without compromizing my duty as evaluator. This, of course, was not without connection with the fact of Sjakket's recognition. That position as "partner" to Sjakket, and later Wild Learning, necessitates a methodological reflection at this point.

What I am going to do next is present the social work in Wild Learning as embodying "solutions" to each of the problems outlined above. This is not done because I am so naïve or blinded by solidarity as to imagine that those problems are not also present in, or to, Wild Learning; rather, they have precisely been dealt with because of their sustained relevance as references in my cooperation with Sjakket / Wild Learning. Neither do I suggest that the "solutions" that I shall describe are specific to Wild Learning; in fact, many of them (though not all) can be identified as "embryos" or not-unfolded qualities of Tjek-Punkt and many, perhaps most, other institutions of social work (which is, at the end of the day, why this writing makes sense). I am aware, then, that what I present are ideals which I – as one among many voices in the ongoing debates about drug misuse, street kids, social work etc. – propose as useful objectifications that make sense as subjectifications, i.e. as "ideological", identity-constituting characteristics. These ideals are developed as "answers" to other ideals proposed by other voices in the never-ending debates in the communities, and they function simultaneously as "idealization" and as critique in relation to the heterogenous realities and ideologies that constitute Wild Learning as well as Copenhagen City. In the limited space of this text, however, I must refrain from going further into these "methodological" aspects.

Beating the Problems

1. One major advantage of a self-help organization is that it dissolves the staff-client gulf. It may still, as is the case with the widespread Narcotics Anonymous, operate a strict policing of its boundaries and identities regarding drugs. In the turbulent youth field, however, this is far from compelling, even to NA partisans (Nissen, 2002a). Wild Learning, deeply submerged in networks and communities of the "youth subcultures", always seeking to find "neutral ground" where the social workers themselves are put at stake, provide no illusions of purity. In addition, the structure of a stable institution with fixed staff and a flow of individual users does not pertain to Wild Learning. Here, all activities and organizations are ad-hoc and unique, allowing for a constant reorganization so that it is rarely tempting to save the normal functioning of the "group" by expelling the scapegoat.

2. Wild Learning cannot escape the neo-liberal organizational environment. Its skillful PR management is always somewhere between political work and advertisement, and one of its greatest strengths is to invent concept, mottos, and projects that appeal to youngsters, social workers, officials, and the general public alike. But it counteracts competitive specialization in two important ways. First, it has developed from, and grown into, quite large, if loosely coupled networks. This means that the flexible reorganization of any particular activity proceeds on the background of a relatively lasting and comprehensive community that remains important to participants in many aspects of their lives across many different specific circumstances. Second, it is fundamentally kept together by a broadly defined political-ethical identity. This means that participants continuingly take stances on issues in social policy and develop initiatives to counteract social exclusion.

3. The cultural divide of drug taking in taboo and stigma cannot be cleared away in any local context. But turning it into a profane and contingent object of scrutiny and debate is a first step. The "cultural pedagogy" that developed from the great theatre projects of the early 90's in Sjakket has repeatedly organized ad-hoc activities where participants model and change the cultural (discursive) object "drugs misuse". This implies that organizations are not defined by that concept; neither do they necessarily avoid it – that is politically and pedagogically contingent, and the concept is deliberately "democratically" defined rather than fixed by expertise. This allows for participants to identify with problematics (I am a drug misuser…), only then, by the logic of the activity itself, to lead to a of a kind of "ideology critique", a "Verfremdung" (Brecht, 1971) of the cultural dichotomy itself.

4. One of the main objectives of my cooperation with Wild Learning over the recent years has been to help substantiate the idea of a kind of social work that explicitly includes the exercise of power. This has become necessary in the face of a recent return of conservative law-and-order policies that promise a no-nonsense approach to violent crimes and drug crimes against which the "soft" dialogical social work appears powerless. Wild Learning, rather than restating liberal humanistic principles, have declared to perform a "tough approach at street level". This is a rather straightforward idea given that the basic "know-how" in the community is one of strategy, struggles over power, in the groups and networks of young people in the streets as well as in the offices of the City and the Ministry. This is one way in which some "wild young" can discover that they have in fact already useful resources from growing up rough. This is not, however, a process of individual "pattern-breaking" development, but, much rather, a process that includes a development of whole groups and communities (Mørck, 2003) . In a way, Wild Learning, when they, as emissaries of the City, intervene to develop communities to overcome social problems, return to the task of producing "social order" which historically underlies the subsequent division into "law enforcement" and "social work", and which, in the field of illegal drugs, both police and social workers often have to struggle hard to avoid[8].

5. The idea of Wild Learning, as opposed to earlier instantiations of the community or network, was to organize forms of local education, exchange of knowledge, and reflection. This has been substantialized in recurring meetings, ad-hoc discussion groups, Internet texts (with journalists hired to help social workers unused to writing, illiterate youngsters etc. with the writing), project initiatives in cooperation with schools of social work and pedagogy, and, of course, the ongoing cooperation with academics including myself. In the present-day Copenhagen City social work with young drugs misusers, that network is a distinct and powerful alternative to the form of knowledge that characterizes evidence-based practice, both in the function of giving officials useful information they can act on, and in the sense of providing social workers with opportunities to reflect and generalize their experience.

Interpellation by scaffolding

The significance of the ideals outlined above is not, however, that of a "method" of social work or drug treatment that overcomes certain problems of earlier, less advanced "methods". Far from it, those ideals can only make sense given a much more profound objectivity, as well as subjectivity, than that which is usually associated with the idea of "method" (Nissen, 2003a). It is when we realize – in both meanings of that term – the implications of how any social work humanism is mediated in concrete socio-historical conditions, practices, cultures, communities etc. that we must turn towards the wider horizons of the way social work is organized in Wild Learning. These horizons have general qualities than I can identify in a text made for a globalized community of scholars; but they remain unique as features of the Danish welfare state at the turn of the millennium. Wild Learning, then, can be seen as representing that particular state's ideological interpellation of its subjects (Althusser, 1994; Philp, 1979), but only if this process is understood to be two-sided: the identification which is called forth when a young person realizes herself as "wild" is the identification with the political project of a reformed welfare state. It is in this political and "objective" movement that a holistic humanist subject-formation can include, rather than be defeated by, the objectification of issues such as drugs misuse.

Let us examine, as a final illustration, a story of social work where the objectified form of "hash misuse" is apparent, but does not work to exclude or stigmatize. This social worker, employed in Wild Learning and with a wild background herself, reports in an interview (July, 2000) on her trip to a Mediterranean resort with two girls and the girls' case manager, to develop precarious relationships with each. The form of the time-limited holiday trip is not typical in Wild Learning, and it may mislead us to conceive of the events as taking place in some "out-of-context" heterotopia. But the social worker views it, with some good reason, as an example of the kind of "neutral ground" which she usually tries to establish: not only because going out is the whole point, but also because the social workers' positions and cooperative relations are very much at stake, and because leaving one girl to influence the other is the most important asset.

The interview is done specifically in order to help me formulate ideal concepts for the social work of Wild Learning – and to help the social worker reflect on her experience. The social worker, here, talks about her troubles with one of the girls whom we call Kitty:

In restaurants and in the apartment, and when we arrived home at night, we would play backgammon or cards and talk. But they weren't those long all-night scenes, since we were pretty determined to stick to the rule of getting up at nine in the morning. That was simply in order to turn Kitty around. After about 3 days her withdrawal symptoms, hash withdrawal, you know, started to really break out. What I mean is that every time she was on the street she tried to spot who might be in possession of hash or smoke hash in this place. She would contact all negroes (laughs) and people who looked target-group-like. She clearly tried to contact them, and then we had this unpleasant piece of work, to tag along right behind her and all that. And then when we got back one had to check which,- or, she had these small cards with all sorts of phone numbers, because then she'd just been 'round the corner and got a phone number from somebody, so that she could call him when she was badly craving, and he would bring her some hash. And of course, that was a lot of work, with keeping an eye on her and making her understand that it wouldn't do. And again here Jean (the other girl, MN) helped a lot, and this was at nights.

But how could you know which small cards she would have in her pockets with phone numbers and the like?

Because she's such a magnificent girl, and they all are, typically, they damn well want to be found out. Because they know they have a problem. And they want sanctions and they want help. She wishes to be as hip as Jean and to be as smart as us

So there were small openings?

There were small openings. Actually, and about that theft too, it is often about attracting attention. If you fuck up you're automatically in focus. And then you can make a drama. And she just started one, the more drama the better, the more conflicts the more attention. What I'm talking about is that sometimes she would actually leave a piece of paper, and then I was supposed to ask: "Whose phone number is this?", and then (imitates girl's voice) – "Do you really think I'd tell you that?"

Yes (laughs)

And then I was supposed to go into it, you know. But those hash things were quite heavy on the third and the fourth day

It is clear that this social worker operates a notion of "hash misuse" with a structure of withdrawal, craving etc., and interprets Kitty's actions in terms of the logic of drug addiction. It is probably no coincidence that the "dependence" appears so clearly in a situation which is segregated from the street level of Copenhagen; but this is not our concern at this point. When it does appear to us like this, we can see how it organizes the dialogue or interplay between social worker and youngster, even if it does not form the framework of interaction in a total fashion as it would in a drug treatment institution (in this case, there are many other concerns as well, such as theft, inversed day/night rhythms etc.). Through the objectification, the "magic mirror" of hash dependence, we encounter Kitty as a subject, subjected to the impulses of her problematic "target-group" life (withdrawal and craving), spontaneously engaging in target-group networks, and as the agent of manipulations that are skillful, yet when played out in relation to a social worker who is competent because she has been there herself (and an older girl who is positioned somewhere in-between), they prove to be really moves in a game that is meant, eventually, to lead to her surrender.

Hash misuse appears as a set of objective conditions and problematics that can function as an obstacle to building relationships, obviously – and we can see how that obstacle can easily grow to a size that under certain circumstances could legitimize marginalization. But the point of the social worker's story is that it functions here as a kind of scaffold (Solis, 2002; Wertch, 1991) for that relationship and the subjectification of the girl to climb: Kitty is invited to reinterpret herself as a person who initially proves worthy of inauguration into the community of self-help / social workers by her "wildness", by the very strength and cunning with which she resists, and who then realizes that the hash smoking which had organized and motivated her resistance is really a dragon that they have been all the time fighting together from different angles. Hash smoking, then, is "narratively externalized" from Kitty's self and objectified as a hash misuse which legitimizes her peripheral position (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in the community.

This community is itself formed in the same activities – though not necessarily around the axis of drugs misuse – and only extremely contingently, providing that the trip in fact helps recruit the case manager (and thereby her local welfare office) as partner to Wild Learning; and helps inaugurate and train Jean as an upcoming social worker; and helps develop the ways in which Wild Learning deal with "wild girls", perhaps particularly in ad hoc projects about hash; and helps develop this social worker's specific identity as organized around the dream of a Mediterranian resort that is part of the Wild Learning network, etc. etc. As it turned out, these projected futures (as viewed, here, from the social worker's perspective) did not quite materialize, but they were, nevertheless, the stuff that subjectivities are made of.


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[1] Transcribed and translated from the Danish by the author. All names are changed except Tjek-Punkt

[2] I.e. an unmedicated sudden withdrawal of drugs, physically harmless but very unpleasant.

[3] One example was that drug treatment institutions would not allow couples, as this was known to be detrimental to individual prognosis. The "Street Kids Project" social workers succeeded in changing that rule (by decree of the associated officials), on the grounds that the youngsters must learn that lesson themselves.

[4] After the "street kids" came such new monsters as the "youngsters-who-think-heroin-is-not-dangerous-when-smoked", the "party drug users", the "immigrant addicts" and the "cannabis addicts", all of which demanded special attention of the officials

[5] The policy paper can be read (in Danish) at

[6] Whose report can be read in Danish at

[7] Tjek-Punkt got twice the amount allotted to Sjakket, even if it was and remained much smaller: it had to be created and funded from scratch, whereas Sjakket had other sources of funding, and above all, large numbers of volunteer and self-help/mutual-help participants.

[8] This has been documented in recent ethnographic research into the work of Danish and Swedish police - see (in Danish) preliminary report at Konferenceprogram med links til oplæg