The Battle of User Service (1)

Let us plunge into Copenhagen one afternoon in the spring of 1992. In the course of my collaboration with the social work development project "User service" we have devised an activity that is supposed to realize a psychological as well as methodological self-reflection directly as part of an intrinsically meaningful activity rather than beside it. A series of weekly meetings are held in a civic canteen project that is at the same time a "work-fare" rehabilitation measure. The meetings are meant to coordinate ongoing practical business and integrate conflict resolution and personal rehabilitation counseling in the same process. The aim is to avoid the stigmatizing and personalizing effects of the specialized context for "therapy", "counseling" etc., yet still to move on from the point where "psychological problems" are simply tabooed; it is hypothesized that some "local cultural" kinds of meaningfulness might provide a "mandate" to deal with psychological problems without stigmatizing.

One fundamental contradiction is that while the "User Service" idea is to substitute socially useful activities for stigmatizing "pedagogical" or "therapeutic" measures to beat the social problem of marginalization, the clients, called "assistants", are still referred individually to the project as a rehabilitation measure in a limited time financed by their welfare office case manager, and that this remains the overall most important financial source of the project. The ability of "User Service" to actually design and develop activities that are recognized by all parties as useful in their local community, and in which "clients" can actually be recruited as equal "participants", is very variable. Thus, when participants treat each other not as "clients" and "social workers", but simply as community "participants", we often do not know whether this is because the project has succeeded, or whether it is a case of what we came to call "the paradox of the horny hooker": the tendency to deny the foundation of the interaction which is sometimes necessary in order to realize it.

In the general spirit of action research, this series of meetings are meant to both study and attempt to overcome the prevailing dichotomy between stigma and taboo. Towards the end it is increasingly clear that the attempt is failing. Elsewhere, I have written one account of the reasons and conditions for this failure (Nissen, 1997), and this general story will not be our concern here. But the fact is that at this point, the meetings have become Ė besides data that document that overall development Ė a mixture of: 1) a sort of group counseling where the responsible leader of the civic canteen, the social worker Michael, tries to influence the group and work with "the individual in the group"; 2) a kind of uncommitted cooperation meetings where no important decisions are taken, but where some mock discussions can be performed to test reactions; c) a ritual to confirm community and participation ideologically committed to "talking about things" and "democratic leadership".

At the 16th meeting, April 9th, we are 6 assistants, a social worker, a researcher (myself) and a student of psychology. We sit around a table in a big room, smoking. One of the assistants, Zakis, is Greek; he speaks no Danish and a very poor English, but he is important to the group because he is a qualified cook and the project (that is, mostly, Michael) is trying to move toward more professional ways of working. Zakis takes part in the meetings by just sitting there, and occasionally bits and pieces are translated to him or from him. Another assistant, Nina, has brought her 4-year-old daughter who crawls around under the table and often disturbs, in particular her mother, with loud talk (I get the impression that she is most disturbing when her mother is talking or being addressed or talked about).

And Nina is very much in the hot seat. The agenda requested by one assistant, Lisa, is that we talk about the "tone" between members, and Michael is quick to introduce the example of Nina having abused Zakis verbally the other day. Zakis had told Nina to just "go away" when she complained to him about the way he crudely threw dirty pots and pans on her table while he was cooking, and Nina had reacted very strongly to that. Nina's strong reaction, including threats to walk out and leave the project for good, is the issue.

There are additional issues at stake known to at least some participants. Michael wants to establish that what Zakis did with the pots and pans is what "real cooks" do, and that getting used to that is precisely the kind of "job training" which Nina must accept rather than reject. But Ė the Morten of 1992 as of 2004 would object Ė it is not at all certain that such "real commercial standards" should apply here. That very uncertainty has been a vital social work resource that has allowed assistants to continuously reconstruct standards in inclusive ways in ideological opposition to a society that works to exclude some people. Further, as we all learn later, Zakis and Nina are often rude toward each other in unacceptably sexist and xenophobic ways, respectively.

But at this point, the assumption is that the "tone" among participants can be improved by "taking up the issue" at our meeting. Michael first tries to engage Zakis, but Zakis simply states that it wonít do any good to discuss things like that. Then Michael Ė as he often does Ė turns to Ann, who seems to be his favorite assistant, for support.

But Ann says that she does not think there is any problem; -

1 Ann We were all so hard pressed. The meat hadnít arrived, we had no potatos, God knew when Michael would show up, and whether he brought potatos, and what did he bring, you know, and then we had to-- OK, by 9 we go down and buy potatos, and the meat has to be there, and then we start. And then this came up, and who should go get those potatos, you know? Thatís all it was, really, itís all just about a tiny flee (~ a very small and insignificant thing)
2 Nina That flee has really grown--
3 Ann --it really grows big, yeah
4 Morten Well, OK, so thatís one idea about it Ė that you say itís all over then, after that half hour, and then itís over and done with. But that wasnít what you said, Michael, your opinion is different, then?
5 Michael Yes
6 Ann So whatís your opinion then?
7 Morten You say itís an expression of a general problem, and itís about different ways to approve and to object?
8 Ann And we need to get to know each other more than we do
9 Lisa Definitely, that we have to do
10 Michael But did you know Zakis before?
11 Ann No. I didnít know Nina, either, but Iíve seen through her. Iíve seen through him, too, I have--
12   (General laughter. Child asks and Nina answers something inaudible)
13 Morten But Ann, it sounds as if you think itís wrong to be discussing things like these, like itís somehow--
14 Ann --I think-- I donít know, really, I think weíve got it pretty much under control over there (in the kitchen), we take our turns once in a while, and I suppose itís our right to do that--
15 Morten --Well, but, Nina said something just before that might be a reason to do it, it was that Nina,--
16 Ann --and Michael gets his, too!
17 Morten --that Nina was about to leave, that sheís been about to leave a few times, and just now (to Nina) you said that the next time someone tells you to go away, you will, and you wonít come back. I think thatís a good reason, Ďcause thatís a risk, then, that youíre all facing, it might happen next week, suddenly, and then Nina just isnít here any more
18 Ann Oh but in that case weíd surely run after her, wouldnít we, weíd be missing someone to peal the potatos and the carrots, donít you see, and take part in washing the dishes, you know, thatís evident, isnít it. It wasnít meant like that at all, was it, weíve got to get to know each other
19 Nina Well, what I meant when I, this Monday, that I said that Iím going now and wonít come back, that was just in my fury
20 Morten You said it today as well, didnít you?
21 Nina Yes, thatís right, the next time someone says that to me, Iím gone!
22 Michael So it isnít in a rage, really
23 Morten No
24 Nina It isnít in a rage
25 Michael Thatís something which to think about, then, that Iíve got clearly on my mind, that I do that
26 Nina Yes
27 Ann Itís the same, like, when Iím furious and freak out over somethingÖ.I get the hell out, I walk out and donít come back!
28 Morten But it wasnít something that Nina said in a rage just now. It was a quiet discussion, so itísÖI think it sounds like youíre somehow saying that now youíve more or less got one foot outside or something (the child is very noicy here). At least now youíre concerned whether youíll stay here, or-- and I think thatís a good reason to talk about it, also, when I think about how it-- in the time since October when weíve had these meetings, or November, or whatever. And there are some persons who have disappeared one way or the other. And where thereís been a problem, but we havenít really been able to get into discussing them, and those persons have then gone. I mean, itís not that,-- one canít be sure that they can be solved, those problems, by talking about them, as Zakis says, thatís true by the way. But it might be a good reason for talking about them now.
29 Ann Well, weíll have to do it, then! Get a hold of those problems, shut down the kitchen and the food and everything. Gotta sit down among the pots and pans and say "nowís the time", wonít we
30   (General laughter)
31 Lisa Is it the sun that does it, or what is it, Ann?
32 Michael Or the spring?
33 Lisa Iím deeply shocked!
34   (Laughter; the child speaks loudly but still incomprehensively)
35 Ann Yeah but we will have to, wonít we
36 Morten But, I mean, the most important person to judge whether we ought to bring it up must be you, Nina, at least I think it should be--
37 Nina --Oh I donít bleediní know, really-
38 Morten --Ďcause it might well be, as Ann says, that there is something about getting wise about each other, and there might be some parts of each other that you donít understand so well, and that might be a reason why some things can be worked out by talking about it and getting some things out to the surface, but, itís--
39 Nina --I donít bleediní know, I havenít got a damn thing to say, to be frank!
40 Morten But do you feel that now all it takes is the straw and the camelís back will break?
41 Nina No, I mean, no I wouldnít say that--
42 Morten --Ďcause if it happened three times in one week that someone said "go away" to someone else--
43 Lisa Oh, but now Iím just completely at a loss here! What if one of us gets mad and tells you to go away?
44 Nina Then Iíll quit!
45 Lisa But, quite honestly, I mean, the rest of us-- I donít think we should accept that, that if we say something, then you might, if you have a bad day, and you might answer in some way, and you give the- the eye, like if glances could kill, we have to just put up with that, if I tell you to go away--
46 Nina --I never said you should do that, --
47   --then you just leave?
48 Nina Yeah!
49 Lisa And the rest of us, we just-
50 Nina Yeah, but I donít take it the same way you take it, see
51 Lisa I think weíve been through all this before!
52 Morten What does this remind you of?
53 Lisa Of Susan! I mean, Susan, she just couldnít take, - she couldnít take it if you said something wrong, whereas she could really abuse you, and the rest of us just had to listen to that. And she wouldóif someone talked to her like that she would quit, and she actually did


(1) Excerpt from Nissen, M. (2004). Attempt at a Hegelian-Marxist Completion of MÝrch's Completion of Critical Psychology (Önah, I'm only joking). In Bechmann, T.B. (ed.) The European Villager. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 89-105

See also Nissen, M.  (1998 [1994]). Brugerindflydelse og handlesammenhśnge i psykosocialt arbejde. PhD-afhandling ved Psykologisk Laboratorium, KÝbenhavns Universitet, 1994. Aarhus Universitet: Skriftserie fra Center for Sundhed, menneske og Kultur 1998:1    (English summary)