The modern state and modern welfare work’s proliferating and fixating images

To Bhabha, both the colonised and the colonising are stereotypes attached to myths representing illusions about the culture and identity of those stereotypes. Translated to this book’s object of study, this means that both the immigrant or refugee and the modern welfare worker are to be understood as stereotypes which as subjects are constructed through recognition of similarities and disavowal of difference. In this way, the differentiating mechanisms inherent in the welfare dynamic are historically connected to the construction of the modern state which was founded on distance and separation within a colonial structure of colonised and colonising and the attached dichotomous categorisations that followed in terms of “old” and “new”, “behind” and “advanced”, “traditional” and “modern”, etc., which constructed the image of the modem state and modernity as such.

Returning to Caroline’s way of reasoning, immigrants and refugees seem to appear as a difference in a dichotomous binary' which also seems to imply' that they as individuals lose their singularity. When asked how she would characterise the women who attend the activities in the Women’s House, apart from the fact that they have health problems due to their war injuries and traumas, she says:

Caroline: I think it is a mixed bag, because there are as many illiterate from areas like ... you know, places like Kurdistan and such places where they haven’t been stimulated, where they haven’t been taught how to read. I know about this when I make exercises with the women. They are not able to keep their balance. They just didn’t train their right and left parts of their brains to co-operate from their childhood years [...] neither bodily or psychologically stimulated. But there are also a lot of them which have an education |...] but whether you are illiterate or belong to the more intellectual ball game, then you still need network, and you get that here.

The women are not able to keep their balance while exercising because of a lack in their childhood, Caroline reasons. To me, this is an example of the oth-ering and objectification of immigrant and refugee women and the population group to which some of them are invoked as belonging to, in this case subjects from Kurdistan. It is a process of othering which I, in the process of writing up this book’s analyses, came to think about as a process of racialisation.

The population group to which the women are said to belong was not stimulated in childhood and therefore, so it is stated, their brains are not as developed as they could have been, which is why their performance while exercising is poor. However, a lot of them have an education. Even though they do, these women are made different according to their origin and this origin is considered the cause of their performance, as if the origin affects their balance. As can be inferred, there is ambiguity in Caroline’s narrative and intense forms of identification and association are going on when she generalises and uses stereotypes, proliferating images of the immigrant and refugee and the welfare worker respectively. There are so many things that could be done depending on the flow and blooming of associations describing the potential for remedy. Among other things, Caroline associates universal knowledge about child development with a population group’s lack which, because of the lack, needs her welfare work. This thought figure turns out to be central in welfare workers’ reasoning, and, especially in Part II, this will be displayed.

This pointing to subjects and their lack is not unusual, although it is not often noticed as a particular event. I have talked to colleagues within educational research in Denmark who want to explain Caroline’s way of reasoning as a rational and professional way of thinking; she reasons just like she has been taught to, according to her training. Welfare professionals like nurses, health visitors3 and social educators know that children, for normal developmental reasons, must learn to crawl to prepare for walking and balancing later on, I am told, and I am told that I should be able to understand that and give credit to such professionalism.

When I consider this professional way of reasoning and want to understand the social significance of it, I consider how I have often been told how “one as a researcher” ought to think when there is something “you” don’t understand. To many researchers, understanding in the area of welfare work means to understand the professionals from their point of view and emphasise that they do have good intentions. I want to do something else; I want to understand welfare professionals’ work socially, how it works and contributes to community formation and what its symbolic resources and societal forms are, including how welfare work potentially shapes the lives of immigrants and refugees and affects their lives. Therefore, I am not comfortable with just understanding what welfare workers are saying according to their training and their point of view. I need to understand how welfare work has effects, how its internal logics, good intentions and professional ethos have effects. This doesn’t equal welfare workers’ not having good intentions. Rather, it signals that I am investigating how welfare work’s desire to do good has effects that keep immigrants and refugees on the threshold of modern living and integration, forever uncompleted and in need of welfare to complete their unfulfilled potential.

When thinking through what this book is about, a passage from the actress and comic Anna Neye keeps popping up in my mind. She explains how “white innocence” works, referring to a white person’s defensive strategy when a black person doesn’t find it amusing to be dehumanised, and she concludes:

It is not important that the intention is not negative. It is not about the sender or the sender’s hurt feelings because the receiver was offended by the awkward utterance. It is about the person which is addressed in an offensive way. The innocent intention is secondary and doesn’t legitimise the utterance.

(Neye 2017:113)

I think of the protection of welfare workers’ good intentions and the preoccupation with welfare workers’ not having negative intentions in much the same way. This is not what’s important and not what the focus of this book is about. I am not questioning whether welfare workers have good intentions. I am interested in the performative capacity of welfare work’s symbolic boundaries to shape social positions and opportunities.

Keeping immigrants and refugees on the threshold of modern living, furthermore, seems to be made possible according to fixating images within welfare work.

Mona is another welfare worker whom I interviewed in 2014. She is also a nurse but within what is termed transcultural psychiatry. When trying to understand how she separates social and cultural causes for illness, she explains the way in which the ward she works at requires that there be a cultural aspect in immigrants’ and refugees’ pathological picture:

Mona: If they attend this ward, there has to be a cultural aspect to the situation. If you grew up here and lived all your life here and speak Danish fluently, then you will go: “Hey, why do you come here?” But still, they may struggle to be in-between these two different cultures. So, there has to be a cultural aspect. If they don’t have something cultural ... but we all do ... I don’t know how to explain this. If the culture they come from doesn’t mean anything to them anymore [...] then they should be somewhere else. Therefore, there has to be some sort of culture playing a role.

What Mona is accounting for is that the ward is defined by its ability to define patients’ pathological problems as triggered by cultural problems. When I asked Mona whether traumatised subjects then necessarily belong to the ward, she replied: “It depends on which kind of traumas. If it is war traumas, then it has to do with culture, so obviously it is a huge mental load”. The cultural aspect is fixated but related to mental load and war. Mona is thus skilled at making her patients’ problems line up as cultural problems. Her welfare work depends on patients’ having problems adhering to culture. The Other turns into “another” with a different and problem-creating culture, and she declares the dependence of immigrants and refugees by signalling them to be particular Others: the ones with another culture. By this circular move, immigrants and refugees are constructed as cultural groups in need of welfare because of their culture and the way it creates problems when in contact with Danish culture.

What is of concern in this book is the way welfare workers, in addressing immigrants and refugees, gain energy from the Other’s alleged (cultural) problem, weakness or lack. Due to modern welfare work’s drive towards the perfectibility of mankind, immigrants and refugees seem to be considered as projects in need of continuous amendment.

The feature of welfare work that surfaces here, which is also voiced in research on welfare states and welfare practices, is that the social right to welfare through the provision of universal education, health and child care, and safety and security arrangements is accompanied by a national and cultural integration project that seeks to socialise and civilise everyone to become the same (see, e.g., Esping-Andersen 1990,Jdhncke 2011, Johansen 2013). Previously, I have termed this integrationism (Larsen and 01and 2011). According to the universal social democratic perfectibility and the nation state’s quest to integrate everyone into the national culture of Denmark, the logic of integrationism is that equality strives to smooth out differences so that everyone becomes the same, but the Other will never be allowed to be the same. The difference will be re-established continually and anew.

In effect, welfare work - wanting to help, improve and emancipate — seems to intensify othering; it seems as if welfare work needs the sometimes disguised or secret idea of an underdeveloped Other in need of the strength and improvement of welfare.

Thus, immigrants and refugees are continually located on the threshold of modern living as “almost the same but not quite” to use the words of Homi Bhabha (2004). According to Tess Lea and this book, this has to do with the remedial welfare dynamic in which welfare workers act and think, and thus construct themselves and others, i.e. immigrants and refugees.

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