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SOR0010.1177/0038026117738148The Sociological ReviewHoffman Birk
Making responsible residents:
On ‘responsibilization’ within
local community work in
marginalized residential
areas in Denmark
The Sociological Review
© The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0038026117738148
Rasmus Hoffmann Birk
Aalborg University, Denmark
This article explores how the local community projects in marginalized residential areas in
Denmark attempt to make ‘responsible’ residents. It has commonly been argued that contemporary
governance is inflected with responsibilization, often understood as the ambition to make citizens
self-responsible and independent from the welfare state. However, much less attention has been
paid to how such responsibilization is accomplished in practice. The article draws on interviews
with local community workers and participant observation in local community projects, to
explore the process of ‘responsibilization’ in practice. The article shows how local community
workers use narrative accounts to assess residents and their (failed) responsibilities, as well as
their own responsibilities towards residents. Building on this, it is shown how attempts to make
residents independent from the welfare state become entangled with practices of care, through
which local community workers assume responsibilities for residents, rather than making them
independent as such. Lastly, the article shows how responsibilization is a fragile process, and how
it is entangled with ongoing makings of accounts that demonstrate responsibilities, both for local
community workers and residents.
accounts, governance, governmentality, local community work, responsibilization
This article explores the governance of marginalized residential areas in Denmark and
how this governance attempts to make residents responsible: that is, independent of the
Corresponding author:
Rasmus Hoffmann Birk, Aalborg University, Department of Communication and Psychology, Kroghstræde 3,
9220 Aalborg Ø, Denmark.
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state and the welfare system. It has been argued that ‘responsibilization’ is a key technique within contemporary ‘advanced liberal’ (Rose, 1999; Rose & Lentzos, 2017) forms
of governance (see e.g. Rose, 1999; Trnka & Trundle, 2014). While responsibility is a
term with many meanings (Shore, 2017, p. 99), the notion of responsibilization refers to
the creation of a citizen who ‘frees’ itself from the care of the state and instead assumes
responsibility for his or her own employment, finances, health, housing, local community and so forth (Fallov, 2010; Flint, 2004b; Hope, 2015; Pathak, 2014; Raco & Imrie,
2000; Rose, 1999; Trnka & Trundle, 2014, 2017b; van Houdt & Schinkel, 2014). As
Rose and Lentzos put it, responsibilization is part of the state’s ambition to ‘create the
conditions under which individuals, firms, organizations, localities, schools, parents,
hospitals, and housing estates could take on the responsibility for resolving these issues
[of order, security, health, productivity]’ (Rose & Lentzos, 2017, pp. 32–33). There are a
plethora of analyses which have used the vocabulary of governmentality to explore how
contemporary policies seek to create responsible and autonomous citizens and communities. For instance, Fallov has argued that, in both Danish and English regeneration policies, a large emphasis is made on making the local community responsible for the local
regeneration (Fallov, 2006, 2010, p. 801). Flint has shown how social housing governance in Scotland attempts to deepen ‘tenant responsibility’ (Flint, 2004b, p. 895) by making residents responsible for applying for housing, rather than having it assigned to them
by housing officers (Flint, 2004b, p. 907). This, in Flint’s analysis, requires residents to
be actively responsible for securing their own housing (Flint, 2004a, pp. 160–164). What
is important here is that responsibilization, in contemporary modes of governance, often
is entangled with the creation of autonomy or independence, that is, making people selfreliant and responsible for what the welfare state used to be responsible for (Phoenix &
Kelly, 2013; Rose, 1999; Rose & Lentzos, 2017). As Clarke, analysing the policies of
‘New Labour’, has argued, citizens are now imagined as the bearers of responsibilities,
chief amongst them the responsibility to ‘produce the conditions of one’s own independence’ (Clarke, 2005, p. 451), that is, to become financially responsible. As he goes on, ‘it
would be wrong to mistake this independence for freedom, since autonomy must be
exercised responsibly. … Citizens must manage their lifestyles so as to promote their
own health and well-being. Members of communities must eschew anti-social behaviour. … Parents must take responsibility for controlling and civilizing their children’
(Clarke, 2005, p. 451). Responsibility as such is always an ethical relation which emerges
from localized interactions, norms, histories and assemblages of kinship and community:
people are held responsible in particular ways for particular practices that emerge at
particular times and places. The responsibility that is sought made through technologies
of responsibilization, however, is much more tightly delimited and individualized.
This is not just an ethical relation of accountability for one’s actions, but often also a
demonstration of independence from the welfare state (Clarke, 2005; Rose, 1999). In the
case of responsibilization, practices of accounting are central to holding people responsible. It is through systems of audit and calculative practices (Miller, 2001) that organizations as well as individuals demonstrate how they have lived up to their responsibilities.
Responsibility, then, is tied to the making of accounts. As we shall see in the following
analyses, one way in which local community workers make ‘responsible residents’ is
through calculative practices and making accounts.
Hoffmann Birk
When it comes to understanding responsibilization, most of the existing research
takes an explicit point of departure in Foucault and governmentality (Phoenix & Kelly,
2013). As such, responsibilization is most commonly analysed as a particular style of
thought, a strategy present in policies. This focus, however, tends to neglect questions
around the practices and activities of governance (e.g. McKee, 2011; Stonehouse,
Threlkeld, & Farmer, 2015), it presupposes a rather one-directional relation between
those governing and those being governed (Woolgar & Neyland, 2013, p. 27), and it
presupposes that particular subjectivities – such as being a responsible, independent citizen – are uniformly taken on, without conceptualizing the ambiguities and messes that
may also characterize relations of governance (Woolgar & Neyland, 2013). That is, even
if it is an accurate analysis that many contemporary policies focus on making people
‘responsible’, much less work has been done to explicate how policies that seek to engender ‘responsibility’ actually work out ‘on the ground’ and in encounters between those
who are to govern and those who are to be governed (with some exceptions: see Trnka &
Trundle, 2014, 2017b).
The remainder of the article, then, explores how the creation of responsible – and
independent – residents takes place within local community work in marginalized residential areas in Denmark. I proceed by first describing the empirical case and methods
that inform this article. Following this, I show how local community workers give
accounts of residents and through these accounts enact normative judgements and assessments of resident responsibilities, and their own responsibilities for taking care of residents. I then explore how local community workers talk about making residents
responsible and independent, and I argue that this work is entangled with caring for residents, and assuming responsibilities for residents, rather than outright creating ‘independent people’. Following this, I show how the making of responsible residents is
entangled with particular forms of giving accounts so as to demonstrate responsibility,
and I show how the work of making residents responsible and autonomous in prefigured
ways does not always succeed. Lastly, I focus on the calculative practices (Miller, 2001)
of local community workers, showing how they, too, are tied up in demonstrating responsibility for their work through the creation of numerical accounts that demonstrate
accountability for residents.
Methods and case: Local community work in Denmark
This article is based on empirical materials generated from a qualitative study of local
community work in Denmark, undertaken from December 2014 to January 2016. Local
community work is a form of social work, targeted specifically at residential areas of
non-profit housing that are designated as ‘marginalized’ by the Danish state. Local community work is regulated by ‘Local Revitalization Plans’ that run for four to five years,
and it focuses especially on helping residents into employment or education, preventing
crime, and creating new social networks in the local area. While this type of work is initiated from state policies, it is regulated, funded and conducted by non-profit housing
organizations. As such, it is simultaneously distanced from the state and municipalities,
yet at the same time local community workers do collaborate with, for instance, social
workers (employed in the municipalities), the police or government officials (for closer
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analyses, see Hoffmann Birk, 2017). The motivation for this qualitative study came from
the lack of analyses that have examined the concrete practices of local community work.
Current research focuses primarily on, for instance, critically analysing the political production of marginalized residential areas (e.g. Schultz Larsen, 2011, 2014), the perspectives and lives of residents within marginalized areas (Qvotrup Jensen & Christensen,
2012), or analysing the discourses and modes of governance of marginalized residential
areas (Fallov, 2006). However, comparatively few Danish studies have attempted to
examine the actual and concrete practices of local community workers and their interactions with residents. The study that informs this article, then, was generated with an
interest in what was actually, practically and concretely going on in local community
work and in the interactions between local community workers and residents. To elucidate this, I conducted fieldwork in three different sites of local community work, in three
different parts of Denmark. This article is based on the observations and interviews I
conducted in all of these sites. One project, which I shall call Project N, was where I did
the most extensive fieldwork, and it is from this project that most of my empirical examples stem. In this project, I observed local community workers for most of their working
day, participating in everything from formal and informal meetings (both without and
with residents), to activities with groups of local residents, to the more informal daily
lunches. I did this several times a week over the course of two months, finishing by interviewing my informants about their work (drawing on my observations). In total, across
all my sites, I did 17 interviews with professionals (one professional was interviewed
three times, two were interviewed twice, and one interview was of a group of three local
community workers). I also did approximately 214 hours of participant observation. The
fieldwork did not set out with a specific interest in ‘responsibilization’. Instead, the
themes of responsibility, autonomy and accounts emerged abductively (Brinkmann,
2014) as I tried to understand and theorize the interactions I had seen, and the conversations and interviews I had conducted. The stories I tell in this article are primarily told
from the perspectives of local community workers. While I encountered residents, spoke
with them and in some cases interviewed them, my prime focus was on the professionals.
All empirical materials have been anonymized and all translated from Danish to English.
Assessing residents, defining responsibilities
Within Project N, the local community workers would hold weekly meetings where
they would discuss the residents they were currently working with, and where they
would carry out supervision of each other’s work. I focus on these meetings first,
because they are examples of how local community workers collaboratively accounted
for residents. Through these accounts, the local community workers assessed the
‘nature’ of residents (such as their responsibilities) and their own responsibilities
towards residents. Below is an excerpt from my field notes, where the local community
workers discuss a particular resident:
Throughout the meeting Tess emphasizes how the most important thing is that the woman
learns how to take better care of her children. Brian asks Tess in which way the woman doesn’t
know how to take care of them. Tess responds that the kids are in control, that they at the age
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of 4–5 years are allowed to run in the streets at night. If we get her a job, Tess says, then I don’t
think she can do both [i.e. both work and take care of her kids]. And I think the children are
more important, she adds. Should we help children, or help the mother take care of them? Tess
says multiple times that they need to get the social workers from the municipality to help. (Field
note, Project N)
Two important things happen in this deceptively mundane discussion. First, the local
community workers assume that the woman does not know how to take care of her own
children. Second, this gives the local community workers a dilemma. On the one hand,
the local community workers want the woman to find employment. This goal matches
the general strategy of the local community project, which sought to make residents
‘active’ and employed. However, the goal of making the resident active and working
competes with a second and also important goal, namely to ensure that children are cared
for. In the excerpt, the woman is explicitly defined as being unable to take care of her
children, and as not fulfilling her responsibilities as a parent. As Tess frames it, the question is if the local community workers should be responsible for the woman and help her
become a more responsible and competent parent, or if they should help the children via
involving the local social services. The goal of making the woman self-responsible and
economically independent through employment, then, goes against the goal of making
her act in a more responsible way for her children. Importantly, these competing responsibilities (Trnka & Trundle, 2014) only come to light through Tess’s assessment that she
doesn’t think the woman can both take care of her children and work. Here is another
example from later on in the same meeting:
Lina mentions that a particular resident has more or less only been in her apartment, since she
came to Denmark. She doesn’t, according to Lina, go outside and get ‘Vitamin D’. Tess: ‘Can’t
we write down her name and say that we take care of her?’ (Field note, Project N)
Here, the giving of narrative accounts participates in defining both what the resident in
question is, as well as what she should be. Through accounting for how the resident stays
indoors, the local community workers define the resident as not properly autonomous.
This assessment leads to sorting out the local community workers’ responsibilities.
Within Project N, local community workers thus give narrative accounts which assess
the ‘nature’ of residents; judging them according to moral and normative standards (such
as what counts as good childcare). Through giving accounts of residents, local community workers perform localized definitions of what people are (for instance, someone
who does not go outside, or someone who does not take care of her kids properly) and,
sometimes implicitly, what they ought to be (someone who does go outside or take care
of her children). Through these accounts, then, particular responsibilities (towards one’s
children, towards one’s health, towards one’s independent behaviour) emerge.
Responsibility, independence and care
Throughout my empirical materials the making of responsible residents is entangled with
making residents independent (especially from the welfare state), and it is further
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entangled with practices of caring for residents. First, local community workers assume
that people have certain responsibilities – for instance, as we saw in the preceding section, towards their children – and they attempt to make people live up to these responsibilities through engendering autonomous agency. Take for instance this excerpt from an
interview with my informant Katherine, who worked in a project that sought to make
residents healthier:
Katherine:… we have this women’s club, where there’s been interest in arranging a gymnastics class. I don’t have time to be there and support it. And there’s one woman
who wants to arrange it, and we’ve done some initial preparation together, buying
some supplies. And I haven’t really heard from her since about when she wanted
to start. And then I guess I just haven’t done anything. And then yesterday she
said to me ‘we should get started’, and then I told her that I’ve deliberately not
asked you, because I thought it was your, it was your thing [to arrange]. So I’m
just waiting for you to come and say we’re starting … and it’s not that I don’t
want to, but because it’s important that she’s the one to say ‘we’re gonna do it’.
Interviewer: Why is that important?
Katherine:It’s important because … because it’s her responsibility. It’s both her responsibility and her duty, because it’s something she’s wanted to do, and then it’s also
something she needs to set in motion. (Interview, Katherine)
In this excerpt, responsibility and independence are entangled. Katherine believes it is
the responsibility of the resident to arrange the gymnastics class. As such, she assists the
resident, but deliberately refrains from doing the work for her. To live up to your responsibilities, here, requires autonomous agency. However, throughout my empirical materials, making residents ‘independent’ (for instance financially) or ‘responsible’ (for
instance for their children, or for arranging gymnastics classes) becomes entangled in
relations of care where local community workers often assume responsibility for residents, and do things for them (rather than letting them do it on their own). For instance,
one of the most pervasive practices of local community workers is to find employment
for residents, thus making them financially ‘responsible’ and independent from the welfare state (unemployment is high in all marginalized residential areas in Denmark). Take
for instance my informant Michael. In the local community project he worked in, his job
was specifically to help young residents into employment; that is, his task was to make
residents financially independent. He explains:
A lot of the those who come [to his office to get help] have, how to put it, experienced families that
never worked, and where the municipality supported them … if you’ve never experienced anything
but the municipality supporting you, and your school supporting you … so all of a sudden having
to learn to be independent must be a strange experience. And I talk to [the young people] about this,
I tell them there’s no one who comes and helps you. If you don’t look for work, then you’re not
gonna get work, if you don’t show that you can do your job then you’re not gonna keep it. So we
talk a lot about this idea that I don’t have to do anything myself. (Interview, Michael)
Michael sees the young people in the area as not having ‘learnt’ the particular kind of
independence and self-responsibility that he sets out to teach them. Irrespective of how
accurate his assumptions are, the excerpt demonstrates how his work explicitly focuses
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on making people responsible for a particular kind of practice, namely ‘working life’,
independent of the municipality’s support. However, making young people independent
is, for Michael, deeply entangled with offering them care and support:
… they need help, because they can’t do it on their own … if they didn’t need help, then they
wouldn’t come here. I mean, most of them can’t even put two coherent words together, how are you
supposed to write a job application? So yes, I help them, and I help them a lot … (Interview, Michael)
As Michael also put it in his interview, ‘I use my help to make them help themselves.’
Thus, the governmental demand for self-responsible and independent residents becomes
entangled with efforts of care, where Michael, for instance, helps young residents show
up to work or school on time, and other relatively mundane (but important) tasks.
Similarly, Katherine tells the following story about a woman she helps in the local community project:
[She] has had a lot of problems in her life, and she likes coming here … and I’ll happily help
her, but I also tell her that … what we really want is for [the woman] to stand on [her] own.
We’ll do it together now, but I really want that, in a year, then you can fill out your own
paperwork. (Interview, Katherine)
Like Michael, Katherine wishes to engender self-responsibility and independence in the
long run, but for now fills out the woman’s paperwork for her, assuming this specific
responsibility for her. What reverberates through my empirical materials is that the practical efforts of making independent or responsible residents are entangled with practical
forms of caring for the other. Care, understood here as efforts to make the other live life
as well as possible (Fisher & Tronto, 1990, p. 40), often involves assuming responsibility
for someone else (Trnka & Trundle, 2017a, pp. 11–12). This is exactly what Michael and
Katherine describe doing in the above excerpts. What we see is that efforts of making
people independent and responsible are entangled with caring for them, with making
them live better, easier lives. While Katherine wants the resident to independently fill out
her paperwork, she does it for her, and while Michael wants the young people he works
with to be able to find employment, he helps them closely, rather than leaving them to
their own devices. Rather than removing ‘dependency’, local community workers engage
in relations of care, where they assume responsibilities for residents, and attempt to make
them independent and self-responsible in the long run. Local community workers
become bound to residents through caring for them, with the hope and intention that
these acts of care, this assumption of responsibility for residents, will enable residents to
become self-responsible in time. The ambition may well be to be rid of ‘dependency’ and
to cultivate responsibility and independence, but in practice this works exactly through
generating new relations. Further, this work is entangled with account-giving. In the
example from Katherine, she assumes responsibility for the resident through assisting
her with giving a particular account, that is, filling out (unspecified) paperwork. Similarly,
one of the ways in which Michael helps young residents in his area is by helping them
make job applications. Put differently, he helps them make particular forms of accounts
The making of particular accounts – such as job applications – here is key both to relations of care and to assuming responsibilities for residents.
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Responsible account-making
Entangled with responsibility and independence is the giving of accounts. It is often
through the making of a particular kind of account that we demonstrate our responsibilities. For instance, it is through the collaborative account-giving that local community
workers assess residents to be responsible and irresponsible. And sometimes, as I will
demonstrate below, the giving of a particular type of account is also tied directly to the
emergence of residents as responsible. The following example focuses on Amira, a
woman who immigrated to Denmark in the 1990s, and is helped by Project N. In this
example, Amira is going to a meeting with her Unemployment Insurance Fund. Usually
a local community worker named Angela helps Amira, but today Sophie is covering for
her. The reason for the meeting is that Amira qualifies for unemployment benefits, but to
receive them she also needs to fulfil certain obligations. The following description is of
the meeting at the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s offices:
Barbara, who works for the Unemployment Insurance Fund, says: ‘Yes, we have approved that
you can receive the insurance benefit’. She says that Amira’s CV must be updated, that it has
the wrong age, and she laughs a little. She adds that it is nothing serious, but that it must be
corrected, and that they need to agree on Amira’s job seeking process today. Throughout the
meeting, Amira says little other than ‘yes’ or ‘okay’. Barbara says that Amira cannot receive
the insurance benefit, until she is registered as unemployed in ‘Jobnet’ [This is a website run
by the Danish government, in which all people wanting to receive benefits must be registered,
and which they must weekly affirm that they use, to be able to receive said benefits.] Barbara
explains to Amira, that she must weekly apply for at least two jobs and register it on the
Unemployment Insurance Fund’s website. Barbara says that as Sophie hears this too, maybe
she can help you [i.e. Amira] understand it. ‘You have a history in here, so we’ll keep a critical
eye on you’, she says, and she tells Amira how they will scrutinize if her job seeking activities
are ‘realistic’. She continues to state that Amira must, every week, log on to Jobnet. You can do
that, she says, otherwise your daughter can do it for you, you’ve been able to do it before, at
least. She suggests that the different demands about job seeking activities and logging onto
Jobnet becomes routinized. Sophie agrees and says that the project will have to do that.
Barbara walks to a printer to grab some documents. While she’s gone, Sophie tells Amira that
it’s very, very important that she keeps a detailed track of her calendar. ‘You can ask Angela for
help, but you constantly have to keep track of your appointments and tasks’. It’s your own
responsibility, she tells Amira, Angela just helps you. (Field note, Project N)
What Amira encounters here is a specific bureaucratic and socio-technical system that
demands particular and prefigured accounts of ‘responsible’ behaviour, in this case,
‘active job seeking’. The Unemployment Insurance Fund and its bureaucratic machinery
is a result of the increasing implementation of ‘workfare’ policies in Denmark (Torfing,
1999), under which rights and benefits are conditional upon activity, and, crucially,
accounting properly for one’s activity, such as applying for jobs (see e.g. Peck, 1998;
Villadsen, 2008). This example highlights how the demonstration of responsibility is
contingent on the production of specific, bureaucratically defined accounts. Further, the
example demonstrates how there are many things at stake in the demonstration of responsibility. While Sophie and Barbara have the proper conduct of their jobs at stake, Amira
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has her eligibility for benefits (and thus her financial situation) at stake. The realization
of these stakes, here, is tied to the ways in which Amira is assessed in the meeting. First,
she becomes assessed as both legally and practically responsible for providing specific
accounts of her ‘job seeking activities’. Second, she becomes judged to be unable to
produce the prefigured accounts requested of her. Third, the assumption of her inability
results in attempts to make Amira capable of producing correct accounts. As Barbara
mentions several times, if Amira cannot produce the accounts herself then she needs to
get her daughter, or Sophie, to help her, and the production of accounts needs to be ‘systematized’ and ‘routine’. Hence, an attempt was made to distribute Amira’s capacity to
produce accounts between the local community workers, the calendar and Amira’s family, so as to make her demonstrate this particular form of responsibility. A few months
after Amira’s meeting, Angela told me that the Unemployment Insurance Fund had
stopped paying benefits to Amira, because they did not believe she had been applying for
jobs. Angela further told me that the project would no longer help Amira because ‘she
doesn’t do what they say [the Unemployment Insurance Fund], we don’t want anything
to do with that’ (Field note, Project N). Angela would thus not help Amira any longer as
they had agreed in the project that it was too time consuming. This example demonstrates
how the local community workers had limits to how much time and effort they would
invest in making residents responsible. Helping Amira, being seen as searching for work
in the eyes of the Unemployment Insurance Fund, would both take too much time for the
local community workers, and, importantly, also skirt dangerously close to bending
bureaucratic regulations (as Amira had, according to Angela, not followed the instructions set out by the Unemployment Insurance Fund). Thus, both taking on this responsibility for Amira, and building her capacities to provide particular accounts (and thus to
demonstrate this particular form of responsibility) seem to fail. This, then, is not an
example of how the ‘responsibilized’ subject is enacted smoothly through governance.
Instead, the example shows how making people take on relations of responsibility is difficult, especially when what counts as responsibility is narrowly delimited through
bureaucratic systems. Here, the local community workers cannot ‘convince’ anyone to
bend the rules or be lenient; instead they fold under the bureaucratic power of the
Unemployment Insurance Fund.
Responsibility and the making of accounts
Responsibilization is often tied to practices of accounting and audits; calculative practices that are crucial to demonstrating that various responsibilities have been taken on
(Miller, 2001). It is no different for the local community projects that I followed. That is,
local community workers were consistently engaged in a variety of calculative and
account-making practices. These practices served to account for two things: how the
residents were progressing towards self-responsibility and independence from the welfare state, and, second, how the local community workers were responsibly and competently facilitating this process. For instance, in Project N, three local community workers
were carrying out a project which focused on helping unemployed local women attain
employment. The local community workers had devised a schema to help account for if
the women were progressing properly towards employment. Through these schemas,
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they would track the activities that the residents partook in, how many consultations with
local community workers they had, if they had started education or gained employment.
The schemas also contained rating scales. Here, the local community workers made personal assessments about, for instance, how ‘motivated’ the women were to find employment, or how big their ‘social networks’ were. This practice creates numerical information
that both accounts for if the resident ‘progresses’ towards particular goals such as ‘motivation’ to find employment and if the local community workers are successful; that is, if
the person actually moves closer to finding employment. The schemas translate qualitative, personalized knowledge into something measurable. It seeks to capture the ongoing
‘life’ of residents in an objective manner. The network of local community workers, residents and schemas functions as an inscription device (Latour, 1986), that is, as a set-up
which transforms lived life and often ephemeral activities into stable numbers and visualizations of the ‘progress’ of the residents (see also Law, 2002). Through these accounts,
the local community workers could see if residents were progressing properly, for
instance by comparing old ‘progression schemas’ with newer ones. These accounts
would be collated and converted into statistics and graphs which, as Sophie put it to me:
Show how [the progress of the project] looks. And it, luckily, is on an upwards trajectory and
demonstrates that there is a progression [over time]. (Interview, Sophie)
The individual schemas tailored to each resident account for how this particular individual is progressing towards becoming self-responsible and financially independent
from the welfare state. Further, the aggregated accounts which demonstrated an ‘upwards
trajectory’ and a ‘progression’ in the residents’ employability become a demonstration of
the competencies of the local community workers: it shows that they are indeed properly
and competently fulfilling their responsibility of making the residents self-responsible
and independent. The local community workers in Project N would, besides creating
schemas that directly accounted for the progression of residents, also consistently track
their own activities. For instance, Tess, who gave therapeutic treatments to residents and
taught them about health, had to register both when she taught groups of residents and
when she had individual appointments with a single resident. Here she would register
how many ‘classes’ she holds, when she holds them and the number of participants.
Further, she would register the number of individual treatments given to specific residents, how many were planned in advance, and how many happen ad hoc. The spreadsheets were not standardized across Project N, but rather tailored to each individual local
community worker. Thus, Brian, who worked with helping young people into work, also
had to note the number of consultations he had with specific residents, and note the ‘status/result’: that is, if the resident has obtained either ‘employment’, ‘education’ or ‘development’. These numerical accounts became used in the production of more accounts.
They were aggregated into quarterly reports, which summarize the activities of the project under each of the areas it intervenes in, such as ‘Health’ or ‘Employment and
Education’. They are then aggregated for yearly reports, which further collate the various
numbers and create an account that is both narrative and numerical; it uses both qualitative descriptions and the ‘hard’ numbers to account for how the local community work
project has performed in the year which has passed. Here, for instance, the number of
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‘unique residents’ is listed, alongside the number of residents in employment, in education and so forth. In making these accounts, then, the unique and singular resident is
configured into an aggregate of residents, plural, an aggregation of how many residents
have become self-responsible (e.g. working).
However, in the translation of situated and lived activities of residents into textual and
material accounts, the specificities and temporalities of residents’ lives also disappear. As
my informant Lina remarked to me during the fieldwork, things and people’s lives change
as time passes. To this remark we may add that the account stays the same. Life-as-such
becomes simplified, temporally stabilized and distributed through these numerical
accounts. The singular resident becomes part of an aggregated account of residents, a
partial account which folds together activities carried out by local community workers
(such as meetings) with the events in the lives of residents (such as obtaining employment). From schemas measuring and visualizing the progression of residents, to spreadsheets providing clear overviews of the activities of local community workers, the local
community work can be seen as consisting of various inscription devices that make
accounts to responsibly track and monitor how residents live – and, crucially, if residents
are becoming self-responsible. These practices of audit and calculation, however, did not
constrain or colonize the local community project. Rather, counting the number of meetings is a non-specific indicator shows that a meeting took place, but does not capture any
of the activities that make up this meeting. It produces a partial account of activities,
which can be strategically used to demonstrate and justify the work and efficiency of the
project (Fallov, 2012). If detailed summaries of all activities were to be produced by the
local community workers, their work would soon consist of nothing else, and very
lengthy accounts would be produced. To demonstrate responsibility and competency in
a feasible way, then, simplification is vital. Simplification makes it possible for the activities to crystallize, circulate, and be compared. Simplification makes it possible to
‘broadcast’ the activities of the local community workers to local stakeholders and politicians, thus making information about the project travel further (Latour, 1999: 70-71).
Responsibilization in the local community project is intimately entangled with practices
of making accounts that demonstrate these responsibilities – even if such accounts are
always an imprecise inscription of lived life. And, further, this also entangles local community workers in complex systems of auditing and accounting. Responsibilization, in
this sense, affects not only residents, but local community workers too.
Concluding remarks
Throughout this article I have explored how local community work in Denmark is a
practice of governance, which seeks to create responsible residents, most prevalently in
the form of making them financially independent and agential. That responsibility, in
these practices, most commonly becomes self-responsibility and independence from the
welfare state matches the existing literature on the subject (e.g. Rose, 2000). The contribution of this article, then, lies primarily in demonstrating how responsibilization is
much more ambiguous and complex than typically portrayed when the level of analysis
moves from policies towards those (such as local community workers) who are responsible for carrying it out in practice.
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First, it is apparent that responsibility is in practice sorted out and demonstrated
through making and giving accounts, both narrative and numerical. Through telling stories and discussing residents, local community workers assess and define residents,
including if residents are properly being responsible (e.g. for their children) and selfresponsible (e.g. going outside, being independent). Of course, such assessments are not
in any way a full picture of the agencies and responsibilities of residents. Rather, what
local community workers create are ‘partial’ (Strathern, 2004) narrative accounts that
correspond to normative conceptions of what it means to be a good citizen today. These
accounts, further, shape for whom local community workers should be responsible. In
numerical accounts the lived lives of residents and the activities of the local community
workers become inscribed and folded together, collated and aggregated. This demonstrates how and if local community workers are living up to their responsibilities towards
local stakeholders by creating a figure of a responsible resident. Without the making of
numerical accounts, none of the other work could proceed. Responsibilization, then,
does not only affect residents, but also those who are to make residents responsible.
Thus, responsibilization cuts multiple ways, affecting both those governed and those
who attempt to govern.
Second, responsibilization is rather messy. Efforts of creating self-responsible residents become entangled with practical efforts of caring for people. Instead of unambiguously fostering self-reliance and independence in residents, local community workers tie
themselves to residents in new ways by assuming responsibility on behalf of the other.
Thus, rather than straightforwardly enacting a ‘responsible’ or ‘autonomous’ resident,
the attempt to make residents independent creates new dependencies. This finding has
parallels in existing literatures on responsibilization. For instance, in their discussion of
responsibilization within Dutch safety and crime policies, van Houdt and Schinkel
(2014) differentiate between ‘facilitative’ and ‘repressive’ responsibilization (van Houdt
& Schinkel, 2014, p. 61). The former assumes that citizens are fully autonomous and
thus capable of being ‘governed at a distance’, while the latter takes place ‘in the homes,
minds and bodies of people’ (van Houdt & Schinkel, 2014, p. 61), attempting to re-form
people into being properly autonomous and responsible citizens. While labelling local
community work as ‘repressive’ is, I think, too simplistic an analysis, there is an important parallel here. Local community work, like the ‘repressive responsibilization’
described by van Houdt and Schinkel, is a practice which happens physically and relationally ‘close’ to residents. Local community workers are situated in marginalized
neighbourhoods, and they become engaged in practices of care that extend over time,
where they often assume responsibility for residents. Rather than ‘repress’ residents,
local community work is instead an ambivalent practice, simultaneously attempting to
care for residents while also making them independent and self-reliant. Further, while
making residents take on responsibility for various practices – such as applying for jobs
– is a prevalent strategy, its execution and practical implementation emerges as much
more messy and difficult in the case of Amira. Here, local community workers try in vain
to distribute the responsibility of accounting for her behaviour to family and friends, but
this distributive effort fails. The responsible subject is hard to conjure forth when responsibility itself becomes narrowly delimited through socio-technical and bureaucratic systems, and decoupled from practical and lived concerns of people. In the end, Amira is
Hoffmann Birk
held accountable by the Unemployment Insurance Fund, but the production of her as
‘responsible’ in the eyes of the local community workers (as agential and able to, either
herself or through her family, create proper accounts for her behaviour) fails.
Responsibilization, in sum, should not be understood as something that is in any way
smoothly enacted. Yet responsibilization is, as Trnka and Trundle also argue (2017a,
pp. 21–22), an increasingly pervasive technique of governance today. It is exactly
because responsibility is never a free-floating concept, but a relational one, exactly
because responsibility emerges from within both particular socio-technical systems
(such as state bureaucracies) and complex assemblages of history, kinship and relations
(such as family, or community), that attempts to make people ‘responsible’ need further
analysis. Responsibilization may, as it often is, be associated with ‘neoliberalism’,
‘advanced liberalism’ and politics of austerity, but such politics may take on different,
surprising and more ambiguous forms ‘on the ground’; they may become entangled with
practices of care, or even ensnare those who are meant to responsibilize. Put differently,
the relational character of responsibility calls for further and more careful attention to the
practices that seek to ‘responsibilize’, including when, how and if such practices become
entangled with other practices (such as of care) and when these practices fail.
I would like to thank Dan Neyland, Mia Fallov, Maria Appel Nissen and Mikka Nielsen for very
useful comments on the various versions of this article. I would furthermore like to thank the
reviewers of the article for very thoughtful and helpful critiques, and to Tom Slater for excellent
editorial feedback.
This research was conducted as part of my PhD Thesis, which was undertaken as part of the collective research project ‘Views on Human Beings in Social Work – Welfare Policies, Technologies
and Knowledge of Human Beings’ at the Department of Sociology and Social Work, Aalborg
University. This collective research project was funded by a grant from the Velux Foundations.
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