Social innovation in welfare practices: identification, idealisation and shame

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  • 1 Roskilde University, , Denmark
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In the Nordic welfare states, social innovation is currently seen as key to improving and renewing services and sustainable products, to changing and empowering people’s lives, to enhancing public services and to encouraging private–public–civil collaborations. In this article, I provide insights into the psychosocial fabric of this current development, pointing out how identification, idealisation and shame become descriptive of the psychosocial landscape in social enterprises. Social enterprises invest in creating both social and economic value as well as reinvesting their profits for the good of their enterprise, staff, volunteers and the local community. Through an examination of case studies, I illustrate how managers and staff identify with and idealise their social innovative missions, but find it difficult to fulfil their aspirations in the face of (neoliberal) societal and organisational contexts and conditions.

Abstract

In the Nordic welfare states, social innovation is currently seen as key to improving and renewing services and sustainable products, to changing and empowering people’s lives, to enhancing public services and to encouraging private–public–civil collaborations. In this article, I provide insights into the psychosocial fabric of this current development, pointing out how identification, idealisation and shame become descriptive of the psychosocial landscape in social enterprises. Social enterprises invest in creating both social and economic value as well as reinvesting their profits for the good of their enterprise, staff, volunteers and the local community. Through an examination of case studies, I illustrate how managers and staff identify with and idealise their social innovative missions, but find it difficult to fulfil their aspirations in the face of (neoliberal) societal and organisational contexts and conditions.

Social innovation in social enterprises: sticky constructions

In the Nordic welfare states, social innovation is currently seen as key to improving and renewing services and sustainable products, to changing and empowering people’s lives, to enhancing public social services and to encouraging private–public–civil collaborations (Andersen and Banerjee, 2020; Banerjee et al, 2020). Consequently, many public, private and civil organisations engage in this renewal and in this article I provide insights into the psychosocial dimensions of this development. I examine a number of Danish case studies of social enterprises and look at how managers and staff talk about and reflect on their social and economic mission and work situation. Social enterprises invest in creating both social and economic value and they reinvest their profits for the good of their enterprise, staff, volunteers, stakeholders and the local community. Social value often involves job training, integration, empowerment, social housing, poverty reduction or sustainable production using (social) innovation as a new approach to social problems. Civil society is often a privileged partner to social enterprises by collaborating with voluntary associations and non-governmental organisations (Andersen and Hulgård, 2016).

I consider the concepts of ‘identification’, ‘idealisation’ and ‘shame’ as being central for deepening our understanding of performative and professional innovative work such as that of the social enterprise. Professionals and citizens are expected to be change agents to provide socially innovative services and many are eager to perform, but they are also burdened by this. In the following I illustrate how processes of identification, idealisation, shame and defence mechanisms are related to individuals’ engagement in innovative change processes. We might understand these as ‘sticky constructions’, following Britzman (2010: 20). Britzman notes how Freud positioned objects, objections and obstacles as constituting a psychoanalytic movement as if he was always addressing a learning subject from the point of view of learning from difficulties. This may assume the form of ego defences, resistance, constructions in analysis, moral anxiety and interference of the superego, transference, love, free association, dreams or group psychology. Britzman names these phenomena ‘sticky constructions’ (Britzman, 2010: 20) and I argue that my psychosocial reading of identification/idealisation/shame might very well be labelled a ‘sticky construction’, emphasising that this entity represents a story of social innovation for us to uncover, expound and learn from.

Social innovation tends to be a grand vision to be realised through complex and demanding social practices. It ‘refers broadly to innovation in meeting social needs of, or delivering social benefits to, communities – the creation of new products, services, organisational structures or activities that are “better” or “more effective” than traditional public sector, philanthropic or market-reliant approaches in responding to social exclusion’ (Moulaert et al, 2013: 1). This might be part of a paradigm shift, because it ‘appears as the foundation for an alternative to the neoliberalist societal vision. Favoring solidarity over individualism, integration over sectoralization, and collaboration over division. At the ethical level, social innovations function as a means to learn collectively and to increase the capabilities of the most vulnerable people to better their living conditions’ (Moulaert et al, 2013: 15). But social innovation is a many-sided phenomenon and can actually serve several masters. At some point in the development of neoliberalism, its inherent competition has been complemented by an explicit social aim of extending capitalism along philanthropic lines and incorporating the capacity for permanent innovation to unfold within itself (Laville and Eynaud, 2019: 33). Multidimensional innovation then helps to reconcile capitalism and society, combining a humanist societal discourse with renewed competiveness, both being correlated to a high level of social innovation (Laville and Eynaud, 2019: 34).

Social enterprises are often micro-entities, but are nevertheless, despite their size, inscribed in the grand narrative of social innovation. We can identify two ‘schools of thought’ about social enterprises – ‘the earned income school of thought’ and ‘the social innovation school of thought’ – which represent the two predominant strands of social enterprises (Anderson and Dees, 2006). However, many social and business enterprises combine these in a vision that creates blended value, to balance and better integrate economic and social strategies (Defourny and Nyssens, 2012). Consequently, both market income and social innovation are accentuated as core elements. Social enterprises should, by way of being socially innovative, provide new social services or products to ‘wicked problems’ that can enter the market and provide a revenue.

In Denmark, ‘social innovation’ is a dominant concept in rhetoric and reality, and is considered as:

  • a way to solve municipal social challenges (Hougaard and Lauritzen, 2014);

  • radical innovation is a new lingo pointing to how public innovation when being radical can be efficient, scaled up or necessarily profitable (Mandag Morgen, 2013);

  • a high-level involvement strategy that strengthens the outcomes of innovation, providing greater ownership and trust (Øllgaard, 2020);

  • created, produced and delivered by social actors, complementing public services, and placing civil society in a more important strategic role (Fuglsang and Scupola, 2019).

Confronted with these favourable outlooks, a critical voice is appropriate as ‘[a]n increasingly impatient social sector sees innovation as the holy grail of progress stemming from the perception that traditional development, poverty-related challenges and growing levels of inequality are lost years’ (Seelos and Mair, 2012: 45). This is a thought-provoking point of relevance for Denmark since social innovation in the form of social project experiments has been key to welfare state development (Hulgård and Andersen, 2019). Adding to this, inherent in the push for social innovation in welfare services lies an understanding that favours a market and entrepreneurial approach, focusing on outcomes from market impact. This means that innovation driven by incremental changes from within a public organisation is overlooked or even downgraded (Seelos and Mair, 2012: 46). At a societal level, then, we can identify an ambiguous handling of the narrative of social innovation. As I shall unfold in the following, the managers and staff of social enterprises mirror the same ambivalence.

Social innovation in social enterprises: blended values, empowerment and welfare service deliveries

A number of Danish social enterprise case studies provide insights into the experiences and symbolisations of social and economic value creation, citizens’ empowerment and change processes (Rosenberg, 2014; Svensson, 2014b; Andersen, 2015b; Jørgensen and Sievers, 2015; Sievers, 2016, 2019). For this article I include studies by Svensson, (2014a) and Jørgensen (2017) since they provide in-depth inquiries into work identification, work barriers and personal motivation for choosing a social enterprise for paid work. One ethnographic study by Svensson focused on three social enterprises pursuing social and economic value and employing socially vulnerable citizens who were marginalised in the labour market. The enterprises consisted of a sewing workshop, a high-profile industrial components company and a grocery shop (Svensson, 2014a: 133). Twenty interviews were carried out with employees and public sector case managers, and fieldwork and document analysis were conducted. Regarding their motives for working in the enterprises, several employees stated ‘that their ambition is to help create a utopian place of solidarity where people can have job satisfaction for the betterment of themselves as well as society in general’ (Svensson, 2014a: 59). One employee pointed out how he had gradually changed his work identification from a perception of having just a regular job to having a high degree of enthusiasm, since the work, the work environment and his colleagues provided a ‘contagious’ work ethic and engagement (Svensson, 2014a: 27). There was strong staff identification with the enterprise: ‘We have made this company because we can do it our own way. We know something special. We want to create something unique and special both from how we do it and from how we market it’ (Svensson, 2014a: 167). Another employee added that ‘performance and change trigger opportunities’ and that the enterprise is all about being able to see future possibilities since the market is changing, along with the group of vulnerable citizens employed (Svensson, 2014a: 153). Consequently, this creates pressure on the employees and the enterprise, since ‘the trick is to keep up with changing times and if you can’t then you will go down’ (Svensson, 2014a: 149). The interviewed employees thus saw themselves as representatives of experimental processes, in which they constantly test boundaries and attempt to find out what works and what does not (Svensson, 2014a: 167).

On the other hand, Svensson also highlights how cutbacks lead to increased production, which provides less space for empowerment and change processes such as strengthening social relations and support for the development of vulnerable staff members. Staff interviewees asked for ‘upper management to hold back the axe’ since this led to ‘frustrated employees lacking spirit’ (Svensson, 2014a: 125). A continuous flow of deteriorating work conditions led to high turnover and sickness absence. Employees voiced notable frustration when human and social relationships were not given space. The maintenance of human relations was at the core of their professionalism and served as social navigation and as a symbolic counterbalance to the experience of a centralising and structuring municipality, which was seen as dehumanising and segregating (Svensson, 2014a: 129).

Another in-depth study by Jørgensen (2017), based on fieldwork and 15 interviews with managers and staff in two social enterprises and cooperatives providing sustainable food products and food deliveries, clarified the visions of the manager and founder of one of the enterprises: ‘It is about creating a local community that provides spaces for all and makes us happy rather than rich and also does good for the environment’ (Jørgensen, 2017: 110). The intentions were to create a whole new industry offering meaningful societal participation and delivering on social and environmental sustainability. Despite having a very positive impact on social media and a lot of publicity, the difficulties remained quite overwhelming in terms of staff consisting of homeless and former homeless people, financial support, a sustainable business plan and suitable facilities for food production (Jørgensen, 2017: 131). In the manager’s words: ‘I believe in a more idealistic society.… We have some values in our social enterprise believing that one can produce and be productive in society without being productive in the capitalist way, which destroys the environment and destroys people at the same time’ (Jørgensen, 2017: 129). Another employee said: ‘For me this enterprise is about proving that homeless and other vulnerable people could actually produce something of “real value”, something that is good enough to be sold at the airport or in Tivoli’ (Jørgensen, 2017: 131). The daily challenges and navigation between different visions, expectations and realities led to frustrations and tensions for staff and the manager when ‘the calculations did not add up’ and always ‘being shorthanded’ or being unable to provide the right people for the jobs (Jørgensen, 2017: 112).

Despite a clear vision of social and environmental sustainability, awards and positive media publicity, the realisation has been all but easy. As the manager put it: ‘The idea is good – that works, it is the practicalities that are difficult. It has been uphill, we have been under enormous pressure and often face day-to-day survival to provide efficient liquidity and secure the cohesion of the organization. We have not been able to sell our products to the extent needed and we are overwhelmed by the number and variety of tasks’ (Jørgensen, 2017: 111). The employee responsible for volunteers and external collaboration said: ‘It has been uphill to recruit homeless or marginalised people since our job is both business and job training/social work and too many are simply not up to it. Too many times I have had to make spectacular savings at the last minute – in order to provide orders’ (Jørgensen, 2017: 112). A complicated organisational model that is difficult for everyone involved to understand, much to learn about business operations as well as social work, uncertain finances, an insecure and very small workforce, but with an ‘idea that works’ and considerable publicity, this social enterprise provides an example of bricolage, illustrating how implementation is an ambivalent affair, as efforts to fulfil social and economic ambitions do not necessarily always lead to a ‘win-win’ situation (Jørgensen, 2017: 129).

Social innovation in a psychosocial perspective: identification, idealisation and shame

The psychosocial understanding of identification emphasises that these processes are dynamic parts of our personality and professional development, whereby we adapt and model ourselves based on the desirable qualities and actions of another person or people, or desirable causes. These are conscious and unconscious mental processes formed at an early age, but in adult life they adapt, change and continue to inform our professional and personal life (Freud, 1993). Sandor Ferenczi states that ‘the ego is always in search of objects, i.e. individuals or “desirable causes”, to identify with; these can act as objects of transference or we can introject them in order to grow and mature’ (Ferenczi, 1955). Due to these processes, all of us are drawn to worthy causes or people to engage and identify with, just as we learn by listening to the staff and managers in our case studies. They all engage in larger causes. ‘Grand narratives’ such as social innovation, democratic participation, empowerment and sustainability depend on professionals (and citizens) identifying with these narratives to enable them to be realised and implemented. Welfare professionals who identify with these objectives provide the ‘engine’ of welfare services but at the same time these processes might produce idealisation, ambivalence and anxiety – partly rooted in the constraints of societal, organisational and financial frameworks (Andersen, 2013, 2015a, 2016). But professional and personal performance also implies intrasubjectivity and intersubjectivity, contextualised by societal, cultural and organisational settings (Benjamin, 1995).

We cannot fully understand how identification and engagement by staff and managers oscillate without looking at the specific organisational, economic and societal conditions for their work. What we hear is that cutbacks and limited resources affect their results and job satisfaction and actually lead to a lack of identification, followed by anger, depression, despair or burnout. The societal landscape for social enterprises in Denmark is to deliver on a bottom line of social and economic values. Their economic foundation is often a resource mix combining both market income and public and private funding. Surveys have documented that social enterprises struggle to survive on a long-term basis since they often integrate vulnerable citizens with a simultaneous focus on traditional market delivery and key performance indicators. Denmark is strong on rhetoric supporting social enterprises, but weak on fiscal and financial support structures (Andersen et al, 2016b; Andersen and Hulgård, 2016; Hulgård and Chodorkoff, 2019). Our case interviewees all pointed out their constrained working conditions and provided a detailed account of how they influenced their wellbeing at work. The conditions also led to reduced options for providing an empowering and participative environment for their more vulnerable co-workers. These conditions and consequences affected the interviewees due to their strong sense of identification. The neoliberal transformation of the Danish welfare state has imposed a number of pressures on employees, citizens, welfare recipients and managers, because they need to apply top-down regulations and objectives while simultaneously attending to professional standards, and to citizens’ and users’ subjective needs and demands. But at the same time, these transformations have been shaped by a Nordic tradition enabling democracy and citizen participation as crucial elements of this fabric.

Neoliberal practices as framings for social enterprises

In brief, the Danish (and Scandinavian) welfare states originate from a redistributive, reciprocal and solidarity-based approach, with universalism as the guiding principle in welfare services (Esping-Andersen, 1990). Nordic economies, societies and politics imply a large public sector, a universal, all-embracing welfare state and a high degree of economic and social equality (Enjolras and Strømsnes, 2017). The state provides free access to healthcare, social services and education and the Scandinavian countries are state-friendly societies, in which the relationship between the state and civil society is characterised by close contact and cooperation rather than distance and conflict (Enjolras and Strømsnes, 2017).

New Public Management (NPM) is based on a liberalistic market economy. Denmark has implemented NPM since the mid-1980s and this has been a significant driver for changing the public sector. However, Denmark has been more of a modernising nation than a marketising one (Greve, 2006). This statement reflects the fact that Denmark has had a modernising approach, implementing a continuous stream of rationalisation and optimisation, more use of technology, and leadership and management improvement. But compared with other Nordic countries, Denmark has not gone far in privatising and marketising public welfare services and institutions. Denmark is a country heavily influenced by NPM. Public managers in the Danish public sector are embedded in organising by means of vocabulary related to NPM: performance-based management, market mechanisms, quality systems, balanced scorecards, customer orientation, e-government, performance-related pay and contracts (Greve, 2006).

In Denmark, the neoliberal transformation of the welfare state has been implemented through a number of governmental modernisation programmes, launched in the 1980s and followed up through the 1990s and 2000s. These were characterised by NPM in a mix of: ‘hard’ traditional goals of productivity, efficiency, performativity and management; and ‘soft’ democratic and professional goals such as the involvement of citizens and staff, democracy and interprofessional collaboration (Andersen, 2015a, 2016; Greve, 2006; Kamp and Hansen, 2018). In this way, working life in the public sector has been transformed by increased managerial control over performance, productivity, output and results, but it has also enabled self-management, resistance and active individual and collective influence on work (Kamp and Hansen, 2018: 221). The modernisation programmes initiated top-down have led to major changes in Danish society and implemented considerable innovation in welfare services, public management and organisational structures and cultures (Andersen, 2015a; Hartley, 2005). Public institutions collaborate more and have developed their internal cooperation, and increased local democracy and the co-creation of welfare services. Consequently, the outcome of these development programmes has largely been dependent on many actors, such as public servants, citizens and local politicians (Sørensen and Torfing, 2011; Andersen, 2016). Thus, a significant point is that although modernisation programmes might have been decided top-down, they also required the activation of a bottom-up approach in their realisation (Hartley et al, 2013; Andersen, 2016). Modernising the public sector also paved the way for more diversified market and welfare services, which have proven to be important for social innovation, social entrepreneurship and the development of hybrid organisations combining public and civic elements. In this way, the public sector has been streamed into a (social) entrepreneurial mindset and entrepreneurial initiatives in welfare services (Andersen et al, 2016a; Andersen and Hulgård, 2016).

The psychic economy of work

In order to understand work and its obvious and latent meanings for people, we need to unfold the societal contextualisaton of paid work. I have sketched out the societal framing but we need to dig deeper into the meanings and processes of work as well. The concept of the ‘psychic economy’ of work elaborates on how wage labour must be understood through the individual’s psychodynamic structures and processes, which are shaped by life history and society. This concept was originally linked to the early alienated structures of industrial production, but a more contemporary application adds the social reproduction of the utility- and needs-related value of work in the form of a dynamic paradigm of work-related psychology (Volmerg, 1990: 103; Meyerhuber, 2009: 102). The fact that paid work activates a series of individual life-history developmental traits can be understood through the psychoanalytic concepts of ‘transference’ and ‘displacement’ (Leithäuser and Volmerg, 1988). A variety of drives and needs are displaced from the individual to the specific work role and working conditions in order to satisfy these needs. Consequently, in paid work it is possible to identify and analyse specific psychodynamic processes where impulse gratification consists of a certain constellation, depending on the individual’s life history and the available opportunities for drive satisfaction (Andersen, 2013: 129). The case studies I have highlighted in this article illustrate some of these dynamics: very personal and dedicated engagement with the mission of the social enterprise, which is trying to change the world for the better; significant personal satisfaction from being involved in changing the lives of marginalised citizens; and joy and satisfaction when the enterprise succeeds in delivering social products and empowerment.

Insights into the emotional spectrum involved in these organisational and human change processes indicate how these efforts are not only sustained through people’s identification and idealisation but also entail elements of ambivalence and defence. Social enterprises contain a number of features that combine challenging goals for individuals with broader societal objectives and visions. The dynamic reciprocal interaction between the goals and visions of organisational innovation that is played out in a specific societal framework leads to certain specific psychosocial manifestations, such as professional and personal fulfilment through identification, mixed with dilemmas and difficulties expressed in ambivalence, defensiveness and powerlessness. In order to fulfil the ‘grand vision’ of human growth, empowerment and social change, managers and staff have to identify with these objectives. And to meet them they need to identify with them in the form of strong commitment, professional skills and strategic management.

Simultaneously, we might ask whether the organisational objectives of human growth and empowerment have been the subject of idealisation – as a societal and labour market discourse – due to an articulation of very high objectives and expectations in labour market policy and the socioeconomic strategies of local government. It is remarkable how all the interviewees in the case studies voiced a very high and idealised vision and mission for their working life. Their comments were articulate and well considered. But it was also quite difficult to fulfil their aspirations. Simultaneously, almost in the same breath they talked about their disappointments and the barriers they identified for reaching their goals. One could almost categorise these remarks as idealisations. The societal framework influences intrasubjective and intersubjective work processes, as illustrated by the case interviewees’ indications of sadness, disappointment and overinvestment, and feelings of being overwhelmed, powerless and resentful. Idealisation from a psychosocial perspective may be understood as a libidinous (instinctively energetic) investment in a person or case, typically exaggerated and overstated. When a person idealises, the feeling is not always acknowledged and we may therefore refer to idealisation as an overinvestment, with various consequences. A particular hierarchy and ambivalence is established between the person and the idealised object, which creates a power relationship where the ‘little subject’ may sometimes feel overwhelmed and rendered powerless by the idealised object (person or matter); thus, the idealisation hampers the satisfaction of professional or emotional needs, since it may lead to states of fascination or destructive rage (Ferenczi, 1955; Freud, 1993). Hoggett (2017: 364) adds ‘that performativity exploits the employee’s desire to achieve the ideal, yoking this to target setting and performance monitoring. Everything becomes quantified, including the self. Insecurity and failure lurk in the shadow of performativity and feelings of shame become pervasive.’ This concept therefore offers a thought-provoking understanding of how attractive visions and objectives such as social innovation may become a yoke around the neck of the dedicated people who have taken it upon themselves to realise these societal and human objectives. If elements of idealisation take effect, the inability to realise the grand vision leads to ambivalence, shame and despair, as we have seen in the case studies, and this may suggest that individual change agents bear an excessive burden for the processes and goals impeded by societal, economic and structural barriers. Not being able to fulfil the ideal – as several quotes from the social enterprise interviews show – might produce feelings of shame and guilt. Shame can be understood as the emotion of failure (Hoggett, 2017: 364). It is associated with the real or imagined look of the other and the fear of loss of love, abandonment and exclusion (Hoggett, 2017: 373).

Concluding remarks

In this article I have offered a reading of social innovation identified as social enterprises of an innovative character. I have situated this as a current neoliberal strategy in Denmark and suggested that this might foster a certain psychosocial cluster of identification, idealisation and shame. I have used case studies to illustrate how managers and staff identify with and idealise their social innovative missions, but find it difficult to fulfil their aspirations in the face of societal and organisational contexts and conditions. This leads to various emotional reactions and defences, and ends up as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, contemporary welfare work relies heavily on identifying and engaged workers in order to meet public policies and objectives. On the other hand, politically defined standards provide a poor framework for public sector professionals, leading to exhaustion and disillusionment.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Meyerhuber, S. (2009) Das dynamische Paradigma der Arbeitspsychologie und analytische Konsequenzen für die Praxis, in T. Leithäuser, S. Meyerhuber and M. Schottmayer (eds) Sozialpsychologisches Organisationsverstehen, New York, NY: Springer, pp 95115.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moulaert, F., MacCallum, D., Mehmood, A. and Hamdouch, A. (2013) General introduction: the return of social innovation as a scientific concept and a social practice, in F. Moulaert, D. MacCallum, A. Mehmood and A. Hamdouch (eds) The International Handbook on Social Innovation: Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdisciplinary Research, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp 16.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Øllgaard, T. (2020) Continous co-creation: how ongoing involvement impacts outcomes of co-creation, Public Management Review, doi: 10.1080/14719037.2020.1786150

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosenberg, C. (2014) SydhavnsCompagniet: Tilblivelser, relationer og muligheder i stribede og glatte rum [SydhavnsCompagniet: becomings, relations and opportunities in smooth and striated spaces], PhD Thesis, Roskilde University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seelos, B.C. and Mair, J. (2012) Innovation is not the holy grail, Stanford Social Innovation Review, (autumn): 449.

  • Sievers, S.M.M. (2016) Fragile heterotopias – a case study of a Danish social enterprise, Community Development Journal, 51(1): 7794, https://doi.org/10.1093/cdj/bsv064.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sievers, S.M.M. (2019) Social innovations as heretical practices, People-Centered Social Innovation: 22538, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351121026-11.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sørensen, E. and Torfing, J. (2011) Samarbejdsdrevet innovation i den offentlige sektor, Copenhagen: Jurist-og Økonomforbundet.

  • Svensson, C.F. (2014a) Anstændighedens udfordringer: relationer, navigationer og horisonter i sociale virksomheder [The challenges of decency: relations, navigations and horizon in social enterprises], PhD Thesis, Roskilde University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Svensson, C.F. (2014b) ‘Making money is not on end in itself’: creating meaningfulness among employees of social enterprises, Antipoda, (18): 24155.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Volmerg, B. (1990) Arbeit als erlebte Wirklichkeit: Überlegungen zum Verhältnis von Arbeit und Subjektivität, Psychosozial, 13(3–43): 8091.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 Roskilde University, , Denmark

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