Recognition struggles of young Danes under the work first paradigm: a study of restricted and generalised agency

Jennifer Eschweiler*, Sabina Pultz

*Corresponding author

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Work has become ‘a normatively charged concept, one in which normative expectations and the current form of a society’s relation to work have become sedimented’ (Jaeggi, 2016:70). Critical theorists have observed how work is linked to recognition and self-realization. Consequently, they see how unemployment can lead to a sense of alienation. Exploring the social practices among young entrepreneurial creative people receiving unemployment benefits in Denmark, we pose the following research question: how do young people in the unemployment benefit system work within and against the system? Based on interviews with young unemployed people conducted as part of a PhD (Pultz, 2017) we aim to unfold how the young people challenge the ‘work first paradigm’, including resisting the neoliberal understanding that human worth is determined by employment status. We combine insight from critical theory in order to understand the current work pathologies and apply the critical psychological concepts of restricted and expansive agency to shed light on how our sample engages in recognition struggles. They do so by seeking to gain influence over conditions and simultaneously resisting structures that restrict subjective agency in the spheres of love, achievement and rights. We will use this combined macro- and micro-level theoretical framework to analyse subjective reasoning for expansive agency embedded in an institutional and political context that reflects the work pathology diagnosis and produces its own dilemmas that need further understanding. Combining critical theory, more specifically Axel Honneth’s work on recognition with critical psychology, allows us to move beyond deterministic holds and to improve our understanding of agentic potential in society. Improving our understanding of how young unemployed people work within and against the system helps us better understand how individuals navigate the complex relations between societal structures and the self.
TidsskriftHuman Arenas - An interdisciplinary Journal of Psychology, Culture, and Meaning
Udgave nummer1
Sider (fra-til)62-81
Antal sider20
StatusUdgivet - mar. 2023


  • Critical psychology
  • Critical theory
  • Restrictive and expansive agency
  • Unemployment
  • Work first paradigm

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