Kampen for det sociale renommé: Forældreskab og forebyggelse i et klasseperspekiv

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis


This dissertation examines how different parents do their parenting when their
children start school. At that point, a new life begins for parents too, since parental involvement as a natural part of good responsible parenting has today
achieved status as common sense.
On the basis of considerations of 1) heightened ‘societal concern’ about whether
parents are capable of taking responsibility and ensuring the well-being, health
and development of their children and 2) an increased focus on individualized
preventative interventions, this dissertation examines two empirical contexts involving parents of new pupils: parental cooperation on the well-being of the class and the introductory talks between school nurse and parents.
The empirical data was produced through ethnographic fieldwork among parents
of new pupils in three different primary schools. I attended the first parents’
meeting after the 2013 summer holidays and followed the activities of the parents until the end of the term in December of the same year. The fieldwork involved varying degrees of participation in different events such as playgroups, birthdays, social events for the families, parent-teacher meetings and introductory talks between nurses and parents of new pupils.
A broad and relational (middle) class concept forms the underlying theoretical
perspective. Here, Bourdieu’s conceptual apparatus is combined with highly constructivist perspectives from, among others, British cultural theory (including
Skeggs, Gillies and Lawler) and poststructuralist governmentality studies (including Rose, Lupton and Hunt). Based on Crawford’s arguments about health as an ideology that has promoted a neoliberal restructuring of society since the 1970s, the dissertation explores how neoliberalism on the one hand marginalizes class as a political and sociological, cultural-theoretical concept, but on the other, reestablishes class via self-technological demands for the accumulation of value/worth, in that class now manifests itself as judgments on the moral value or worth of the individual. In addition, the dissertation is pervaded by a particular interest in the illegitimacy of class and the methodological and ethical implications of this.
The dissertation raises the following main question:
What are the class implications of the increased focus on parenting, wellbeing,
health and prevention and how does this affect different parents of
It is divided into eight main parts:
The first introductory part presents the empirical field, including the increased
concern for parental capabilities and the focus on prevention, which mean that
all parents are now subject to a form of assessment as to whether they are at risk
of developing problems. Here I also present my cognitive interests and
knowledge ambitions, which particularly concern the illegitimacy of the class concept.
In the second part, I present the field of research and the two empirical contexts.
The field of research is constructed through a theoretically informed diagnosis
of contemporary society, in which class forms a dual perspective; I examine both
the causes of the weak position of class as a political category and as a culturaltheoretical, sociological approach, and also how this development reveals something significant about how class is currently configured. In addition, societal concerns about parental capabilities and the increased focus on prevention are linked to various general trends, collectively called ‘neoliberalism’: the ‘discourse of scarcity’, elite moralistic healthism and the depoliticizing privatization of health. These are self-technologies that, with their logic of capital, establish a particular class-aspiring, value-accumulating subject, which also has to display its value, while class (respectability) becomes a pro-capitalist prerequisite for these self-technologies, which establish normative judgments of the subject’s moral worth. Further, I describe how parents’ efforts to create well-being have become a focus area for the optimization of their children’s learning. I also outline the emergence of the healthcare provider as part of a key pillar of the welfare state, and explain the introductory talks for parents of new pupils and the judgmental
gaze of the school nurse in determining whether a family is ‘at risk’.
The third part provides an account of the various research fields relevant to the
dissertation. Here I outline a number of perspectives on parenting and position
the dissertation within critical humanistic health studies; this is also where I introduce various perspectives on the moral implications of risk as governance and their class implications. In Part Four, I delve more deeply into class; after an
outline of existing relevant qualitative class research, I explain Bourdieu’s thinking and further developments of this. I also describe how respectable motherhood, during the emergence of the industrial society, became an axis for the construction of a significant middle class identity, clearly separate from the proletariat and nobility.
Part Five is an account of the methodological approaches I draw upon. Through
an analysis of my methodological challenges, I raise criticism of the interview
method as a means of assuming the mobilization of class-based resources (selfreflexivity) and I analyse a number of ethical dilemmas I experienced during data production and analysis. The sixth part of the dissertation consists of four empirical articles, while the seventh brings together the conclusions and discusses them.
The eighth part consists of various appendices.
I attempt to answer the research question through four articles:
Article 1: “Oh! Iben’s here now, so we better behave properly” – The production
of class as morality in research encounters. This methodological article reports
from my ethnographic fieldwork among parents of new schoolchildren and the
challenges I experienced in establishing equal, trusting relationships with the participants.
The article offers new methodological tools to explore the increased
focus on the moral significance of class. On the basis of what first appeared to
be methodological problems, I show how I was interpreted by the participants
as a kind of moral judge of their parenting. While this interpretation of my presence applied to all parents, I analyse how they positioned themselves in three
different ways to the ‘judge’: some were keen to receive a positive judgment,
some judged with me as a ‘co-judge’ and some refused to be judged. I also argue that these different ways of positioning reflect the contours of the current configurations of class relations.
Article 2: “Am I that bad?” Neoliberal conduct through moral class anxiety in
the obesity epidemic discourse. In this article, I analyse discursive representations in cases from a variety of guidelines from health authorities to health professionals on how to intervene in families affected by overweight. The article shows how these representations initiate moral judgments of parents (mothers) by Health professionals. The parents are depicted in different ways according to their class: lower class parents as passive, irresponsible and immature and thus the antithesis of the neoliberal subject of value, while middle class parents are shown to be responsible and respectable in displaying shame regarding their child and fear of moral class judgment. I also argue that the obesity epidemic discourse indicates a symbolic class struggle: because neoliberal governance works through (fear of) stigma, class in the form of moral judgments gains greater significance for middle class identity.
Article 3: “So under ‘cause for concern’, I’ll write that…” Class, parenting and
risk prevention in public health practices in schools. This article analyses how
parents position themselves and are positioned when the school nurse conducts
a discretionary assessment of whether the family is at risk of vulnerability.
The starting point is the lack of clarity around such prevention work, because of
doubt about the factors that constitute risks and how these should be identified.
The analysis shows that the individualization of health implies that school nurses
do not take into account the structural conditions under which parenting is practised.
The article also raises the issue of how the medical colonization of social
problems leads to the institutionalization of class in assessments by school
nurses. Since the norms of good parenting are based on the practices of middle
class families, the preventative dimension of talks with parents of new pupils
becomes a form of class correction. Consequently, the talks serve as a platform
for celebration of the moral worth and responsible behaviour of the already privileged, while disadvantaged parents are considered incapable of making sensible choices. What is supposed to be health promotion is therefore more likely to increase social inequality in health.
Article 4: Class, mothering and the values of food. This article analyses mothering practices in relation to food and value at festive occasions in schools. The article contributes theory to the question of how the practices of lower class families can be studied without reproducing assumptions about their (inferior) moral worth. Based on a problematization of habitus as being solely suited to the study of the value accumulation of privileged people, an approach that considers the exchange and use value of food is used as the basis for the analysis of three cases.
The article finds that the lower class mother invests her time in others and is
oriented towards the use value of the food. Mothers of a medium social position
and privileged mothers both use the exchange value of the food as a catalyst to
display themselves in an advantageous light. But whereas those in the middle
position are oriented towards the healthiness of the food and strive to demonstrate respectability by living up to the moral imperatives of healthism, the privileged mother rather uses the unhealthiness of the food as a basis for self-investing value accumulation; for her, it is apparently more important to distinguish herself from those who fear moral class judgment by pointing out that she is “above” such concerns. The dissertation finds that the class implications of the increased focus on parenting, well-being, health and prevention are primarily constituted by judgments of parents’ moral worth or value. The significance of this is that parents are involved in a struggle
for their social reputation, which manifests itself in different ways.
In the summarizing section of the dissertation, I discuss a number of cultural
differences between the UK and Denmark, such as the legitimacy of the welfare
state and the explicit British moral contempt for the lower classes compared to
the acclaimed ideology of equality in Scandinavia. I conclude that neoliberalism
across these differences seems to involve class as moral judgments being instituted as a ‘social grammar’, both in the parents’ efforts to promote well-being and in the institutional framework of the talks with parents of new pupils.
The dissertation concludes with a perspective that addresses the illegitimacy of
class on two levels. One is close, interpersonal relationships, where the tabooing
of differences, as I demonstrated in the methodological analyses, is intended to
make people feel comfortable. The other is the public political debate, where the
illegitimacy of the class concept seems to be in the interests of the privileged,
since there is no platform for critical analysis of the ways in which neoliberalism
currently contributes to the “re-redistribution” of social goods, both material and
Original languageDanish
Place of PublicationRoskilde
PublisherRoskilde Universitet
Number of pages299
Publication statusPublished - 3 Nov 2017

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