Bjørg Kjær. Copenhagen


The point of departure for such a research project is youth problems i.e. problems with crime, violence, misuse of alcohol and drugs and so on. This is what we normally refer to as youth problems of the severe and . serious kind.

I come from a society with a long tradition for public social welfare. In Denmark we consider ourselves to have a social security system among the best in the world. Nevertheless we still today have unsolved social problems - and even more serious: we seem to be creating some of the problems within the helping system itself.


These youth problems have been studied for many years. The exp tions of these studies have roughly speaking been the same: namely that the causes are unemployment, lack of education, "tradition" for being in trouble - all these factors are summed up in the term "social heritage". So, via this concept of social heritage causes have been found but the problems have not been solved - and new social problems have arisen. The causes have been sought and thought in psychological, economical and sociological terms. We have experts, university educated researchers and trained social workers who specialize on looking for causes and trying to improve things.

So, one might ask, when we have so many experts: what can a folklorist contribute in relation to this kind of problem? I hope to be able to give you some impression of how a cultural researcher, in this case a folklorist like me, can contribute new kinds of knowledge about this issue.


I approached this issue of youth problems from a folkloristic basis. Being a folklorist means that certain concepts are essential for the way of working and the perspectives introduced. The discipline of folkloristics is very much discussed and debated presently, a discussion that should continue as long as folkloristics exists as a scholarly discipline. I am sure you also have different definitions of our discipline. We certainly have different opinions where I come from, so I can only give you my own tentative ideas to inform you about my theoretical basis. As a folklorist I think that the following keywords are essential (the list is not to be considered complete):

        1) narration (we are trained in analyzing what people tell)

        2) tradition (we have special knowledge on the dynamic between change and standstill)

        3) cultural value systems: mythologies, world views, etc. (we look for coherence and frames of reference)

As I see the folkloristic research profile it deals with narrative, verbal or non-verbal expressions. These narrative expressions we use as sources and signs of "something" that lie behind them. To my mind a folklorist is looking for this "something" behind the stories people tell. I call it meaning. We also call it cultural values or world views, etc. A folklorist, to my mind, should analyse the cultural meanings of rituals, texts, utterances in different genres, etc.

Consequently I approached this field of youth problems from such a folkloristic angle. So, to complement the psychological and sociological analyses I tried to analyse this field of youth problems and professional helpers as expressions of culture and world views. Instead of looking for causes I looked for meaning (i.e. world views, cultural images of understanding).

Meaning is always related to situations and persons, so I decided to focus on people who were involved one way or another with youth problems.

As a folklorist with special knowledge about world views I analysed the field of youth problems as a field where different world views meet and clash into one another. I chose three different kinds of informants, all of them "actors" on this cultural "stage of youth problems".

        First category: professionals (teachers, pedagogues, caretakers).

        Second category: parents.

        Third category: youngsters.

I spoke with these informants and listened to what they told me and I analysed the form and the content of the interviews. The informants told me about themselves, the youth problems, about the youngsters, the teachers and the helpers. They told me about themselves and the other actors in this field. I then analysed how the participants see the causes of the problems and the effects of the public helping arrangements. I found out which where the core concepts in their narration on youth problems. I did so because I wanted to know how these narrations (and the world views behind them) affect the communication around the youngsters and with the youngsters themselves. Did the participants' ways of seeing youth problems perhaps keep the problems from being solved?

In this project I focus on the very meeting point between the private lives of people in trouble and the public social welfare system personalized by professional social workers. In this situation two worlds meet, the world of the helpers, the experts and the world of the people needing help.


I did fieldwork in the form of participant observation but my most important source of knowledge and material was the qualitative research interview (Alver 1990). This indicates that it is important to establish dialogues with the informants that enlighten the crucial topics, and not to use very strict questionnaires. I used this method in order to get a thorough impression of the informants' views and understandings, which again are essential because I focus on meaning.

Also important for this approach is that I operate on a narrative level. I study narratives about "how things are". This means that people's personal experiences and their evaluations of these experiences are essential in this perspective. Experience is a key concept, as I see it to be a source to both "reality" and world view. Another aspect is that marginal ization and narrativity are closely Connected. Speaking/telling/ talking about is just as much an action as stealing, working, punishing, etc. We all know that it is possible to talk people into marginalized positions by for instance gossip and silence. So, I wanted to focus on the aspect of narrating youngsters out of society.


The area in which the research took place is called Norrebro. It is a mixed neighbourhood in the municipality of Copenhagen. Earlier the area was primarily inhabited by industrial workers and it has a reputation of being a working class area. The quarter was built-up in the late 19th century when Copenhagen expanded explosively as a consequence of the industrial revolution. During the 1980s slum clearance was carried out in the area. Today the district is very mixed: students live here because of the many small and cheap apartments. Also some "middle classers", and a large group of workers live here. Today most of the workers still living in Norrebro are unskilled. The skilled workers have left the quarter to some degree.

The quarter has received a new population of immigrants from primarily Turkey, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, etc. These people came as guest workers in the 1960s and today second and third generations of immigrants live in Nerrebro. In some of the schools up to 60 percent of the pupils have an immigrant background.

The youth problems of this quarter are closely linked to two specific groups of the local population: 1) the unskilled workers (many of them unemployed), 2) the immigrants (of whom very many are unemployed). The social problems of this neighbourhood thus have class implications as well as ethnic implications.

I shall tell you about two aspects: 1) how the youth problems are embedded in a symbolic system of guilt, shame and responsibility. This system is connected with the social service's encounter with parents, youngsters and school.

2) how this system of guilt, 'shame and responsibility is projected upon ethnicity, i. e. how ethnic boundaries and categories are being used in this system of circulating shame and guilt.


Youth problems activate a lot of questions concerning upbringing, parenthood and society's responsibility for the young generation. The youngsters are in the middle of a process where they leave the realm of the private and intimate life of the family to enter the public and official life of society. This is what we call growing up or becoming an adult.

When a child has problems his or her background is thoroughly evaluated and turned into perspectives of the future. In school the child or youngster is either helped or categorized as impossible to help in the ordinary school system. In this process the pointing out of causes is a crucial factor.

All the informants (i.e. teachers, youngsters, helpers and even parents themselves) point at the family as the original cause of the youngsters' problems. This means that an enormous burden of guilt is lain upon the family and especially upon the parents. When professional caretakers intervene in order to solve the problems of the youngsters, they at the same time make visible that the family has failed in doing so. The handling of youth problems thus includes an evaluation of the parents.

If youngsters have trouble the family is looked upon as a problem generator and the psychological and sociological explanation models are used by practically everybody. The explanation of "social heritage" that started out to be the explanation of experts has turned into some kind of popular belief. In being so it has acquired strong stigmatizing and deterministic connotations. The label of social heritage has become a marker not only for causes but also for guilt and shame. The term of social heritage was originally a concept that took away some of the responsibility and guilt from the parents and placed it on social conditions like unemployment, etc. Nevertheless, the interviews kept returning to the family as the origin of all problems and the parents circled around the failure of their responsibility as parents, which gave them an unbearable feeling of shame.

The professionals, however, deny very heavily that they stigmatize -and blame their clients when they help them. Social workers and psychologists consider themselves to be well educated rational people who find causes and solve problems. They think that they do not place shame and guilt. My point is that to some extent they do.

In order to give help the social workers must define the problem. In this definition process the parents and the youngsters are categorized as "cases" or "problems" that fit into the categories of the law. The social worker has to categorize or diagnose the client. The unattended side effect of this identification process is that by diagnozing the person who needs help this human being (youngster or parent) changes status radically. He or she stops being a person and becomes a not-person. This not-person, this "case" or "problem" is objectified and categorized as someone of a totally different kind than the helper. The helper is a person and a social worker but the person who needs help is a case or a problem.

A mother told me how this happened to her. She told me about the fear and anxiety before she went to the social worker to ask for help for her teenage son. It was extremely painful for her to tell a strange person about her failure as a mother and her lack of capacity to solve the problems of the family herself.

She also very clearly described how this process of diagnosing functions. The social worker was very sympathetic towards her and really wanted to help. But in order to give the proper help to the mother the social worker had to find something in the mother's life that could give a proper indication for giving the help needed. The mother told me how she had to tell about every little problem in her life since she was a child. And she expressed how terribly painful, shameful and humiliating this was even though the social worker was very, very nice and understanding. Actually this specific social worker explained the informant why she had to know so much; it was because she had to diagnosis the problem. The diagnose was the social worker's way of legitimizing the help. And this legtimization relates to the concept of "social heritage".

So, as you see this is not only a system of financial or psychological help, but also one of guilt and shame. Even more so because this process of diagnosing is based upon a cultural value dichotomy. In a religious society the dichotomy is named good and evil but in a secular society this dichotomy has embedded itself in the contradiction between good and sick (or unhealthy). In a secular society like the Danish the opposite of good is not evil but sick (Frykman 1993).

The parents focus on the blaming, shaming and stigmatizing function of finding causes where the professionals focus on how to solve the problems. In the world view of the professionals the finding of causes and the problem solving in itself dissolves or disintegrates the guilt and shame connected with being pointed out as one of the causes. They think that explanations make guilt and shame disappear. But to the parents this is not so. In their world view one thing remains even if all causes have been found and all problems have been solved: the shame. Furthermore, this shame is so huge that it very often blocks the communication between parents and professionals (and between youngsters and professionals).

Since the 1960s it has been the explicit goal of Danish social policy to help and integrate instead of blaming, shaming, punishing and marginalizing. The official policy, however, has surrounded the shame with such a massive taboo that the professionals often simply deny its existence. As a consequence of this there is no social or cultural space for, this shame. The shame is denied and thus it is turned into a personal feeling that must be treated psychologically. But the shame is not a mere inner feeling of the ones that are blamed for the problems. In the interviews with the professionals it became clear that they also noticed the placing of shame as something that happened even though they thought (or rather hoped) that the shame disappeared via the psychological and sociological explanations.

So, even though the shame exists there is no way of talking about it or handling it because of this massive taboo. The shame is surrounded with silence by the professionals. If the youngsters or parents try to talk about the shame the professionals escape it by denying it or meeting it with silence. In this way the balance of power is maintained between the client and the professional. This is an example of how the parent or youngster is kept in a role as just a passive client. Because of this problems are not solved but help is given and received in order to keep the situation fairly acceptable. To the strained youngsters this means that they are in danger of starting a lifelong career as social clients.

Still, I have hope because the youngsters themselves have a lot of energy and will to fight the stigmatization. And this is exactly what they do. The interviews reflect how they reject the offers for help that are given by social workers. They reject the help because they have to "pay back" by accepting to be stigmatized. Instead they explicit the asym- metrical power relations between the sides and they clearly express their resistance against the stigmatization that takes place. They do not want to tell professional people about their personal problems and failures. They find it wrong to be so personal with someone that does not love them or care for them but only listens to them because it is his or her job to do so. That is, the youngsters know very well what happens to them and they are very good at analysing the process of diagnosing and stigmatization.

Unfortunately, the youngsters' reactions on basis of their interpretation of the marginalization process are often understood by the social workers as yet another expression of the youngster's own personal problems. Everything that the youngster does or says is seen as a sign of his or her problems. This is another downstroke of the objectification of the client, and it has as its consequence that youth problems are seen as the problems of the youngsters alone. The social worker is reluctant and unwilling to consider his or her complicity in the fact that some problems are not solved. On the other hand the social workers know that they have to cooperate with the youngsters if the problems shall ever be solved. So, the social workers talk a lot about equality between the professional and the client. Nevertheless, when the social worker meets the youngsters' critique of the social workers' stigmatization the social worker gets puzzled and perplexed. Often the result is yet another tabooing and denial. The point of view of the youngster is encompassed by silence because the professionals do not know what to do when they face the fact that the professional role has its obvious limitations and unfortunate side effects.

The folkloristic approach is very useful here in presupposing that also the youngsters have a world view with some inner coherence. The folklorists' perspective of world view opens the possibility of crossing the boundaries between those world views that clash.


A certain part of the youth problems in this part of Copenhagen are linked to the adolescent sons and daughters of the immigrants, so youth problems are increasingly becoming ethnic. In Denmark ethnicity is very much discussed, partly because Denmark is a small country (tradition ally we fear our big neighbour Germany), partly because of the fear for the immigrants who look, smell, speak and live in ways that are strange and unfamiliar to us.

In my research on ethnic youth problems I have analysed how different concepts are used in the world views of the ethnic youngsters and the ones they confront in everyday life. I shall tell you about the cultural connotations of the concepts of:

        1) Culture.

        2) Youth.


As folklorists we, like other culture researchers, operate on the basis of the concept of culture. Culture is studied as totalities by the anthropologists, as different aspects like for instance material culture (ethnologists) and as immaterial, spiritual and narrative culture (folklorists). But scholars are not the only ones that use the concept of culture. Ordinary people do that too.

A 17-year-old immigrant boy of third generation tells about being a foreigner in Denmark. He speaks committedly and emotionally about being looked down upon, patronized and refused admission to discotheques, and the labour market. All just because of his appearance which reveals his ethnic background. He has black hair and darker skin than most Danes. He tells me about the difficult task of having to, and not least wanting to live up to both Danish and foreign (Turkish) ideals for how you handle your life and behave in relation to family, friends, the other sex, education, marriage, old age and so on. His voice and his eyes sparkle from the multitude of thoughts that he has most at heart. Obviously his words originate from frustrations, pain and confusion, but also from pride and self-confidence on the basis of his ability to live in the Danish society and understand it. His parents have not unfolded such an ability. He is alive and very attentive. What he is telling me is not about principles. It is about his life.

I ask and discuss with him and he is more than willing to share his thoughts and experiences with me. He tells me about his family and its demands on him. He tells me how he in despair tries to stall time so that he can avoid being married to a girl he does not know, a girl "back home from the village". You see, he wants a girl whom he knows and is fond of. But he cannot say that at home and that is why he takes all evasive actions that he can think of.

I ask him what he is going to do and how he prefers to live his life, how he will solve the conflict with his family and in his mind. I give him my sympathy, he accepts it and continues telling and explaining. But suddenly the explanations stop. They end in a painful conclusion that closes for further discussion. He says: "That's our culture. There is nothing to do. You must understand that we do so because of our culture. That's it. It's our culture. There is nothing to do."

He sees no solution. In spite of this he nevertheless grants me permission to take part in his experiences and the dilemmas that he has to handle. During the conversation I realize that he is known as violent and aggressive guy who scares other people and who may not be unknown to the police. It is difficult to imagine this. But the anger and the frustration are clearly understandable.

Maybe he gets scared by the deep consequences of his perhaps new insight and realization. At any rate he begins a long statement for his nationalistic opinions. His point is that culture is what he has. In many ways he wants to live a rather Danish life and that suggests that he might not be happy to conclude that the only thing he has got, which cannot be taken away from him is his culture. And even though he considers culture to be a part of his inner unbreakable nature he still thinks that he must do whatever he can not to lose it.

The concept of culture becomes his fate because it is both the starting point and the ending point in a circular argumentation that has no end but carries enough potential in it to reproduce itself. He projects his personal difficult existential choices onto the idea of distinct cultures. Thus, the choice is no longer his. He has given it to the circumstances, to the fact that his culture is different from mine and that he thinks that he has to choose between cultures. His real dilemma is that he on the other hand is totally incapable of making a choice between these two cultures that he knows so intimately and is fully competent to operate in.

But, the concept of culture is exactly what changes the narrative about his life into a narrative about nations and cultures that must be separated and defended. But this new narrative does not give him answers of any use in his own life. A dialogue about a lived life and its search for opportunities thus ends up as a matter of principles.

I interviewed an immigrant social worker who told me more about this phenomenon and made it clear to me that it was very common d to the concept of religion in Denmark. "Religion" and "culture" have acquired an aura of untouchability. All that has to do with culture (or religion) is considered to be beyond argumentation, reason and discussion. It has to do with something so intimate, so absolutely personal that it cannot be discussed or criticized, but must be surrounded by a zone of untouchability that express respect for the fact that this is culture. On the surface this respect for culture could look like tolerance, but in many situations it is used as a legitimization of prejudiced and intolerant behaviour.

In an interview with an immigrant boy, 14 years old of second generation, it became clear how this use of "culture" as a cultural symbol in a very massive way accelerates both the youth problems and the intolerance. This particular boy has a criminal career behind him. Teachers and other social workers have tried to discuss his crimes in order to help him, but the boy told me that the Danish teachers and social workers were racist because they mention his crimes. The reactions that he meets from the grown-up world, he relates to a discourse about ethnic tolerance versus racism. For him there is nothing in between the two. Using this strategy he avoids making up his mind about the problems and his life as a whole. The results are: no integration, no problem solving and more intolerance. So, culture as a cultural symbol can be very destructive.


For these immigrant youngsters the process of changing from child to adult is complicated because it is not only a question of growing up, but also a question of manoeuvring between different concepts of youth. The 17-year-old immigrant boy of third generation is an example of how.

He is rather embarrassed by his parents, they do not speak the Danish language (at least not very well), they lack fundamental school training, they are scared by the freedom and moral liberalism in the Danish society. Because of this they shrink back from interaction with the Danish majority. Through the young man's rather shameful description of his parents it is clear that he nevertheless is very proud of his parents' wishes for him. They want him to educate himself to get a better life than theirs.

And the young man does want to live another life. But this other life is very Danish, he wants to have an adolescence like his Danish friends. This is very difficult for him. The freedom of the Danish adolescence (youth period) is perceived by his father and mother as a life without morals, a life that rejects all that the parents stand for - including their ethnicity. His parents do not, like Danish parents, see his rebellion as a natural part of puberty.

Here we see a considerable difference between two cultural concepts of youth. The Danish attitude towards youth creates a particular space, a kind of parenthetic phase of life in which rebellion and actions are perceived to be real, but still, the young person's anger, rebellion and the chaos he or she creates is evaluated in an appeasing tinge of - youth. Thus many things are possible to forgive. The parents shake their heads, smile a bit and say: "Well, that's youth".

The young immigrant man on the other hand has for a long time, by himself and his parents, been considered to be a grown-up man. As a consequence his parents expect him to lead a life of a grown-up man, with a wife and children and responsibility. There are no special rules | for the years of adolescence.

In order to give himself an adolescence with a parenthetic character he sees no other possibility than using his thorough knowledge of both cultures and survive by the use of little bit of double moral. He cannot fight all battles at the same time. The life phase parenthesis that he creates for himself, in collaboration with his peers, does not lie between childhood and grown-up life in the form of an adolescence which is recognized by the surrounding community. His parenthesis lies in no man's land between his minority culture and the majority. This parenthesis receives recognition from neither the immigrants nor the Danish community.

Both sides demand that he chooses identity, and that the choise is clear and distinct. To some extent he even demands that himself. At the same time he describes, and shows in practice in the dialogue itself, how he, in spite of those huge contradictions, dilemmas and deep con- flicts still is capable of manoeuvring.

As I see it, the demand for simple answers in itself blocks up a third possibility.

These young immigrants must relate to a web of ideals, dreams, ex-pectations and concrete knowledge about what is possible to do. The immigrant youngsters end up being streched out between different per-ceptions of what adolescence is about, between different symbolic interpretations of the concept of youth.

My 17-year-old friend thinks through what would happen if he rebelled against his parents openly. He would be expelled from his family

and everything would be hopeless and lonely. It is hard for him to fight the fears and ignorance of both his family and the Danes - at the same time. So, in a way he is caught between two fears of the strange and unknown.

He sees one little bright spot in this darkness, his brothers and some of the friends would not leave him in loneliness. But forthe time being his rebellion is hidden and only shown to his friends of the same age. This survival strategy is part of what I call "Land of the Possible". The Land of the Possible is created by the youngsters themselves on the basis of a double-cultural competence. They turn to people like themselves. They have to do so because the ethnic groups that surround them are useless to them because they deny the existence of double-cultural competence (or if they recognize its existence they condemn it as double standard of morality). The immigrant youngsters establish a new category for themselves, a kind of "multi-ethnic youth". Social workers consider these youngsters' flexible ethnic, or cultural, capacities as signs of identity loss, crises and unreliability.

I see it as their Land of the Possible which they create for themselves because nobody else wants to create anything with them.


The results of this research project show that the world views of the participants have a massive effect on how things are understood, communicated and done or not done.

In looking at the utterances as expressions of cultural value systems/ world views I analysed them as such. This means that not only what the youngsters and parents said, but also the narrations of the well educated experts were perceived by me as "tradition", "beliefs", i.e. normative utterances about the world. Folklorists have traditionally studied marginalized and backward people and their strange and exotic world views. We are not very used to studying psychologists and professionals with university degrees or some other higher education. We normally identify ourselves with such well educated people and we tend to see them as equals that we should discuss with and not study.

We think of folklore as expressions of culture. Psychology and pedagogy we consider to be scholarly disciplins, sciences (which they are, but not solely). Science is not free of culture. On the contrary, it is a product of culture, embedded in culture and therefore science also expresses cultural values, about good and evil for instance. Actually it turned out that my cultural, narrative perspective not only was very provocative but also very good for the experts in the social welfare system. They learned something new about what they were doing.


Alver, B. G. 1990: Creating the Source through Folkloristic Fieldwork. FF Communications No. 246.

Helsinki. Frykman, J. 1993: Beroendets morka sida: Ondska i en social kontext. Gerholm, L. & T. (eds.), Ondskans etnografi. Stockholm, p. 19.