Mørck, L. L. & Huniche, L. (2006) ‘Critical Psychology in a Danish Context’, Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 5, www.discourseunit.com/arcp/5

Line Lerche Mørck and Lotte Huniche[1]


Critical Psychology in a Danish Context[2]

1. Introduction

The goal of this issue of Journal of Critical Psychology is to draw a map of the changing critical psychologies in a changing world, a map drawn from different theoretical and geo-political positions. Mapping critical psychologies within a Danish context is a difficult, if not impossible task within the scope of this article. Therefore we do not attempt to draw a complete map of Danish psychologies that represent themselves as critical and we do not want to take on the normative task of evaluating which psychologies might count as critical and which might not. From our point of view such endeavours are rarely interesting and seldom fruitful in a theoretical sense. Most likely we would initiate trench warfare that would stilt further discussions and developments.

So what do we want to do? We want to acknowledge that any picture of psychological theories is drawn from specific standpoints and positions in a theoretical, methodological and practical sense. Such standpoints and positions are anchored in certain research networks and marked by the researcher’s participation within certain research fields and job positions at specific research institutions. We want to make such standpoints and positions part of the picture.

We (the authors of this article) are both positioned within what may be referred to as Danish Critical Psychology (see Nissen 2000b). In this article we want to unfold some of the slightly different standpoints and positions within Danish critical psychology by giving examples of theoretical and methodological developments based on groundwork in German critical psychology. One of the main concerns of practice research is to analyse and develop an understanding of complex practices with the aim of engaging in further development of methods and/or theoretical frameworks of particular relevance to the practices studied. A number of the research projects that we address are carried out as distinctly collaborative and development oriented, e.g. involving informants as co-researchers and pointing out action possibilities for practice. Despite differences in whether and how co-researchers are actively engaged in the research process, all of the research projects that we draw on in this article aim at developing both theory and practice. We discuss how ways of participating as a researcher are related to researcher trajectories within academia, to researcher interests and goals, to changing researcher positions, as well as to the kinds of practices posing various problems and possibilities for researcher participation. We want to provide examples of how participation matters for critical psychology and for developing methodological approaches, theoretical insights and ways of acting in practice.

2. Contributions from the German Context to Danish critical psychology

Critical psychology in the Danish context has developed from and alongside endeavours in the German context. Below we will focus on particular elements of German critical psychology that have informed Danish critical psychology over time. During the last four decades many scholars have contributed to the development of key concepts, methodological approaches and theories about various areas of human subjectivity. Within the scope of this article we can mention but a few of the relevant contributions. For further reading we recommend the article on critical psychology in a German context in this volume, and two forthcoming issues on recent developments in critical psychology, namely Forum Kritische Psychologie No. 50, and a special issue of Theory & Psychology on this topic. References in English to work carried out both in the Danish and German context are provided to the extent that they are relevant and available.

“Grundlegung der Psychologie” [Foundations of Psychology] (Holzkamp 1983) lays out both a theoretical framework and a research methodology for a science from the standpoint of the subject. Klaus Holzkamp worked with a number of others on the rather extensive theoretical and methodological foundation of a critical psychology during the period from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s at the Free University in former West Berlin. Parallel to Holzkamp’s work a contribution to the critical psychological foundation of human motivation developing the concepts of cognition, emotion and action potence was made (Osterkamp 1975/1976, 1991). In the 1980s important work on immigration and discrimination was carried out, including practice research projects on refugee practices in Germany, analysing power relations and discussing dilemmas of researcher involvement and advocacy (see for example Osterkamp 1990, 1992). This inspired Danish research projects with refugees and immigrants in the 1990s (Huniche 1997, Staunæs 1998). Theoretical contributions were also made on learning (Holzkamp 1993, Haug 2003) and on conceptualizing the personal conduct of everyday life (Haug 1994, Holzkamp 1995b, Osterkamp 2001). As we shall see below, especially the personal conduct of everyday life has been used and developed further in Danish health practice research projects. Issues of gender and historical changes of requirements in the workplace have been an important part of German critical psychology (Haug 1987, 1997) and the approach to feminist academic research and methodology termed “memory work” (Haug 1990, 1992) has inspired Danish social psychological and poststructuralist research on various issues related to gender (Staunæs 2004, Søndergaard 1996).

Contact between critical psychologists in Germany and Denmark was initiated at the first International Congress for Psychology in Marburg, 1977. Frigga Haug and Christof Ohm were guest professors at the University of Copenhagen in 1978 and 1979 respectively, and Ole Dreier became a co-editor of Forum Kritische Psychologie in 1980. In particular, the Theory-Practice conferences that took place twice a year from 1983 to 1995 were a site of ongoing co-operation and exchanges (Dreier 1983). These conferences were attended by both practitioners and researchers and aimed at working out ways of bridging the gap between theory and practice and of describing and developing psycho-social practices from a critical psychological perspective. Co-operation in this context has amongst other things resulted in the publication of a `practice portrait´ in German (Markard & Holzkamp 1989) and recently also in Danish (Markard, Holzkamp & Dreier 2004). This guide to the analysis of structures and contents of concrete psychological practices was developed by being put to use and being discussed at the conferences. The practice portrait is still used and discussed as a tool for working with e.g. the development of Danish counselling practices (see Bechmann Jensen 2005). A further and much less formalised way of exchanging knowledge and cooperating was practiced by Danish and German students and PhD students during the first half of the 1990s. A group of 30-40 students actively engaged in mutual visits and exchange seminars held at both the Free University in Berlin and the University of Copenhagen and students from both places spent a term or more under the auspices of student exchange programmes. Both authors of this article took part in these activities as graduate students and most of the academics mentioned in this article participated as hosts, invited speakers, chairs, tutors etc.

Below we want to add to the picture of German-Danish critical psychology by tracing the development of a few core categories and showing how they have been worked on continuously by different writers. As you will see, conceptual developments are not linear processes towards pre-fixed goals and they do not establish a complete theory with definitive concepts. We argue that theoretical developments may be viewed as grounded in ongoing theoretically and methodologically specified attempts at developing adequate psychological concepts for the analysis and understanding of particular practices and for particular problems in human life. Theoretical developments are grounded in political, collective and practical work done by researchers and co-researchers situated in contexts outside the universities. These contexts may be well-established social practices as well as fringe or grassroots practices. The examples of conceptual developments also allow a glimpse of the issues Danish critical psychological practices researchers are presently involved in and of the various ways they get involved when doing practice research in co-operation with persons from practices outside the universities.

3. The early methodological project unfolded in the “Grundlegung”

The conceptualisation of a psychology from the standpoint of the subject (Holzkamp 1983) is formulated as a critical alternative to mainstream psychological theorising. The core of this critical stance is the argument that mainstream psychology serves the interests of capitalist/bourgeois society by individualising problems and instigating the personal work on the self as a solution to psychological problems. Mainstream psychology is thus criticised for resulting in personal compliance rather than in active engagement with changing repressive societal conditions. Critical psychology is conceived as an alternative methodological and analytical strategy that builds on the study of first person perspectives (rather than on “experts’” third person perspectives on the concerned) aiming at enabling personal and collective emancipatory practices through practice research.

The scientific foundation for critical psychology is informed by historical dialectical materialism[3]. The conceptualisation of subjectivity in critical psychology is an explicit attempt at overcoming the external relationship of individual versus society and establishing the subject as societal. This is a parallel effort with attempts in activity theory at understanding how subjects become what they are in relations in the concrete material world. In Grundlegung der Psychologie, Holzkamp argues for the fundamental societal nature of subject as a basis for unfolding psychological theories. Subjects are characterised by living in societal structures with conditions that pose possibilities and constraints in their lives. Thus, critical psychology is a theoretical as well as an emancipatory and political project. This is reflected in the Danish context where an extensive number of practice research projects have been carried out in cooperation with practitioners and users outside the universities (see paragraph 5.1). Some of these projects have managed to establish long-term working relationships and ongoing exchanges between researchers, practitioners and even users.

In Grundlegung (Holzkamp 1983) the methodological approach to current empirical research is termed practice research. Holzkamp argues that methods have to be adequate with respect to the phenomenon we want to study and that human subjectivity is best studied by getting at first person perspectives. By getting at first person perspectives it becomes possible to analyse how individual existence is mediated through the overall societal context. The core of the analysis consists of identifying relevant conditions that matter in specific ways in the lives of subjects and in the practices studied, what conditions mean to subjects and practices, and how actions are subjectively reasoned. The “conditions, meanings and reasons analysis”[4] works from the assumption that objective conditions, their meaning and the reasons for acting in specific ways are fundamentally interrelated and must be studied in unison, rather than as isolated units with external connections.

In the Danish context practice research is commonly coupled with a “conditions, meanings and reasons analysis”, and is often taken a step further towards the development of theoretical categories by situating the analysis in current empirical practice. This is a way of working out specific psychological theories about possibilities and limitations and to generalise about possibilities in structures of social practice. As the aim of practice research is to develop both theories about the studied phenomenon and practice, the role of the researcher is defined as participatory and cooperative, thus leaving behind ideas of the scientific gaze from nowhere and the researcher as a neutral observer of given facts (see also Danziger’s deconstruction of scientific psychology 1990).

4. Further developments of main concepts

Below we trace the development of some main categories worked out in Grundlegung (Holzkamp 1983) and other influential texts through the succeeding theorising of other critical psychological researchers primarily in the Danish context. We trace the concepts of “action context”, “action potence”, “personality” and “the conduct of everyday life”. We are acutely aware of the selective nature of the presentation, which does not amount to an overview of the development of core categories from Grundlegung (ibid). However, we hope to convey a sense of the ways in which researchers have been and still are working with German-Danish critical psychology and the kinds of analysis and understandings that have come out of this work.

4.1 Participation in and across action contexts

In Grundlegung, Holzkamp (1983) conceives of the overall societal action context as a category that points to an overarching societal structure. The overall societal action context poses conditions, possibilities and constraints in subjects’ lives and is thus part of the structuring of subjective ways of acting, thinking and feeling. As this category was conceived in the singular by Holzkamp it has been criticised for amounting to a theoretical abstraction in need of concretisation in order to be useful in empirical analysis of persons and collectives in concrete social practices. Both Dreier (1993, 1997) and Nissen (1998) have, in different ways, worked on theories of concrete contexts of action in the plural. Doing empirical research on therapy practice and clients’ ways of participating in everyday life and in therapy sessions, and particularly inspired by prolonged cooperation with anthropologist Jean Lave (1997), Dreier has elaborated on the category of an overall societal context and theorised about participation across contexts of social practice (Dreier 1993, 1997). By specifying the general concept of “the overall societal action context” Dreier argues that it becomes possible to analyse personal participation across various concrete practices and to understand how participation in one place is connected with and draws meaning from participation in other places where lives of persons unfold. Further, the analysis of personal trajectories of participation can be concretely anchored in an understanding of how trajectories are made up of the personal traversing of various contexts of social practice where persons live and participate in relation to others, across time and space in societally structured arrangements. Parallel to these theoretical developments Nissen (1998) has worked out a conceptualisation of action contexts as a collective “we” constituted by constellations of ends and means (Nissen 2005). In his analysis of the street kid project “Sjakket” he describes how the kids change as they participate in the collective subject Sjakket, and how the participants constitute what Sjakket is about at the same time (the ends and means of Sjakket). Integrating concepts from poststructuralism (e.g. Davies & Harré 1996, Foucault 1977) Nissen develops a materialist-discursive understanding of action contexts and their local ideologies, including concepts of positioning and discourse (Nissen 1998, 2000, 2003). The discourse of social work changed from “professionals working with clients” to social workers working “on the users´ terms” and in cooperation with street kids. Nissen shows how the hash consuming street kid Linda reproduces and transgresses her own position and understanding of herself by (re)producing one version of what Sjakket is all about. By being interviewed as part of Nissens’s evaluation of Sjakket, she positions herself as a user. In so doing she participates in the production of Sjakket as a project working on the premises of the users. But at the same time by being given a voice and by engaging as a (potential) resource for other users in Sjakket, she also transgresses her position as ‘just a user’. In that way the local culture and the local ideologies of Sjakket are produced both by the participants in Sjakket and in relation to the changes in the dominating discourses of social work. Concrete processes of participation produce changes and give new meaning to the discourses about how to work “on the terms of the users”.

The importance of researching in and across action contexts – theorising about connections and disconnections between action contexts and analysing how these (dis)connections matter in life, has also been developed in close long-term co-operation with professionals and users working on the border of the social system and more from the inside of the Danish social practice of Pedagogical Psychological Counselling (PPR). Højholt, among others, is working on the development of PPR practice from an academic position but doing practice research from within the system in relation to the analysis of professional coordination of PPR initiatives and of children’s lives across families, kindergartens, schools and after-school centres (Højholt 1993, 2001, see also Morin in press, and Kousholt in press).

With inspiration from social practice theory (Lave & Wenger 1991, Wenger 1998) Nissen´s and Dreier´s conceptualisations of plural action contexts and the connections and disconnections among them have been worked on in Lerche Mørck´s concrete analysis of learning and transgressing marginalisation among ethnic minority social street workers, analysing their communities as boundary communities of practice, as communities of practice co-operating, connecting and overlapping with other communities and action contexts (Lerche Mørck 2006). These so called “wild” social street workers transformed and recontextualised certain ways of talking and relating to wild youngsters from the street communities of local lads, to the social work practised by the wild social street workers. Where communities of local lads e.g. had tacit rules of not telling on friends to the police or authorities, the wild social street workers transformed this practice ideology to a certain way of practising “good style problem solving”. Instead of going directly to the police or authorities, they made an effort to involve the wild youngsters in problem solving processes, giving them responsibility and an opportunity to change their position in a positive direction that lived up to the responsibility (see Lerche Mørck 2004). These kinds of analyses highlight differences and similarities in co-operation and boundary practices that mediate meanings and connections across various practice ideologies as part of communities of practices, such as street communities of local wild lads and the wild social street worker community, as well as how they constitute powerful alternatives to marginalising discourses and marginalising practice within the social system. This also mirrors the common goal of the involved practitioners and researchers of producing new understandings and practices of how to overcome constraints, creating new possibilities and trajectories for the wild youngsters.

4.2 Action potence

In Grundlegung (1983) action potence is worked out as the key category for characterising, and thus for understanding and studying, individual human subjectivity. Holzkamp conceives of action potence as the personal disposal over relevant life conditions mediated by society. The relationship between the subject and the world is thus an active one: Holzkamp formulates it as having a double nature in that the person both helps produce her or his life conditions and is influenced by them. Action potence is a term of to what degree she or he is able to influence her life conditions. It is produced in cooperation with others and depends on societal life conditions that are historically specific. Further, action potence is (re)produced on the functional grounds of subjective cognition and emotion and thereby in a close dialectic relation with societal conditions. Emotion and cognition are functional means for the ability to act and cannot be studied as abstract mechanisms. This aspect of critical psychological theorising is worked out in detail by Osterkamp (1991). In her conceptualisation, cognition captures aspects of the world that hold subjective meaning while emotions focus and select what meaningful aspects are of specific personal relevance. Emotions help to evaluate what cognitively perceived material conditions in the world are subjectively important and thus tune in on personally relevant ways of acting in any specific situation. Emotion and cognition are of fundamental importance for pointing out individual possibilities for action and thus for lending direction to the conduct of life (Osterkamp 2001). In Dreier’s work, the insistence on a contextual and situated approach has consequences for the category of action potence. Situating action potence points from a function as a joint term for the personal prerequisites to act on any given life situation to a contextually bounded and situated collective prerequisite, in order e.g. to transgress the limitations of a specific context. In this way action potence is both specified and becomes more varied in relation to various concrete contexts of action.

4.3 Generalised and restrictive action potence


Holzkamp characterises personal action potence by the possibility for acting in either generalised or restrictive ways in actual lives depending on the possibilities and constraints of actual life conditions and how they are perceived and evaluated. Osterkamp among many others within Danish-German critical psychology uses the terms short-term/immediate versus long-term/mediate action potence (1991). The division of action potence into two distinct ways of handling life is a conceptual move to assist in uncovering actions that limit subjective disposal over relevant life conditions and to point to ways that widen disposal in the common interest of human beings. Restrictive ways of handling various aspects of everyday lives are widespread when acting from marginalised positions and under restrictive conditions and may often be functional in a short-term perspective. This is shown by Lerche Mørck in her analysis of processes of learning and struggles to transgress marginalisation among ethnic minority carpentry pupils at a vocational school (2003). Mohammed tries to raise what he sees as a particular teachers’ discriminating actions first with a youth supervisor and later with the headmaster at the school. Rather than receiving support, Muhammed is made to represent the problem. The teacher keeps making Mohammed and two other ethnic minority pupils sweep the floors and pick up the rubbish. They confront the teacher, asking him why it is always them and not the other Danish pupils who sweep the floors. The teacher responds: “That’s how life is – also if you get out on the labour market, it’s like this”. The next day Mohammed and two of his friends find the teacher, push and kick him and get expelled from the school. Ending the conflict with violence means reproducing the dominating discourse about ethnic minority youth as problematic and jeopardising their opportunities for doing something about being discriminated against. The ethnic minority pupils in Lerche Mørck (2003: Chap. 4) also react to discrimination by playing down or silencing their experiences and emotional responses as a way of surviving within a carpenter practice community. In a short-term perspective this may be functional under the given conditions. They remain at the school, gain access to future workplaces and preserve their opportunities to be certified as carpenters. But in a long-term perspective these restrictive actions do not widen their personal disposal over relevant life conditions because they reproduce problems of discrimination for themselves and for other ethnic minorities (Lerche Mørck 2003: Chap. 4, 11). Potentially, this immediate functionality of restrictive actions may get in the way of recognising and doing something about those life conditions that limit the unfolding of life in meaningful directions, but it is often impossible to act otherwise without the support of others, such as researchers, the headmaster, teachers, other pupils, carpenters etc.

Contrary to the intentions of conceptual assistance in the concrete development of generalised ways of acting, the binary concepts of generalising versus restrictive action potence sometimes put researchers at risk of evaluating on behalf of others, whether immediate functionality has actually got in the way of developing generalised ways of conducting life. A further risk of the binary specification of action potence is that when used in research analysis as well as in psycho-social practice, the analysis is easily drawn in quite a normative direction, labelling people and their actions as either bad/wrong or good/right. Used in this way it may create problematic divisions between critical psychologists pointing fingers at the restrictive actions of others, and thus positioning critical psychologists as experts knowing better. These kinds of problems partly explain why some researchers within Danish critical psychology do not use these specifications of action potence. In order to make an analysis of what may count as generalised or restrictive action potence, researchers need to be in close dialogue with those concerned and to pay close attention to their perspectives. As we have just described, Lerche Mørck uses the binary term of restrictive versus generalising action potence to pursue the ideal of using analytical concepts for pointing the development of practice towards widening the scope of possibilities, with the ambition of realising common interests that are not at the expense of anyone. This is done by highlighting and criticising limiting conditions, demonstrating solidarity with the common course of transgressing marginalisation of suppressed groups, showing how it is often extremely complex and contradictory to transgress restrictive actions in practice by anyone acting alone. This is particularly true for those acting from disadvantaged positions such as marginalised ethnic minority pupils. It takes time and effort and presupposes the continuous cooperation of other members of the involved community of practice, as new conflicts and problems will continually arise and create the need for further attention and means of action (Lerche Mørck 2003).

4.3 Personality and the conduct of everyday life

The concept of personality amounts to one of the core concepts in psychological theorising. Holzkamp does not carry out specific categorical work on personality in Grundlegung, but he does not avoid the term entirely (Holzkamp 1983). A couple of years after the publication of Grundlegung he wrote a critique of the way the concept of personality functions in most psychological theories as well as in practice (Holzkamp 1985A). In Holzkamp´s later work on the conduct of everyday life he addresses the personality related issue of self-understanding in terms of “the coming to an understanding with oneself about how to conduct one’s everyday life” (1995B). Taking up the conduct of everyday life is reasoned by Holzkamp´s recognition of the importance of the structuring principles of daily living in the attempts at making everyday life work out. Apart from getting at the concept of personality from a different angle, this is another important step towards developing critical psychology to be sensitive to actual ways of living subjective lives and towards a still more encompassing understanding of how subjects come to live as they do. Holzkamp stresses the cyclic nature of the conduct of everyday life (1995B). He argues that routines are necessary in order to establish a concrete material basis on which life can be lived, and that they provide ontological security. He also makes a distinction between routines of everyday life and actual activities- e.g. productive, creative and political - activities. In a Danish context the conduct of everyday life has been taken up by Dreier, not as a way of characterising or distinguishing various activities, but as a critical project pointing to personal lives as continuous, coherent and conducted across contexts (1997). In his research on therapeutic practice Dreier points out that therapy is practised in one context but is supposed to assist changes taking place in others, i.e. everyday life. For this reason, it is problematic that much psychological research into how and why therapy works only evaluates what goes on in the therapy context and not in the places where therapy is supposed to be making a difference. In line with these arguments Huniche (2003) studied the personal conduct of life in families at risk of Huntington´s Disease[5]. The purpose of the study was to develop an understanding of the importance of the actual disease in family members to others, the importance of the awareness of risk in various members of the families and of the possibilities for genetic testing and reproductive medical technologies (Huniche 2002, 2003). The project of focussing on the conduct of everyday life is a way of decentring the analysis from the contexts where psychological researchers are often inclined to look, namely those where professionals are involved, those that are defined and delimited within institutional structures and more or less publicly available in contrast to the private lives of persons and families. In the Huntington study, decentring meant focusing on the meaning of disease for all family members and their conduct of everyday life, rather than mainly focussing on those who were ill or the symptoms of disease itself. This meant extending the study from “the person at risk” to include all members of Huntington families, and to study the importance of genetic knowledge and related medical technologies for Huntington families, rather than focussing on the personal reactions and effects of genetic testing. Along with the work on the conduct of everyday life Ole Dreier has endeavoured to work out a critical psychological concept of personality drawing on the traditions of Marx/Engels and the activity theorist Leontjev (Dreier 1993, 1999). Dreier draws on Leontjev when he suggests that the primary functionality of personality is to link up personal ways of conducting life in concrete societal contexts. Personality is integrative and related to specific subject tasks rather than an inherent trait, as is maintained in the majority of psychological theories. Only as subjects in societal relations do persons become personalities. Dreier conceives of personality in terms of its integrative capacity. Material conditions, life circumstances, and personal conduct and participation change across contexts and over time and the integrative tasks of personality change accordingly. Integration is needed in order to coordinate mental functioning and conduct across contexts. Huniche builds on these endeavours by showing how existential concerns are not individual concerns to members of Huntington families (in press). Rather, existential concerns come about and are handled in relations and in and across contexts. As personality is argued to be integrative rather than constitutive of the person, existential concerns may thus be represented as co-constituted in an individual’s everyday life with others and generated under specific circumstances. A critique of the concept of the person in existential psychology paves the way for the work on a different understanding of serious existential concerns in personal lives. Huniche argues that the person in existential psychology is conceptualised as coming about in and by itself, rather than in social practice with other (ibid). The solution to existential concerns within the existentialist framework thus becomes the personal work on the self. The study on the conduct of everyday life in families with Huntington´s Disease shows how existential concerns are just as socially embedded as are the ways they are made sense of and handled in the conduct of everyday life. Important others have a bearing on personal well-being and choices. Perhaps the most striking example is that of a woman in her mid-30s who has decided not to have the genetic test. But as her three siblings one after another have the test and find out that they do not carry the gene, the experienced risk grows bigger and builds up an emotional pressure to find out. The women reconsiders and finally get tested. Tragically, all her fears are confirmed when she learns that she is the carrier of the disease gene. Naturally, she has difficulty reconciling herself to this knowledge, but it is just as hard for the other family members to tackle the situation, which has a profound influence on family relations.

5. The critical project of developing theory and practice

How is critical psychology in the German-Danish context actually critical? And have ways of doing critique changed over time?

Nissen (2004) puts forth the following formative description of critique:

“Critique is the transformation of a given ideological form, a transformation which both presupposes and posits a distinct form of community, and which thus, at the same time, objectifies anew, that is, produces another ideological form. In other words, critique is the transformation of subjects mediated by their objectivation.” (Nissen 2004: 8).

In our understanding Nissen suggests that critique is a dialectic involving both a very practical question of bringing about changes anchored in the involved communities of practice (researcher communities as well as the communities researched), and bringing about changes in practice ideologies. This means reflecting changes in a theoretical framework, with respect to conceptualisations and ways of thinking among both researchers and practitioners. Reflection is understood as a means of systematically pointing changes in certain directions - in contrast to changes randomly mirroring dominating discourse within neoliberalist society.

Critique is practised in several ways in critical psychology within the German-Danish context. We have highlighted how the early writings were critical of mainstream psychology, which was perceived as serving the interests of capitalist/bourgeois society by individualising and personalising problems. The critique of personalisation has been unfolded and developed in various practice research projects (see 5.1).

In the section on core concepts above we have shown how critical psychologists have worked on theoretical alternatives to personalising and marginalising understandings of and discourses about human problems, e.g. by developing a theoretical framework that contributes to the decentring of the analysis of human subjectivity, by representing societal conditions as an integral part of the analysis, by concretely anchoring human activity in and across contexts of social practice (in the plural) and as part of personal trajectories and ways of conducting life.

Nissen suggests a “theory of critique as subject formation” (2004:14). He describes how “a certain inner dialectic between positive and negative movements of critique” (ibid:.9) has formed the foundation of critical psychological writings from early on:

“in its conception of psychology critique; this was the basic argument that a critique of psychology as an ideology would necessarily include the proposition of another psychology, whether implicitly or explicitly, in a ‘unity of critique and development’.” (Nissen 2004: 9).

The recent examples of critical psychological ways of working with the unity of critique and development in the German-Danish context represent development as implying critique and critique as implying potential development, insisting on an overall (normative) aim of expanding and generalising common interests in the continuous process of overcoming restrictive action potence. Critical contributions thus include theoretical critique, pointing out problems and limitations in other psychological frameworks (e.g. psychoanalysis or existential psychology), including theoretical arguments for critical psychological alternatives. For example, Huniche has directed critique at ways of understanding persons at risk of Huntington’s Disease as merely repressing the emotional traumas associated with HD and not making use of available medical knowledge and technologies such as genetic counselling and testing. The alternative critical psychological understanding includes viewing ways of acting at risk as functional and reasonable ways of handling the continuous everyday life issues of HD from a first person perspective. This alternative theoretical understanding thus contributes to countering the stigmatisation of ways of acting that are not publicly explicit or visibly active by analysing them as ways of developing action potence under the restrictive conditions of living with a serious hereditary disease in the family (Huniche 2003). Huniche has also directed a theoretical critique of the concept of the person in existential psychology for individualising the coming about and handling of existential concerns in everyday life. Through a critical psychological analysis she argues that existential issues come about in relations in social practice and are handled as relational rather than as individual issues. The analysis contributes to the understanding of how existential concerns do not stem from and do not come about in the emotional lives of individual persons but amongst them and how existential concerns are not always of the same kind but vary with specific life circumstances.

Critical approaches have also been applied to categories within critical psychology itself. Nissen (2004) argues that critique is about reflecting relations and differences between myself, “us”, and others, and that these reflections both fuel development and that developments fuel critical reflection dialectically. One example of critical reflection directed at “us” as producers of German-Danish critical psychological writings is the critique by Dreier (1993) and Nissen (1998A, 2004) of attempts to further specify Holzkamp´s category of action context for concrete empirical analysis.

More recently, a number of theoretical contributions in the Danish context have been rather implicit about critique of other psychologies, but very explicit with respect to developing theoretical alternatives that are worked out critically while researching and participating in developing understandings of specific areas of practice. This change mirrors what Dafermos & Marvakis ( 2006, in this issue) articulate as “[t]he transition from a negative to a positive positioning – from the critique of Psychology to the development of a new Psychology” (Dafermos & Marvakis 2006: 15).

The tendency within Danish practice research has been to work across Holzkamp´s differentiation into four methodological levels, i.e. a philosophical, a societal-theoretic, a categorical and a level of specific theories (Holzkamp 1983: 27-29) by working towards developing theories about specific areas of practice and at the same time developing the theoretical framework and the categories in use. This kind of work may also be viewed as a way of focussing research on the methodological principle of being practically relevant. The focus on relevance in social practice has prompted critical reflection of the limitations or lack of relevance within critical psychology itself and within a range of other scientific contributions to subject matters in relation to the practices being researched.

5.1 Critical psychological practice research in Denmark

Critical psychological practice research in Denmark has been carried out in various areas of human life and practice. Contributions include analysis of the everyday lives of children across the contexts of family and day care institutions (Kousholt 2006), how special education matters to children in secondary school (Morin 2006), ways of cooperating with children in residential homes (Pedersen 2006), rehabilitation in everyday life after a stroke (Borg 2004), the impact of psychotherapy and family counselling on the everyday lives in families (Dreier in prep.), learning and transgressing of marginalisation among ethnic minorities in and outside schools (Lerche Mørck 2000A, 2003, 2006), and the importance of illness and health care practices such as genetic testing and stem cell therapy in patients’ everyday lives (Huniche 2002, in prep.).

Since the beginning of the 1990s a number of practice research projects have involved prolonged cooperation within established pedagogical psychological counselling practices in schools, and within alternative (“wild”) social work communities. Below we go into more detail with these projects involving prolonged and close co-operation between practice researchers, practitioners, and occasionally users, showing how cooperation aimed at developing practice is carried out critically from positions within an established psychological practice and from alternative or “wild” positions bordering the established social system.

Critical work in an established pedagogical psychological practice

In the area of pedagogical psychological counselling in kindergarten, primary school, and secondary school, Charlotte Højholt and Ole V. Rasmussen have carried out cooperative practice research projects related to child development with various groups of professionals. Højholt has analysed the perspectives of children, parents, pedagogues, teachers and psychologists on children’s problems in an attempt to transgress tendencies to represent problems and action possibilities as mainly a question of the individual child or his/her family. This opens up for understanding problems in the light of social conflicts related to learning and development among children, and it points to the need of developing collaboration among the involved adults and to focus their contributions on assisting children's participation in social communities. As a leading psychologist and co-researcher Rasmussen has worked on developing systematic and practice oriented ways of describing children’s problems. Together with Højholt he has analysed dilemmas of how institutionally laid down procedures for describing children’s problems are the key to providing further help at the school or in other institutions, but that they also provide the professionals who take over with information that limits and distorts their view of what is at stake, as descriptions often do not convey the context of children’s problems. Commonly, teachers and parents have much relevant information to give, but psychological knowledge embedded in PPR institutional practices does not allow for the descriptions of others involved in the lives of the children, just as children’s own perspectives are not included (Rasmussen 1991, Rasmussen & Højholt 1993). Further, Rasmussen has carried out a practice research project interviewing psychologists from two different communities of practice and reflecting on interviews with the psychologists. This work shows that psychologists do not primarily think in context-free concepts and diagnoses, but rather in categories anchored in practice. The creativity and action potence of the psychologists is grounded in these categories developed in the concrete communities of practice. The development of knowledge is viewed as the professional sharing of knowledge and development of new psychological categories and related “rooms of reflection” in practice (Rasmussen 2004).

Critical work on the border of established social practices

In the area of social work, Nissen and Lerche Mørck have carried out a number of practice research projects. As part of this research they have established long-standing joint ventures with co-researchers engaged in “wild” social work on the borders of established practices. In this work attention has been directed at both practice and ideology. One issue that has been addressed throughout all projects is how to avoid marginalising youngsters further by reproducing ”problem categories” such as ”anti-social”, ”criminal”, ”gang member”, ”drug addict”, ”school drop out”, ”beyond the reach of educators”, ”non-adapted” etc. In these joint ventures we (both the researcher and co-researchers) emphasise the use of more general terms, such as “youngsters”, or “wild youngsters”. The category “wild” enhances the multiple, diverse and also positive understandings of youngsters as e.g. “alternative” and “creative”. The possibility of a less problem based and more resource focussed understanding is enhanced when using the category “wild” to describe both the social workers, the youngsters, and the social work projects as “wild social work communities” (Lerche Mørck 2006, Chap. 4). Across various research and specific social work projects such as “Total Theatre of Amager” ( Bechmann Jensen, Mørch, Nissen et al. 1993), “Sjakket” (Nissen 2000A), “The Street Pulse”, “Wild Learning” and “The Copenhagen Team” (Lerche Mørck 2000A, 2006), we have also analysed and stressed objectivations of action possibilities in solidarity with the youths or more precisely the common course of transgressing their marginalisation. As part of the joint ventures we have highlighted the more responsible and involved positions of the wild youngsters. This includes analysing participant trajectories from participating mainly as users, to participating as persons responsible for activities and as persons helping other youths (Nissen 2000). In some cases wild youngsters even become employed social workers themselves (Lerche Mørck 2006). These kinds of objectivations mirror aspects of the practices within the actual social work communities. But over the years it has become increasingly difficult to develop communities with multiple and to varying degrees responsible positions for the youngsters. This has to do with the general increase in ethnic otherness within Western societies (Lerche Mørck & Khawaja 2006) and with a specific development towards “professionalisation” within Danish social work, which means that professionals are expected to describe specific target groups and their “problems” in detail, and then follow up by documenting the measurable result. Moreover, the distance between wild social worker communities and the people in power has increased, thereby restricting action possibilities in wild practice (Lerche Mørck 2005, 2006). The enduring struggle to expand possibilities also involves reserchers and co-reseachers making joint applications for the funding of new research and more “wild” projects [6].

Some general aspects of practice research in the Danish context

Critical psychological practice research involves participation in practice, observing, interviewing, doing consultation work and supervising, giving talks, and cooperating with practitioners in various ways. Practice research is practice oriented in its attempt at understanding human problems and expanding action possibilities. Such attempts include a critique of specific societal conditions when analysing possibilities and limitations within practice, and it includes practice oriented critique that explicates actual possibilities, for example, by constructing new prototypes[7] including action possibilities of relevance within the researched practice and related contexts.

In some of the above-mentioned research projects practice research is carried out as concretely collaborative and development oriented. In these instances practice researchers and co-researchers actively meet and discuss the research design, methods, content, goals and temporary results. Sometimes researchers and co-researchers apply for funds together and sometimes they even write academic or other texts together. Sometimes they even change positions – researchers becoming practitioners and co-researchers becoming researchers within universities. In long-standing joint ventures co-researchers are involved continuously and take part in shaping and making decisions throughout the research process. Often we join around common interests and emancipatory goals of expanding the possibilities of actions for marginalised groups and contributing to a more complex picture of human resources under various conditions. In some practice research projects the practice orientation is reflected in the initial concern with analysing particular aspects of human life and practice, in order to communicate insights and gain access to contexts deemed important for the problems a hand. These contexts may be political, scientific, or professional. Highlighting theoretical understandings of what is at stake in the researched fields, along with inherent contradictions, possibilities and limitations, the goal is equally to participate in the expansion of possibilities in concrete practice, but sometimes by pointing to necessary changes elsewhere. In any event, practice research is a way of practicing research that is characterised by active involvement with practice, becoming part of the often contentious field being researched, positioning oneself and seeking out opportunities to participate in moving along practice while working on the development of theory alongside.

5.2 Multiple and/or collective building of a theoretical framework?

The insistence on a practice orientation as a way of doing practice research may explain the multiple theoretical developments within critical psychology in the Danish context. Critical psychological theorising in this small part of the world has taken several directions related to the fields that are researched, the issues involved and the possibilities for cooperating with practitioners and being part of research networks[8]. For example, Dreier´s work on family therapy, personality, learning and the conduct of everyday life is inspired by social practice theory. The work of Nissen and Lerche Mørck on social work and marginalised groups integrates concepts from poststructuralism, social constructivism, as well as social practice theory[9]. The more practice oriented and diverse way of integrating and developing concepts, internal connections and understandings into the critical psychological framework is characteristic of the work of most critical psychologists in the Danish context. We are hard pressed to think of any colleagues in Denmark who do not work with the aim of contributing to theoretical development, analytical tools and action possibilities, which are relevant to the researched practices and meet the theoretical demands of consistency, cogency and precision. In our view such approaches adhere to Holzkamp´s ideal of avoiding the arbitrary or superficial building of theory and of minimising contradictions within the theoretical framework.

In our perspective, the practice orientation in the Danish context and the diversity of theory building expands possibilities for theorising that are practically relevant. But cooperation around collective building of theoretical frameworks would then seem necessary in order to address the danger of critical psychology in the Danish context developing into particular versions with no common theoretical framework. Fragmentation rather than the joining of forces in theory building is furthered by the conditions of busy academics in a competitive international scientific community, making the issue worthy of serious consideration. In a context where “genius” is individualised and talked into existence as a unique personal capacity (McDermott 2004), it takes additional time and effort to enable co-operation around the development of a particular framework.

6. Concluding remarks

In this article we have unfolded some of the different standpoints and positions within critical psychology in the Danish context by giving examples of theoretical and methodological developments based primarily on German critical psychology, but also on the integration of other theories such as social practice theory, poststructuralism and social constructionism. Some of the research projects that we address were carried out as distinctly collaborative and development oriented, e.g. involving informants as co-researchers and pointing out action possibilities for practice. Other projects were initially concerned with analysing and developing an understanding of complex practices with the aim of engaging in further development of theoretical frameworks and methods of particular relevance to the practices studied. Despite differences in whether and how co-researchers are actively engaged, all of the research projects that we draw on in this article aim at developing both theory and practice. This dual goal of critical psychological practice research is mirrored in various ways of positioning oneself and in various activities more or less closely related to theoretical, methodological and practical developments at various times. We also note that ways of participating as a researcher are related to changing researcher trajectories within and outside of academia, and to changes in researcher interests and goals. As Nissen points out, there are some differences in the political, practical engagement of the 1970-80s, where critical psychologists tended to write more explicitly about the bourgeois ideologies and about the revolutionary goals and alternatives – establishing revolutionary practices “outside” or in contrast to the bourgeois, capitalist society[10], including alternatives to “the established psychologies” within “the established system” (2000b: 47-). In contrast, practice research projects from the 1990s and onwards have tended to engage in the development of practice “from within”: doing practice research together with practitioners employed within the established system, and trying to develop practices on the borders of or inside the established social system. In some cases projects and social workers have actually changed position from being “alternative projects” to becoming “part of the established system”, bringing about new problems and possibilities in social as well as research practice. As part of these historical changes there has been an emerging recognition of researchers as well as co-researchers being part of the dominating, sometimes suppressive discourse. There is no sacred place or position “outside” capitalist/bourgeois society, to speak from. The growing acknowledgment that it is not enough to point fingers at other “suppressing” ideologies directs attention to how we are ourselves part of the discourse, and it is working as part of our writings. All being part of the same society, we cannot totally escape the suppressing discourses. From this changed positioning, critical psychology in the Danish context tends to research how we are part of it dominating discourses, analysing problems and possibilities from various first position perspectives - including our own as practice researchers – trying to break with marginalising discourses, and engaging in developing alternatives in both theory and practice.


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[1] Contact: llm@dpu.dk & LHuniche@health.sdu.dk

[2] We would like to thank Erik Axel, Ole Dreier, Charlotte Højholt, Morten Nissen, Ole V. Rasmussen and Ernst Schraube for comments on a previous version of this article.

[3] E.g. Marx/Engels 1998, Leontjev 1978, 1981, Vygotsky 1978.

[4] In German: Bedingungs-, Bedeutungs und Begründungsanalyse.

[5] Huntington´s Disease (HD) is a severe, inherited disease which generally appears between the ages of 35-45.The neurological symptoms, consisting of involuntary movements and mental difficulties, progress over a 10-15 year period, eventually leading to death. There is a 50% risk of passing on the mutation to offspring and a genetic test is available that establishes whether persons at risk are in fact carriers of the mutated gene.

[6] In June 2006 the Ecological Production School and Line Lerche Mørck applied to the Danish Ministry of Integration for funding a project called “Respect”, including funding a practice research project alongside. (see Lerche Mørck 2006: chapter 10).

[7] The term prototype indicates an exchange and reference transformation between theory and practice, a certain form of generalisation from the qualitative practice research (see Nissen, Lerche Mørck et al 2004, Lerche Mørck & Nissen 2005, Nissen & Langemeier 2005).

[8] Especially two interdisciplinary research networks have been important to critical psychologists in Denmark: Centre for Health, Humanity and Culture (1990-) and The Network for Non-Scholastic Learning (1998-2001).

[9] See Lerche Mørck ( 2006, in prep) and Lerche Mørck & Khawaja (2006) for similarities and differences between a poststructuralist and social constructionist psychological analysis compared with the poststructuralism and social constructionism integrated into German-Danish critical psychology.

[10] In 21st century Denmark, we can only think of one critical psychological practice outside the universities that still positions itself as a revolutionary alternative psychosocial practice: the so-called “Street room” (see www.gaderummet.dk), a shelter, activity centre and alternative form of counselling for marginalised homeless people in Copenhagen. It was initiated by the critical psychologist Kalle Birck-Madsen, who, together with other mainly critical psychology students, practiced critical psychological counselling in the 1990s in the so-called “Rainbow,” which also positioned itself as an alternative to the suppressive psychiatric system.