Kelly McKowen
Kelly McKowen

Active Labor Marketing: Social Policy and the Ethics of Work and Welfare in Norway


In recent decades, policymakers throughout the developed world have embraced activation as a central design principal for social policy. In contrast to the “passive” income maintenance schemes associated with the mid-century welfare states, “active” social policy—also referred to as “active labor market policy”—uses tightened eligibility requirements, economic incentives, training, employment assistance, or some combination of these to induce benefit recipients to find employment. While nearly unanimous in their observation of activation’s contemporary pervasiveness, scholars disagree on whether its prominence represents the adaptation of dated regimes of social policy to emergent risks and economic conditions, or is indicative of an ideological shift towards the paradigms of neoliberalism or "new paternalism." Further, scholars offer diverging accounts of what activation does—and how it does it—at the level of the individual.

This paper, which represents part of a broader study of the moral economy of the Norwegian welfare model, explores these issues with regard to a form of active intervention familiar to many of the unemployed in Norway and elsewhere: the “job-seeker course.” Drawing on participant observation in five separate courses and interviews with course participants and instructors in Oslo between August 2015 and August 2016, it offers a “thick description” of the job-seeker course that illuminates the ways it aims to normalize a view of the the unemployed self as a valuable commodity in need of a marketing strategy and a sales pitch. I argue that the job-seeker course, which is experienced by different participants as empowering, therapeutic, and humiliating, reinforces an active ethics of unemployment reflective of both new ideological currents and the longstanding reconciliation of work and welfare associated with the Scandinavian welfare states.

The seminar will be held in english!