New Communities in Practice

General description of the project

Purpose and aims

The purpose of this project is to conduct, support, and connect a collection of empirical and theoretical studies of communities - defined broadly as social units of activity and discourse - in close alignment with innovative practices in which communities are actually created.

The specific aim is to establish a network, conduct prototypical empirical projects that combine research and practical innovation, and stimulate publishing at an international level.

The general aim is to provide original, up-to-date inspiration into the process of establishing a Danish brand of Community Psychology, as well as to utilize the current changes in Danish welfare practices to contribute to the scientific understanding of community.

The overall ambition is to gain new ground in search for a third, mediating term between the spontaneous and the artificial in human communities.

General Background and Approach

Practices in Modernity suffer a deep split between the normative positing of ideal, rational institutional patterns that can be deliberately established from scratch for some purpose, and on the other hand the description of spontaneous cultural patterns that are seen to be self-sustaining, taken-for-granted, and/or traditional. In ethical terms, the dichotomy is often viewed critically from one of its sides, so that idealist rationalism confronts equally idealist romanticism.

This is as true about community as about anything else. Often, the communities that are established in or with modern institutions are neglected or seen as the by-product of a more deliberate pedagogical or therapeutic intervention. But if they are in fact considered, the split mentioned appears. Models of collectivity typically either define ideal, rational groups or settle for ethnographic depictions of existing communities.

In fields such as human resource management, education, social work, psychiatry etc., the theoretical gap between interventionist and ethnographic approaches to collectivity matches a practical gulf between institutional forms and their embeddedness in or transformation by everyday life. Overwhelmingly, this gulf has been glossed over by the pervasive "modernist" sequence of establishing new ideal forms that soon reproduce deeper-level patterns of the forms they were meant to surpass - not least in terms of the very relationship between institutionalized instrumental practice and the general environment, expressed in phenomena such as borders, input-output structures, life-cycles, or reflexivity. More recently, postmodern reflexivity has identified the impasse, yet itself hardly resisted its lure (Latour, 1993).

Rather than innovation, then, the impetus turns toward everyday life and tradition. This interest in tradition, however, is far from simply a conservatism. One reason for the persistent relevance of ethnography in areas of social practice is precisely the paradox that the most radically rationalistic communities, such as those of school-teaching or hospitalized care, often turn into the most monumentally rigid forms, and that thus innovation appears to result from reappropriating older traditional forms at least as much as from defining new instrumentally suitable forms from scratch.

When thus an identity of tradition and innovation is paradoxically substituted for their opposition, fruitful research requires a transformation of their reciprocal constitution. It can be assumed, then, that a starting point may be found by problematizing or even reversing both sides of the dichotomy and by meta-reflecting its constitution. This method would lead to reviewing and interrelating three lines of inquiry in recent social theory and practice regarding community, as a relevant point of departure:

1. The rational space of intervention as authentic culture: The analysis of rational institutionalized practices as authentic cultural forms that emerge spontaneously and reproduce as communities, including the way their instrumental rationality handles its own limits or shadow side or constitutes the community ideologically. The pivotal contradiction being that the very contemplative ethnographic glance that opens to studies of such communities in new ways also blocks their further development - when their relevance must be strictly kept apart from their object of study, their implications cannot be unfolded. This implies that these studies tend to remain abstract beginnings. (cf. The "new institutionalism" (e.g. (1991) "social studies of science" (Axel, 2002; Latour, 1987), or ethnographies such as (Dehue, 2002) or (Varenne & McDermott, 1998)

2. Indigenous communities as instruments: The "opposite" empirical object is the construction of more or less indigenous communities as (always-already existing) objects of governance in a kind of critical invocation of everyday life producing hybrid or "neo-traditional" communities such as foster families, apprenticeship learning, network organizations, "sectarian" communities, or professionally initiated and supervised self-help communities, etc. etc.. Even as these forms arise and "proliferate as hybrids" (Latour, 1993), their hybridity itself appears a block to unfolding their innovative potential (Christie, 1990; Hirst, 1993; Jensen, 1999; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Mørck, 2000; Nissen, 1997; Nissen, 2002; Nissen, 2004a; Rose, 1999)

3. Theoretical meta-reflection on various concepts of community as signifier of a specific boundered entity. Within the last decades, a growing awareness of the significance of the local, heterogeneous and the shared have evolved and have brought a new dimension to discussions both of society in general and the person in particular. In this regard, post-modern, communitarian, and poststructuralist thinking converge with tenets in critical psychology and critical social theory. Synthetic notions of vaguely boundered entities such as Bourdieu's "field" or Luhmann's "system" are supplemented with concepts that view the "local" as an operational entity, such as or "communities of practice" (Lave et al., 1991; Wenger, 1998), Engeström's "activity systems" (Engeström, 1987), the "actor networks" of Latour, Law, Mol, or of Brown, Middelton and others, or the "collectives" of Callon, Gomart etc. (Callon & Law, 1997; Gomart & Hennion, 1999; Middleton & Murakami, 2004; Moser & Law, 2001), and the "action contexts" of Dreier, Nissen, and others (Dreier, 1999; Nissen, 2002; Nissen, 2004b; Nissen, 1999). To be sure, these conceptualizations build on older forms such as Lewin’s ‘field’, Bateson’s ‘system’, Parsons' or Mead's "institution", Goffman’s ‘frame’, Garfinkel's "situation", Bion’s ‘group’, Leont'ev’s ‘activity form’ etc. etc. The genealogy of this trend is many-sided, and it is itself characterized by inter-disciplinary approaches (notably, in this context, the intersection of the interventionist psychological tradition and the more contemplative ethnographic). This is of course one of its great strengths, - provided it does in fact take on the challenge of working out the contradictions that arise, and which, classical as they may be, are fed by a new social context.

Theoretical analysis, of course, cannot be limited to modeling concepts in psychology and social sciences. The backdrop of a history of philosophical conceptualizations must be taken into account as well, by connecting to issues such as the communitarian or Habermasian attempts to resurrect civil society from its privatized form as "bürgerliche Gesellschaft", or the debates over the state as instrumental apparatus or political community par excellence.

The NCIP aims – with the aid of its network of scholars – to review these three lines of inquiry and turn them toward the task of reflecting, commenting, and guiding ongoing social innovations.

A Danish brand of Community Psychology?

The mutual stimulation of theoretical and applied research is vital to this project. So it gains substantially from understanding itself as contributing to the ongoing establishment of Community Psychology as a subdiscipline in Danish psychology (Berliner, 2004). The curious lag of several decades between the anglo-american origins and the Danish reception is probably due to the structure and self-consiousness of Scandinavian welfare state communities. Consequently, the emergence of a notion of "community" in Denmark provides a unique opportunity to approach the "system/life world" split anew in its (re-) conception. Danish research in community work, for the same reasons, has potentials for a wider international acknowledgment. In this respect, we can work directly in continuation with our own Danish publications such as (Mørck, 2003; Nissen, 2000; 1999).

While the traditional clinical and educational psychologies arose attached to the institutional forms of the clinic and the school, Community Psychology is free to relate at a more abstract level to social units of practice. At the outset, its field of application is the whole range of social work and organizational-managerial practices; its most promising prototypes can be found in boundary or hybrid practices that must pose the questions of constituting communities anew.

The long-term intention is to develop a kind of practice research that organizes a "discipline" – a body of knowledge, a form of reflection-in-practice, and a (network) type of community – that can be viewed as supplementary both to traditional professional disciplines and to the soaring wave of audit/evaluation. It is not meant to challenge those – let alone usurp or monopolize Danish Community Psychology – but to provide one venue of knowledge generation characterized especially by a meta-reflexivity that utilizes theoretical resources to unfold potentials inherent to the current refurbishing of the welfare state.

In addition, the intention is to relate as directly as possible the theoretical and empirical research on community with the institutional development of forms of teaching and practice training at the University. So far, university clinics and the educational structures of academia itself have provided the models for integrating academic and practical learning. These models are characterized by being (perceived as) internal to the academic communities and rationally controlled spaces. In Community Psychology, by contrast, it is possible to instigate a network organization that seeks out neutral grounds on which to develop joint ventures of theory, academic learning,and practical intervention.

Projected research activities

The project activities will be of four kinds: a) empirical-practical studies of prototypical practices and venues in which communities are created.; b) theoretical debates and statements on the concept of community, c) case-based university teaching in the field of Community Psychology, and d), most importantly, the networking between those 3 kinds, as well as between those established in the project internally, those associated with the project, and relevant others. More specifically:

A series of 6 research seminars with relevant guests (see below)

The research seminars are projected to be relatively small (only up to about 20 participants), intensive, with time to go deeply into materials (2-3 days each). The most important objective is to connect the resources of the international community of scholars with the issues and conduct of empirical-practical investigations.
The seminars are planned to occur in three overlapping phases: 1) Outline of existing approaches and problems; 2) Reflection of ongoing practical-empirical projects; 3) Creation of public statements (publications and presentations).

One of these is planned to include a PhD course established and run in cooperation with the Danish Doctoral School of Psychology in the fall of 2006 (see attached letter by Ole Dreier).

"Own" research projects

The "home base" of the NCIP will consist of 4 research projects that share the form of research-and-practice project joint ventures in which communities of various kinds are created and reflected. The projects can all be viewed as seeking out, engaging in, and co-creating prototypical communities of practice, and developing theoretical models in the process:

The subjectivity of participation (Morten Nissen, University of Copenhagen). Ongoing theoretical and empirical-practical project; after 13 years of practice research the main task currently is to write an English-language monograph. Present empirical materials concern the establishment of a counseling facility for young drug users (Nissen, 2004a).

Community psychology: change in multi membership as a key to identity transformation (Klaus Nielsen, University of Aarhus). An empirical study of the nearly-lost kids and a staff
with alternative educational qualifications in social pedagogical institutions.

A joint venture with a group of ‘wild’ social street workers (Line Lerche Mørck, Danish University of Education). This practice research is informed and developed from a theoretical perspective of critical psychology and situated theory of learning and at the same time grounded in the joint venture with the 'wild social street workers', whom LLM has been doing research with and about since year 2000 (see Mørck 2003). Since February 2004 ongoing monthly focus-group-meetings about ‘the wild social street work’ has taken place with about 10 wild social workers, some educated, some not - all with various ethnicity, religion, gender and degrees of wild background. The themes of discussions arise from ongoing dilemmas, problems or conflict in practice. Possibilities for action are reflected at the monthly meetings.

Performing counter-knowledge as psycho-social intervention (Jacob A. Cornett, BO-Center Lindegården, Roskilde County) This PhD project, co-financed by SIND, is meant to both create forums for voicehearers and for people with paranoia as well as concurrently investigate these forums as sites of production of counter-knowledge. The theoretical frame for this research is critical psychological, investigating pragmatically alternative performance of subjectivities in a framework of broader discursive dividing practices and societal exclusion of madness as »other«. The specific aim is hence to investigate how progressive movements facilitates this – the communities of political activism like Hearing Voices Network, MadPride, Anti-Anorectic League of New Zealand and Vancouver.

Connected research projects

Besides these research activities – which form directly part, and for which we apply for co-funding here – the project will join together a number of ongoing and projected studies (thus contributing also to graduate education):

Integrating work-based forms of learning in school (Jens Wilbrandt, University of Aarhus), PhD project co-financed by Danish Ministry of Education, supervised by Klaus N Nielsen

What it means to be without a home – homelessness and conduct of life (Kasper Kristensen, University of Copenhagen). Ongoing PhD project 2004-2007, designed and funded by AKF and Univ. of CPH, supervised by Ole Dreier.

Communities and habits in post-primary education. Ethnographic study aiming to develop prototypes for preventive education (Liselotte Ingholt, University of Copenhagen). Ongoing PhD project 2004-2006, University of Copenhagen, supervised by Morten Nissen.

"Solhaven" as a local culture – a combined ethnographic and psychological research project (NN). Projected master thesis in cooperation with ethnology supervisors Thomas Højrup or Lene Otto


Besides the publications planned for each of the projects in NCIP and the connected projects and network, the aim is here to put together a special issue of an international scientific journal. One or two of the research seminars will be organized around preparing this joint publication.


As can be seen in the attached letters of confirmation, the NCIP already has the core of a very qualified international network. USA: Cheryl Mattingly; UK: Dave Middleton, Steve Brown, Andy Leslie; Finland: Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research (Hannele Kerosuo); Denmark: Health, Humanity, and Culture (Uffe Juul Jensen). The latter is in practice a kind of "mother" network of its own, and it is likely that many activities can be fruitfully conducted in cooperation.


The project will be based at University of Copenhagen, Dept of Psychology, with Morten Nissen as daily and overall accountable leader. A project committee that also includes Klaus Nielsen, University of Aarhus, and Line Lerche Mørck, Danish University of Education, will meet at least 4 times a year to decide matters of principle and to adjust plans.

Time schedule

The project runs from 2005-2007. PhD project and research seminars go through the whole period. PhD course is planned for autumn 2006. Last 2 seminars devoted to publication which is scheduled for 2008.


Reference List

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