The other day, just before the Christmas and New Year holidays, I met a former social worker. As I am a boring person and never stop being a sociologist, I homed in on a comment she made about the difficulties in reconciling being the person she would like to be and working in a municipal social service with migrants. She spoke about the nagging tensions of wanting to provide welfare and how institutional rules were blocking or limiting this. She mentioned discussions between colleagues that created two different ways of relating to the job. One approach was colleagues who were defined by the workplace, the rules and the managers; the other, amongst a smaller group of colleagues who were not necessarily friends, but people sharing the experience of finding it challenging to be the person one would like to be and doing institutional social work in the municipality. The word deservingness, which is quite awkward in Swedish, never passed her lips, however, needs and solidarity did.

In the following, I reflect on these issues in relation to the focus of our project, migrant deservingness and solidarities, emphasizing some of the ambiguities in the terms of the project. In an earlier post, I briefly discussed the questions of what a migrant is and for how long a person is a migrant, questions that keeps returning in the project and in previous research. Migrants may be captured through different administrative categories, based on the reasons of the migrants themselves, or discourses of the migrant other, but often undertheorized. This messiness and how it is translated into policies and practices is always connected to issues of deservingness and solidarity.

What then is deservingness and what difference does it make if we distinguish between pre-institutional and institutional deservingness (or to make it more clear between deservingness and entitlement, see Rawls 2000)? As a sociologist, I am provoked by philosophical distinctions like this that attempt to discuss concepts dis-embedded from actual sociality. It is not that I am against abstract reasoning. I think it is a necessity, not only for research but for living. However, the idea that we can talk about deservingness without linking it to the sociality in which it is developed, practiced, and transformed, is difficult for me. I found the distinction between pre-institutional and institutional deservingness in an interesting article by Göran Duus-Otterström “Scheffler on deservingness in distributive and retributive justice” (2007). While I would prefer to differentiate between different forms of institutional deservingness, I think the basic point of entering an institutional setting with an understanding of deservingness that is different from those in the institution, covers the issue I mentioned from my conversation with the former social worker. I don’t think her understanding of deservingness was pre-institutional, or distinct from entitlements, but rather that it was an outlook developed through previous institutional practices, as well as experiences with family, friendships, social movement activism and/or education. Her difficulty in being employed as a social worker was that institutional deservingness (what also could be called entitlement) didn’t match her understanding of what social work should be about: deservingness based on solidarity.

‘Social worker’ is a category that may be captured by the concept ‘street level bureaucrats’ (Lipsky 1980), employees in public service who interact with clients and through their discretion not only implement but de facto make policies. While the degree of discretionary autonomy has been debated in research (Evans 2004), my acquaintance felt that the entitlement possibilities did not account for her understanding of deservingness or grant her sufficient discretion to implement her understandings. Thus, she left the organization.

The moral of this story is both methodological and theoretical. The methodological challenge is to explore the similarities, tensions, and conflicts between how deservingness is expressed through individual understandings, practice, and institutional regulations, and thus not assume that they correspond. Methods-wise this entails a combination of interviews (the individual), observations (the practice), and document analysis (the institution). While interviews and document analyses are difficult, capturing practice through observations is even more complex, especially when located in settings of negotiation within what we call micropublics, which I return to shortly.

Theoretically, the challenge is to allow for the messiness, and still discern patterns, contributing to understandings of variations of deservingness and their link to solidarities. We know from earlier research that “unemployed yet healthy” and “migrant” are categories that score low on deservingness in attitude surveys. The first category is linked to the derogatory idea of “welfare scroungers” who are purported to not want to work and ‘do right’ for themselves. Discourse-wise this un-deservingness is linked to what Ruth Levitas (2005) discerned as moral underclass (conservative) and social integrationist (neoliberal) discourses in which the individual is held fully responsible for their unemployment. The second category – migrants – is linked to the idea of non-belonging that has been theorized as welfare chauvinism (Andersen & Bjørklund 1990) or caring racism (Mulinari & Neergaard 2014).

Linking back to our overall Solidarities project, this becomes even more complex if we explore migrant deservingness in micropublics (see previous post and Berg et. Al 2019). It then involves not only the individual, street-level bureaucrats’ discretion, and institutional constructions of deservingness. In addition, deservingness is expressed by migrants (whatever this concept means) and migrant advocates, and this needs to be considered. In micropublics, individual understandings of deservingness, which in turn are structured by the institutional settings, are negotiated.

In ending this blog, I return to the quick conversation I had with my acquaintance. She is now working within a non-governmental organization in which institutional and pre-institutional deservingness are more in line with each other. When I made this observation to her by saying “that sounds great”, she quickly replied that there were new challenges. On the one hand, she had to secure external financing from individuals and from the state that would allow them to carry out their services and, on the other, they faced a mammoth task of negotiating understandings of deservingness with people in need of so much and varying forms of support.

I wished her seasonal greetings and now wondering if Santa has been kind to her wishes.


Andersen, J. G. and Bjørklund, T. (1990) Structural changes and new cleavages: The progress parties in Denmark and Norway. Acta Sociologica, 33(1), pp. 195–217.

Berg, M. L., Gidley, B., & Krausova, A. (2019). Welfare micropublics and inequality: Urban super-diversity in a time of austerity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42(15), 2723-2742.

Duus-Otterström, G. (2007). Scheffler om förtjänst och retributiv och distributiv rättvisa. Tidskrift för politisk filosofi, 1, 19–40.

Evans, T. (2004). Street-Level Bureaucracy, Social Work and the (Exaggerated) Death of Discretion. British Journal of Social Work, 34(6), 871–895.

Levitas, R. (2005). The inclusive society? Social exclusion and new labour. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lipsky, M. (1980) Street-Level Bureaucracy: The Dilemmas of Individuals in Public Service, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.

Mulinari, D., & Neergaard, A. (2014). We are Sweden Democrats because we care for others: Exploring racisms in the Swedish extreme right. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 21(1), 43–56.

Rawls, J. (2000) A Theory of Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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