Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Recognition - the ethical basis of all helping occupations

Axel Honneth is an interesting philosopher that I can recommend others to read. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Frankfurt and Director of the world-renowned Institut für Sozialforschung, he took over as director after Jürgen Haberbas. His social philosophical major work was published in Norwegian in 2008 and has the tittel: Kampen for anerkjennelse. The translation from German into Norwegian, is in my opinion difficult, but also maintains in my opinnion Honneth slightly cumbersome way of expressing himself. I prefer the English translation of 1996: The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Reading the book in the original language is still the best, as it often is with good books, and the original title is Kampf um Anerkennung: Zur Grammatik moralischen Soziale Konflikte. If you think the book is too difficult to read, and are able to read Danish, I recommend a book written by Peter Hoilund and Søren Juul in 2005: Anerkendelse og dømmekraft i socialt arbeid. Here, Hoilund and Juul gives an excellent interpretation of Honneths philosophy in Danish. In addition, they show how Honneths somewhat difficult ideas, can be applied in social work practice and research.

Honneth has been strongly criticized by the American philosopher Nancy Fraser of reducing political philosophy to a politics of recognition. Her criticism is something I will come back to in a later blog. What interests me the most with Honneths' book is his emphasis on the concept of recognition and that Hoilund and Juul interpret Honneths' claim that recognition is the ethical foundation of all helping occupations. They do not write one of several ethical grounds, but THE ethical basis for all help. This is pretty strong medicine. Recognition is more than to see the person in front of you. Recognition is about giving the person self-
esteem, not just to see the other person but to make him/her visible. This involves taking the other person seriously, to listen, to understand, to show that you can see the person when he or she is present, making the person "exist" in a social significant manner and to behave with a recognition that the other person is present in same room as oneself. It is all too often that I sees in helping services that the opposite takes place. The helper does not take the needy seriously, that one does not listen to what the needy has to say, they neither understand nor try to understand the needy, that they relate to the needy as if he/she is not present in the same room as themselves, they make the needy "nonexistent" in a social sense, and behave as if the needy are not present in the same room as themselves (even if the person is physically present). All this is what Honneth calls humiliation. This is an important message for the helping system to take a closer look at.

What prevents a person who is in contact with helping services to be seen, heard and understood? This is an important question for instititions that helps other people to answer. Are patients in the hospital emergency room or clients on the social service office seen, heard and understood? If such helping services talk and act in a manner that is perceived as a lack of respect of the needy, the reaction could be a lack of cooperation, indignation and anger. It is said that many are afraid to work in emergency health hospital services. It is said that this particularly applies to doctors and nurses. Norma Scott has written an article in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing (2008) that it is high time that one looks closely at the institutional frameworks for health workers in order to prevent that employees are exposured to violence and so that doctors and nurses can feel safe. This is of course a legitimate claim. However, measures that are usually implemented are uniformed
guards in the waiting room, a glass wall between the reception and patient / client and a numbering queue system for the needy. All of which are measures that increase the distance between the helper and the needy. When we see that such measures lead to a lack of cooperation, indignation and anger among the needy, I believe that it may be appropriate to consider if the helper feels unsafe at work because the user feels humiliated. If recognition is the ethical foundation of all helping activities, measures that should be introduced in the workplace should make the needy more visible, not less visible. As I have said above, it is necessary not only see the needy, but to make him/her visible and to give the person which is in need of help a self-esteem which is grounded in a mutual respect fro each other. How can helping services, such as hospital emergency room or social service office, give their users self-esteem? This is a challenge which all helping occupations must take seriously.

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