Civil society and voluntarism

Ph.D. thesis defended November 2017

This dissertation is a genealogical study of the role of Protestant ideas in action in the emergence and development of voluntary social work in Denmark ca. 1850 – 1950. It focuses on the emergence of this type of work in the late 19th century Copenhagen Home Mission and its development in one of the many initiatives that arose here, namely the Christian temperance organization the Blue Cross as it grew to a national organization during the first half of the 20th century. In the chapters framing the research articles, this development is shown to constitute a part of a wider Christian social movement based on ‘non contentious collective action’ through which bonds and boundaries of obligation were reinterpreted in the period. A conceptual history shows how concepts of voluntarism from their emergence in the late 19th century constituted normative counter concepts, especially to state run poor relief; concepts that were struggled over to define the proper bonds of voluntary practices. It is then shown, through a history of the changing moral economy and gift giving practices of state and voluntary social provision through the 19th century, how groups related to the Home Mission in Copenhagen ventured beyond the existing boundaries of obligation as they established new relations with hitherto ‘undeserving’ groups, such as alcoholics and prostitutes. In the final of the framing chapters, a ‘valuation genealogical’ approach is developed that guides and connects the three articles. It is argued that Christianity’s universalist ethos makes it particularly apt to expand or change boundaries of commitment, but that these principles are always specified in concrete action situations through cultural schemas of interpretation, and always potentially in conflict with competing social orders such as science and political ideologies. Finally, the valuation genealogical approach is shown to entail an attitude of active engagement in the reconstruction of historical creative junctures and problem situations, where the situatedness of the researcher forms the starting point for the analysis of collective actors’ creative interpretations of ideational traditions and the opportunity structures that these create for future generations. 

The framing chapters serve to set the stage theoretically, empirically, and methodologically for the three articles that together form a genealogy of the emergence and development of Protestant voluntary social action in Denmark in specific creative junctures and problem situations where bonds and boundaries were reinterpreted. In the first article, it is shown how Protestant voluntary social action first emerged in Copenhagen in the second half of the 19th century in relation to the Copenhagen Home Mission through several reinterpretations of the Lutheran revivalist tradition’s doctrines, ideals of community, and recipes for social action. Three waves are identified that each reinterpreted the language of sin and thus formed specific ‘collective soteriologies’ with specific consequences for the bonds and boundaries of voluntary social work. 
The second and third articles analyze one of the initiatives that emerged from the third wave, namely the Protestant temperance organization the Blue Cross (est. 1895), on the basis of hitherto unexamined archival material. The second article shows how this organization adapted the international Blue Cross with its Holiness inspired theology and novel forms of social engagement to the Danish Lutheran context during the first decades of the 20th century. It succeeded in doing so and in expanding nationwide through several ‘translations’ of cultural schemas, of resources, and of the interests of the rural Home Mission and the state. 

The third article shows how the Blue Cross responded to the eugenics inspired ‘illiberal’ policies that were put into law during the first half of the 20th century, infringing on the civil and political rights of alcoholics and implementing forcible commitment to the Blue Cross treatment facilities. It is shown how the Blue Cross actively lobbied for ‘illiberal’ policies regarding forcible commitment, just as they continuously published articles on how alcoholism was a degenerative disease caused by damage to the hereditary material. It is further shown how the theories of degeneration resonated with Biblical beliefs and the community ideals of the Protestants, just as they did with the otherwise different community ideals of the Social Democratic Party in government, who promoted eugenic legislation, resulting in an overlapping consensus spanning the civil society/state divide between actors who were committed to opposing yet complementing community ideals. 

The thesis concludes that the Christian social movement both innovated new vocabularies of motive for social engagement and broke with the boundaries of obligation of the 19th century, but also paved the way for paternalistic and rights infringing measures in social policy. Finally, the implications of the findings for research and practice are considered in relation to collective action, social welfare, and the role of voluntarism in society. 

The subproject was carried out by Anders Sevelsted

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