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The Absence of Positive Recognition for Individuals of Marginalized Groups in Danish Society

At first glance, it seems inherently paradoxical. From the inside, the setting appears to be an enchanting church in Denmark - the occasion, just another ordinary Sunday ceremony – and when the choir begins to sing, the entire church overflows with choral voices. Yet neither the church nor the choir is entirely ordinary: the church is located at Vridsløselille Prison, and the source of the voices is Vridsløselille’s Prison Choir, composed of two handfuls of brawny inmates with somewhat stereotypical appearances, among whom a majority is covered with tattoos and unmistakably marred by tempestuous lives.
But as one hymn replaces the next, we, the audience, slowly forget our reservations and the dire circumstances of the choir. As the ceremony ends, we spontaneously applaud them and, perhaps only in our imagination, seem to detect a mixture of shyness and pride among the choir.
The experience, indeed, leaves its audience with food for thought concerning the notion of appraisal or recognition within marginalized groups such as inmates. Appraisal is integrated into the everyday lives of most people, and seems  so basic yet central to us as human beings. Within marginalized groups, however, positive recognition seems conspicuous by virtue of its absence, leading  one to reasonably wonder what impact this may have upon the individual.

The case of the Vridsløselille Choir

While never forgetting that the inmates who join the choir are imprisoned for a reason, Louise Adrian, who is the organizer and fiery soul behind  the choir, constantly works to ensure that its members receive the recognition from society that she feels they deserve. And when it comes to the importance of receiving recognition and appraisal, she has no doubt in her mind: »First and foremost, I believe it creates a self-esteem, which they have never experienced before and definitely not in such a context. Just imagine being associated with something positive, when you, your entire life, have been used to always being associated with something negative and you have only been seen and heard in relation to something that has brought about conflicts, punishment, fines or hatred. The central point in all of this is unquestionably that they feel useful and part of a greater whole, where they are needed and are indispensable. They are motivated to prove that they contain more than just the negative – crime – but that they are also human beings for both better and for worse – and not only the latter«.
In its essence, recognition is about confirming and acknowledging some definitive qualities or resources among individuals or groups. It means to be recognized for one’s individual capabilities – as being inimitable and unique – and in many ways it is, as mentioned, an utterly fundamental human need. Yet the lack of such recognition and appraisal is something that not only prisoners experience, but that most marginalized groups in Denmark face.
Recognition and appraisal can alter and improve the actual quality of life for marginalized individuals, as in the case of the prison choir where Louise Adrian has countless examples: »There’s a guy I call ‘Joergen Life Sentence’, who carries a sentence of 24 years, and during the first 10 years, I never saw a smile on his face – not even when we were singing. Only when coming to church did he experience the company of other people, and even there he wasn’t happy because his life was dismal and he had been in prison for so long. I remember I was shocked when I saw him smile for the first time as there was a round of applause and he was on his first tour with the prison choir. And he asked “are they making fun of me or what?”, but it was from the heart – people were nodding and applauding due to the fact that he had been singing solo. Since then, more and more smiles have seen the light of day and today he is the happiest one in the choir – but it took 15 years!«.
Along the same lines, she presents a more holistic impression of working with the choir and what positive recognition means to the inmates: »To feel and see how things change over the course of all those years makes it all worthwhile and it gives me a firm belief that the recognition they, the inmates, receive through the prison choir – behind the prison walls and prior to the completion of their sentence – improves their self-esteem considerably. As a matter of fact there is a guy, carrying a sentence of 16 years, who made a song, which is the jolliest song you can imagine. Despite the fact that he has been the angriest and most enraged person I know, he has now written a song about how delightful it is to sing! It really makes you think: “Wow, there is something good in this man after all”«.

Kofoed’s School: Focusing on the Individual and Recognition

For the vast majority of marginalized groups, experiences involving recognition and appraisal are often scarce (if present at all), which can lead to a severe loss of self-respect and self-esteem. This is further worsened by the fact that, according to experts in the field, the basic condition for an individual’s self-esteem and feeling of inclusion is the possibility of taking part in activities recognized by the broader society – a condition that unfortunately is only extended to a few marginalized individuals.
Kofoed’s School is an independent organization that attempts to promote self-reliance for help people who are socio-economically disadvantaged by promoting self-reliance. Karin Larsen, who is the department leader at Kofoed’s School, believes that the interesting thing about the school is that it is »not just an institution, it’s an idea«. It is based on the thinking of Hans Christian Kofoed, whose ideas are reflected in the approach taken to students there: »We ask them: “what do you want to do?” That’s the difference between working with empowerment and just trying to change people«.
Whereas Vridsløsellile Choir was not initially formed with a focus on appraisal, Kofoed’s School proactively encourages positive recognition and appraisal among their students which, as Karin Larsen states, is »absolutely fundamental, it really is. We all know it; we all want to be recognized. We want people to see us. Not only what we do, but see us as the persons we are«. Based on this reasoning, the school works to create incentive structures, which provide a framework in which students have the possibility of discovering potential resources on their own terms, and being recognized for these resources.
Despite the fact that the need for recognition seems to be universal, this unfortunately does not guarantee that the channels through which recognition is conveyed are extended to marginalized groups; as a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. And although there are initiatives such as Vridsløselille Choir and Kofoed’s School which are aimed at accomplishing this, society is still faced with the imperative task of creating further incentive structures through which recognition can be channeled to marginalized groups - be they inmates, the unemployed, alcoholics, drug-addicts, etc.

The Absence of Incentive Structures within Institutions?

An incentive structure can be thought of as a framework or an activity in which it is possible for the individual, at his own wish and on his own terms, to participate – and that potentially holds the possibility for receiving recognition.
When talking about the effect of incentive structures, Karo Olsen-Jensen, who is section leader of the Greenlandic section at Kofoed’s School, emphasizes that this is a framework within which a marginalized group has the possibility to participate and »make something they can be proud of, they tell something about their culture, and when they sell it and see that people love it, the things you make, then it makes you grow«. However, she also underlines how incentive structures must always be realistic in terms of expectations: »We don’t expect too much, you can’t expect too much when people are alcoholic and they smoke hash and all that stuff. We try to motivate them«.
In this sense, incentive structures should provide a frame of possibilities for ‘action’ but without imposing additional pressure on a group which is already under pressure and vulnerable. The Vridsløselille Choir and the ideas underlying Kofoed’s School seem to be good examples of this. They both focus on participation according to the terms and will of the individual, the importance of giving positive recognition to any resources revealed by the individual, and finally, not putting pressure on the individual to perform.
Both Karin Larsen and Louise Adrian seem to be of the opinion that today there are enough institutions, but unfortunately, a lack of focus on creating incentive structures. Concerning the presence incentive structures at Vridsløselille prison apart from the choir, Louise says: »Well they don’t really exist. In the summer there are 4-week summer courses where you can paint or work with canvas or something like that, but there is no continuity in this which means that there is no stability«.
In speaking of what a possible solution to this might be, she explains: »If I were to imagine the ideal situation it would be that each inmate had a person who ’followed’ him for perhaps the two first years of his sentence and simply was on the lookout for the potential in this individual: ’are you good with electricity, buttons or whatever – then let’s go that way together, if you want to, and let’s try out those different options’ - but nobody cares about the individual. Nobody is on the look-out for talents, but they all have it«.
In sum, there seems to exist a breach within the current institutional framework. Are we, in the name of ‘normalization’, neglecting to search for and cultivate the potential which lies in the individual - in his or her own context?

Inclusion vs. Exclusion?

Today’s Denmark is increasingly focused on numbers, results, and a concern with how each citizen can be a productive individual in society’s image. This means that there is a pressure, both on the institutions and on the individuals within these institutions, to achieve certain measurable goals which, in the case of marginalized groups, often involves attaining a certain level of ‘normalization’ or ‘resocialization’.
When we asked psychiatrist Preben Brandt about the importance of positive recognition in this context, he responded: »I think it is more important than any treatment and any social strategy for giving more power to those people; to change them. Positive recognition is much more important, it’s a much stronger thing to give. The problem is that we don’t know the outcome. We very much like to make strategies where we have a plan and have an expected outcome, which we can measure«.
Karin Larsen continues along the same line of thought as she claims that there perhaps should be less focus on changing people, since you cannot force change upon a person. In her opinion, »it has to come from their inside – we can only inspire, we can only tell them that they are good enough as they are«. Louise Adrian seems to agree with this point, as she explains her thoughts about the prison choir: »The purpose is not really that there is some sort of ’success rate’ since the purpose with the prison choir is rather that the prisoners, during their imprisonment, experience that they spend time doing something meaningful. That they become good at something, gain a special friendship, experience bright spots and some contrasts to their grey everyday life. And this then results in some consequent effects such as building up their self-esteem, a new identity, some good experiences, a social solidarity; and if they are lucky this might have further positive implications«.
This is a refreshing approach to marginalized groups in that the focus lies with the individual’s self-perception, and at an even more basic level, in reaching out to marginalized groups by creating a framework in which they have a chance of feeling like a human being.
Speaking in more general and societal terms, Brandt suggests that Danish society must »look at the possibility of creating small areas where we give these people the opportunity to show that they can do something«. In referring to a project in Bergen, Norway where drug addicts can come to work and in return get an hourly salary, but where there is no focus on treatment, he says: »I think that we should be rich enough but also be willing to create, and to give space for those people who behave differently from ‘normal’ people and see it as a possibility to respect them for what they are--recognize them, you could say«.
Perhaps part of the solution is to think of this process of ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘normalization’ in reverse: instead of basing respect or recognition for these marginalized groups on the presupposition that they are ‘normalized’, we as a society should perhaps be more focused on recognizing the resources that these marginalized groups already have in their own context. As Louise Adrian states, this will in some cases result in increased self-esteem and a feeling of capability and worthiness. This does not necessarily imply a direct causal effect leading to ‘rehabilitation,’ but might at best be a frog leap on the way; and ‘at worst,’ help that person to feel more human and included in society.
By recognizing marginalized people as having capabilities and resources in their own right, society re-humanizes and de-marginalizes them. This, in turn, seems likely to have different types and degrees of positive effect on various individuals. As Louise states: »Sometimes there are cases where I think: “I mustn’t be naïve and think that if they just sing they will all be saved”. But I see, one story after the other, how much it means to them, which capabilities they gain and also a changed social behavior. The binding solidarity in the choir results in them safeguarding very much what they have themselves built – so they don’t want to ruin this«.
It is indeed important not to be naïve in believing that recognition is a miracle cure. However, as mentioned earlier, at best it might be a way of being included and ‘re-socialized,’ while at worst the ‘only’ result will be an increased sense of being accepted and included in society. In this sense, perhaps we should focus on the importance of positive recognition for the individual in his or her own right, and become generous enough as a society to move beyond an emphasis on measurable results to instead focus on the individual’s sense of him/herself as a human being.  This, in turn, can be accomplished by making our society inclusive rather than exclusive.


Barth, Fredrik. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization. Little Brown & Co, 1969.
Bjørkøe, Jens Aage. Starting From The Heart. Kofoed’s School Publications, 2009. 
Honneth, Axel. Behovet for anerkendelse. Copenhagen: Reitzels Forlag, 2003.
Honneth, Axel. The Struggle for Recognition. The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Polity Press, 1995.
Jenkins, Richard. ”Rethinking ethnicity: identity, categorisation and power.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Volume 7(2) (April 1994) 197-223.
Nørgaard, Britta. ”Axel Honneth og en teori om anerkendelse” Tidsskrift for Socialpædagogik nr. 16 (2005).
Rosenthal, Robert, and Jacobson, Lenore. Pygmalion in the classroom. Expanded edition. New York: Irvington, 1992.


Kofoed’s School
Project Outside
“Recognition and the psychological work environment”. Psychological Work Environment
http://www.etsundtarbejdsliv.dk/aktuelt_tema_ny/2008august.aspx (accessed 01.07.09)
Vridsløselille’s Prison
Vridsløselille’s Prison Choir’s Website

Personal Interviews

Adrian, Louise. Leader, Vridsløselille Prison Choir. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
Brandt, Preben. Psychiatrist, Chairman of The Council of the Socially Excluded. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
Hans. Ex inmate and member of Vridsløselille Prison Choir. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
Larsen, Karin. Department leader of service department, Kofoed’s Skole. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
Olsen-Jensen, Karo. Section leader, Kofoed’s Skole. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
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Denmark Denmark 2009


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