Beyond Innocence and Cynicism: Concrete Utopia in Social Work with Drug Users


  • Morten Nissen


The article identifies a problem in socio-cultural-historical activity theory (SCHAT) with ignoring how hope and
power constitute the theory itself, and suggests that this is why the tradition faces a bad choice between
functionalist or utopianist reductions of its own social relevance.
Currently, remedies for this kind of (perhaps shammed) innocence can be found in Foucauldian and Latourian
approaches to knowledge. However, since these appear to presuppose the (often feigned) cynicism of a purely
negative standpoint that fits all too smoothly into the neoliberal management it describes, this presents us with
an impossible choice or oscillation at another level.
To get beyond it, we need the frankly self-reflected standpoint of ideology critique and the articulation of
‘concrete utopia’, i.e. real possibilities for social transformation.
The approach is then realized and exemplified as part of an emergent practice research in the field of drug
treatment. The field is broadly described as moving toward certain kinds of recognition of users’ standards, but
also as filled with paradoxes that allow us to intervene with theory.
One of these (sets of) paradoxes concerns the relations between state and civil (bourgeois) society that are
played out in drug treatment. Contrary to the doxa of New Public Management, the (welfare) state’s normative
power has not dissolved, only hides from itself. An immanent critique of practices and ideas in the field leads to
the suggestion that its forms of recognition imply both submission of users, and the creation of positive
standards and collectives.
To intervene in this set of issues, we must expand the SCHAT reading of its own Hegelian-Marxist legacy,
against the dominant liberal and scientistic trend, to engage with theories of recognition. A contemporary,
participatory concept of recognition is sketched, which seeks to sublate (include and supersede) submission into
the building of the generalizing ethics of a collective.


How to Cite

Nissen, M. (2013). Beyond Innocence and Cynicism: Concrete Utopia in Social Work with Drug Users. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 14(2), 54–78. Retrieved from