Relational Empowerment in Teledialogue

Paper presented at the 2nd Nordic Science and Technology and Studies conference in a panel entitled 'exploring empowerment'.

Lars Bo Andersen, Peter Danholt and Peter Lauritsen
Conference paper
Second Nordic STS Conference
Relational Empowerment in Teledialogue

This paper explores how empowerment is at work in a combined research and design project called Teledialogue instigated by us, the authors.

The purpose is to investigate what happens to empowerment when considered with Actor-Network Theory (ANT), that is as a relational composition.

What is Teledialogue?

Slide 1: What is Teledialogue

The ambition for Teledialogue (2013) is to use IT and video conferencing to strengthen the dialogue between social workers and children placed in foster care or at institutions so as to:

  1. Allow children more influence over decisions affecting their own life.
  2. Help social workers surveil the welfare of children and, if necessary, intervene on their behalf.

Currently, the dialogue between social workers and placed children is often limited to biannual meetings and many children feel frustrated and alienated from the social system meant to safeguard their upbringing (Aabo et al. 2012).

Empowerment of placed children is thus raison d’etre for Teledialogue and around 30 children, 30 social workers, 7 researchers, 7 municipalities, some IT-departments and a hoist of pedagogues, foster parents, friends and relatives are in varying degrees working to fulfil this ambition.

Slide 2: Arguments

This paper makes three points about this ambition of empowerment through Teledialogue:

  1. That the ways in which Teledialogue may empower are emergent in networks of relations, that it is not known a priori what will empower who or how – that at the outset, empowerment is more a question than an answer, that such ambitions are inadequate, uncertain and obscure.
  2. That empowerment is not a question of emancipating children by handing them power but a question of displacing the ways in which they are already related. Or, in other words, a question of researchers, social workers and children acting in relation to one another, thus displacing and rearranging the networks of which they are composed.
  3. That empowerment is empirically compelling, that the very use of this word not only attracts support but also compels certain types of investigation.

What is Empowerment?

Before we begin it is relevant to ask what is empowerment?

In many ways, ambitions of empowerment run implicit in much humanistic research aimed at identifying and conceptualising certain phenomena in society so as to render them public and debatable. Foucault is an example here.

Similarly, notable scholars such as Paolo Freire (2000) and John Friedmann (1992) have contributed influential conceptualisations of what is empowerment. That it is a process in which the disempowered somehow learn to build from their own experience, to articulate their own situation while resisting being defined by others – and from this outset forge new forms of relations to the state, the educational system, the healthcare system, and so forth.

Slide 3: What is Empowerment

However, Freire and Friedman notwithstanding, there seems to be no clear, cross-disciplinary theory of what is empowerment (Page and Czuba 1999). It remains first and foremost a word prescribing an ambition rather than an analytical theory describing a situation. A distinction I will return to in the end.

Intuitively, however, the verb empowerment signifies a process of bringing into power, literately an into-power-doing. It is thus often considered a process in which people are given power over something – for instance their medical illness, their social life, their community or their society.

But as we will argue, this conceptualisation of power as a handover does not go well with empirical observations from Teledialogue nor our theoretical position in STS.

Every instance of teledialogue is aimed at empowering specific children by strengthening his or her relation to a social worker. That is, by relating rather than handing over or emancipating.

In Teledialogue, this relating of child and social worker also works to displace and re-arrange a series of other relations between pedagogues, foster parents, biological parents, friends and so forth.

If successful, empowerment thus works counterintuitively, it entangles children rather than sets them free.

Empowerment is emergent

Slide 4: Empowerment as emergent

Let us investigate the first point, that empowerment is a question rather than an answer, that we do not know if Teledialogue will empower or in which ways, that we must first find out (see also Berg 1998).

Of course, strengthening the relation between social workers and placed children is the conceptual outset for Teledialogue, but it remains uncertain and emergent how this will play out and how, if at all, the outcome can be labeled empowerment.

There is nothing inherently empowering about this relation.

In fact, many children and social workers are ambivalent at the prospect of becoming further related.

Some children would rather that the system left them alone and some social workers fear that Teledialogue may incite their management to cut down on physical meetings with children.

However, for the most part, both social workers, children and we researchers see some form of empowering potential in Teledialogue.

What would happen if we talked like this once a week, what would happen if you could call me whenever you felt like, what would happen if we came closer than we already are?

As such, the empowering potential of Teledialogue is emergent, it must be empirically searched out.

Two examples:

One boy suffers from brain damage. If upset, he tends to split the situation into black and white and consequently acts in extreme and often violent ways. Accordingly, he has been placed under constant supervision by pedagogues at a secure institution.

At the institution he lives his life according to a clear structure meant to keep him from becoming enraged. He goes to school, he attends activities, he does chores, he rests and so forth.

Of course, due to his brain damage, even the smallest problems with pedagogues or the other children tend to escalate and he is often locked into his room until he can be calmed down.

Both the boy and his social worker see potential in Teledialogue to help remedy these situations. Perhaps the social worker could use Teledialogue to talk to the boy whenever there has been a conflict? Perhaps she could calm him down in ways that the pedagogues cannot?

However, talking to the social worker during a crisis would often only lead to more splitting, to the boy becoming instantly angered with the social worker and consider her part of the plot against him and, as such, being forced into opposition to everyone.

However, experimenting with videoconferencing, they discovered that seeing the social worker in video while having the boy roam angered around his room was quite efficient at countering splitting. As such, videoconferencing helps the boy retain trust in his social worker even during conflicts and allows the social worker to help settle the situation.

Empowerment is thus emergent as a way of solving tense conflicts with boys placed at secure institutions.

Another example involves a girl. Although this girl does not always agree with her social worker, or in fact, they have always disagreed, the social worker has followed her through several difficult and distressing relocations and they too have a trustful relationship.

The simplify the situation, the girl has experienced some difficulties living with foster families and at institutions, and she would like to move back home with her biological mother. But the social worker has always worked against this idea because he wants to protect her from how things are at her mothers place. As such, they do not want the same thing.

Currently, the girl is living with a new foster family and things seems to have settled down. Furthermore, both the girl and her social worker see an emergent potential for empowerment in Teledialogue and have arranged to videoconference with each other once a week.

However, it is not the same empowerment they see looming around the corner.

While the girl disagrees with her social worker on where to stay, she also likes to talk to him about ups and downs in her life as they occur. Sadly, due to the organisation of social work in Denmark, she most often have to wait long for a chance to talk to him.

In her experience, if she calls him she gets the answerphone and if she leaves a message he does not call back. So she keeps a written record of things that has happened so she won't forget. But with the weekly videoconferences, she no longer feels the need to keep records and can continuously share all those little but important things with her social worker.

For the social worker there is a related although different potential in Teledialogue. His concern is more traditional, that the girl should be empowered for “an adult life where she is capable of making good decisions for herself” (social worker, interview, 2015).

That is, he is working with Teledialogue to stop the girl from making bad decisions, to interfere in all those little things, but also to prepare her for making good decisions later on.

Empowerment here is thus to stop the girl from seeking out the wrong type of boys, keeping her from being hurt by relatives, control that she is not using drugs, ensure that she stays in school, and so forth.

Empowerment relates rather than emancipates

Slide 5: Relational empowerment

So we have searched out three emergent forms of empowerment and none of them work as emancipation. Rather, they all take the form of actions being displaced by other actions in a drift or translation which may, along the way, become empowering if the situation allows for it.

Importantly, this relational form of empowerment is always only partial, or more positively, one could say it is always only relational. Contrary to a dialectical or emancipatory empowerment, a relational empowerment does not redeem the situation but always only runs through it.

Latour would say that relational empowerment works through translation but, perhaps, Deleuze provides a better terminology when writing about lines of flight, that they are never like revolutions, running away and starting anew, but rather like runoffs, that they leak from an immanent capacity for becoming other existing in even the most tightly knit black box:

Lines of flight, for their part, never consist in running away from the world but rather in causing runoffs, as when you drill a hole in a pipe; there is no social system that does not leak from all directions. (Deleuze and Guattari 2013, 204)

Let us revisit our two examples:

Slide 6: Examples

While videoconferencing empowers the boy by allowing the social worker to get close during crises, it also distorts relations to pedagogues and the measures meant to protect him.

For instance, the boy now files more official complaints about the pedagogues with whom he has conflicts. Each complaint is investigated, entails paperwork and so forth.

Importantly, the pedagogues are skilled professionals and, as such, trained to do the 'right thing' for the boy. But Teledialogue has caused a runoff or leakage in their work, and the social worker is now drawn into their daily practice and with her follows all the procedures and formalities of social services departments.

In short, the boy is empowered to speak his mind while the pedagogical work is displaced and challenged. Whether or not this is a good or bad remains to be seen.

Also the potential empowerment available to the girl unfolds through relational developments.

The weekly videoconferences which constituted teledialogue in this case, ran well for a while and then were overtaken and interrupted by the social worker taking acute leaves form work due to illness in the family. This empowerment thus fluctuates in and out of existence according to circumstances in the other end. Sometimes it is there, sometimes it is not.

Similarly, the social worker's ability to ensure that the girl stays in school or protect her from going out with the wrong type of boys fluctuates in relation to all sorts of other things in the girls life.

Most importantly, whether or not she feels comfortable telling him about what goes on, or if the social worker is able to “piece things together” by talking to foster parents, the girl's family, teachers and of course the girl herself. Because, as he says, “she never really tells me everything” (Social worker, interview, 2015).

Indeed, many types of empowerment searched out by social workers are forms of surveillance (Gallagher 2008). They need to know if they are to act.

Luckily, this complexity is well known and appreciated amongst both children and social workers:

Slide 7: Quote

You need to include the child, to hear them out and consult their opinion. But in my experience, what I most often need to do is to say NO - things will not become as you desire. And that is simply so that I can protect the child against the parents […] because they have been exposed to some distressing things at home, it is to protect them, and this they are told, they are given this explanation. (Social worker, interview, 2015)

Empowerment is compelling

Slide 8: Empowerment is compelling

Relational empowerment is thus somewhat more elusive than emancipatory empowerment.

And a question imposes itself: Why not simply dismiss this word of bringing into power?

Well, the word could still be made to designate a form of entanglement rather than a form of emancipation. A bringing into foucauldian power rather than a bringing into dialectical power.

But perhaps more importantly, because it is compelling.

Compelling in the sense of being attractive and relaying support across parents, children, pedagogues, social workers and researchers (Jensen and Lauritsen 2005).

But perhaps more to the point, empowerment is compelling in that it compels a certain type of investigation, it compels researchers, children and social workers to question and examine what could happen if we tried out Teledialogue like this, or perhaps rather like this.

This investigation departs from the situation as it already is but then ventures into what Latour calls the plasma and Deleuze the virtual, those potentials and capacities that are not yet actual although they nonetheless are immanently present (see also Danholt 2012). Put more simply, if we push the blackbox about, maybe it will reveal something new about itself.

In the case of the boy, for instance, Teledialogue departs from the actual support and counselling of the social worker in tense situations but then ventures into the another territory by distorting the work of pedagogues.

Here perhaps, in the endeavour to unsettle the blackbox, to seek out lines of flight and run down what is leaking, empowerment has something to offer ANT which has always struggled with how to conceptualise normative engagements without ruining the symmetrical metaphysics (Star 1991; Gad and Jensen 2009).


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