To read the full version of this content please select one of the options below:

Rendering the hidden visible: subjected to “work on the self” in a local labour market measure

Jon Sunnerfjell (Department of Sociology and Work Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 15 December 2020



The purpose of this article is to complement the literature understanding present labour market measures as infused by a so-called neoliberal rationality, fostering self-managerial selves by means of self-inspection. It does so by providing a much-needed illustration of how such “work on the self” is achieved in practice.


The analysis draws on ethnographic fieldwork tracing the “active society” at the local level, depicting practices aimed at activating welfare clients in a local labour market measure organised in a rural Swedish municipality. Here, the author was offered to undergo a method aimed at enhancing participants' employability. As a result, data consists of ethnographic as well as auto-ethnographic accounts from this experience.


This analysis shows how destabilisation of subjectivity was central to the remoulding of individuals into employable and self-reliant selves. Moreover, by dispersing responsibility to the individual, it is shown how the organisation was able to refrain from accountability, hence reducing the levels of uncertainty and ambiguity that is part and parcel of people-processing welfare organisations.

Practical implications

The article concludes with the warning that, in the wake of “local worlds of activation”, municipalities may sometimes draw on questionable assumptions of the human mind and behaviour, as well as the vulnerability of individuals' self-understanding, as a way of managing the “active society” at the local level.


The literature on activation lacks ethnographic accounts depicting concrete practices of turning the socially excluded into active and employable selves. Here, this article offers an illustrating example of such practices in action.



There are no financial conflicts of interest to disclose. The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their careful and constructive comments.


Sunnerfjell, J. (2020), "Rendering the hidden visible: subjected to “work on the self” in a local labour market measure", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited