There is hardly any mention of migration background

Origin and nationality hardly make a difference in the daily work of Youth Welfare Offices

August 23, 2011

The tasks of Youth Care Services are clearly defined by the state legislator: assistance in questions of upbringing, general education and the protection of youth and children from danger. The target group for these official services, however, seems less clear - especially in major cities like Stuttgart, Munich or Frankfurt where in many districts fifty per cent and more of the population under the age of 18 has a migration background. What role do ethnic and cultural differences play in the daily routines of Youth Welfare Offices? The social anthropologist Boris Nieswand from the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen carried out several months of field work dealing with this question in a Consultation Centre of Stuttgart’s Youth Welfare Office. His impression: migration backgrounds are dealt with much differently by Youth Welfare Offices as compared to political or academic debates. “It is usually a quite banal concern there”.

Although ethnicity is a part of the daily routine, it does not play much of a role in most cases. In the analyzed Consultation Centre, about 20 per cent of the employees and 55 per cent of the clients had a migration background. Nieswand says that in common practice, “this means that the employees of the Consultation Centre were confronted with ethnic diversity on a daily basis, and knew that behind a Serbian name, a headscarf or a face with a darker complexion than that of the average German, very different clients and cases could be concealed”.
As compared to other person-related differences, ethnic-cultural categories prove to be less assertive. “Medical-psychological, legal or administrative categorizations are usually clearly more powerful”, says Nieswand. He mentions, in illustration that “the Youth Welfare Office is legally obliged to offer help to a family when, for example, a child is medically classified as mentally disabled”. The fact that five out of fifteen Consultation Centre employees have a migration background themselves, also contributes to the banalization of ethnicity. “This means that in practice, those who speak about ethnic-cultural difference must assume that one of the ‘ethnic others’ could be present as a colleague”, says the researcher. “This, is thus gladly avoided.”

Nieswand also made similar observations with respect to the committee that decides upon the provision of aid for education and parental care. There, the actors also preferred to avoid open references to ethnic-cultural differences. Although ethnic-cultural criteria could be quite important in the description and evaluation of a case – when, for example, references were made to gender-specific differences in the upbringing of children – it was still risky to voice them in an open discussion. According to Nieswand, “all parties involved know that the marking of ethnic-cultural differences has the potential to be discriminating”. “References of this kind could be voiced in particular, when they were paternalistic or benevolent in nature.” References with negative attributions and consequences often remained rather implicit, and were hidden behind formulations and categories that were apparently politically correct. “Such cases are then readily referred to as a ‘cooperation that is occasionally difficult to arrange’”.

According to Nieswand’s observations, the main interest of the employees of the Youth Welfare Office was to develop, maintain and conclude procedures of practice that were goal-oriented in nature. His impression was that the more accustomized and unproblematic a case was, the less of an incentive it formed for the mobilization of ethnic discourses. “When clients of the Youth Welfare Office are able to fulfill their role in such a way that the normal course of procedures is more or less guaranteed, then knowledge of ethnic-cultural difference becomes increasingly unimportant in the process”. Yet the result of this preference for a routine that is free of friction is that when clients are not willing or unable to play their role appropriately, then interactions become more susceptible to the appropriation of ethnic attributions. And this in turn, is not particularly banal after all.

Go to Editor View