A situated practice perspective in health pedagogical ideals of participation, community and learning – A qualitative exploration of underexposed processes, possibilities, and paradoxes among youth

PhD defence

Sara Mønster Frost

Place of Defence

Virtual defence: Zoom
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Meeting ID: 615 0874 3649

Please note that the defence will be performed in Danish only.


This dissertation is an investigation of how participation, community, and learning come to the fore in a health promotion practice connected with a development project called Food Maker run by the Municipality of Aarhus in which young people can volunteer to participate in different cooking activities. Food Maker is part of the municipality’s health pedagogical work based on particular idealistic understandings about participation, community, and learning. In spite of the widespread popularity these concepts enjoy, the dissertation shows that in practice as well as in the majority of the literature a logic informed by an evidence- and individual-oriented perspective still seems to dominate. It is emphasized that such a perspective may result in blind spots that make it impossible to see how the combination of social, structural, and material factors affect these phenomena in practice. What is more, such a perspective risks reducing the understanding of the three phenomena to the extent that some of their inherent processes, possibilities, and paradoxes are overlooked. To analyze the underexposed processes, possibilities, and paradoxes of participation, community, and learning, the analysis takes its point of departure in the socio-structural and socio-material configurations. To that end, five subthemes have been identified that are linked to the three key concepts of freedom of choice, power relations, failure-learning, knowledge sharing, and competence. These themes will also be studied. Chapter 2 describes the research field of which the dissertation is part. This means that the chapter provides insight into the research field (that is, the municipal health promotion project Food Maker) and the state of the art (that is, the parts of the literature that is concerned with the themes participation, community, and learning). Based on the description of Food Maker it is shown that Food Maker as a municipal health promotion project differs in several different ways from other and more traditional health promotion projects in the municipal setting while similarities are also evident. The review of the state of the art shows that even though practice and research are still dominated by a focus on measuring effects, some parts of the literature have opened up new venues for exploring participation, community, and learning. None of the reviewed studies, however, has explored the socio-structural as well as the socio-material configurations. What is more, none of these studies has looked into the issues pertaining to volunteers. Chapter 3 describes the theoretical framework of the dissertation. Due to the dissertation’s analytical interest in socio-structural and socio-material aspects, a situated perspective on practice is chosen whose theoretical framework is inspired primarily by Etienne Wenger’s theory about communities of practice. Since Wenger is only marginally concerned with socio-material aspects, his framework is supplemented with perspectives from Theodore Schatzki and Elisabeth Shove and Mika Pantzar who in their different ways contribute to an understanding of how one might address issues related to materiality in practice. In chapter 4 the methodological design of the dissertation is described. The situated perspective on practice along with Wenger’s theory of communities of practice create some methodological premises that inform the dissertation’s choice of methods. In general, this study may be described as a qualitative field study based on observations of different activities of the Food Maker project as well as different types of interviews with participants in the project. The theoretical framework has contributed to the interpretation of the empirical examples. Thus, an abductive approach has been used in order to promote a scientific focus on the dialectical conditions that spring from practice. The field study is divided in several phases each of which has contributed to the dissertation in different ways. Chapter 5 describes how the analysis has been conducted via different strategies of reading and interpretation. The strategies of reading have contributed to the identification of the employed examples that are meant to describe the three phenomena along with their respective subthemes. The main themes of the analysis were produced using these strategies of reading. The analysis falls in two parts.The first part is concerned with the socio-structural configurations. The second part is concerned with the socio-material configurations. In both analyses, the five subthemes will be analyzed in relation to the empirical material. In chapter 6 the flexible voluntary participation is investigated. In this case, the analysis shows that among the volunteers a mutual sense of expectation develops because their participation is voluntary. Furthermore, the analysis shows that an ambivalent attitude may be found among the participants with regards the freedom of choice Chapter 7 investigates the group work that is involved in the activities. It is shown how the young people consider the fact that they are with other young people to be something special. However, it is not the biological age but rather the fact that the participants find themselves in similar life circumstances that contributes to making the community a meaningful one. As a result, some young people are more easily identified as participants in Food Maker than others. Furthermore, the analysis shows that hierarchies of different kinds exist within the communities. In some situations, these hierarchies contribute to making the practice meaningful. Chapter 8 investigates the enthusiastic approach. Based on the empirical foundation, an investigation of the significance of this approach for practice is presented. The analysis shows that the activities offer the young people a liberating space which differs from those offered by other activities in which they take part. At the same time, the analysis illustrates that one of the consequences of this approach is that the young people may have a hard time navigating situations involving conflicts in constructive ways because the norm dictates that a high level of enthusiasm has to be maintained. Based on the analysis of the socio-structural configurations, the conclusion is that the municipal health promotion projects are incapable of controlling what happens in practice. For example, it is shown that the community may work against the intentions of the project. In this case, the analysis demonstrates that the structures put in place by the health promotion projects become objects of negotiation for the community. In some situations, these structures figure reflexively in the processes of negotiation that go on between participants. In others, these same structures produce different demands to which participants seem to conform, more or less, without reflection. Chapter 9 is focused on the socio-material configurations and investigates the influence the material surroundings have on participation, learning, and community. Here, the analysis shows that in some situations the material surroundings function as inherent normative management tools. That does not apply to all situations. Far from it. Furthermore, the analysis also brings to the fore that the material layout of the room may promote as well as hamper the interaction between participants. Chapter 10 is focused on the cooking practice. Here, the analysis illustrates the point that what connects participants not only influences what they learn but also how they participate. The material artefacts employed by the participants when cooking also influence their possibilities for participation. In that sense, materiality contributes to the constitution of norms and hierarchies in the community. These are not static hierarchies or norms, however. On the contrary, hierarchies and norms are continuously negotiated in the context of the situated community. The analysis shows that learning through participation in the activities described is situated in the sense that what participants do and learn in one specific context may not necessarily be transferable to other contexts in a way that allows these outcomes to be traced directly back to the activities in question. Whatever these young people do outside the specific context of the Food Maker project, must be understood in relation to the specifics of the social, structural, and material context in which they find themselves at any given time. Therefore, participation may be said to contribute to the formation of the young people’s identities while the identities they acquire through participation may, in turn, influence the way they participate in other social and material contexts. Based on the analysis of the socio-structural and socio-material configurations, it may be concluded that even though structures and materiality do inform and influence practices, the influence exerted by these conditions does not only contribute constructively to the participants’ actions. The community negotiates meaning in such a way that it remains meaningful in relation to the specific situation. Meaning, however, may change from one situation to another. The findings of the dissertation may be listed as follows: •Young people’s participation in practice fall on a continuum between participation and non-participation. •Non-participation, however, should not automatically be seen as signs of marginalization or lack of engagement. •The freedom of choice does not automatically motivate participants, however. Rather, in practice, granting participants freedom of choice may cause a number of unexpected paradoxes to arise. •A high degree of participation and co-determination do not rule out traditional power relations. •Different power relations and hierarchies do not only expel learning. •The community may, in some situations, work against the intentions and goals of participants as well as the health project. •While health promotion activities may contribute to bringing about meaningful spaces of participation, paradoxical reservations remain in place. On a general level, the dissertation concludes that a situated practice perspective with an interest in socio-structural and socio-material configurations can bring about to an increased focus on some of the underexposed processes, possibilities, and paradoxes connected with municipalities’ health promotion efforts and thus contribute to the cultivation of a nuanced perspective on the three phenomena: participation, community, and learning.


Associate Professor Mette Weinrich Hansen, Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), University of Copenhagen


Professor Niels Heine Kristensen, RUC
Associate Professor Boris Andersen, Aalborg University

Assessment Committee

Chair, Professor Lotte Holm, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen

Associate Professor Håkan Jönsson, Lunds University

Associate Professor Vibeke Harms Andersen, Aalborg University

If you are interested in a full copy of the thesis, please contact the PhD Secretary Tine Milton.