“Problems” in Employment Services


  • Hermann Müller University of Hildesheim
  • Stephan Wolff University of Hildesheim


interaction in employment services, conversationanalysis, career guidance


From a conversation analysis perspective, institutional conversations are characterised by the fact that, on the one hand, certain rules and practices of everyday conversation either do not apply, or do so only in modified form; and, on the other, that the interlocutors act as representatives of particular social categories, treating and experiencing each other as such (see e.g. Arminen, 2005; Heritage, 2013; Heritage & Clayman, 2010; Sidnell & Stivers, 2013).[1] Each interlocutor’s expectations of the other vary according to the categories or category combinations in play between them (see Antaki & Widdicombe, 1998; Lepper, 2000). Category-specific expectations of this kind are expressed in such statements as “At your age one shouldn’t be so aimless.” The expectation expressed here is connected with the institutional duties of a job centre case manager working for the German Federal Job Agency.[2] One of these is to assess whether a client[3] is sufficiently motivated for supplementary vocational training [überbetriebliche Ausbildung] and whether he should be “mobilised” in this direction with a view to his integration into the job or apprenticeship market. There are thus institution-specific expectations and conceptions of “young people” which can sometimes vary considerably, for example when the job centre perspective is compared with that of youth welfare offices, the police, and residents’ registration offices (cf. also Baker, 1984; Cicourel, 1968; Hall et al., 2006; Holstein, 1992, Wortham & Jackson 2008).

For the clients of these institutions, the chances and difficulties linked to meeting expectations, and of bringing their own conceptions and needs into the conversation and having their view of things listened to, will vary depending on which categorisations are in play (Griffiths, 2001; Juhila, 2003). This is clear firstly from how the clients of various social services organisations are able to formulate their concerns as a problem; secondly which kinds of problems are accepted by the relevant social services staff and, thirdly, whether and how these problems are modified in the course of the conversation. A relationship subjectively experienced as being difficult, for example, will not only be differently described and accentuated by those involved depending on whether the individual is speaking with a doctor, a psychologist, a social worker, or a lawyer; we can also assume that the very “problems” themselves that are elaborated in these various conversations will differ from one another in no small respect. The same will of course also be true of the solutions proposed to these interactively elaborated problems.  Clients’ “problems” differ depending on how they are categorised, and vice versa (Mäkitalo, 2002).

Author Biographies

Hermann Müller, University of Hildesheim

Institut für Sozial- und Organisationspädagogik

Stephan Wolff, University of Hildesheim

Institut für Sozial- und Organisationspädagogik




Special Issue: "Labour Market Policy at Street Level"