Social inclusion or cohesion, an atonal perspective

In the video-interview, which is embedded in this article, we gladly introduce Sabrina Keinemans and her take on the specific relationship between her research- and educational activities and the politico-ethical aspects of the Social Work practice.
Keinemans is a Dutch lecturer in the field of social integration and chair of the Ethical Committee on Research at Zuyd University of Applied Sciences in Sittard (NL). Focussing on social inclusion, she is especially interested in the opportunities and limitations of social workers to contribute to the politico-ethical aspects of social work practice.

As a former student of care-ethicist Frans Vosman and translator of the summary of his valedictory speech ((1)) on ‘survivors as a cultural class’, Keinemans was inspired to not only look at the individual ‘problems of surviving everyday life in the margins’ but at the same time to see these as a ‘specific life form’, which entails a ‘steepness of life’ Rahel Jaeggi describes as Lebensform ((2)).

In her inaugural lecture, Keinemans used the concept of atonality to introduce this multi-stable view into the Social Work practice. Atonality being a metaphor for an academic approach which is as little as possible determined by context specific political order.
It is through this perspective on social practice, Keinemans brings the life forms she encounters into focus, in order to address them socially as well as politically. In this process of visualizing practices, she finds the ideas of Chantal Mouffe ((3)) on the political order most helpful.

Outline of this article

To introduce the video, we first present a summary of the interview, followed by our questions on burning issues.
Rounding up the article we dwell in short upon the theoretical background and context of the research and practice referred to in the interview.

Summary of the interview

In her work Keinemans switches back and forth from what happens in locally situated precariousness to the inquiry of dynamics in society that could be seen as underlying these situations. In the interview she focuses on the specific task for Social Work deriving from this notion: supporting citizens and at the same time reflecting and taking their issues up to the political level.

She hopes that researchers as well as workers in the field will be able to participate in this back-and-forth-movement, and thus in the politico-ethical debate about what matters in society, all the while themselves being participants in this same societal context and political order.

The burning question arises to what extent one is able to approach these issues ‘atonally’, meaning: to not be determined by a specific political order, escaping the hegemonic perspective of a good life ((3)), but by getting involved with these issues and analysing them from within. Keinemans reflects on the appropriate manner, implications and methods to put these aspects into practice in her work.

By way of epilogue Keinemans invites us to open a debate, to explore together with her, what the term ‘we’, which is easily used in the context of the societal and political order, actually represents in contemporary times.

We thank Sabrina Keinemans for sharing her insights and concerns with us in this interview, especially since ‘we’, the interviewers, are grounded in the same practice of social inclusion or cohesion, combining research and practice from a politico-ethical perspective. Together ‘we’ hope to inspire social practitioners as well as researchers watching our video to join this path.

Burning issues, practice and critique expressed in the video

Given the subject of Keinemans inaugural speech in September 2020, Atonality, we were interested in Keinemans view on the following questions, leading to this interview:

– What are the implications of Keinemans’ perspective on the intended and necessary interaction of theory and practice for both her research and for the training of future social workers at Zuyd University of Applied Sciences?

– How does she, as a researcher, develop her vision into empirical research and educational development?

– How does critique, as meant by Critical Theory of the Frankfurter Schule, fit into all of this, together with Keinemans’ notion of atonality and living together in society?

A draft of the theoretical background

As mentioned earlier, Sabrina Keinemans partially builds her research on thoughts of Frans Vosman (founder of about the ‘practice of survival’ ((1)). We therefore write a few words on the concept of ‘life form of surviving’, as used by Vosman. He elaborated the specific aspects of this ‘life form’ against the background of the work of Rahel Jaeggi ((2)). Vosman also draws on Sandra Laugier’s ((4)) considerations about life forms. We quote Vosman [translation Sabrina Keinemans]:

“Frans Vosman explains, with help of the ideas of Rahel Jaeggi, how surviving, understood in this specific way, is a form of life (Lebensform). The characteristics of a Lebensform coincide with the characteristics of surviving (e.g. both are practices, both are at the same time predefined and enacted, but above all, both deal with an issue by finding a way to endure and live it. The ‘issue’ of surviving is to stay upright when confronted with slippery steepness, and the life form of surviving makes it possible to bear this and keep up with tensions)”.

“[Laugier] points out that in a life form, and in my opinion that goes to a great extent for the ‘practice of survival’, all revolves around sensitivity for what matters [….] Precisely this sensibility itself, this ability to apprehend is very vulnerable, says Laugier. For the life form it is important to regain that sensibility and switch from bigger to smaller and back, from the occurring steepness to the little things to endure, without trivialising, and then again back from smaller to larger. This kind of responsiveness to experienced tensions is what makes survival into a life form on its own” ((1)).

So Vosman does not consider the life form to be a problem needing a solution. Primarily he uses this concept to make us recognize and become sensitive to what matters most. Secondly the life form does not exist “in spite of, but thanks to, as in ‘depending on’ experienced tensions”, according to Frans Vosman ((1)).

It is because of this insight Vosman urges researchers to leave the life form as it is and primarily reveal what is hidden behind it, to visualize this and to take this life form into account in a politico-care ethical way.

Ivonne Hoen en Silke Jacobi 



  1. Vosman, F (2018). Overleven als levensvorm. Zorgethiek als kritiek op het ideaal van het geslaagde leven. Uitgeverij Net aan Zet: Utrecht (translation forthcoming).
    ‘Surviving as a form of life’: does care ethics have an eye for cultural classes? Frans Vosman  held his valedictory speech on Friday, June 15, 2018 on survivors as a cultural class. His speech was part of an effort to radicalise care ethics. See the summary in English by Sabrina Keinemans (16-06-2018).
  2. Jaeggi, R. (2018). The critique of forms of life. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, London / translated by Ciaran Cronin (German original: 2014)
  3. Mouffe, C. (2005). On the political. Abingdon – New York: Routledge, 2005
  4. Laugier, S. (2020). Politics of the Ordinary: Care, Ethics, and Forms of Life: Volume 11. Peeters Publishers: Louvain

References to articles by web editors

Keinemans, S. (16-06-2018): Surviving as a form of life 
Hoen, I (01-02-2021): Frans Vosman’s ‘Survivor‘: five inspirations 
Jacobi, S. (20-02-2021): Frans Vosman, minima moralia and the institutional question 
Smorenburg, T (16-07-2021): Politics of the Ordinary – Care, Ethics and Forms of Life

About the author: Webteam

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