How does a citizen influence the nation?

Change in social work

Hermann Strasser

To person

Dr. rer. oec., PhD, born 1941; em. Professor of Sociology and Head of the Social Capital Research Group at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Forsthausweg 2, 47075 Duisburg.
Email: [email protected]

Michael Stricker

To person

Dr. sc. pol., born 1964; Professor and course director for health management at the BA Mosbach University of Cooperative Education, Schloss 2, 97980 Bad Mergentheim.
Email: [email protected]

With the crisis of the welfare state, the call for social self-help is getting louder. Citizens are ready to provide social services if professional providers provide support and there is scope for self-organization.


The model of civil society is associated with the active self-organization of the citizens, which is based on democratic principles and is independent of the state and outside the market. The key terms in this concept are citizenship and volunteering, civil courage and solidarity. These notions of a society are reflected in social capital, which appears in individuals as personal resources, in which the "strength of weak relationships" [1] is expressed and which emerges in society as a framework of trust. Last but not least, this social embedding has a positive effect on people's wellbeing, as recently revealed, for example, in a survey in five Austrian cities as part of the OECD social capital initiative. [2]

A civil society understood in this way is opposed to the model of the welfare state. Here the state intervenes through legislation in essential areas of life of the citizens in order to protect them against risks such as illness, disability and unemployment. Between the state and the individual there are organizations that, on the one hand, represent a platform on which the interests and values ​​of the individual are articulated and bundled. On the other hand, the state simultaneously transfers to selected organizations - following the principle of subsidiarity - the social services derived from legal claims and remunerates them for them. As a result of the increased entitlement to social benefits over the past decades, providers of social services (from charities and international aid organizations to private providers of outpatient and inpatient care for the elderly) have gained economic and social importance. From this proximity and partial dependence of the intermediary organizations on the state institutions, measured against the model of civil society, an ambivalent relationship has arisen. [3]

The discussion in German-speaking countries about how a fruitful balance can be created between state-organized solidarity and privately designed personal responsibility also moves in this area of ​​tension. Both critics and supporters of neoliberalism in Europe agree that our economy has taken a direction in recent years in which more personal responsibility is less social security and more entrepreneurial freedom opposes fewer workers' rights. As a consequence of this development, reference is made to the decline of the parties and the increasing disenchantment with politics. At the same time, saying goodbye to social classes with a simultaneous increase in social inequality is used to ensure that there are hardly any social groups on which organizations can permanently build. Many people have become socially homeless and increasingly reacted to situations and moods: They oriented themselves towards short-term options and not so much towards long-term meaning. [4] It is therefore not enough to understand citizenship as merely a plaster for the wounds of the market, and it is also not enough to describe the consequences of individualization and population development in a soothing way as change.

Because the regulatory mechanisms of the welfare state model do not work in a vital civil society, since people do not align their commitment to the legal claims of changing social legislation. Through the power of self-regulation, social systems have to adapt and fewer people have to perform better, as Karl Otto Hondrich even read the traces of luck for our society in the decline in births. [5] However, since public services are mainly provided by paid workers, in an individualized and aging society there may not be sufficient funds available for this in the long term. In view of the number of people in need of care of around 2.1 million people in Germany, the idea of ​​integrating volunteers into the care of dementia patients to relieve state and family care has also spread in politics in recent years. Particularly with the Care Services Supplementary Act, which has been in force since 2002, the Federal Government has promoted low-threshold care offers such as helper groups and day care groups. Volunteers are an essential support in these offers. [6]

In any case, this situation challenges us to think about new, old, but also new, other ways of organizing solidarity - with the aim of enabling community, even under these circumstances, as a lived bond that expresses itself in good neighborhood and civic engagement.