Political Social Work: the Finnish Point of View

Above, I have made a short journey to the ideas on teaching politically oriented social work coming from different countries. For me, as a Finnish reader, many of these ideas have been quite novel although some traditions for politically oriented social work in Finland can be found. From long historical perspective, the roots of such an approach are located in the ideas concerning the prevention of social problems presented at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Viirkorpi 1990, 2–3; Satka, Pohjola and Rajavaara 2003, 7). During the 1970s, there was
significant enthusiasm for consolidating the role of social work professionals as social reformers. Among the tools proposed for such a consolidation was political advocacy through the political system as well as by supporting inhabitants' reformative aims in local contexts (Satka, Pohjola and Rajavaara 2003, 11–13).

In 1980s, the earlier 'planning optimism', expert power and control were increasingly criticized, and a more emancipative approach was demanded. In practice, this emancipation meant, for example, that social work teachers, researchers and students supported the activities through which different citizen groups defended their rights as social service users (Satka, Pohjola and Rajavaara 2003, 15; for more on developing 'alternative social policy' see Matthies 1990; Eronen and Heinonen 1994). On the other hand, there was still interest and demand for advocacy work done within the system and the concept of 'structural social work' (rakenteellinen sosiaalityö) was developed in administrative and professional settings (e.g. Rakenteellisen sosiaalityön työryhmän muistio 1985; Viirkorpi 1990).

At the same time, social work education was academicized, and the idea of the researching social workers was developed. As one dimension of this new approach, it was seen that the information social workers collected and analyzed in their working contexts could be used for advocacy work (Rajavaara 2005, 55–6). Afterwards, the attitudes at that time towards structurally oriented social work have, however, been characterized as unenthusiastic, especially when compared to the situation in 1960s and 1970s (Viirkorpi 1990, 28). In the 1990s and the twentyfirst century, the political approach has been visible in some projects, such as those relying on the eco-social approach (e.g. Matthies and Närhi 1998; Matthies, Närhi and Ward 2001; Närhi 2004).

Despite these nascent ideas, it seems that in Finland there has not been much development work in which politically – or structurally – oriented social work and teaching would have been developed in the detailed way described in the international texts cited earlier. This situation contradicts the received wisdom, because social work in Finland has been especially oriented towards the social sciences and the structural approach has even been claimed to be the strongest part of Finnish social work education (Murto et al. 2004, 55). On the other hand, social work teachers, for example, have recently evaluated the structural approach as playing a very marginal role in the teaching of social work practice at Finnish universities (Kairala, Lähteinen and Tiitinen 2012).

As such, many reasons for the situation may be found. When social work education was academicized in Finland in the 1980s, it encountered an atmosphere where the teaching of practical skills was not highly appreciated (Satka 1997, 31; Mutka 1998). Although Marxist ideas had quite a strong position in the social sciences at that time (e.g. Mäntysaari, 2009), it seems that orientation meant more critical theoretical analysis on current social work than the development of practical skills of alternative practices – especially when compared to the international ideas of radical social work (for a summary, see e.g. Payne 2005, 227–50). Later, the Finnish social work research and education have been strongly affected by postmodern and social constructionist ideas, which have emphasized more the fragmentation and situational character of society and social work practice than the teaching of concrete models of carrying out politically oriented social work. In practice settings, the structural approach is often weak, which is one reason social work students do not become familiar with that kind of way of doing social work when they participate in practical training (Kairala, Lähteinen and Tiitinen 2012, 51). This is related to the fact that social work is mainly done in public sector organizations in Finland (e.g. Kivipelto 2004, 351) whereas the role of radical third sector organizations as the employers of social workers is minimal. It seems that there is, however, an increasing need for skills for structural and politically oriented social work since social workers express criticism of their current working contexts and of the overall situation of social services (e.g. Karvinen-Niinikoski et al. 2005; Tapola-Haapala 2011; Forsman 2010). International cooperation on these issues would be fruitful.

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