Socially Robust Knowledge Processes of Local and Global Interest in Social Work

Ilse Julkunen and Synnöve Karvinen-Niinikoski

The global social change challenges social work for producing knowledge that increasingly reflects internationally critical issues but stays parallel true to its locally context-sensitive essence. This is a special challenge for social work research. International trends and currents are expressed in the interplay between national solutions and frameworks as well as in professional standards and the situational activity. Local and global are increasingly intertwined and connected. National decisions and developments on welfare policies and professional practices increasingly reflect the outcomes and evidence from international or internationally acknowledged studies and follow international trends, a pattern that has been shown in the analyses of neoliberal international trends (Huegler, Lyons and Pawar 2010). It is actually the global change that social work and social welfare are battling when people's welfare at the local level is realized and constructed through the everyday practices.

Comparative and international research is lacking in social work. Much research related to social work has focused on comparative studies of structures and systems of personal services provision or user experiences, rather than on social work itself. Payne (2006; 2010) argues that although comparative work may contribute to policy understanding of potential roles for and barriers to social services, it does not develop social work practice interventions. Most comparative welfare research remains at the macro level. It brings together outcome data from many countries but it fails to consider social and cultural contexts. Studies of effects of intervention may demonstrate their relevance as they relate to the overall planning of policies, but they may also fail to include the varied forms of organization and the interrelationship between welfare practices and experience. The research is often nationally not adaptable because of contextual differences or because understanding is lacking of the differences and dynamics in welfare as a human practice and as a professional one (Orme and Karvinen-Niinikoski 2010). According to our understanding, the problem concerns how to produce socially robust, context-sensitive knowledge for increasing our understandings of the global–local dynamics in welfare and social work practices and for developing up-to-date welfare policies and practices within the complex dynamics of our era. There are efforts to develop context-sensitive and practice-based research approaches and epistemologies that would provide tools for coping with the
complex dynamics of global and local situations and that would meet the challenges of finding social political and social work expertise that would be internationally transferable (Wrede et al. 2006; Dominelli 2012).

Wrede et al. (2006) argue for the importance of research that employs socially situated and socially distributed expertise to be able to generate robust knowledge that is sensitive to the context of the objects under scrutiny and allow for generalization beyond single country case studies. This form of context-sensitive approach with its focus on concrete and specifi traits in individual cases and specifi forms of organization can be considered a precondition for a social robust knowledge production in various contexts. They build on the notion of socially distributed expertise from the study of knowledge society (Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons 2001). The use of socially distributed expertise offers a fruitful framework for testing concepts and theories as well as for validating the results in multiple, natural settings. It includes dialogue with those who are studied, with other researchers, and with decision-makers as well as with other central actors in the fi d.

Socially robust knowledge is a central element in Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons' notion of Mode 2 science (see also Marthinsen in this book). The concept of robustness was originally developed for the analysis of science and academic knowledge production in modern knowledge societies. It was based on the emergence of both a new mode of knowledge production and an increased permeability of science. It raises the issue of how we can build up a knowledge base that is socially robust and goes beyond the question of effectiveness. Robustness emphasizes not only the research processes but the culture-bound practices and the changes that knowledge production facilitates.

Seen in this light, knowledge production processes are collaborative and culture bound. As White and Stancompe (2003) argue, what becomes centrally relevant is the knowledge and experience that the immediate actors in the frontline practices and in policy implementation obtain while carrying out their clinical decision-making and interventions.

Karin Knorr-Cetina (2001) has emphasized that the emergent phenomena of the modern knowledge society challenges traditional ways of understanding the meaning and nature of practices. Practices are often seen as recurrent processes with routine procedures, but modern epistemic practices redefine this notion. In fact, epistemic practices may come to dominate other kinds of practice in knowledgecentred work because it requires a more dynamic, creative and reflective approach. Knorr-Cetina emphasizes that the notions of the epistemic object take on a new meaning in this situation. As she argues, epistemic objects are characteristically open, question-generating and complex and they 'appear to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely'.

This process can be seen as methodological and epistemological questions about knowing and gaining or creating knowledge in change and it concerns the dialogic processes of knowledge production (Engeström 2014). It also concerns changing theories about human learning that refer to knowledge creation alongside the more traditional concepts of knowledge acquisition and learning
through participation (Hakkarainen et al. 2004). The trialogic approach (Paavola, Engeström and Hakkarainen 2012) is a concept for elaborating collaborative knowledge creation in change processes that, according to our ideas, treats the same problem of context sensitiveness for robust knowledge in social work facing the changing challenges caused by internationalization and global–local dynamics. The change as it concerns social work involves the change in people's everyday lives caused by the ICT era and globalization and the continuous changes in daily practices brought about by international trends such as NPM or even, in the case of Finland, EU legislation. However, similar change pressures have been reported all over the world. There seems to be a gap between the objectifying evidence and convictions of policymakers who rely on comparative international research and the local, contextually produced knowledge.

The process to capture the real life settings of professional practices and welfare policies can be designed in various ways and with various methodological approaches. Hasu and Miettinen (2006) see dialogue as a solution to the problems caused by the dualist and monological tradition in science. They suggest a multidisciplinary approach utilizing the cultural resources of the people under study as the positive solution. A dialogist approach is important because the practice is, by its nature, multivoiced and presupposes the inclusion of the perspectives of different actors.

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