Two Cases of Context-Sensitive Research Approaches

In looking at these challenging interplays between local solutions and international and national frameworks, we argue for a multilevel context-sensitive approach to innovative knowledge production in social work. We have based our reflections on two research projects in professional practices. The first case looks at youth welfare in the context of a Nordic research and development project. Here the focus is on professional groups and organizations that deliver help and support to young people and that offer ways forward in improving practice with this group of citizens. The other project focuses on family disputes. It concerns a change research project for developing the practices in family mediation at the local level in Finland. Both projects are still in progress and are based on context-sensitive ideas and focused on frontline practices in individual cases. They serve as examples of phenomenon that reflect global concerns and efforts for policy development on national and local levels as well as on European and international efforts by the EU and the UN to combat social anomalies and their most feared symptoms, such as increasing violence and social exclusion.

We have used methodological and epistemological ideas for robustness and context sensitivity designed in our recent and current research projects. The first project on youth welfare discusses the importance of building a multilevel framework when studying internationally global issues. The project on family disputes describes the transformative methodology built in the process. It is
important to identify the strengths of the emerging practice research paradigm in the international social work research debate as well as to reflect on how to build up knowledge in partnerships between frontline social work practices, the service system, and academic interests of the social work discipline.

The Case of Youth Welfare and Complex Contexts

The first case concerns vulnerable young people in transition who occupy an uncertain place in the educational system, labour market, social policy regimes and social work practices of many nations. Young unemployed people are a group that is, to a large extent, exposed to changing frameworks and increasing social concern (Harrikari and Satka 2006; Satka et al. 2011). Young people are particularly exposed to high unemployment during periods of economic downturns, with few job openings available (Hammer 2003). In the Nordic countries youth unemployment is a problem area in which policy has changed dramatically after the 2000s (Julkunen 2002; Marthinsen and Skjefstad 2007; Angelin 2009; Julkunen 2009; Wrede-Jäntti 2010; Salonen 2012). Due to variations in national framework conditions and slight cultural differences, we may assume that trends that are particularly evident in the Western world are adapted to the social work practices in different ways in the Nordic countries.

The main motive for studying the youth welfare issue from a youth unemployment perspective is the similar situations in the Nordic countries and the varied national and local practices.1 Something is happening to social work: just as its role seems to be increasing, it is being redefined, and at the same time professional discretion and space seem to be diminishing. Young people, for instance, are turned away from employment services and are increasingly referred to welfare services (Johansson 2007; Ulmestig 2007). Still, despite rather strong centralization, studies have shown considerable variation in the challenges of actual everyday practice in frontline at job centres (Baadsgaard et al. 2013). For the young vulnerable people occupying an uncertain status looking for job opportunities and struggling with financial survival, it has meant negative perceptions of social services and feelings of shame and powerlessness (Angelin 2009).

Like in many European welfare states, the reform of welfare services in Finland has been accompanied by the implementation of new forms of governance, including the introduction of managerial policies and new public management (Saario and Stepney 2009). As an elementary part of welfare services, social work as a discipline and practice is dependent on the changes in society and policy views. On a general level research has been carried out on the conditions of social work and there is a fair amount of knowledge about how various services are organized and what explanatory models exist.

1 This study has been developed within the Nordplus network on Knowledge Production in Social Work. However, there is limited research on the actual practices and professional decision-making processes in the daily work situation and on the effects of expertise and client processes in complex situations and how these can change. And when it comes to comparative studies of these matters across different countries, they are non-existent. There was therefore a need to gain new insight into the nature and in the emerging practices of how youth unemployment is framed and organized on institutional and practical levels in the different countries. There was also an interest to connect the knowledge we gained from this study not only for improving practices but also for creating trialogical modes for learning in practices. The research team consisted of not only researchers and teachers in social work but also of practitioners and users.

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