Professor of social work prefers creative methods to capture lived experiences

Academic language includes a power dimension that is seldom questioned. Professor Mona Livholts wishes to highlight this and influence research and teaching in social work through creative writing.

When Mona Livholts, professor of social work, worked on her doctoral thesis, she wrote three different versions of the final part. One was based on the traditional academic way of writing theses in social sciences, another was a letter, and the third was in the form of a play.

The reader response was mixed. Some were full of praise for the alternative formulation, whereas others were irritated that the text did not follow the traditions of academic prose. Livholts noticed early on that her relationship to writing and text differed from that of other doctoral students in social work. She felt that the questions, theories and scholarly approaches that people were expected to use in social work were limiting rather than enhancing understanding.

“The academic texts that we were supposed to read during doctoral studies felt remote and sometimes indifferent. At one point, I considered whether to suspend my doctoral studies or to stay on and contribute to developing reflective and creative writing in social work. I chose the latter option.”

Livholts’s academic work has been about changing social work from within through creative writing. It is her way of seeking answers to things like which questions should be posed, what can be known and by whom, and what counts as knowledge.

“Social work focuses on the living conditions of vulnerable individuals, but social workers and researchers are also part of unequal structures,” she points out.

Mona Livholts

Creative writing can provide a space for more experiences

Critical thinking can contribute to the creation of new knowledge. Critical thinking can also make limiting structures and unequal power relations visible, and actively contribute to knowledge that is inclusive and enhances a sense of community.

“In my research, I have shown that, for this to happen, the social scientific research language and methods must change so that they increasingly use creative and artistic approaches,” notes Livholts.

She states that the language of academic texts is a language of experts and includes a power dimension that is seldom questioned. Distant, dry and inadequate language risks excluding lived experiences that do not fit into the academic model used in articles and theses.

As a researcher, Livholts has striven to enable the use of creative writing in academic work. Examples of methods she has developed include situated writing and the academic novella.

Situated writing is based on Donna Haraway’s (1988)* now classic article that, among other things, advocates for researchers to take responsibility for how their researcher position affects what we learn to see. In situated writing, the writer is aware of how their environment affects their writing, including how they interpret power dimensions such as whiteness, class and gender.

The academic novella is an autoethnographic form of creative writing. Autoethnography means that the writer uses self-reflection and writing to explore their personal experiences and connects the autobiographical story with broader cultural, institutional and societal meanings.

“The academic novella is inspired by fiction to create structures, characters and moods while alternately using different kinds of ‘life-writing’, such as diaries, letters, memories, poetry and photography to depict experiences,” Livholts explains.

Language use affects how we see our environment

In her current research, Livholts wishes to highlight how language use and the choice of words can change how we see and understand our society. An example of alternative language that Livholts has adopted is the word ‘glocal’ instead of international or global. Glocal means that something is simultaneously both local and global, for example, that global trends and phenomena affect how we act locally.

In the research project The Glocal Turn in Social Work, Livholts examines what social work is like as a theory and method at a time when social work sees people and societies as linked with other life forms and ecosystems. She uses the concept of ‘exhaustion’ as an alternative expression for ‘social problems’.

Exhaustion can be understood as a process and a state of affairs in which people, animals and the environment are exploited in an unequal society. Rising sea levels, emissions and overfishing affect the living conditions of entire local communities. Pandemics increase the suffering of already vulnerable groups, such as those with mental or physical health issues, migrants, the homeless and female victims of abuse.

“Exhaustion brings with it insomnia, a state of alert intensity, in which we constantly ask ourselves whether we have done everything we can to improve our local environment. Exhaustion is a good word for what is going on during the current pandemic,” states Livholts.

She wishes to shed light on what it means that the glocal has increasingly replaced concepts such as international, transnational and global social work. By giving a name to the change currently ongoing in social work, we can see how it shapes the way we think, see and understand the field now and in the future. Glocal social work is anchored in people’s day-to-day living environments and societal transformations more broadly.  

“By using the concept of glocal, I wish to draw attention to how the research questions, methods and theories of social work change under the influence of, for example, architecture, feminist and postcolonial studies, geography, art and creative writing. We must understand the glocal nature of issues such as gender-based violence, the suicides of farmers, forced migration, exploitative work conditions and social work in both urban and rural contexts.”

*Donna Haraway (1988): Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective

Publication reference for caption: Mona Livholts (2021): Exhaustion and possibility. The wor(l)dlyness of social work in (G)local environment worlds during a pandemic.

New perspectives in a new country

Mona Livholts, originally from Sweden and the Swedish academic world, has now held the Swedish-language professorship in social work at the Faculty of Social Sciences for a year.

The move to Finland and the Finnish academic community has provided her with new perspectives on how social work can be understood and how it is shaped. One of the observations she has made is that the sense of belonging to the discipline of social work is much more central to the shaping of the discipline in Finland than in Sweden, where many researchers come from other disciplines.

A particularly strong area within the field of social work at the University of Helsinki is practice research, which Livholts has also noted.

“Practice research is used much more at the University of Helsinki than I have witnessed in any Swedish context, which means that the research is conducted with people, not about people,” Livholts says.

Practice research combines the development of social services and the production of new knowledge through professional practice and academic teaching. Livholts believes that this provides a space for dialogic and creative collective work methods.

“I have noticed that essay writing plays an important role as an examination form in the courses I have taught so far at the University of Helsinki, and this equips students well for critical reflection and lifelong learning. It’s an incredibly important issue for social work today that there is an openness regarding what it is and can be in the future.”