A research project exploring linguistic vulnerability in social work

A two-year project carried out by the University of Helsinki and Åbo Akademi University investigates multilingual social work in physical and digital environments. The project develops participatory methods for social work involving particularly vulnerable clients whose native language is not Swedish, Finnish or Sámi.

SOSKIELI (Language diversity and vulnerability in social work in the era of digitalisation), a project funded by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, focuses on four client groups: families with children, families with children who have disabilities, adolescents and people over 65 years of age. The goal is for the results to be utilised in decision-making related to social policy, in practical social work and university education, as well as at welfare organisations. Camilla Nordberg, docent in social policy at Åbo Akademi University, serves as the project’s principal investigator. At the University of Helsinki, the project is coordinated by University Researcher Meri Kulmala, who also heads the Helsinki Inequality Initiative (INEQ).

Cooperation related to questions of linguistic vulnerability originates in the informal but active Satakieli network that has its roots in the INEQ networks. Members of the Satakieli network are interested in investigating and developing the linguistic accessibility of the Finnish welfare state and its institutions.

“This is a particularly topical and relevant subject area, since linguistic diversity is an important political theme both in Finland and globally,” says principal investigator Camilla Nordberg.

In the project, multilingualism in social work will be examined in theory and practice in the Ostrobothnia region and the Helsinki Metropolitan Area.

“While linguistic sensitivity is key to all official activities, we actually don’t have a lot of information on how professionals take linguistic diversity and vulnerability into consideration in their everyday work,” Nordberg says.

The digitalisation of social services has brought about new challenges.

“Our goal is to produce research-based knowledge on the manifestations of linguistic vulnerability in the various fields of social work. Such knowledge can be used to develop working methods that will help better serve linguistically disadvantaged clients,” says Nordberg. 

Increased inequality in the pandemic due to advancing digitalisation

Being in a linguistically weaker position often leads to vulnerability in encounters with the service system. Linguistic vulnerability can also be associated with structural inequalities based on, for example, age, educational background, gender or functional capacity.

“Many recent studies presented and discussed in the INEQ network have also demonstrated that, in circumstances where the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly increased the provision and use of digital services, related challenges have also increased. In many ways, the pandemic has consolidated existing structural inequalities,” says Meri Kulmala from INEQ.

It is important to identify and acknowledge, through research, various structural vulnerabilities and inequalities, as well as their interconnections, and subsequently strive to identify new solutions to remedy the situation.

“In this project, we have undertaken to produce knowledge and seek solutions with a collaborative research approach together with social work professionals,” Kulmala adds. 

Prior research conducted by Nordberg and her group demonstrates that welfare institutions do not always recognise the needs of multilingual clients, nor are they capable of meeting such needs. Instead of improving the language accessibility of social services, change is usually expected from the client. In fact, the project will explore how clients’ linguistic vulnerability could be better considered in the physical and digital environments of social work, as well as how social work will fare in an increasingly multilingual society and promote linguistically participatory practices. 

In addition to Nordberg and Kulmala, contributing to the project are University Lecturers Camilla Granholm (social work, Swedish School of Social Science), Eveliina Heino (social work) and Hanna Kara (social work) as well as Postdoctoral Researcher Antero Olakivi (Centre of Excellence in Research on Ageing and Care). Anni-Maria Lassila, MSocSc, will join the project as a doctoral student in social work.

The participants of the collaborative project include Åbo Akademi University’s Faculty of Education and Welfare Studies, as well as the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Swedish School of Social Science from the University of Helsinki. The project has received a total of €413,940 in funding until the end of 2023.


Further information:

Meri Kulmala

Phone: +358 2941 23627