Social workers’ encounters with future citizens: Power relations in a welfare bureaucracy

The welfare state is changing, and neo-liberal ideas about human capabilities are gaining ground in political decision-making. Academy Research Fellow Camilla Nordberg is studying how ideological changes influence social work with migrant families. Her project team has been granted €480,000 in funding by the Academy of Finland from 1 September 2017 to 31 August 2021.

Camilla Nordberg is an Academy Research Fellow at the Swedish School of Social Science. Her project “Ordering the ‘Migrant Family’: Power Asymmetry Work and Citizenization in Restructuring Welfare Professional Bureaucracies” is a study of power asymmetries at play in interactions between social workers and migrant families in metropolitan Helsinki.

“Our aim is to study power relations in the local welfare state, within the context of social work,” says Nordberg.

Society places high expectations on newcomers in terms of shaping the next generation of citizens. Nordberg wants to examine the influence of social workers on citizenisation during times of change. By change she means ideological shifts at the root of decisions that have steered society away from the traditional welfare state and its universal ideas, towards a neo-liberal ideology that places greater weight on the individual’s own capability.

“We will look at how state policy is implemented on a local level by social workers. Social workers are not just tools used to implement policies. They are also agents with strategies of their own. We are interested in learning how their discretion is affected by cuts in the public sector, for example. Social workers in the Nordic countries traditionally possess a high degree of autonomy and integrity compared with countries such as Britain.”

The researchers will also study the literature used in social workers’ education and professional practice.

Ideology at the grass-roots level

Social workers are not tools, nor is the “vulnerable migrant family” merely an object of politics. It is an agent trying to negotiate support and services and make its voice heard.

“It is interesting to examine what we mean when we talk about ‘the migrant family’. There is a great deal of variety in family structures among people with migrant backgrounds. The project will also study the discourse in the public sphere and media to examine what is implied by the migrant family.”

Previous research has shown that the capacity to negotiate one’s rights varies depending on one’s social category. The project examines what it means to be a migrant family in the negotiation situation. As a newcomer, one is forced to re-negotiate one’s position in society, and in encounters with social workers the migrant family is also an object of citizenisation.

“We want to study empirically the processes that are discussed on a government level and examine how macro-level changes affect daily life. There is little knowledge about how ideological changes are expressed on a local level,” Nordberg says.

The project is a collaborative ethnographic study that draws on observations, interviews and documents, and employs three postdoctoral researchers. The study is a natural continuation of Nordberg’s ongoing Academy project on stay-at-home mothers with migrant backgrounds, but with a focus on families. The research group consists of Anna-Leena Riitaoja, Maija Jäppinen and Hanna Kara.

Camilla Nordberg is also a member of the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence in Research on Ageing and Care (CoE AgeCare), which was awarded funding last summer. The University of Helsinki participates in the CoE under the leadership of University Lecturer Sirpa Wrede, and its work is about migration, care and ageing. Nordberg’s contribution to the project is an analysis of how institutional policy and practice shape the formation of new ethnic hierarchies in the care sector workforce.

Other Academy funding awarded to the School

Professor Jan-Erik Lönnqvist’s project “How do we Become whom we are? Stability and Change in Personality Traits and in Personal Values as a Function of the Social Roles that we come to Occupy and the Social Relationships that we are Embedded in” was awarded €480,000 in funding by the Academy of Finland for the period from 1 September 2017 to 31 August 2021.

The project studies how internal factors such as personality traits and personal values, and external factors such as interpersonal relationships and social roles, shape each other over the human life cycle.

The study consists of two sub-projects that follow people and their social environment during periods of time that are characterised by major life changes. One sub-project follows children from the age of seven until they turn 16, and the other focuses on first-time parents from a few weeks into the pregnancy until the child turns three.

Both projects draw on longitudinal data, in which the subjects are annually described from several different perspectives and using different methods of measurement. Lönnqvist’s focus is on how the social environment (e.g., schoolmates, spouses) influences the changes that take place when people navigate major life changes.

The Academy also awarded Rolle Alho a postdoctoral researcher grant of €245,632 for work on the project “Whose interests? A Comparative Study on Trade Union’s Responses to Migration and Migrants in Finland, Ireland, and Portugal”. Read more about the project.