Sannino's keynote at the RWL 2017 Conference

“Researching work and learning for enacted utopias: The struggle to overcome homelessness,” December 6, 2017


There are numerous examples of research on work and learning engaged in locally-initiated transformative efforts for social justice. The field, however, still lacks coherent and robust frameworks to understand the dynamics of learning and agency involved in these efforts and to concretely support them. This keynote presents a conceptual framework to push forward an activity-theoretical agenda toward this direction, focused on the central idea of learning for enacted utopias. The paper explores, in particular, the participatory processes of expansive learning and transformative agency that led to and are still stemming from the Finnish national homelessness strategy.

In affluent cities around the world homelessness is spreading rampantly. Every country in Europe has a crisis with homelessness, except, in recent years, Finland. This is the only nation in Europe that has been able to significantly reduce homelessness. Long-term homelessness in Finland has reduced by 36% since 2008 with 82% of former homeless people maintaining their new homes. The aim of the Finnish homeless strategy is not a modest one: the strategy aims at ending homelessness, at eradicating it – an aim that can be easily perceived as unrealistic, even utopian. A recent study states that “by international standards, Finland is actually close to eradicating homelessness” (Pleace & Knutagard, 2016: 437). 

My conceptual framework positions itself within the perspective of a fourth generation activity theory, suggesting a unit of analysis able to grasp long-term remedies to pressing societal challenges, shared experimentation with alternatives to capitalism, and heterogeneous work coalitions operating across local, regional, national and global levels. The conceptual framework builds on the rationale of contradictions to grasp tension-driven processes and relations through which learning and agency emerge and develop.

Undialectical views of learning and agency nourish the already widespread belief, especially in economically developed countries, that alternatives to capitalism entail starting from scratch. In fact alternatives to capitalism already exist in capitalism. Without mobilising dialectical thinking, however, these alternatives can hardly be detected as “alternatives”. Due to the pervasive lack of dialectical culture, research on work and learning has not yet recognised the relevance of these alternatives for the development of the field, even though all these alternatives involve strong, more or less explicitly defined, informal or formal educational components. 

The learning and agency displayed within the Finnish strategy are strongly facilitated with material affordances which have kept the enactment of the strategy in movement for a period of ten years. Understanding how learning and agency emerged and are sustained in contexts such as this is a crucial challenge to meet the global demands of equity in contemporary societies. In contrast to critical studies on the phenomenon of homelessness, which document wrongdoing and scenarios of despair, the approach proposed here prioritises the documentation of how effective utopian solutions may come about by collectively working through multiple interdependent cycles of expansive learning and transformative agency by double stimulation. This approach is an alternative to stabilised views of impossibility that feed stereotypes and prejudices, such as those contributing to the stigma of poverty which frequently hampers initiatives for the homeless.

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Dr. Mutizwa Mukute responding to the keynote address

Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa