The MigraFam-research project (funded by the Academy of Finland 2017–2021) draws on a collective ethnographic approach to examine institutional power and migrant citizenization in the Helsinki capital region and tackle the politicized social category of the ‘migrant family’. The multidisciplinary base of the research team is used to advance the theoretization of the power asymmetry work – citizenization nexus in the context of (1) institutional practice, (2) professional knowledge base, and (3) public discourse. Furthermore, the research pays specific attention to how the managerialist individualization of society at large is redefining the normative basis of Nordic social work and its encounters with human complexity.

Pro­ject ra­tionale and key ques­tions

Contextually, the study will pay specific attention to the rapid welfare organizational restructuring. With this we refer to, for instance, the psychologization of society at large, as well as a stronger focus on social engineering, such as evidence-based practice. These developments have been criticized for reproducing static understandings of the social and creating and emphasizing a shift in social work towards the individual rather than critical, structural approaches. Not only service-users, but also professionals are constantly involved in finding ways to rewrite the professional knowledge base and resist dominant cultural scripts. Previous research on welfare state restructuring from the point of view of migration only rarely offer sound empirical evidence of the actual workings and sources of power asymmetries in specific welfare institutional situations and spaces of encounters. In this research we aim to develop new ways to connect three rather disparate fields of research: research on institutional practices, policy studies and welfare professionalism, acknowledging power asymmetries as both structural, epistemic and interactional. In this way, the study will advance the theorization of both power asymmetry work and citizenization, and investigate the social and moral ordering of the ‘migrant family’ during prevailing welfare and national migration regime restructuring.

The data will be based on participatory observations of four street-level social work sites in the capital region of Finland, individual and focus group interviews, professional literature produced by and for social workers and policy and media documents. Drawing on cross-analysis of data the study examines the following key questions: 1) How do professionals and migrant family individuals enact, contextualize and conceptualize power asymmetries and citizenization in institutional encounters? 2) How does the professional knowledge base on the one hand, and public discourse on the other, culturally script social work practice and the social positioning of migrant families? 3) How can we make sense of and theorize the nexus between power asymmetry work and migrant family citizenization? 

Methodologically, the study will benefit from the multi-disciplinary background of the research team. We employ and develop a collective approach with cross-readings of data, joint analysis and writing, and emphasise collaboration with research participants by discussing initial results in focus group discussions and workshops with the research participants. Inspired by institutional ethnography with a strong commitment to analyses of power, we adhere to the discursive level in institutional settings and beyond. 

The project organises annual academic seminars on methodological topics, such as ethically sensitive issues and situations present in ethnographic research, as well as on conceptual and thematic topics, such as precarious citizenship and state boundary-making, and affective and biological citizenship. Members of the project's international advisory board of scholars are invited to contribute to these seminars. In the concluding seminar, professionals, managers, service-users, students and researchers can critically reflect on the research results. Workshops and focus goups sessions with end-users will address the understandings and presence of the 'migrant family' in social work with migrant service-users and formulate recommendations to tackle challenges associated with power asymmetries in social work practice.