The Shared Fields of Youth Work and Social Work: Discussions of Profession, Practices, and Convergences

The Shared Fields of Youth Work and Social Work: Discussions of Profession, Practices, and Convergences

(In Finnish: Nuorisotyön ja sosiaalityön jaetut kentät. Puheenvuoroja asiantuntijuudesta, käytännöistä ja kohtaamisista)

Suvi Raitakari & Elina Virokannas (Eds.)
Youth Research Network 2009

The wellbeing of young people is a shared task and the aim of several professions. In addition, the need for knowledge is common to many fields of research, though their points of view differ. The aim of this book is to analyze elements that are essential to youth work and social work. The book seeks to highlight the interfaces of the two professions. What is common and shared for both of the fields, and how do they differ from each other? Administratively, youth work and social work clearly differ from each other considerably. Why is this? What kinds of meanings do, for example, support and control, age, and partnership gain in the work with young people? The authors of the book are researchers, teachers, and professionals in social work as well as youth work.

Anneli Pohjola starts the book by discussing the similarities and differences of youth work and social work. Differences are found firstly in legislation and administration. Secondly, the definitions and work practices vary from each other. It is argued that one essential difference is that in youth work young people are the main focus and there are good possibilities to do preventive work, whereas in social work young people are more often in marginal positions. In social work, often they are encountered only when serious social problems occur. Regardless of these differences, however, youth work and social work share the same task: It is their responsibility to secure the wellbeing of the young generations.

The aim of Elna Hirvonen’s paper is to provide a review of the factors that make youth work a special field among many others within the broad discipline of social expertise. Youth work has emerged from the context of education on one hand and from social services for young people on the other. As a profession, it has created its own profile within education and social work in the course of more than 100 years. Discourse concerning professionalism provides the best frame of reference for analyzing work as a modern profession. However, the traditional meaning of professions is too narrow in view of expertise in the postmodern era. There are discussions about open expertise, which creates possibilities to change and deal with the judgment of different professions in the same situation with the same client. The scientific background of youth work is multidisciplinary. This is an advantage as well as a challenge. In the function analytic frame, youth work can be considered to have four basic functions: socialization of young people, personalization of young people, compensation, and resourcing and allocation functions. Youth work also operates in forums of non-formal and informal education. These significant features of youth work make it special among professions in the fields of social expertise.

Mirja Määttä and Marja Väänänen-Fomin concentrate on the Child Welfare Act and the Youth Act by looking at the national and local planning processes related to child and youth welfare policies. Youth workers and child welfare social workers are both responsible for policy formation and implementation at the local level. In their paper, Määttä and Väänänen-Fomin analyze the national steering systems by comparing the two legal acts and examining the material on which they are based. According to the acts, the central aims of planning include improvement of living conditions for children and young people and coordination of the services for them. Both of these acts also stress preventive work and participation of the young people. However, there are many differences between the acts also. The Child Welfare Act imposes certain obligations on municipal services and planning processes, whereas the Youth Act leaves the operational decisions to the individual municipalities. Furthermore, the terminology differs considerably, as does the historical background. The acts and their preparatory materials do not refer to each other at all. The lack of communication in the central administration increases the challenge of integrating planning processes at the local level.

The inclusion of young people is often measured in terms of involvement in education, the labor market, or adult-based activities. In contrast, Riikka Korkiamäki´s paper considers peer group involvement to be the most significant for young people’s experiences of inclusion. Drawing on 14–15-year-olds’ essays and interviews, this paper studies how young people categorize and describe their group memberships, and those of their peers. The analysis focuses on young people’s definitions of “toughies.” As seen from the group member’s viewpoint, “toughies” qualify as ordinary people, while in the outsider’s eyes “tough” stands for heavy drinking, smoking, and criminal activities. Hence, “toughies” as “us” means negotiated and various memberships, while “toughies” as “the others” forms strict barriers between the “tough” and the mainstream community. In addition, there are young people who flexibly shuttle to a resilient position between the “toughies” and other group memberships. Young people’s peer group categorizations reflect cultural values, conceptions, and appreciations, and thus they are moral and normative. By categorizing themselves and each other, the young assess and communicate their involvement in a peer community. At the same time, however, they produce positions of inclusion and exclusion of the others. Hence, when young people’s inclusion is addressed, their own conceptualizations regarding peer group involvement must be taken into account.

Next, in her piece, Sanna Väyrynen examines the experiences of substance-abusing youngsters and their relationships in a situation wherein their substance abuse has been restricted. Her research material includes biographical interviews of 22 drug users (aged 17−29) in rehabilitation. Common among all of the interviewees is substance abuse. The intervention in the drug use is always about relationships and, to some extent, always has an effect on the identity of the young drug abuser. In a situation of intervention, there are always at least two parties: the young drug abuser and the person responsible for the intervention. Although those close to the user, including family and friends, and the authorities try to protect the young user from the risks and the marginalizing elements of substance abuse, the user sees the interference as a threat to his or her autonomy. In order to address this and maintain their autonomy, the young users defy the ones responsible for the intervention, through counter-actions, such as using more drugs than before or not committing to the help offered. There are several tensions between the youngsters and those responsible for the intervention. Set in opposition are the independence of an individual and the responsibility of the community. Also, always included is unbalanced power as well as elements defining social identity and action. In the situation of intervention, the participants’ views of the young user’s situation, problems, and need for help create a challenging setting that can result in defensive reactions and counter-action. Social work requires knowledge of values and demands a sensitive approach that attempts to find a way to release the tensions between the young drug abusers and the people responsible for the intervention.

Heli Niemi discusses young immigrants, who make up a more and more visible group in Finnish society. In Finnish youth research, questions of immigration have been at the center of attention in the 21st century, but in Finnish social work those issues still remain a relatively unexplored field. The invisibility of social work research creates challenges of turning attention to the social in this arena, an essential theme in the sphere of social work. Niemi reviews experiences of the home and homelessness in relation to the social relations of young immigrants. She uses a literature analysis based on Finnish empirical studies with young immigrants of different ages as their target group and active informants. The aim of the study is to produce information about the challenges and threats related to social relations in the integration of young immigrants into society. According to the literature analysis, family, friends, and the school environment constitute an important social network that supports the adaptation of young immigrants to Finnish society. However, many challenges related to these social relations arise on account of the young people’s immigration-related background. The family, friends, and school environment create possibilities for experiences of belonging and feeling at home in Finnish society. However, also present, in various ways, are experiences of staying out in their social relations, which at their worst can make young immigrants feel themselves to be socially homeless.

Next, Tarja Juvonen’s paper discusses the dimensions of control in the outreach work (suom. huom. etsivä nuorisotyö) done by the Luotsi group in the center of Helsinki. In this piece, control is understood as different kinds of micro-level modes of action belonging to professional practice and directed to its clients – here, youngsters. At the societal level, control is mainly justified by commonly constructed and accepted standards of predictable behavior, which have been articulated as part of professional practice, principles, and aims. The sources consist of Luotsi’s documentation: work plans, discussions, field notes, and summaries in relation to the work done. The corpus examined for the paper consists of 251 pages (A4 size) of literate text. The most essential portion of the corpus consists of the field notes, in which Luotsi’s workers document and analyze their daily work on the streets. Juvonen’s theoretical and methodological starting point lies in the traditions of social constructionism, and the method used is content analysis. The results concerning control in outreach work can be categorized as falling under five themes, as follows: 1) control as part of Luotsi’s observation duties on the streets, 2) control as setting conditions for the helping relations, 3) control as acting against a young person’s will, 4) control as negotiation, and 5) control as alliance with public authorities that have more powerful means of action than the Luotsi group does. An example of strong public authority is child protection. The theme of control is clearly a distinguishable and relevant factor in outreach work in spite of the premises of the working methods, which are trust, respect, and young people’s right to decide on matters concerning their own lives. In the outreach work, the balance between acknowledging a young person’s self‑determination on one hand and controlling young people on the other becomes a process of complicated professional consideration and decision-making in an extremely demanding operating environment, that of the streets.

Finally, Tiia Hipp and Jaana Kivistö focus on the specialized social work in the Vega youth assessment unit for substance abuse, a branch of the City of Helsinki’s social services institutional care system. The issue is discussed through the lens of the authors' experience as specialized social workers. The paper pays particular attention to how social work is performed in multi-professional teams and what is required of the social worker. Three hypothetical cases are discussed, in all of which youths are admitted to social services care and placed under institutional assessment in Vega. The cases are constructed from the authors' work experience and illustrate three different perspectives on the youths' lives. These cases include the typical elements found in youth narratives, but they differ from each other in terms of urgency, orderliness, and the level of substance abuse. The aim of placement has always been to safeguard youth, which is why the constraints and restrictions come under intense scrutiny such that the authority exercised is as transparent as possible to all involved. The authors emphasize the complexity of assessment in institutional care. A continuous discussion of values and ethical standards of assessment must exist, both among the workers and at managerial level.