Between Multi-Layered Normativity and Path Finding in Professional Social Work: The Case of the Individual and Neo-Liberal Estonian Society

Between Multi-Layered Normativity and Path Finding in Professional Social Work: The Case of the... Abstract This article explores how social workers from Estonian municipalities cope with complex normative issues, and how they relate to the different layers in normativity. Social work is permeated by intertwined sets of external and internal norms; however, social workers are only partly aware of the normative fields and their own embedded normativity. Data collection and analysis for this study have been guided by an experience-centred narrative research framework. The research focuses on Estonia, a country that is strongly influenced by neo-liberalism and individualism. Our investigation draws attention to the fact that it is important for social workers to understand and be aware of the forces of the multi-layered normativity in which the profession is situated. Framing problems from health and illness perspectives leads to different interventions than framing problems from perspectives of social functioning and social justice. We suggest that ongoing reflection and deliberation on the question of how to do good work opens up new possibilities for professionals and political action and contributes to knowledge production. Professionals need to move from thinking in situations and simply repairing the problem to thinking and acting from the perspective of development, process and path finding. Social complexity, professional practice, neo-liberalism, normative professionalism, narrative Introduction Social workers are professionals who navigate in what could be described as swampy lowlands (Schön, 1983). They must find ways to handle problems like unemployment and poverty and the behaviours of people with addictions and dysfunctional family lives. At the same time, these professionals must solve socio-cultural problems, deal with ethnic minorities and propagate norms, values and cohesion. Social workers have to realise when, what, why and how to take action, and anticipate the consequences of their action, as well as the impact they have on people, communities and society in general (Gambrill, 2015). Still, social workers are never completely free to make decisions; their professional activities and behaviours are constrained by intertwined sets of personal ideals and values, and external socio-cultural and political norms of a wider society. These norms play a decisive role in the vast majority of practices and provide criteria for what counts as acceptable or unacceptable in a specific cultural milieu and mainstream society. In Estonia, profound political and economic reforms occurred in 1991 that aimed for full market liberalisation, which implied individual responsibility for participation and welfare. This has had a powerful effect on the social imagination and led Estonians to re-evaluate their systems of social welfare and social policy and, in doing so, revamp normative expectations. For instance, Lilleoja and Raudsepp (2016) have found that, in Estonia, abstract and universalistic notions such as universal solidarity, co-operation, collective interest and other social values were replaced by the priority of individualistic values like individual interest, individual effectiveness, success and competition. The decades of restrictive conditions during Soviet rule have raised the importance of the freedom to make one’s own decisions. Our aim in the current article is to explore the normative frameworks that Estonian social workers construct in their professional practice. Normative profile of social work: ongoing research in complexity Opening up the normativity of social work, its multi-layered nature emerges. On the one hand, there are socio-political agreements, institutional demands and expectations of communities and individuals. On the other hand, there are social worker personal experiences and values, moral codes, core mandates and principles, and knowledge of social work. Scientific norms of the discipline set standards for what counts as knowledge and evidence. Next to this, professionals should observe the law and regulations of society and its different systems, like mental health, youth care, disabled care, debt relief and social benefits. Hence, norms constitute an integral part of social experience and affect a huge number of extremely diversified practices and discourses (Rivest and Moreau, 2015). Going by this, social work is a normative activity (Ife and Ife, 1997). Higher normative demands are formulated in the new international definition of social work, which claims that social work is a practice-based science and full profession with the aims of promoting social change, social justice and social functioning (IFSW, 2014). These normative terms define the core meaning of professional social work and indicate that it is more than just techniques for problem solving or supporting people during difficulties; it is about enabling them to take action for themselves and supporting relationships, and individual freedom of choice and action. This is a recognition of the social perspective, the social profession and practice. Hence, professional social workers are also moral agents (Dolgoff et al., 2012) and critical thinkers—well-rounded professionals with knowledge and judgements about how to address strategic issues (Higham, 2006). Although norms steer professionals, there is a need for sufficient room for discretion to organise the practice considering the individual needs of each person, following at the same time professional values and ethical norms. Therefore, social workers should be wise in manoeuvring amidst the social complexity of users and the complexity of norms, demands and expectations. There is an overload of oughts and ought-nots to answer. According to Banks (2012, p. 18), people are only partly aware of the normative fields and their own embedded normativity. According to Cilliers (2005, pp. 255–67), normative issues are intertwined with our very understanding (or lack thereof) of complexity. Social complexity increases the need to cope with normative dilemmas, which may arise between expectations of the community, responsibilities of professionals or personal attitudes and values. Cilliers and Preiser (2010, pp. vi–vii) state that we have to reduce that complexity when we try to understand it. Still, there is no objective way to do this reduction; there are always choices and therefore always normative elements involved. Since it is not possible to have perfect knowledge of complex systems or to ‘calculate’ the performance of complex social systems in their complexity, there is a need to make choices (Cilliers, 2005). Social professionals are at the heart of an ongoing search for normativity in the specific field: how to do good work in the ethical and instrumental spheres—that is, what kinds of specialised norms are dominant and how to make sense of tact, craftsmanship and the cultural/aesthetic dimension. Payne (2009, p. 81) asserts that the conditions of social work practice require a flexible and ‘wise person’, able to mediate and negotiate knowledge, rather than one who strictly follows rigidifying precepts of research evidence. This statement is in line with Donald Schön’s work (1930–97). Schön was a leading scholar of the concepts of the reflective practitioner and ‘frame reflection’. Schön (1983, p. 85) argues that, in professions based on daily social complexity and the ‘swampy lowland’, there is seldom ever a straightforward solution to a problem, and the first step is to name the thing and frame the context. According to Schön, a reflective practitioner regards any situation in terms of her/his ‘underlying structures of belief, perception and appreciation’, or her/his unique frame, which influences how she/he constructs a sense of coherence within vague, indeterminate practice situations (Schön and Rein, 1994, p. 23; Schön, 1983). Schön and Rein (1994, p. 23) suggest that frames are cognitive structures of beliefs, perceptions, values and experiences, which are related to social contexts. Eventually, the professionals thus construct social reality from a particular frame. They judge the problematic elements of the situation as well as the direction for future transformation, and they make a ‘normative leap’ from data to recommendations, from facts to values, from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. First, social professionals should be aware of the impact of problem setting and framing. Different ideologies and disciplines bring different frameworks to the same events, and they tend to pay attention to different sets of facts, see the same facts in different ways and make judgements of effectiveness based on different kinds of criteria (Schön and Rein, 1994). Framing problems from a health and illness perspective leads to different interventions than framing problems from the perspectives of social functioning and social justice. These differences often create doubt and hesitation, as well as disapprobation and exclusion. In that case, the process of ‘frame reflection’ provides a strategy to resolve the conflicts and controversies that practitioners see in practice (Schön and Rein, 1994, p. 38). In this study, we explore how Estonian social workers cope with complex normative issues in constructing their practice narratives and how they relate to the different layers of normativity. The ambiguous relationship between social work and social policy Although the international definition specifies the principal meaning of the profession, social work is inevitably affected by the specific cultural milieu and socio-political context in which it operates. Social workers act in diverse and rapidly changing political and economic contexts. Over recent decades, principles of New Public Management and neo-liberalism influenced the welfare state to a large extent by concentrating on efficiency, workforce flexibility and performance measurement (Healy, 2014; Trevithick, 2014; Adams et al., 2009; Payne, 2009; Lorenz, 2006). One of the main tendencies of this process is the refocused attention on individual behaviour connected to individual responsibility. Neo-liberal ideology, which dismisses the significance of personality and other categories in structuring people’s experiences in various social situations, reinforces inequalities in various spheres of life. According to Nothdurfter and Lorenz (2010), these shifts are not only a matter for social policy analysts, but they are also of direct relevance to social work practice. However, the literature (Wilken et al., 2014; Mansell et al., 2007) suggests that, throughout Europe, as well as in Estonia, there has been a general political shift in social service provision from institutional-oriented social work, to family- and community-based alternatives. Today, we talk about active or modern citizenship (Payne, 2014; Giddens, 1999; Hoskins and Jesinghaus, 2006), which can be seen as an arena for a value-sharing framework for social and democratic politics. Thus, social workers play an important role with regard to supporting participation of individuals and encouraging mutual assistance in communities. This requires a shift in thinking and acting, both in the communities and among social professionals. Social work in the individualistic and neo-liberal Estonian society Social work in Estonia is a relatively new profession without a long or extensive history. Social workers started from a situation in which the main approach to social welfare was institutional welfare in closed institutions (Tamm, 2010). Several historical events have influenced professional social work in Estonia. Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia, like other former socialist countries, has undergone a period of the simultaneous triple transition to democracy, capitalism and rebuilding state structures (Helemäe and Saar, 2015; Bohle, 2010). From the early 1990s, conservative liberals combined with populist nationalist appeal have guided the policy making of successive Estonian governments. The development of the country and its economy has been very unstable in the past ten years (Toots et al., 2015; Sippola, 2014) and enables, encourages and reinforces inequalities in various spheres of life, creating conditions that give systematic advantages to some groups over others (Aavik, 2015; Lindemann, 2013). Hence, the policy and ideological context in which social work is framed in Estonia is neo-liberalism and active citizenship (Kõre, 2015; Mitendorf and van Ewijk, 2016). The neo-liberal agenda had a significant impact on the life trajectories of Estonia’s entire population (Helemäe and Saar, 2011). The low levels of social spending provide a poor starting point for social workers to react to the rapid stratification of society. Social spending in Estonia comprises 40 per cent of the EU average per capita. At the same time, in 2015, 21.3 per cent of the Estonian population lived in relative poverty and 3.9 per cent lived in absolute poverty. In 2015, the disposable incomes of the poorest and best-off fifth segments in the population varied by a factor of 5.7 (Statistic of Estonia 2016). Social services in Estonia are of variable quality and their provision depends largely on the capacity of local governments. The National Audit Office (Report of the National Audit Office to the Riigikogu, 2012) has found that many local authorities are unable to cope with their duties and that their legal obligations are performed selectively. The necessary special care services are not sufficient, they are not provided in rural areas, the number of services for people with disabilities are limited and different services are not integrated (Wilken et al., 2014). Social security benefits are not sufficient in all situations to meet the economic cost and prevent poverty. Researchers (e.g. Bugarszki et al., 2016; Wilken et al., 2014; Tamm, 2010) have acknowledged the extensive politicisation and bureaucratisation of social work in Estonia. These contextual developments directly affect many of those involved in social work and social care, both workers and service users alike. In the past few years, prioritising of equal opportunities and justice, individualised care, power of civil society and community-based care is visible in the national documents aimed at empowering individuals in an inclusive manner to cope independently and participate in social life (‘National Health Plan 2009–2020’, 2008; ‘Welfare Development Plan 2016–2023’, 2015; ‘Social Welfare Act’, 2015). Social cohesion and solidarity are assumed to be the outcome of a work-oriented strategy. Research design This research is an explorative study on professional social work that pays careful attention to the responses of participants. Data collection and analysis for this study have been guided by an experience-centred narrative research framework (Squire, 2008). As Ricoeur (1992) underlines, narratives are inherently normative and contain ethical and moral qualifications and disqualifications; they cover up or give voice to conflicts and power struggles; and they articulate examples of moral hopes and fears with regard to the future development of organisations and their members. Several authors (Parton and O’Byrne, 2000; Riessman and Quinney, 2005) have emphasised the importance of narrative approaches in research on social work. Participant narratives were not the focus of analysis per se; rather, they provide a lens for the revelation of normativity and of the performative aspects of this process. This article is based on an analysis of qualitative, semi-structured, in-depth interviews with thirteen social workers from municipalities across Estonia. Of 683 social workers working in local municipalities of Estonia, 351 have a specialised social work education. The interviews were conducted in 2012. Although Estonia is a small country, it provides a very varied context for the residents. The sample was selected from diverse locations taking into consideration structural differences of municipalities. Seven social workers worked in towns and six worked in rural areas. All social workers who participated have higher education and work experience of more than five years. We used questions that allowed respondents to construct answers in ways they found meaningful. Interviews took place in the respondents’ workplaces and generally lasted around 1.5 hours. The first author interviewed social workers about the fundamental nature of social work (i.e. its importance, urgency, goals, dealing with social complexity). In order to encourage the emergence of stories in the interview setting, I asked the participants to narrate their experiences. Once the interviewers finished their accounts, I as responsible author asked clarifying questions. While the narrative approach encourages the research participants to tell the stories, we consider all emerging narratives to be co-constructed. Audio taping the interviews allowed their transcription and systematic examination. Throughout the analysis, we were attentive to the ways in which various elements of the narrative environment, such as our own position in relation to the participants or large narratives that circulate in the Estonian society etc., might have affected how the stories were told. We started the analysis by differentiating the narratives in the transcripts and concentrating on stories in which narrators used normative expressions like ought and have to. We marked parts where those concepts were presented in a narrative form. During the analysis, it emerged that social workers ascribed specific features to the clients in narrating their experiences from practice situations, and used social categories for their clients. In the analysis, we have made some use of Sacks’s work (Mäkitalo, 2014) on membership categorisation analysis by exploring the categorical resources that are interwoven in social work interaction in order to discover how professionals themselves create categorises to make sense of people, events and actions in their local context. According to Sacks, categories describe people in culturally identifiable groups and they may be tied to certain entitlements and obligations for those involved; therefore, categories go together with activities that can be normative (Peräkylä, 2005). In social work, categorisation enables the parties to sort out, negotiate and handle problems with which they are concerned (Mäkitalo, 2014). During the analysis of narratives and categorisation, we found an entire range of narratives in which multi-layered normativities were interwoven. For this article, we selected four narratives that present clearly the interwoven normativity. Although the research involves a small group of social workers, the strength of this research lies in the in-depth understanding of normative frames of social workers, which provides a specific opportunity for critical reflection and discussion. Ethical considerations All the participants gave verbal consent to a one-to-one meeting with the researcher. Obtaining ethical approval from the first author’s academic institute and following the national and international (IFSW) ethical guidelines were significant milestones in this study. However, ethics was not limited to formal guidelines, as our role as researchers demanded that we critically reflect on ethics during and after fieldwork was conducted. Research results and analysis In this section, we present the four narratives in which the social workers describe multifaceted and intertwined normativities in their practice. ‘Then there ought to be a special service …’ This narrative is the story of the social workers’ personal experiences struggling with multiple social problems and addiction. At the same time, the cases presented are powerful devices for referencing the intertwined personal, societal and professional norms that social professionals perceive in their practice. Narrative 1 Social worker (SW): Sometimes I have the feeling that people’s problems won’t get fixed whether we do this work or not. I’d even dare to say the workers in my department deal with the worst kinds of contingencies. Let’s say, for example, a person makes trouble and gets thrown out of their welfare service and goes to a shelter. We had this kind of situation here last week, the person just didn’t follow the rules of the welfare service and they no longer get taken care of, they get thrown out on the street/…/ Or sometimes, for example, a person with a mental health problem also has problems with alcohol and they aren’t accepted by any state service that could deal with their mental disorder, so again they are … their local government has to offer them housing. We give them social housing, but that doesn’t mean that they can manage. Of course we have support person services but that isn’t enough for them. There ought to be someone by their side the whole time. In this narrative, the emphasis is on people’s behaviour and addiction as well as on assigning them implicitly to the categories of ‘people with complicated unsolvable problems’ and ‘not accepted by the institutions’. Retrospectively, reflecting on her experiences and the context of the people she works with, the social worker contends that many people are not able to behave as normatively expected by institutions and general society. The narrator acknowledges implicitly her professional obligation that she, as a social worker, has to ‘fix people’s problems’. The interviewee explicitly expresses hopelessness about the prospects of improving the well-being of the person. She refers as well to her responsibility to support people who seem unsuited for social services because of their behaviour and societal norms. The narrator implicitly espouses the norms of the profession, but explicitly problematises non-acceptance of the people in need. The social worker is presenting through a professional conversation the normative needs of people with co-morbid problems—those people who need permanent assistance to cope (‘There ought to be someone by their side …’). The narrative refers to the attitudes prevalent in the Estonian society—explicitly contested by the interviewees—that addiction is a personal responsibility and a condition for a refusal by social services. The account is also made to address normative expectations of welfare system policies. The narrator explains the availability of social services for so-called ‘decent people’ and, at the same time, contends that people with complex addiction problems are disadvantaged and without equal opportunities. The normative judgement rhetorically used by the social worker is aimed at emphasising the normative rights of the people who are vulnerable and in marginal positions. Narrative 1 (continues) SW: Then there ought to be a special service for alcoholic people with mental health issues. People with mental health issues who are not drinking don’t have anything that would make the situation worse. They have different types of workshops available, supported living services, daily living support, all possible options. But nobody deals with the alcohol or the treatment or any of that and I don’t know what we can do. Taking everything to heart like this can be very sad, but when you’re there at the time, you can feel completely powerless/…/ We’ve offered for the person to go to the day centre for homeless people. But they don’t want to be there, they want to be in the park, where it’s nice and pretty, and they can be there. So the issue is that if they don’t want our service, no one can force them to take it. The social worker implicitly refers to the principles of social equality—everyone ought to have equal opportunities based on their actual needs. She refers to various efforts made to find appropriate services in order to improve the well-being of the person, thereby explaining people’s freedom to make decisions regarding their life. ‘Some of them we had to half force to go …’ This excerpt refers to a complex case in which a man is living alone and not able to take care of himself due to serious health and addiction problems, which are endangering his life. As the narrative suggests, in many cases, the specific problem situation has not been resolved, so social workers end up forcing people into an institution. This practice often leads to heated debates among professionals from two opposing viewpoints: acceptance of the people’s choices versus institutionalisation against their will. In the following excerpt, as in the one above, the narrator assigns clients to a group of ‘people with complicated unsolvable problems’ and as ‘uncooperative’. Narrative 2 SW: Sometimes things are upsetting … Interviewer (I): What kind of things? SW: Well I’ll be honest, in the country, people with drinking problems are a massive problem /…/They are so unwell because of their drinking/…/ There were so many of them in my time, some of them we had to half force to go to care homes because they don’t want to go there, they know that they can’t drink in the care homes// but when there’s the threat of dying in the cold or of getting gangrene in their leg they physically can’t oppose me anymore and so I take them away. It takes a while but they settle in there and get food and medical care and they live there another ten or so years and then they’re grateful to me for taking them there. The narrator portrays herself as a professional who has the legitimate power to direct people with serious health problems into care, and to restrict their lifestyle. The aim of presenting the narrative in this way is to show the importance of the work of a social worker and the impact it has on shaping people’s life course. The presentation of the person changes during the story: a physically powerless person who is indifferent about his life and lacks the capacity to decide anything over the years turns into seemingly a grateful resident of a care home. Retrospectively speaking of the improved well-being of the people, the institutionalisation is an improvement endorsed by social workers. In this narrative, as well as in the previous one, explicit emphasis was not placed on the social worker’s own agency in operating within inner norms or on the motivation of the client; the focus was, rather, on the solutions by providing social services. This is a narrative strategy available in cases with addicted people, for whom social workers lack the confidence for change and pressure from society is high. ‘They didn’t come, but we can’t force them either. How could we?’ This story exemplifies the social worker’s experiences working with families that have been determined to be at a risk of child abuse. The social worker looks back on an experience that took place two years earlier. Narrative 3 SW: A couple of years ago there was a case of a child which was very hard /…/ and then I definitely felt I ought to have had (supervision). I: What case was that? SW: It was a small child we had to remove from their family who had signs of abuse/…/ I: How did that situation affect you? SW: Actually as social workers we understood that the birth of that child into that family was dangerous. We offered the family several opportunities to come and live in the social home with the child so that they could be kept an eye on. They didn’t come but we can’t force them either. How could we? And then when that little child ended up in hospital, then you have that feeling, that you know you wanted to do something but the court won’t just act on your gut feeling. You can’t say don’t give the child to their mother or father. Even in that case … even now the judge decided to give the child back and said that the social worker neglected to do something /…/ Yes, we had offered the family different options but they themselves did nothing, so how could we have? The family appears, in this account, to be indirectly placed in the category of ‘risk family’ and ‘uncooperative’. As the quote demonstrates, professionals are in a difficult position: they often perceive the need to intervene but have a moral obligation to respect the dignity and privacy of the family. With this dramatic beginning, the narrator draws attention to the complexity of the cases with children. Taking children out of families has dramatic effects on the children and parents. Meanwhile, placing children in an institution is, quite often, not an improvement. The narrative is presented in a way that demonstrates the social worker’s normative expectations for people and their families—people should co-operate and accept the social worker’s suggestions for social services. The narrator presents the social workers as experts who recognised the risks in the family before any abuse occurred and offered social services, accepting, at the same time, the right of the family to refuse this assistance. As the narrative continues, the reason for its telling becomes clear: although the social workers had the intention to prevent any possible harm, the child ended up in the hospital with signs of abuse, and the court blamed the social workers for allowing it to happen. Throughout this account, the interviewer explicitly problematises the restrictions on professional social work. The social workers describe their obligation to identify vulnerable children and to intervene in order to protect and assist children; at the same time, the social worker’s actions must be based on objective facts. In this narrative, the narrator placed little explicit emphasis on the content or underlying aims of the social worker’s professional activities in supporting the family where suspicion and risk of child abuse emerged. ‘So, you ought to explain to the village’ The family appears in this narrative to be indirectly placed in the category of ‘family at risk’ and ‘vulnerable and in need of protection’. The community is categorised as ‘demanding and unsupportive’. This is a powerful narrative in its referencing of the intertwined and even conflicting personal, professional and societal norms. Narrative 4 SW: Sometimes you have to explain to the community … when the village gets up on its hind legs, that why don’t you take those children away? /…/ So you ought to explain to the village that we’re helping the family, let’s all help them together, you can also support them, don’t tell us to just put the kids in a home straight away because the parents are actually taking care of them. They’ve got their own problems, the dad drinks too much, the mum has mental health problems and isn’t able to stand up against the whole village /…/ But that’s again a case where there’s the worry that what if something actually does happen and I haven’t taken the children away and it all ends up in the media /…/ I’m not usually one to take children away, I know some social workers are really for that// But, yeah, I … I don’t know … when I can see that the parent looks after the children but they’ve got some small issues with alcohol, that they love the children, and the children love them, that the next time they drink they don’t get aggressive towards the children and they can manage on their own and that because they don’t have money, I can’t just take the children away. The narrative is presented in a way to emphasise the responsibilities of the local community. The social worker is presented in this story as a professional whose normative obligation is to co-operate with the community, thereby developing a sense of community responsibility and cohesion. The normative statement (‘you ought to explain …’) used by the interviewee is aimed at addressing the professional responsibilities of social workers to encourage and educate people in society. At the same time, the social worker refers to community demands to intervene when the behaviour of the people is inconsistent with societal norms. This story reveals the effect of social work practice on the critical attitude prevalent in Estonian society—social workers are seen as responsible for dealing with abused children. The social worker refers retrospectively to cases of mistreated children reported in the media in which the actions or inactions of social workers have been criticised. The differences in agency between these two ways of describing experiences with families that have been determined to be at risk are worth noting in order to show the complex normative dilemmas and contradicting expectations in the professional practice of social work. Reflections The analysis demonstrates that social workers are in the middle of normative complexity and are challenged by ambiguous positions. As the narratives suggested, Estonian social workers are trying to find ways—often individually and rather isolated—to deal with this normativity while also demonstrating the character of profession and fulfilling the demands of social policy and society. By examining what kind of normativity social workers use to frame their practice, we observed that ethical and craftsmanship-oriented normativity are strongly intertwined in all cases. Social workers have high expectations for themselves as professionals, to do good work, to be trustful and reliable, to ‘rescue’ people and to solve people’s problems, permeated by empathy for vulnerability and compassion. We found the social workers’ commitment to deliver ‘good work’ was steered by a desire to protect individuals and families, as well as the normative expectations of society. In many ways, we witnessed social workers aiming to generate the meaning of a situation; they reflected on the problem, on the context, on the client, on the process and on the personal feelings. In their narratives, social workers emphasised the normative social responsibility of the community to respect differences and to take care of each other. It positions social work as relating to clients and communities, aimed at building the cohesion of society. Analysis indicates that social workers are value-based, with social justice as their core value. People should have a fair chance of realising their desires and aspirations that match their personal abilities. Social workers are dedicated to supporting people in improving their situations, their relationships, their competencies and their behaviour. This is recognition of the social perspective, yet social justice and compassion sometimes conflict. In their narratives, social workers highlight social injustice, citing the example of people receiving social services often finding themselves in conflict with the system designed to support them. The explicit and implicit normative orientation to social justice and equality positions social work as a driving force in creating better societies. Analysis revealed that social workers are implicitly trying to cope with the neo-liberal belief that those in need have to be responsible, and individuals are rewarded based on their personal effort. The neo-liberal agenda seems to be fundamentally incompatible with social workers’ efforts to build equality in a context which gives implicit advantages to some groups and disadvantages to others. In the habitus of social workers, the quick assimilation and serving-oriented attitude is recognisable. Social workers reflected that supportive social services are normative solutions for people’s problems: supporting people in changing their lives and keeping them active requires liberating them from personal restrictions and external conditions. At the same time, little emphasis was placed on the inner normative expectations of clients. The serving-oriented discourse is at least closer to the heart of neo-liberal and new management perspectives, where the primary goals are connected with the activation of the citizen responsibility, employment and workfare policies. Marthinsen (2014) argues that workfare underestimates the reasons for personal failure, pushing social work practice into directions that can be unethical rather than creating dignified and respectful services. The focus is on inclusion, and everyone is given the opportunity to maximise their productive contribution, which amounts to developing people’s full potential in terms of their productive, rather than their human, potential (Rogowski, 2010). In this case, the focus is no longer on trying to understand or explain the behaviour. Categorical thinking places individuals into master categories that obscure any ambiguities, rather than presenting a picture of the client as a subject in the social context. In the process, the embodied subjects are in danger of disappearing, and social workers are left with a variety of surface information which provides little basis for in-depth explanation or understanding. According to Fook (2016, p. 186), it is important to recognise that service users might not always necessarily be ‘disadvantaged’, ‘victims’ or ‘disempowered’. It is the whole context which is the focus of the workers’ practice, rather than individuals within it. As the narratives suggest, social workers are confronted with the dichotomous professional normativity of empowering families to protect their children from harm whilst simultaneously integrating professional procedures and legal frameworks to ensure the safeguarding of children. There are ethical and moral considerations about balancing the rights of the child and those of the family, taking into account the potential risks and available recourses. The struggle to find a balance between ensuring the safety of the child and empowering and accepting the family is clearly important and one of the most difficult issues in social work practice. Correspondingly, being in the middle of normative complexity demands embodied awareness and aesthetic sensibility in order to find a path and to make informed choices. Complexity and uncertainty are not resolved by applying strict goals and instruments, nor are they able to be set down in standardised competences. Formal rules, protocols and codes do not provide final answers to street-level professionals (Noordegraaf, 2009; Payne, 2009). Following Schön’s (1983) ideas, professionalisation asks for reflective practitioners and artistry as being capable of applying tacit knowledge in balance with explicit knowledge and skills. Kunneman (2015, 2005) introduces—in line with Schön and Cilliers (Cilliers and Preiser, 2010; Schön, 1983)—normative professionalisation as an ongoing reflexive process, in which the question of ‘what good action is’ is central. Ongoing reflection on the question of how to do good work opens up new possibilities for professionals, recognising the common normativity of the profession, understanding the multi-layered normativity of society and contributing to knowledge production. Normative professionalism foregrounds the layered normativity and the different normative frameworks brought into play in all forms of professional action, and it underlines the inherent political and ethical ambivalence of this normativity. Professionals need to move away from thinking in situations and simply repairing the problem, to thinking and acting from the perspective of development, processes and path finding. The frame should be based more in socialisation than therapeutic aspects. Social workers are governed not by the medical, but rather the social, model and they are committed to promoting social functioning of the people. Reflecting on the narratives, we would plead for the support of Estonian social workers in constructing a social work framework based on an explicit social model and aimed at socialising on an individual and community level. From its origins, social work focuses on people in context and on supporting people in participating in social life and coping with daily life. In societies with growing social complexity, the need for supportive social work is even greater. Merely responding to surface problems in a complex setting is hardly satisfying and may lead to professional work without direction. A second plea, based on our investigations, is to strengthen normative professionalisation as an ongoing deliberate and collective enterprise. Estonian social workers appear like Estonian citizens; they solve problems individually and often in ‘splendid isolation’. Social workers need each other, and they need citizens and social policy makers to discuss and develop social work that includes doing good work well. Social workers need to initiate dialogues with colleagues, policy makers and society concerning the issues of social justice and social functioning. In this research, we explored certain features of the overwhelmingly complex practice situations, and we suggested answering this complexity with a better and more dialogued awareness of the layered normativity underlying social work practice. References Aavik K. ( 2015 ) Intersectional Disadvantage and Privilege in the Estonian Labour Market: An Analysis of Work Narratives of Russian-Speaking Women and Estonian Men , Tallinn , Tallinn University . Adams R. , Dominelli L. , Payne M. ( 2009 ) Critical Practice in Social Work , New York , Palgrave Macmillan . Banks S. ( 2012 ) Ethics and Values in Social Work , 4 th edn, Basingstoke , Palgrave Macmillan . Bohle D. ( 2010 ) East European Transformations and the Paradoxes of Transnationalization, Working Paper. San Domenico di Fiesole, European University Institute Badia Fiesolana. Bugarszki Z. , Medar M. , Ewijk H. , van Wilken J.-P. , Narusson D. , Saia K. , Rahu A. ( 2016 ) Uuring psüühilise erivajadusega inimestele suunatud erihoolekandesüsteemi ümberkorraldamiseks ja tõhustamiseks teiste riikide praktikate alusel [A study in reorganizing and improving special care system of persons with psychiatric disabilities based on practices of other nations], Tallinn, Tallinn University. Cilliers P. ( 2005 ) ‘ Complexity, deconstruction and relativism’ , Theory, Culture & Society , 22 ( 5 ), pp. 255 – 67 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Cilliers P. , Preiser R. (eds) ( 2010 ) Complexity, Difference and Identity , Vol. 26, Dordrecht , Springer Netherlands . Dolgoff R. , Loewenberg F. M. , Harrington D. ( 2012 ) Ethical Decisions for Social Work Practice , Belmont , Books/Cole, Cengage Learning . Fook J. ( 2016 ) Social Work: A Critical Approach to Practice , 3 rd edn, Los Angeles/London , SAGE Publications Ltd . Gambrill E. ( 2015 ) ‘ Integrating research and practice: Distractions, controversies, and options for moving forward’ , Research on Social Work Practice , 25 ( 4 ), pp. 510 – 22 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Giddens A. ( 1999 ) The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy , Cambridge , Polity Press . Healy K. ( 2014 ) Social Work Theories in Context: Creating Frameworks for Practice , 2 nd edn, London , Palgrave Macmillan . Helemäe J. , Saar E. ( 2011 ) ‘An introduction to post-socialist transition in Estonia’, in Towards a Normal Stratification Order: Actual and Perceived Social Stratification in Post-Socialist Estonia (E. Saar eds), Frankfurt , Peter Lang . Helemäe J. , Saar E. ( 2015 ) ‘ Estonia visible inequalities, silenced class relations’ , East European Politics & Societies , 29 ( 3 ), pp. 565 – 76 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Higham P. ( 2006 ) Social Work: Introducing Professional Practice , London , SAGE . Hoskins B. , Jesinghaus J. ( 2006 ) Measuring Active Citizenship in Europe, Ispra (VA), Italy, Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen. Ife J. W. , Ife J. ( 1997 ) Rethinking Social Work: Towards Critical Practice , Melbourne , Longman . International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) ( 2014 ) Global Definition of Social Work, Melbourne, International Federation of Social Workers. Kõre J. ( 2015 ) ‘Lissaboni strateegia ja Euroopa 2020: EL sotsiaalkaitse strateegiate peegeldused EEsti sotsiaalpoliitikas’ [Lisbon Strategy and Europe 2020: EU social protection strategies at agenda of Estonian social policy], Journal of Sotsiaaltöö (Social Work) , 1 , pp. 12 – 20 . Kunneman H. ( 2015 ) ‘Humanistic information studies: A proposal. Part 2: Normative professionalization’ , Logeion: Filosofia Da Informação , 2 ( 1 ), pp. 11 – 32 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Kunneman H. ( 2005 ) ‘Social work as laboratory for normative professionalisation’ , Social Work & Society , 3 ( 2 ), pp. 191 – 200 . Lilleoja L. , Raudsepp M. ( 2016 ) ‘Cohort-specific value patterns in the new millennium’, in Generations in Estonia: Contemporary Perspectives on Turbulent Times (R. Nugin, A. Kannike and M. Raudsepp eds), Tartu, University of Tartu Press. Lindemann K. ( 2013 ) ‘Structural integration of young Russian-speakers in post-Soviet contexts: Educational attainment and transition to the labour market’, Ph.D. thesis, Tallinn University, Tallinn. Lorenz W. ( 2006 ) Perspectives on European Social Work: From the Birth of the Nation State to the Impact of Globalisation, Warsaw, Barbara Budrich Publishers, Opladen & Farmington Hills. Mäkitalo A. ( 2014 ) ‘Categorisation’, in Analysing Social Work Communication: Discourse in Practice (C. Hall, K. Juhila, M. Matarese and C. van Nijnatten, eds), London , Routledge , pp. 25 – 43 . Mansell J. , Knapp M. , Beadle-Brown J. , Beecham J. ( 2007 ) Deinstitutionalisation and community living – outcomes and costs: report of a European Study . Vol. 2. Main Report. Canterbury , Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Kent . Marthinsen E. ( 2014 ) ‘Social work at odds with politics, values and science’, in Social Change and Social Work: The Changing Societal Conditions of Social Work in Time and Place (T. Harrikari, P. L. Rauhala and E. Virokannas eds), London , Ashgate Publishing , pp. 31 – 48 . Mitendorf A. , van Ewijk H. ( 2016 ) ‘ Working with social complexity in a neoliberal society: Challenges for social work in Estonia’, European Journal of Social Work , 19 ( 1 ), pp. 78 – 91 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Noordegraaf M. ( 2009 ) ‘Managing by measuring? Professional organising in and around public service delivery’, in Evidence-Based Practice-Modernising the Knowledge Base of Social Work (H. U. Otto, A. Polutta and H. Ziegler eds), Warsaw , Barbara Budrich Publishers, Opladen & Farmington Hills . Nothdurfter U. , Lorenz W. ( 2010 ) ‘Beyond the pro and contra of evidence-based practice: Reflections on a recurring dilemma at the core of social work’ , Social Work & Society , 8 ( 1 ), pp. 46 – 59 . Parton N. , O’Byrne P. ( 2000 ) Constructive Social Work: Towards a New Practice , Hampshire, New York , Palgrave Macmillan . Payne M. ( 2009 ) ‘Knowledge, evidence and the wise person of practice: The example of social work and social care in palliative care’, in Evidence-Based Practice-Modernising the Knowledge Base of Social Work ? (H. U. Otto, A. Polutta and H. Ziegler eds), Warsaw , Barbara Budrich Publishers, Opladen & Farmington Hills . Payne M. ( 2014 ) Modern Social Work Theory , Hampshire : Palgrave Macmillan . Peräkylä A. ( 2005 ) ‘Analyzing talk and text’, in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research , California , Sage Publications Inc . Report of the National Audit Office to the Riigikogu ( 2012 ), Tallinn, National Audit Office. Ricoeur P. ( 1992 ) Oneself as Another , Chicago , University of Chicago Press . Riessman C. K. , Quinney L. ( 2005 ) ‘ Narrative in social work: A critical review’ , Qualitative Social Work , 4 ( 4 ), pp. 391 – 412 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Rivest M.-P. , Moreau N. ( 2015 ) ‘ Between emancipatory practice and disciplinary interventions: Empowerment and contemporary social normativity’ , British Journal of Social Work , 45 ( 6 ), pp. 1855 – 70 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Rogowski S. ( 2010 ) Social Work: The Rise and Fall of a Profession ?, Bristol , Policy Press . Schön D. A. ( 1983 ) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action , New York , Basic Books . Schön D. A. , Rein M. ( 1994 ) Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies , New York , Basic Books . Sippola M. ( 2014 ) ‘Balancing between exit, voice, loyalty: Labor market policy choices in Estonia’, in The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-Economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model (J. Sommers and C. Woolfson eds), New York , Routledge , pp. 118 – 37 . Squire C. ( 2008 ) ‘Experience-centred and culturally-oriented approaches to narrative’, in (M. Andrews, C. Squire and M. Tamboukou eds), Doing Narrative Research , London , SAGE . Tamm T. ( 2010 ) ‘Professional identity and self-concept of Estonian social workers’, academic dissertation, University of Tampere. Toots A. , Terk E. , Kasearu K. , Trumm A. ( 2015 ) ‘Welfare dynamics and welfare problems in the period during and after the economic crisis’, in Estonian Human Development Report 2014/2015: Escaping the Traps (E. Terk ed.), Tallinn, Eesti Koostöö Kogu. Trevithick P. ( 2014 ) ‘ Humanising managerialism: Reclaiming emotional reasoning, intuition, the relationship, and knowledge and skills in social work’, Journal of Social Work Practice , 28 ( 3 ), pp. 287 – 311 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Wilken J.-P. , Medar M. , Bugarszki Z. , Leenders F. ( 2014 ) ‘ Community support and participation among persons with disabilities: A study in three European countries’ , Journal of Social Intervention: Theory and Practice , 23 ( 3 ), p. 44 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Between Multi-Layered Normativity and Path Finding in Professional Social Work: The Case of the Individual and Neo-Liberal Estonian Society

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Abstract

Abstract This article explores how social workers from Estonian municipalities cope with complex normative issues, and how they relate to the different layers in normativity. Social work is permeated by intertwined sets of external and internal norms; however, social workers are only partly aware of the normative fields and their own embedded normativity. Data collection and analysis for this study have been guided by an experience-centred narrative research framework. The research focuses on Estonia, a country that is strongly influenced by neo-liberalism and individualism. Our investigation draws attention to the fact that it is important for social workers to understand and be aware of the forces of the multi-layered normativity in which the profession is situated. Framing problems from health and illness perspectives leads to different interventions than framing problems from perspectives of social functioning and social justice. We suggest that ongoing reflection and deliberation on the question of how to do good work opens up new possibilities for professionals and political action and contributes to knowledge production. Professionals need to move from thinking in situations and simply repairing the problem to thinking and acting from the perspective of development, process and path finding. Social complexity, professional practice, neo-liberalism, normative professionalism, narrative Introduction Social workers are professionals who navigate in what could be described as swampy lowlands (Schön, 1983). They must find ways to handle problems like unemployment and poverty and the behaviours of people with addictions and dysfunctional family lives. At the same time, these professionals must solve socio-cultural problems, deal with ethnic minorities and propagate norms, values and cohesion. Social workers have to realise when, what, why and how to take action, and anticipate the consequences of their action, as well as the impact they have on people, communities and society in general (Gambrill, 2015). Still, social workers are never completely free to make decisions; their professional activities and behaviours are constrained by intertwined sets of personal ideals and values, and external socio-cultural and political norms of a wider society. These norms play a decisive role in the vast majority of practices and provide criteria for what counts as acceptable or unacceptable in a specific cultural milieu and mainstream society. In Estonia, profound political and economic reforms occurred in 1991 that aimed for full market liberalisation, which implied individual responsibility for participation and welfare. This has had a powerful effect on the social imagination and led Estonians to re-evaluate their systems of social welfare and social policy and, in doing so, revamp normative expectations. For instance, Lilleoja and Raudsepp (2016) have found that, in Estonia, abstract and universalistic notions such as universal solidarity, co-operation, collective interest and other social values were replaced by the priority of individualistic values like individual interest, individual effectiveness, success and competition. The decades of restrictive conditions during Soviet rule have raised the importance of the freedom to make one’s own decisions. Our aim in the current article is to explore the normative frameworks that Estonian social workers construct in their professional practice. Normative profile of social work: ongoing research in complexity Opening up the normativity of social work, its multi-layered nature emerges. On the one hand, there are socio-political agreements, institutional demands and expectations of communities and individuals. On the other hand, there are social worker personal experiences and values, moral codes, core mandates and principles, and knowledge of social work. Scientific norms of the discipline set standards for what counts as knowledge and evidence. Next to this, professionals should observe the law and regulations of society and its different systems, like mental health, youth care, disabled care, debt relief and social benefits. Hence, norms constitute an integral part of social experience and affect a huge number of extremely diversified practices and discourses (Rivest and Moreau, 2015). Going by this, social work is a normative activity (Ife and Ife, 1997). Higher normative demands are formulated in the new international definition of social work, which claims that social work is a practice-based science and full profession with the aims of promoting social change, social justice and social functioning (IFSW, 2014). These normative terms define the core meaning of professional social work and indicate that it is more than just techniques for problem solving or supporting people during difficulties; it is about enabling them to take action for themselves and supporting relationships, and individual freedom of choice and action. This is a recognition of the social perspective, the social profession and practice. Hence, professional social workers are also moral agents (Dolgoff et al., 2012) and critical thinkers—well-rounded professionals with knowledge and judgements about how to address strategic issues (Higham, 2006). Although norms steer professionals, there is a need for sufficient room for discretion to organise the practice considering the individual needs of each person, following at the same time professional values and ethical norms. Therefore, social workers should be wise in manoeuvring amidst the social complexity of users and the complexity of norms, demands and expectations. There is an overload of oughts and ought-nots to answer. According to Banks (2012, p. 18), people are only partly aware of the normative fields and their own embedded normativity. According to Cilliers (2005, pp. 255–67), normative issues are intertwined with our very understanding (or lack thereof) of complexity. Social complexity increases the need to cope with normative dilemmas, which may arise between expectations of the community, responsibilities of professionals or personal attitudes and values. Cilliers and Preiser (2010, pp. vi–vii) state that we have to reduce that complexity when we try to understand it. Still, there is no objective way to do this reduction; there are always choices and therefore always normative elements involved. Since it is not possible to have perfect knowledge of complex systems or to ‘calculate’ the performance of complex social systems in their complexity, there is a need to make choices (Cilliers, 2005). Social professionals are at the heart of an ongoing search for normativity in the specific field: how to do good work in the ethical and instrumental spheres—that is, what kinds of specialised norms are dominant and how to make sense of tact, craftsmanship and the cultural/aesthetic dimension. Payne (2009, p. 81) asserts that the conditions of social work practice require a flexible and ‘wise person’, able to mediate and negotiate knowledge, rather than one who strictly follows rigidifying precepts of research evidence. This statement is in line with Donald Schön’s work (1930–97). Schön was a leading scholar of the concepts of the reflective practitioner and ‘frame reflection’. Schön (1983, p. 85) argues that, in professions based on daily social complexity and the ‘swampy lowland’, there is seldom ever a straightforward solution to a problem, and the first step is to name the thing and frame the context. According to Schön, a reflective practitioner regards any situation in terms of her/his ‘underlying structures of belief, perception and appreciation’, or her/his unique frame, which influences how she/he constructs a sense of coherence within vague, indeterminate practice situations (Schön and Rein, 1994, p. 23; Schön, 1983). Schön and Rein (1994, p. 23) suggest that frames are cognitive structures of beliefs, perceptions, values and experiences, which are related to social contexts. Eventually, the professionals thus construct social reality from a particular frame. They judge the problematic elements of the situation as well as the direction for future transformation, and they make a ‘normative leap’ from data to recommendations, from facts to values, from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. First, social professionals should be aware of the impact of problem setting and framing. Different ideologies and disciplines bring different frameworks to the same events, and they tend to pay attention to different sets of facts, see the same facts in different ways and make judgements of effectiveness based on different kinds of criteria (Schön and Rein, 1994). Framing problems from a health and illness perspective leads to different interventions than framing problems from the perspectives of social functioning and social justice. These differences often create doubt and hesitation, as well as disapprobation and exclusion. In that case, the process of ‘frame reflection’ provides a strategy to resolve the conflicts and controversies that practitioners see in practice (Schön and Rein, 1994, p. 38). In this study, we explore how Estonian social workers cope with complex normative issues in constructing their practice narratives and how they relate to the different layers of normativity. The ambiguous relationship between social work and social policy Although the international definition specifies the principal meaning of the profession, social work is inevitably affected by the specific cultural milieu and socio-political context in which it operates. Social workers act in diverse and rapidly changing political and economic contexts. Over recent decades, principles of New Public Management and neo-liberalism influenced the welfare state to a large extent by concentrating on efficiency, workforce flexibility and performance measurement (Healy, 2014; Trevithick, 2014; Adams et al., 2009; Payne, 2009; Lorenz, 2006). One of the main tendencies of this process is the refocused attention on individual behaviour connected to individual responsibility. Neo-liberal ideology, which dismisses the significance of personality and other categories in structuring people’s experiences in various social situations, reinforces inequalities in various spheres of life. According to Nothdurfter and Lorenz (2010), these shifts are not only a matter for social policy analysts, but they are also of direct relevance to social work practice. However, the literature (Wilken et al., 2014; Mansell et al., 2007) suggests that, throughout Europe, as well as in Estonia, there has been a general political shift in social service provision from institutional-oriented social work, to family- and community-based alternatives. Today, we talk about active or modern citizenship (Payne, 2014; Giddens, 1999; Hoskins and Jesinghaus, 2006), which can be seen as an arena for a value-sharing framework for social and democratic politics. Thus, social workers play an important role with regard to supporting participation of individuals and encouraging mutual assistance in communities. This requires a shift in thinking and acting, both in the communities and among social professionals. Social work in the individualistic and neo-liberal Estonian society Social work in Estonia is a relatively new profession without a long or extensive history. Social workers started from a situation in which the main approach to social welfare was institutional welfare in closed institutions (Tamm, 2010). Several historical events have influenced professional social work in Estonia. Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia, like other former socialist countries, has undergone a period of the simultaneous triple transition to democracy, capitalism and rebuilding state structures (Helemäe and Saar, 2015; Bohle, 2010). From the early 1990s, conservative liberals combined with populist nationalist appeal have guided the policy making of successive Estonian governments. The development of the country and its economy has been very unstable in the past ten years (Toots et al., 2015; Sippola, 2014) and enables, encourages and reinforces inequalities in various spheres of life, creating conditions that give systematic advantages to some groups over others (Aavik, 2015; Lindemann, 2013). Hence, the policy and ideological context in which social work is framed in Estonia is neo-liberalism and active citizenship (Kõre, 2015; Mitendorf and van Ewijk, 2016). The neo-liberal agenda had a significant impact on the life trajectories of Estonia’s entire population (Helemäe and Saar, 2011). The low levels of social spending provide a poor starting point for social workers to react to the rapid stratification of society. Social spending in Estonia comprises 40 per cent of the EU average per capita. At the same time, in 2015, 21.3 per cent of the Estonian population lived in relative poverty and 3.9 per cent lived in absolute poverty. In 2015, the disposable incomes of the poorest and best-off fifth segments in the population varied by a factor of 5.7 (Statistic of Estonia 2016). Social services in Estonia are of variable quality and their provision depends largely on the capacity of local governments. The National Audit Office (Report of the National Audit Office to the Riigikogu, 2012) has found that many local authorities are unable to cope with their duties and that their legal obligations are performed selectively. The necessary special care services are not sufficient, they are not provided in rural areas, the number of services for people with disabilities are limited and different services are not integrated (Wilken et al., 2014). Social security benefits are not sufficient in all situations to meet the economic cost and prevent poverty. Researchers (e.g. Bugarszki et al., 2016; Wilken et al., 2014; Tamm, 2010) have acknowledged the extensive politicisation and bureaucratisation of social work in Estonia. These contextual developments directly affect many of those involved in social work and social care, both workers and service users alike. In the past few years, prioritising of equal opportunities and justice, individualised care, power of civil society and community-based care is visible in the national documents aimed at empowering individuals in an inclusive manner to cope independently and participate in social life (‘National Health Plan 2009–2020’, 2008; ‘Welfare Development Plan 2016–2023’, 2015; ‘Social Welfare Act’, 2015). Social cohesion and solidarity are assumed to be the outcome of a work-oriented strategy. Research design This research is an explorative study on professional social work that pays careful attention to the responses of participants. Data collection and analysis for this study have been guided by an experience-centred narrative research framework (Squire, 2008). As Ricoeur (1992) underlines, narratives are inherently normative and contain ethical and moral qualifications and disqualifications; they cover up or give voice to conflicts and power struggles; and they articulate examples of moral hopes and fears with regard to the future development of organisations and their members. Several authors (Parton and O’Byrne, 2000; Riessman and Quinney, 2005) have emphasised the importance of narrative approaches in research on social work. Participant narratives were not the focus of analysis per se; rather, they provide a lens for the revelation of normativity and of the performative aspects of this process. This article is based on an analysis of qualitative, semi-structured, in-depth interviews with thirteen social workers from municipalities across Estonia. Of 683 social workers working in local municipalities of Estonia, 351 have a specialised social work education. The interviews were conducted in 2012. Although Estonia is a small country, it provides a very varied context for the residents. The sample was selected from diverse locations taking into consideration structural differences of municipalities. Seven social workers worked in towns and six worked in rural areas. All social workers who participated have higher education and work experience of more than five years. We used questions that allowed respondents to construct answers in ways they found meaningful. Interviews took place in the respondents’ workplaces and generally lasted around 1.5 hours. The first author interviewed social workers about the fundamental nature of social work (i.e. its importance, urgency, goals, dealing with social complexity). In order to encourage the emergence of stories in the interview setting, I asked the participants to narrate their experiences. Once the interviewers finished their accounts, I as responsible author asked clarifying questions. While the narrative approach encourages the research participants to tell the stories, we consider all emerging narratives to be co-constructed. Audio taping the interviews allowed their transcription and systematic examination. Throughout the analysis, we were attentive to the ways in which various elements of the narrative environment, such as our own position in relation to the participants or large narratives that circulate in the Estonian society etc., might have affected how the stories were told. We started the analysis by differentiating the narratives in the transcripts and concentrating on stories in which narrators used normative expressions like ought and have to. We marked parts where those concepts were presented in a narrative form. During the analysis, it emerged that social workers ascribed specific features to the clients in narrating their experiences from practice situations, and used social categories for their clients. In the analysis, we have made some use of Sacks’s work (Mäkitalo, 2014) on membership categorisation analysis by exploring the categorical resources that are interwoven in social work interaction in order to discover how professionals themselves create categorises to make sense of people, events and actions in their local context. According to Sacks, categories describe people in culturally identifiable groups and they may be tied to certain entitlements and obligations for those involved; therefore, categories go together with activities that can be normative (Peräkylä, 2005). In social work, categorisation enables the parties to sort out, negotiate and handle problems with which they are concerned (Mäkitalo, 2014). During the analysis of narratives and categorisation, we found an entire range of narratives in which multi-layered normativities were interwoven. For this article, we selected four narratives that present clearly the interwoven normativity. Although the research involves a small group of social workers, the strength of this research lies in the in-depth understanding of normative frames of social workers, which provides a specific opportunity for critical reflection and discussion. Ethical considerations All the participants gave verbal consent to a one-to-one meeting with the researcher. Obtaining ethical approval from the first author’s academic institute and following the national and international (IFSW) ethical guidelines were significant milestones in this study. However, ethics was not limited to formal guidelines, as our role as researchers demanded that we critically reflect on ethics during and after fieldwork was conducted. Research results and analysis In this section, we present the four narratives in which the social workers describe multifaceted and intertwined normativities in their practice. ‘Then there ought to be a special service …’ This narrative is the story of the social workers’ personal experiences struggling with multiple social problems and addiction. At the same time, the cases presented are powerful devices for referencing the intertwined personal, societal and professional norms that social professionals perceive in their practice. Narrative 1 Social worker (SW): Sometimes I have the feeling that people’s problems won’t get fixed whether we do this work or not. I’d even dare to say the workers in my department deal with the worst kinds of contingencies. Let’s say, for example, a person makes trouble and gets thrown out of their welfare service and goes to a shelter. We had this kind of situation here last week, the person just didn’t follow the rules of the welfare service and they no longer get taken care of, they get thrown out on the street/…/ Or sometimes, for example, a person with a mental health problem also has problems with alcohol and they aren’t accepted by any state service that could deal with their mental disorder, so again they are … their local government has to offer them housing. We give them social housing, but that doesn’t mean that they can manage. Of course we have support person services but that isn’t enough for them. There ought to be someone by their side the whole time. In this narrative, the emphasis is on people’s behaviour and addiction as well as on assigning them implicitly to the categories of ‘people with complicated unsolvable problems’ and ‘not accepted by the institutions’. Retrospectively, reflecting on her experiences and the context of the people she works with, the social worker contends that many people are not able to behave as normatively expected by institutions and general society. The narrator acknowledges implicitly her professional obligation that she, as a social worker, has to ‘fix people’s problems’. The interviewee explicitly expresses hopelessness about the prospects of improving the well-being of the person. She refers as well to her responsibility to support people who seem unsuited for social services because of their behaviour and societal norms. The narrator implicitly espouses the norms of the profession, but explicitly problematises non-acceptance of the people in need. The social worker is presenting through a professional conversation the normative needs of people with co-morbid problems—those people who need permanent assistance to cope (‘There ought to be someone by their side …’). The narrative refers to the attitudes prevalent in the Estonian society—explicitly contested by the interviewees—that addiction is a personal responsibility and a condition for a refusal by social services. The account is also made to address normative expectations of welfare system policies. The narrator explains the availability of social services for so-called ‘decent people’ and, at the same time, contends that people with complex addiction problems are disadvantaged and without equal opportunities. The normative judgement rhetorically used by the social worker is aimed at emphasising the normative rights of the people who are vulnerable and in marginal positions. Narrative 1 (continues) SW: Then there ought to be a special service for alcoholic people with mental health issues. People with mental health issues who are not drinking don’t have anything that would make the situation worse. They have different types of workshops available, supported living services, daily living support, all possible options. But nobody deals with the alcohol or the treatment or any of that and I don’t know what we can do. Taking everything to heart like this can be very sad, but when you’re there at the time, you can feel completely powerless/…/ We’ve offered for the person to go to the day centre for homeless people. But they don’t want to be there, they want to be in the park, where it’s nice and pretty, and they can be there. So the issue is that if they don’t want our service, no one can force them to take it. The social worker implicitly refers to the principles of social equality—everyone ought to have equal opportunities based on their actual needs. She refers to various efforts made to find appropriate services in order to improve the well-being of the person, thereby explaining people’s freedom to make decisions regarding their life. ‘Some of them we had to half force to go …’ This excerpt refers to a complex case in which a man is living alone and not able to take care of himself due to serious health and addiction problems, which are endangering his life. As the narrative suggests, in many cases, the specific problem situation has not been resolved, so social workers end up forcing people into an institution. This practice often leads to heated debates among professionals from two opposing viewpoints: acceptance of the people’s choices versus institutionalisation against their will. In the following excerpt, as in the one above, the narrator assigns clients to a group of ‘people with complicated unsolvable problems’ and as ‘uncooperative’. Narrative 2 SW: Sometimes things are upsetting … Interviewer (I): What kind of things? SW: Well I’ll be honest, in the country, people with drinking problems are a massive problem /…/They are so unwell because of their drinking/…/ There were so many of them in my time, some of them we had to half force to go to care homes because they don’t want to go there, they know that they can’t drink in the care homes// but when there’s the threat of dying in the cold or of getting gangrene in their leg they physically can’t oppose me anymore and so I take them away. It takes a while but they settle in there and get food and medical care and they live there another ten or so years and then they’re grateful to me for taking them there. The narrator portrays herself as a professional who has the legitimate power to direct people with serious health problems into care, and to restrict their lifestyle. The aim of presenting the narrative in this way is to show the importance of the work of a social worker and the impact it has on shaping people’s life course. The presentation of the person changes during the story: a physically powerless person who is indifferent about his life and lacks the capacity to decide anything over the years turns into seemingly a grateful resident of a care home. Retrospectively speaking of the improved well-being of the people, the institutionalisation is an improvement endorsed by social workers. In this narrative, as well as in the previous one, explicit emphasis was not placed on the social worker’s own agency in operating within inner norms or on the motivation of the client; the focus was, rather, on the solutions by providing social services. This is a narrative strategy available in cases with addicted people, for whom social workers lack the confidence for change and pressure from society is high. ‘They didn’t come, but we can’t force them either. How could we?’ This story exemplifies the social worker’s experiences working with families that have been determined to be at a risk of child abuse. The social worker looks back on an experience that took place two years earlier. Narrative 3 SW: A couple of years ago there was a case of a child which was very hard /…/ and then I definitely felt I ought to have had (supervision). I: What case was that? SW: It was a small child we had to remove from their family who had signs of abuse/…/ I: How did that situation affect you? SW: Actually as social workers we understood that the birth of that child into that family was dangerous. We offered the family several opportunities to come and live in the social home with the child so that they could be kept an eye on. They didn’t come but we can’t force them either. How could we? And then when that little child ended up in hospital, then you have that feeling, that you know you wanted to do something but the court won’t just act on your gut feeling. You can’t say don’t give the child to their mother or father. Even in that case … even now the judge decided to give the child back and said that the social worker neglected to do something /…/ Yes, we had offered the family different options but they themselves did nothing, so how could we have? The family appears, in this account, to be indirectly placed in the category of ‘risk family’ and ‘uncooperative’. As the quote demonstrates, professionals are in a difficult position: they often perceive the need to intervene but have a moral obligation to respect the dignity and privacy of the family. With this dramatic beginning, the narrator draws attention to the complexity of the cases with children. Taking children out of families has dramatic effects on the children and parents. Meanwhile, placing children in an institution is, quite often, not an improvement. The narrative is presented in a way that demonstrates the social worker’s normative expectations for people and their families—people should co-operate and accept the social worker’s suggestions for social services. The narrator presents the social workers as experts who recognised the risks in the family before any abuse occurred and offered social services, accepting, at the same time, the right of the family to refuse this assistance. As the narrative continues, the reason for its telling becomes clear: although the social workers had the intention to prevent any possible harm, the child ended up in the hospital with signs of abuse, and the court blamed the social workers for allowing it to happen. Throughout this account, the interviewer explicitly problematises the restrictions on professional social work. The social workers describe their obligation to identify vulnerable children and to intervene in order to protect and assist children; at the same time, the social worker’s actions must be based on objective facts. In this narrative, the narrator placed little explicit emphasis on the content or underlying aims of the social worker’s professional activities in supporting the family where suspicion and risk of child abuse emerged. ‘So, you ought to explain to the village’ The family appears in this narrative to be indirectly placed in the category of ‘family at risk’ and ‘vulnerable and in need of protection’. The community is categorised as ‘demanding and unsupportive’. This is a powerful narrative in its referencing of the intertwined and even conflicting personal, professional and societal norms. Narrative 4 SW: Sometimes you have to explain to the community … when the village gets up on its hind legs, that why don’t you take those children away? /…/ So you ought to explain to the village that we’re helping the family, let’s all help them together, you can also support them, don’t tell us to just put the kids in a home straight away because the parents are actually taking care of them. They’ve got their own problems, the dad drinks too much, the mum has mental health problems and isn’t able to stand up against the whole village /…/ But that’s again a case where there’s the worry that what if something actually does happen and I haven’t taken the children away and it all ends up in the media /…/ I’m not usually one to take children away, I know some social workers are really for that// But, yeah, I … I don’t know … when I can see that the parent looks after the children but they’ve got some small issues with alcohol, that they love the children, and the children love them, that the next time they drink they don’t get aggressive towards the children and they can manage on their own and that because they don’t have money, I can’t just take the children away. The narrative is presented in a way to emphasise the responsibilities of the local community. The social worker is presented in this story as a professional whose normative obligation is to co-operate with the community, thereby developing a sense of community responsibility and cohesion. The normative statement (‘you ought to explain …’) used by the interviewee is aimed at addressing the professional responsibilities of social workers to encourage and educate people in society. At the same time, the social worker refers to community demands to intervene when the behaviour of the people is inconsistent with societal norms. This story reveals the effect of social work practice on the critical attitude prevalent in Estonian society—social workers are seen as responsible for dealing with abused children. The social worker refers retrospectively to cases of mistreated children reported in the media in which the actions or inactions of social workers have been criticised. The differences in agency between these two ways of describing experiences with families that have been determined to be at risk are worth noting in order to show the complex normative dilemmas and contradicting expectations in the professional practice of social work. Reflections The analysis demonstrates that social workers are in the middle of normative complexity and are challenged by ambiguous positions. As the narratives suggested, Estonian social workers are trying to find ways—often individually and rather isolated—to deal with this normativity while also demonstrating the character of profession and fulfilling the demands of social policy and society. By examining what kind of normativity social workers use to frame their practice, we observed that ethical and craftsmanship-oriented normativity are strongly intertwined in all cases. Social workers have high expectations for themselves as professionals, to do good work, to be trustful and reliable, to ‘rescue’ people and to solve people’s problems, permeated by empathy for vulnerability and compassion. We found the social workers’ commitment to deliver ‘good work’ was steered by a desire to protect individuals and families, as well as the normative expectations of society. In many ways, we witnessed social workers aiming to generate the meaning of a situation; they reflected on the problem, on the context, on the client, on the process and on the personal feelings. In their narratives, social workers emphasised the normative social responsibility of the community to respect differences and to take care of each other. It positions social work as relating to clients and communities, aimed at building the cohesion of society. Analysis indicates that social workers are value-based, with social justice as their core value. People should have a fair chance of realising their desires and aspirations that match their personal abilities. Social workers are dedicated to supporting people in improving their situations, their relationships, their competencies and their behaviour. This is recognition of the social perspective, yet social justice and compassion sometimes conflict. In their narratives, social workers highlight social injustice, citing the example of people receiving social services often finding themselves in conflict with the system designed to support them. The explicit and implicit normative orientation to social justice and equality positions social work as a driving force in creating better societies. Analysis revealed that social workers are implicitly trying to cope with the neo-liberal belief that those in need have to be responsible, and individuals are rewarded based on their personal effort. The neo-liberal agenda seems to be fundamentally incompatible with social workers’ efforts to build equality in a context which gives implicit advantages to some groups and disadvantages to others. In the habitus of social workers, the quick assimilation and serving-oriented attitude is recognisable. Social workers reflected that supportive social services are normative solutions for people’s problems: supporting people in changing their lives and keeping them active requires liberating them from personal restrictions and external conditions. At the same time, little emphasis was placed on the inner normative expectations of clients. The serving-oriented discourse is at least closer to the heart of neo-liberal and new management perspectives, where the primary goals are connected with the activation of the citizen responsibility, employment and workfare policies. Marthinsen (2014) argues that workfare underestimates the reasons for personal failure, pushing social work practice into directions that can be unethical rather than creating dignified and respectful services. The focus is on inclusion, and everyone is given the opportunity to maximise their productive contribution, which amounts to developing people’s full potential in terms of their productive, rather than their human, potential (Rogowski, 2010). In this case, the focus is no longer on trying to understand or explain the behaviour. Categorical thinking places individuals into master categories that obscure any ambiguities, rather than presenting a picture of the client as a subject in the social context. In the process, the embodied subjects are in danger of disappearing, and social workers are left with a variety of surface information which provides little basis for in-depth explanation or understanding. According to Fook (2016, p. 186), it is important to recognise that service users might not always necessarily be ‘disadvantaged’, ‘victims’ or ‘disempowered’. It is the whole context which is the focus of the workers’ practice, rather than individuals within it. As the narratives suggest, social workers are confronted with the dichotomous professional normativity of empowering families to protect their children from harm whilst simultaneously integrating professional procedures and legal frameworks to ensure the safeguarding of children. There are ethical and moral considerations about balancing the rights of the child and those of the family, taking into account the potential risks and available recourses. The struggle to find a balance between ensuring the safety of the child and empowering and accepting the family is clearly important and one of the most difficult issues in social work practice. Correspondingly, being in the middle of normative complexity demands embodied awareness and aesthetic sensibility in order to find a path and to make informed choices. Complexity and uncertainty are not resolved by applying strict goals and instruments, nor are they able to be set down in standardised competences. Formal rules, protocols and codes do not provide final answers to street-level professionals (Noordegraaf, 2009; Payne, 2009). Following Schön’s (1983) ideas, professionalisation asks for reflective practitioners and artistry as being capable of applying tacit knowledge in balance with explicit knowledge and skills. Kunneman (2015, 2005) introduces—in line with Schön and Cilliers (Cilliers and Preiser, 2010; Schön, 1983)—normative professionalisation as an ongoing reflexive process, in which the question of ‘what good action is’ is central. Ongoing reflection on the question of how to do good work opens up new possibilities for professionals, recognising the common normativity of the profession, understanding the multi-layered normativity of society and contributing to knowledge production. Normative professionalism foregrounds the layered normativity and the different normative frameworks brought into play in all forms of professional action, and it underlines the inherent political and ethical ambivalence of this normativity. Professionals need to move away from thinking in situations and simply repairing the problem, to thinking and acting from the perspective of development, processes and path finding. The frame should be based more in socialisation than therapeutic aspects. Social workers are governed not by the medical, but rather the social, model and they are committed to promoting social functioning of the people. Reflecting on the narratives, we would plead for the support of Estonian social workers in constructing a social work framework based on an explicit social model and aimed at socialising on an individual and community level. From its origins, social work focuses on people in context and on supporting people in participating in social life and coping with daily life. In societies with growing social complexity, the need for supportive social work is even greater. Merely responding to surface problems in a complex setting is hardly satisfying and may lead to professional work without direction. A second plea, based on our investigations, is to strengthen normative professionalisation as an ongoing deliberate and collective enterprise. Estonian social workers appear like Estonian citizens; they solve problems individually and often in ‘splendid isolation’. 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Journal

The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Oct 1, 2018

References

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