Family Complexity and Social Work. A Comparative Study of Family-based Welfare Work in Different Welfare Regimes

The FACSK (Family Complexity and Social Work) project has during the first twenty months (of 36):

  • established the project lead team with PI:s and researchers from the universities in Umeå in Sweden, Birmingham in UK and Stavanger in Norway, and the researcher group with all eight partners and cooperation partners (Sofia in Bulgaria, Santiago in Chile, Cork in Ireland, Kaunas in Lithuania and Monterrey in México). In all 15 persons are directly engaged in the project. Three of the 15 are post docs, while 11 are senior researchers. One PhD candidate works in the Norwegian part of the project since 2016, and two more PhD candidates are affiliated to the Swedish part of the project, with access to project data. Additionally, two universities (University of Havana, Cuba and University of Queensland, Australia) collaborate with the project, producing comparative data.
    During 2016 the project has:
  • collected data in order to produce reports from all eight countries, covering four service areas: child welfare, substance abuse, migration and mental health. The reports will give a detailed description of social work with families in the four welfare regimes that the eight countries represent.
  • piloted and fine-tuned instruments/case vignettes for the focus group interviews and questionnaires for the stakeholders/experts.
  • carried out focus groups with social workers in the four service areas that are in focus of the project. Data is available all eight countries and some complementary data collection takes place autumn 2016. The final 16 months (2016-2017) are dedicated to analysis, dissemination and communication with stakeholders.
  • established contacts with stakeholders in social services in all countries of the study.
  • organized data and document storage systems. Transcribed and translated data from focus groups and interviews are accessible for comparative analyses by all researchers in the project.
  • achieved research ethical approval (UK/Ireland) where necessary.
  • presented the project’s framework at conferences and published one methodological scientific journal paper. More than ten research conference presentations for national and international audiences were done.

Preliminary findings: Social workers in all eight countries undertake reflexive reasoning about family complexity. This complexity is frequently resolved through the use of institutional and service categories. These categories, however, vary significantly between the welfare systems that the countries have built up, indicating the relevance of the projects’ assumptions about how family policy regimes create different conditions for social work on the street-level. As an example, ’triggers’ for organisational processes such as a child protection concern, are more likely to generate routinised responses and generate certainty in the professional formulations in UK and Ireland, than in some of the other countries, where social workers’ discretionary professional judgment is emphasised. In all countries data indicates that families are, in different ways, disaggregated and individualised through referrals to specialist services. There is large variation in the structure of and accessibility to such services depending on the degree of familialisation that different welfare states are characterized by, but also depending on which service area (child welfare, mental health etc.) that is in focus.

The project is expected to add to theoretical analyses of welfare regimes, family policy, and professional discretion, and will contribute methodologically to cross-national research. End-users from policy-makers to social workers will benefit from new knowledge about conceptions of the family in different settings, and how these may have an impact on the services provided. The project will map and contextualize the variation of social work methods in family-based social work. There will be a multitude of types of publications from this project: articles in peer reviewed journals, conference proceedings, working papers/reports, and articles for professionals and stakeholders (popular science). A final report is planned to be published in book format.

Project Summary

The aim of the FACSK project was to describe and analyse how social workers that work with families across different contexts understand notions of family and how they describe their practices with families in four service areas: child welfare, addiction, migrating families and mental health. Countries included are Bulgaria, Chile, Ireland, Lithuania, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and UK, representing different policy regimes.

The study applies welfare regime theory on the personal social services. Further, it addresses how professionals’ conceptualisation of their clients (families) is conditioned by the systems and organisations they work in, and how this affects priorities and expected outcome. The project refines comparative research methods based on its composition of contextual and qualitative data from social practice. It also adds to the development of complexity theory for social work research, going beyond existing constructs of the complex nature of social work, to capture the interactive relationship in and between complex needs, relational and contextual complexity.

There are substantial differences in how the notion “family” is expressed on macro and meso levels in the four regime-types that the project has explored, ranging from familialised to individualised notions. The Latin American countries and Eastern European countries of the study have partly different, but still familialised systems, Sweden and Norway stand out as less family-oriented and more individualised, while UK and Ireland are partly de-familialised, partly familialised.

Differences in how “family” is conceived are reflected in national regulations, service structures and social workers’ priorities. Mental health and addiction treatment are relatively individualised in Scandinavia, while less so in the more familialised countries. On the other hand, child welfare services are more family-oriented also in Scandinavia. The area of migration services contains many complexities due to different patterns of migration (refugees, labour, transit etc.). Professional discretion appears to be comparatively limited in some countries due to regulative structures (as in UK) and/or access to resources (as in Lithuania and Bulgaria).

In spite of system differences, social workers in all countries share mostly similar understandings of the relevance of family ties, as resources in their work. This shared understanding may indicate that a “global social worker ethos” plays out as an aspect of discretion and of increasingly harmonised social work education. Notable though, are the differences in the emphasis on the nuclear family ( e.g. Lithuania), vs. more openness towards alternative family forms in other countries.

End-users from policy-makers to social workers will gain new knowledge about different conceptions of the family and services provided. Social policies have, with different degrees in European and Latin American countries, integrated specific cultural roots in which the family has the role to face social problems. The project addresses the improvement of competences for students and people working with interventions for vulnerable children and marginalised families. It follows the Europe 2020 (New skills for new jobs) and Lisbon Treaty goals of providing professionals with improved competencies to match the need of the labour market and to promote social cohesion and inclusion.