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The wielding of power by social workers in two welfare systems explored


Swedish social workers feel they wield more power towards clients than their Italian counterparts, reveals a dissertation by a Malmö University researcher.

Just one conclusion Paolo Guidi draws in his dissertation, ‘Social Work Assessment of Families with Children at Risk – Similarities and differences in Italian and Swedish public social services.’ He will defend his research this Friday.

The thesis aims to understand and explain social work assessment of families with children at risk considering the social workers' role in their national welfare system. It compromises four articles with a comparative perspective between the two countries. The first three are based on vignettes of three cases of children at risk and the fourth draws on a broad cross-national survey focusing on social workers’ perception of power.

Differences evident when dealing with teenagers

Paolo found the comparison shows similarities in assessment and line of reasoning when it comes to cases involving infants and small children, while differences are more evident when it comes to adolescent behaviour. Italian social workers are in general more inclined to intervene than Swedish. However, Swedish social workers seem to be more inclined than their Italian colleagues to perceive to wield strong power towards clients.

Differences in the assessment at level of practice are only partly explained by national welfare systems, the research finds. Also local organisational structures, cultural understandings, and the role assumed by professional in respect to their mandate, seem to be influencing factors when it comes to social workers’ assessment of families with children at risk.

“The assessment is a fundamental part of social work. As the assessment also determines the next course of action it is important to shed light on this complex process. Social workers, in particular in case of child protection activity, intrude in the personal area of life and into families, not only offering, but sometimes even imposing interventions,“ said Paolo.

Under the scrutiny of the public

“In Sweden and Italy, the intrusion into the family sphere by social services is justified and normalised by the national welfare systems and the perceived right of vulnerable people to be helped and protected. The presence of potential conflicting interests around social services’ assessments and interventions capture the public debate and tensions.

“Comparing social work assessment practices in different countries, gaining distance from the field work, enables us to have an enhanced reflection on both the practices and the systems, highlighting possible contextual - cultural, organisational and institutional - influencing factors.

The vignettes present three fictitious cases made up of family scenarios: Maria, a baby born with a lone mother; Kim, an abused four-years-old boy and his parents, and a family with a teenage daughter troubled with alcohol consumption issues. Respondents were faced with the development of a series of events related to the three cases that reproduce the complexities they face in everyday working life. 

“Despite differences in child protection system it emerges a common understanding of social problems when dealing with babies in potential harm and abused children, stressing a convergence between Swedish and Italian assessment in child protection social work.

“Differences are present in the assessment of the adolescent situation that can be related to alcohol socialisation processes and the drinking cultures in Italy and Sweden. For example, the cultural approach to alcohol consumption in Sweden can explain the lower level of interventionism among Swedish social workers in the adolescent case. Instead Italian social workers, being less accustomed to considering the behaviour of the youth as ‘common’, are more worried and prone to intervene, when the adolescent is found drunk.

“Social workers also present differences in orientation regarding their reasoning for intervention; the concern for Italians appears to be related to the risk of exposure to sexual abuse related to the alcohol consumption expressed clearly in some responses. Swedes are more oriented to consider the risk of intoxication and the issue of related antisocial behaviours, including possible influence of peers.

The cross-national survey involved in total 5,527 social workers in the two countries - 2,809 Swedish and 2,718 Italians.

Text: Adrian Grist

Last updated by Adrian Grist