After its 2012 meeting in Bucharest (Romania) and its 2013 conference in Tirana (Albania), the International Social Work & Society Academy (TiSSA) met again in one of the capitals of the Balkans. This year’s host from 22 to 27 August was the University of Sofia, Bulgaria. Sofia is not just the country’s cultural and political centre, its spectacular architecture bears living witness to the periods of its long and impressive history. Even though much of the Ottoman heritage did not survive the upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries, enough remarkable buildings have been preserved to give the viewer an impression of its former splendour, edifices such as the Banya Bashi Mosque (1576), the capital’s only still functioning mosque. After the Russo-Turkish War (1877-8), the oriental cityscape gave way to one modelled along Western lines, characterized above all by prestigious public buildings like the new Parliament or the neo-classical State Printing Press, and a later addition, the massive University building, constructed in the 1930s.
The Pre-Conference has become a regular feature of the TiSSA conferences. This year again it took place in the three days before the main conference. The Pre-Conference offers young researchers the chance to present their dissertation and thesis projects to an audience of their peers, an opportunity that was seized this year by no less than 40 young scientists. An international ‘supervisory board’ of experienced scholars was once more in charge of commenting in public on the work presented.
The team of supervisors consisted of excellent scientists: Karin Böllert (University of Münster, Germany), Mel Gray (University of Newcastle, Australia), Catrin Heite (University of Zurich, Switzerland), Anna Meeuwisse (University of Lund, Sweden), Steven Shardlow (University of Keele, England), Hans-Uwe Otto (University of Bielefeld, Germany) and Ivaylo Tepavicharov (University of Sofia, Bulgaria).
The presentations were distinguished by differentiated methodological approaches and interesting topics. It would be no exaggeration to say that the PhD Pre-Conference has established itself as an integral part during the work on PhD students’ theses. What makes the Pre-Conference even more attractive is that students are offered the chance to publish their presentations in the online journal “Social Work & Society“ (www.socwork.net), and thus make their voices heard in the international discourse on issues in social work.
The TiSSA plenary meeting had again a full programme with 30 presentations, so that only very few, subjectively chosen presentations will be commented on in what follows.
Ivaylo Tepavicharov (Bulgaria), the Director of Sofia University, and Hans-Uwe Otto (Germany) gave the opening speeches at the main conference in the St. Kliment Ohridski Universität of Sofia on 25 August 2014.
Hans-Uwe Otto raised the question of whether social work can carry on as usual given the current social changes. There are, on the one hand, neo-liberal trends that threaten to blur the classic commitments of social pedagogy; on the other hand they bring about a type of social work that produces more sophisticated analyses and interventions in terms of its quantity and quality at a time when social problems are increasing. These tendencies, which are spreading to most European countries, exhort social work to take more decisive action. This transformation process undermines social welfare programmes, reducing them to the bare subsistence level, instead of presenting reasonable prospects for the future. Young people feel abandoned in their expectations of the future and have to face an existential void if they do not conform to economic norms. The appeal to individual self-realization and self-activation dominates the debate and turns for many into a synonym for failed social and labour-market policies. The family has lost its socializing function of providing young people with a starting point of positive social developments and existential opportunities. Instead, it has become its endpoint which limits from the start the biographical development potential of young people. The rapid expansion of its classic “problem areas” challenges social work to examine critically its theoretical models and action options if it is not to become ineffective. Spirals of poverty and the sharp accentuation of class differences between the poor and the rich, as well as present exploitation and illusory promises of a better future, are the results of a capitalist social policy.
Ivaylo Tepavicharov in his opening presentation described social work in Bulgaria as a very young profession. A university degree programme was not established until 1996, five years after the turn away from socialism. Since then, social work in Eastern Europe has had to engage with the influences of Western social work in the quest for its own way. Bulgaria has offered right from the start both BA and MA programmes in social work. The BA degree course consists of 3,000 periods over four years, including 700 hours of practical work; the MA course lasts one year, consists of 700 hours, and can be studied in various areas of specialization, which are for example management studies, social work with families and children, clinical social work and the qualification of workers. PhD theses in social work can also be written in Bulgaria, usually in cooperation with institutes from the disciplines of sociology, psychology or political science.
Social work as practice has seen the development in the past decade of a number of authorities, professional organizations and academic institutions through which it is supported in its professional-methodological activities as well as in the further development of its disciplinary reflections. Examples are the Department of Social Work (established in 2007), the Bulgarian Association for Social Work Education (2005), or the Online Journal Social Work (2013).
Rossitsa Simeonova (Bulgaria) chose for the topic of her opening lecture a specific challenge to social work in Bulgaria: how to deal with the increasing number of older people. This challenge is of course well-known to the rest of Europe but, as Rossitsa Simeonova pointed out, it represents a centrally important issue in Bulgaria’s social policy. Of a total of 1.6 million Bulgarians, 22.3% are more than 65 years old, of which almost one in three (31%) live below the poverty line, and of these 37% are women. Almost two thirds (61%) of these old, impoverished people live on their own. So there is an urgent need not just to offer new, but also a greater number of programmes.
Christian Kjeldsen (Denmark), in the second opening lecture, focused on the often ambivalent relationship between political decision makers and the measures they push through on the one hand, and the professional experts who have to put them into practice. His assumption was that the politicians do not have sufficient knowledge of the conditions in which policies have to be realized and thus lack any clear idea of what challenges the professionals have to face every day in their work. Kjeldsen argued that this was the result of the changing role of the profession as much as a restructuring of the welfare state from the point of view of managerialism and market orientation.
The first panel on professionalization was opened by Nina Thieme (Germany), who reported on the study “Bildungsgerechtigkeit oder Reproduktion von Bildungsungerechtigkeit durch schul- und sozialpädagogische Professionelle” [Justice in education or the reproduction of educational injustice by educational professionals from schools and the social services], which was financially supported by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research from October 2011 to September 2014. This qualitative study examines whether and in what ways the professionals - mentioned in the project title - can further act in their practical work educational justice in all-day Gymnasien (grammar schools) and Hauptschulen (lower secondary schools).
The data came from ethnographic observation and 18 narrative interviews with teachers and professionals from social pedagogy. First results allowed the conclusion, so Nina Thieme, that both professional groups indicated, more or less clearly, that they perceived a delegation of ambivalent responsibilities. The centre of Silvia Nikolaeva’s (Bulgaria) presentation was the report on a two-year action research project on the development of competencies and attitudes of female students of fine art who were involved in social work projects. The goal was to find out what were the positive motivations for the students to want to implement their creative competencies in a real-life social context. Another purpose was to discover social problems and to offer support to various target groups. Results indicate that most of the students were highly active citizens, with distinct social priorities that helped them to recognize specific social groups who needed support. The last lecture of the panel on professionalization was given by Charlotte Williams (Australia), who criticized social work for neglecting to take up again and re-theorize the relationship of social work with the strong current of urbanization and its consequences.
The second panel consisted of parallel sessions on the topics of Health Problems and Social Suffering. One of the presentations was a joint effort by Edlira Haxhiymeri, Nikoleta Mita and Marina Ndrio (Albania), who proposed to use children’s drawings as potential evidence for the interpretation of sexual abuse of children in Albania, which is not recorded in official statistics, similarly to violence, another major problem in Albania. In another joint presentation, Oana Banu, Adrian Dan and Marian Ursan (Romania) made a plea for the regulated access by a special safety room set-up to drugs in Romania.
In the concurrent panel on Social Problems there was amongst other things a presentation by Siyka Chavdorova-Kostova (Bulgaria) on current aspects of social work with minorities and refugees in Bulgaria. The largest minority with 10% of Bulgaria’s population are persons from Turkey, the next largest are Romany people with 4.9%. Other disadvantaged groups are asylum seekers and refugees. Social work in Bulgaria has a long tradition in this field and has gained valuable experiences on which it can draw. In Bulgaria in August 2014 there were 2,276 people seeking asylum who were in the care of state refugee organisations. The biggest problems caused by these two groups are accommodation, medical care, language barriers, access to the labour market and cultural differences. These people are placed in refugee camps run by the state, which are situated in Sofia, Nania, Pastrogor, Harmanly and Kovachevzi. In her summary of the discussion, Siyka Chavdorova-Kostova pleaded for better trained social workers, as work especially with these groups makes indispensable an adequate degree of professionalism.
The final presentation on the first day, a video blog on the internet, was delivered by Willem Blok (The Netherlands). This was an instructive example of the potential of short films for catching the general public’s attention for social initiatives and activities by individuals, groups or communities.
On the second day (26 August), the traditional National Day, was among other presentations a report by Boncho Gospodinov (Dean of the Faculty of Education, Sofia University) on the development of training formats of social work in Bulgaria. He first described university teaching in social work and then went on to advocate more network structures between university graduates in the subject and the voluntary workers in the field. In addition, he stressed the need for a more intensive exchange of ideas within the universities, but also on the supra-local level between the academic discipline and its practitioners at large.
Lilyana Kircheva-Arsova (Representative of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy) gave an introduction to Bulgaria’s integration policy for people with disabilities. The programme has been implemented, with the aim to provide the conditions and guarantees for equal and full participation by disabled people in all spheres of life.
Kalinka Nikova (Representative of the Sofia Municipality, Social Services Department) talked about the social services currently provided by the city of Sofia. The general aim of the ‘Directorate’ is to improve the well-being of people in Sofia who have been neglected such as families, children and young adults as well as people with disabilities. The battle against social exclusion is to be fought in particular by investing in the City’s social institutions.
The City of Sofia (1.291.591 inhabitants) is running 79 institutions in the area of social services at present. The work has been farmed out to 20 licensed NGOs, but ultimate responsibility rests with the municipal authorities. There is a wide spectrum of services on offer: the absolute frontrunners in terms of number of institutions are nursing care (24), followed by the services for pensioners and people with disabilities (23). There are also numerous social services in the areas of rehabilitation and people with mental disabilities.
The ‘field visits’ are meant to give some impression of the practice of social work of the host country. Conference participants this year were offered a choice of five institutions: Social and Youth Centre “Saint Konstantin“ (Concordia Bulgaria Foundation), The Mother & Baby Unit at Social Services Centre for Children and Families (Animus Association Foundation), Family Strengthening Program“ (SOS Children’s Villages Bulgaria Association), “The Green House“ Community mental health centre (Global Initiative on Psychiatry – Sofia) as well as the “Centre for social rehabilitation and integration of people with autistic spectrum disorders” (Sofia municipality service).
On the third day, Christian Stark (Austria) gave the opening presentation in the panel on ‘Societal Perspectives’. He described the historical and theoretical development of neoliberalism by Friedrich A. von Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke and Walter Eucken, and its practical realisation by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan. From these two politicians Stark derived the increasingly economic nature of social work, manifesting itself in managerialism, the logic of the market and the promise of greater effectivity and efficiency. Overall, social work in his view is more a ‘care worker’ or ‘deputy sheriff’ of capitalism than an advocate of its addressees.
Steven Shardlow (United Kingdom) mentioned the historical connection between care in the medieval family and the rise of social work in the era of industrialisation. After the Second World War he saw a general ‘explosion’ in public expectations of welfare, and of social work in particular, which would appear to make unthinkable a society without certain forms of social care. He raised the question of the changes in the nature of social work since its beginnings in the industrial age, and whether it is strong enough to effect changes or exert an influence on the social processes which impact on it.
The final contribution to this panel came from Mark Schrödter (Germany), who compared the German and Bulgarian models of institutional upbringing. The Bulgarian model he characterized as following the Anglo-American approach. Both models are oriented towards the ideal of family life: while the German system is to make institutional upbringing an experience similar to being raised in a family, the Anglo-Saxon approach is to professionalize existing families into experts in parenting. Both models, in Schrödter’s view, are however bound to fail because there cannot be a professional simulation of family life nor can it be prescribed from outside.
In the following ‘Parallel Sessions’ there were two groups, one on ‘Professionalization’ and the other on ‘New Models of Field Work’. In the first, Siebren Nachtergaele (Belgium) discussed the role of human rights in social change and the resulting challenges for social work. Violetta Khabibulina (Russia) made a plea for a theoretical-methodological examination of public health care in Russia which is stagnating despite the introduction of new approaches since 2007. In the same context of professionalization, Pascal Bastian (Germany) gave prominence in his presentation to mathematical decision making as used in clinical case work, and to professional discretion derived from the results of an ethnographic study. Mathematical decisions have a tendency toward deprofessionalization because of their frequently inadequate employment. Drawing on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, Bastian subjected to an empirical examination the often neglected interconnection between actors’ identity, the possibility of action and interaction.
In the panel ‘New Models of Field Work’ Irida Agolli and Artur Rada (Albania) talked about the development of support for HIV infected persons in Albania. Hans Grymonprez, Griet Roets and Rudi Roose (Belgium) offered a conceptual analysis in which they argued that social work is utilized not just to gain but also to prevent access to social services. In the last part of the panel, Nadia Kutscher (Germany) traced the consequences of the rapidly growing mediatisation for fundamental change processes in social work.
The last panel was concerned with ‘Global Social Work’. Ulrike Nennstiel (Japan) described the world-wide transformation processes as a challenge to social work in Japan, using child poverty as an example to illustrate her thesis. Applying central data, she showed that overall tendencies do not diverge substantially from those in Europe. She also introduced current movements and initiatives in Japan that fight poverty and its reproduction. One specific aspect of this fight is an increase in child allowance, grants for educational activities, and the creation of a legal basis for these demands. Mel Gray (Australia) reported on austerity measures affecting the welfare budget in Australia, which are leading to bigger cuts in benefits and producing new regulations. Leanne Schubert (Australia), continuing the theme of Mel Gray’s presentation, underlined the political shifts and the scarcity of resources. As a concrete example she mentioned the project of a women’s shelter, but also drew attention to the increasing worries of municipalities about the disastrous state of the social security of families in need. Finally, Olga Borodkina (Russia) gave an account of the current change in the social-political conditions and their consequences for social services in Russia.
The Conference was considered a great professional success by all participants for the deeply interesting presentations and discussions, for the light it threw on political conditions in Europe, and for the many opportunities it offered for personal cooperation. The grand finale was a joint ‘farewell’ dinner where national specialties were served, a festive occasion to which the conference participants had been invited by their Bulgarian hosts.
TiSSA 2014 provided again an international and interdisciplinary platform for a much-needed critical discourse, and was highly successful in bringing together people from different countries with their experiences, as well as organizing the exchange of ideas on alternative methods, interventions and models of social work.