The International Social Work and Society Academy (TISSA) is entering on its second decade and its 11th conference was sponsored this year in the Albanian capital Tirana by the local university. Academic as well as professional representatives from 17 nations came together to discuss possibilities and perspectives of combating the instrumentalization of social work by neo-liberal tendencies in social policy contexts. A special feature is always the “TISSA Flair”, which because of its personal and intimate atmosphere enables young scientists, social work professionals as well as established scientists from all over Europe to establish informal contact with one another and exchange their views and ideas on social work.
This year again there was a PhD Pre-Conference, which offers young scientists the unique chance to present their theses and MA dissertations to an international and interdisciplinary audience, which provided them with valuable stimuli for their work. The special feature of these PhD Pre-Conferences is an international team of very experienced scientists who make exclusive suggestions for and comments on presentations by PhD students. The team of supervisors this year consisted of professors Karin Böllert (University of Münster, Germany), Anna Meeuwisse (University of Lund, Sweden), Kim-Patrick Sabla (University of Vechta, Germany), Steven Shardlow (University of Keele, Great Britain), Hans-Uwe Otto (University of Bielefeld, Germany) and Edmond Dragoti (University of Tirana, Albania).
This year’s conference was special in that more than half of the 45 presentations were delivered by PhD students from the host country who gave participants not merely a deep insight into the high quality of research into social work in Albania but also managed to convey the specific challenges faced by it.
The first plenary session on 26 August 2013 took place in the Institute for Social Work and Social Policy of the University of Tirana and was opened by the head of the local organizing committee Edmond Dragoti (Albania). This was followed by an introduction to the theme of the 11th TISSA conference by Hans-Uwe Otto (Germany), who drew attention to the fact that European societies are drifting in a direction where people feel trapped in conditions of inequality and, because of their specific group or class membership, are threatened by poverty and exploitation. Thus social work has to face conditions of constant social risk which are increasingly determined by capitalist rather than democratic principles. This dominance of capitalist ideas has also impacted the professional conditions of social work and is reflected in a drastically reduced, insufficient wage structure. Social work institutions and organisations orient their attention towards efficiency and output criteria instead of quality standards determined by the profession itself. An unquestioned neo-liberal habitus is establishing itself in the thought and actions of the social work professionals – all these are affirmative tendencies on all levels of social work that undermine critical social work which aims to achieve solidarity and justice for those who suffer disadvantages under the given societal conditions. Societal solidarity cannot be restricted to socially deviant groups or individuals and cannot concentrate solely on their adaptive behaviour to socio-political conditions that are not tolerable. The demand for social solidarity and justice is refused by the present practice of channelling socially weak and repressed people into one-way streets. Instead of the one-sided enhancement of the abilities of its addressees and their adaptation to hegemonic demands by the labour market, social work should rather concern itself with the goal of the expansion of their horizons of possibilities and perspectives for a life which they consider worth living. These goals make necessary a social model on the European level as well as a collective professional identity. Hans-Uwe Otto suggested that this year’s conference should therefore try to find answers to the following questions:
- How can social work respond to its increasing degree of embeddedness in neo-liberal power structures?
- How can social work in Europe offer effective resistance to the further implementation of neo-liberal tendencies and the practice of managerialism? [Wie kann sich die Soziale Arbeit in Europa gegen eine weitere Instrumentalisierung neoliberaler Tendenzen und die Praxis des Managerialismus wehren]
After this introduction to the conference theme, there were welcoming addresses to the plenary from Theodhori Karaj (Albania), Dean of the Social Science Faculty, and Dhori Kule (Albania), President of the University of Tirana. After the official welcoming addresses, conference proceedings were opened by Steven Shardlow (Great Britain) and Albert Scherr (Germany). In his talk “The State, the Individual and Social Work“, Steven Shardlow stressed perceptions of the nature of the relationship between the individual human being and the state. It is these perceptions that shape expectations of what kind of welfare state to look forward to. Shardlow singled out two historical events that have had a fundamental influence on Western European thought about the welfare state. These were, first, the neo-liberal orientation of the Thatcher governments in Britain (1979-90), inspired by the example of the Regan administrations in the USA, and, second, the global “financial tsunami” (2008-9), which was followed by the collapse of the US bank Lehman Brothers.
These events have led to criticisms of welfare provision by the state and directed attention to the responsibility of the individual. On this issue, Shardlow demanded a “new relationship” between the individual and the state which also takes into account the individuals’ conditions.
Albert Scherr explained the development as well as the contemporary situation of professional social work in combination with the origin and shaping of national welfare states.
In his lecture "Several Reasons to Defend the Welfare State against its critics “he argued for a dual role of the welfare state and social work in the capitalist system. Both are an integral component as well as a foreign element in capitalism. As a consequence of this dual role, Scherr saw the necessity of establishing a debate which will underline that individuals are more than human capital which is needed or not needed for capitalist use. According to Scherr, the capability approach developed by Nussbaum und Sen introduces a perspective from the theory of justice which allows us to link social work to the welfare state. The capability approach argues in particular that society has to guarantee not only the survival of the individual but a life worth living, which makes possible mutual recognition, self- respect and the dignity of human beings.
The second panel discussion of the first day had the theme “Social Work and the State“ and was given over to issues from states in the process of transformation and the impact of changes resulting from this process on social work. Sanela Basic (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Nino ?ganec (Croatia) started off this theme with talks on the transformation of a socialist into a post-socialist state, with Sanela Basic investigating how, in the context of the Balkans Conflict 1992-5 in Bosnia and the post-war transformation processes, the complex interplay of various conditioning factors led to the cancellation of achievements of social work during the socialist period. The importance of social work in the socialist period was grounded in the fact that, in the framework of the national political system, it was furnished with legal rights to develop and exercise various action programmes, from individual to communal services. Basic ended his presentation with a proposal for the (re)vitalization of social work in Bosnia building on the fundamental principles of human rights and social justice.
Nino ?ganec presented the socio-political conditions of social work during the communist regime of the war and post-war years. As the first study programmes had been established as early as 1952 in Zagreb at the "Center of Social Work“, several standards had been achieved already during the war in the 1990s. The war years saw fundamental changes in the educational structures of social work, which also have had an impact on its practice. Whereas its orientation in the 1970s and 1980s was determined by social politics, the consequences of the war experiences pushed its practice in the direction of a dominant psychological orientation. Starting in the early 2000s, the Croatian government has begun to reshape its social security system and social work was given an important role in these changes of the welfare state.
It was in this period that the first MA degree courses and PhD programmes in social work were established. Through this active promotion of research facilities social work has managed to enhance and strengthen its role in the social politics in Croatia, carrying out an increased number of measures in the field. Though funds are limited and practical work takes place in a changed context, there are attempts to open up new fields for it, with a special contribution to this process of expansion being made by NGOs. New forms of collaboration for the expansion of practice - and science-oriented projects are being developed at present by the Faculty of Social Work of the University of Zagreb together with various institutions in the public sector.
Dimitra Dora Teloni (Greece) focused on the special situation that social work in Greece has faced since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. It was made clear already by the title of her talk, “Social Work and Society in Austerity“ , that she would deal with social work under the special conditions of (imposed) fiscal discipline of the Greek state. She laid stress on the simultaneity of the financial crisis and the systematic stigmatization of the Greek people by Greek as well as other European governments. She argued that given the Greek crisis – as seen in the increase in the unemployment and the rate of suicides, cuts in the pension and health systems in addition to numerous dismissals in the public sector – critical or radical social work in the face of neo-liberal attacks, though valuable, is not enough. According to her, what was needed was a different kind of social work that provides its practice in the name of the suppressed and uses social and political movements. This type of practice is realized by the “Social Work Action Network“, in which practitioners, students and (young) scientists work together. They use a bottom-up strategy to make visible the effects of the troika’s decisions and to lend a voice to those who suffer disadvantages under these conditions.
The final part of the first panel was a joint effort by Anna Meeuwisse (Sweden) with Roberto Scaramuzzino (Sweden), and Fabian Kessl (Germany) together with Susanne Maurer (Germany). The Swedish colleagues presented a quantitative analysis consisting of a comparison of Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Italy, whose purpose was to ascertain how social work professionals reacted to the increase in non-governmental institutions in the Scandinavian countries and Italy. In their presentation “Working at the Borders. An Outline for Social Work“, Fabian Kessl und Susanne Maurer submitted a thought construct for the critical and self-critical consideration by social work. They used the concept of border as a figure of thought and metaphor that allowed them to capture diverse aspects of reality. They think of social work as a female border worker who (co-)regulates on the one side the abilities of her addressees, co-shapes stigmatizations and establishes borders (what is and what is not permitted in what situation?). On the other side, social work contributes at the same time, because of its nature as border worker, to the weakening and transformation of borders both by asking questions about what is categorized as normal and by seeing things in their contexts in order to thematize counter-hegemonic tendencies.
The afternoon of the first day was taken up by parallel working groups in each of which there were four specialist talks on the topic of “social problems”. This arrangement made for more intensive discussions and presentations. Edlira Haxhiymeri (Albania and Nikoleta Mita (Albania) gave a talk on “Violence against women with disabilities in Albania“, while Marian Ursan (Romania) posed the question whether it would be possible to use illegal drugs with the goal of preventing processes of criminalization. Fiona Todhri (Albania) and Milika Dhamo (Albania) reported the results of their study in the public opinion on the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs in Albania.
Izela Tahsini (Albania), on the other hand, dealt with the basis of social work in Albania. It transpired that social work had practically not happened in the era determined by socialism up to 1992. It was the deep political and economic changes of the post-socialist phase and the support of diverse actors (for example, the Grand Valley University, Michigan) that were instrumental in the foundation in 1992 of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Tirana. Today, about 1,400 students earn a degree in social work each year at the exclusively public universities in Albania (Tirana, Shkodra and Elbasan). After the partial adoption of the Bologna process, students can study at all three state universities for the degrees of BA and MA, while a PhD programme in social work is only offered by the University of Tirana. Although there has been so far only one scholarly study to illuminate the labour market for social work, it is still possible to indicate some of the directions that developments are likely to take. NGOs cover more ground than do state services: NGOs offers a broad spectrum ranging from health, education, the legal system to families and child care and disabilities, while state agencies focus their work on child protection, psycho-social services in schools and people with mental disabilities.
Owing to this state of affairs, most of the professionals have jobs with NGOs like UNICEF or Terre Des Hommes. It was Izela Tahsini’s view that the future challenges for social work in Albania are constituted by the expansion of the reform of public welfare to other areas of social work like education, health or the legal system. The reform of public welfare is to ensure that the social protection of the disadvantaged by society is guaranteed, which also means to improve the efficiency of the care system and the quality of social work. Further challenges are the self-organisation of social work by trade unions, the development of standards in practical work as well as more research that takes up explicit positions in certain fields of social work, for instance that of child protection.
On the second day, traditionally the “National Day”, conference members had the choice of four options. The special feature of the excursions was that they consisted of a combination of cultural sights and a visit to an institution of social work. This was to provide conference members with an impression of Albania beyond the capital Tirana. One of the options offered a visit to Berat, a town over 2,400 years old, and its “Residential Development Centre `I Like you`“, which looks after people between 15 and 55 with disabilities. Another excursion was to Shkodra, one of the most ancient towns of Albania, having been founded in the 4th century B.C., which included a visit to the municipal Social Service Department, which specializes in offers for disadvantaged groups (such as unemployed people, people from ethnic minorities or with disabilities, victims of violence, etc.).
The final day of the Conference had three consecutive panels on “Professionalism in Social Work”, while the fourth panel was devoted to the topic of “Children and Families”. The final discussion was introduced by Rita Braches-Chyrek (Germany) und Heinz Sünker (Germany).
The first talk of the first panel was that by Michael Klassen (Austria) on “What is the Concrete Contribution of the Capabilities Approach to a Social Work Discipline and Practice?“ In his contribution, Klassen explored the relation between the Capabilities Approach according to Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, on the one hand, and Werner Obrecht’s needs theory and Silvia Staub-Bernasconi’s concept of social work as human rights profession. Based on results from a study of people with disabilities, he pointed out the many parallels between the three theoretical concepts and concluded that all three offered adequate analytical aspects. In addition, this examination of social work praxis allowed him to describe ways to strengthen the position of social work as a profession.
Leo van Garsse (Belgium) presented current developments in social work and forensic medicine in Flanders. He said he was looking for vestiges of resistance to neo-liberal interpretations and made a plea for the fight against current trends to attribute responsibility to the individual human being in social and political programmes. This attribution, he contended, was an apolitical and antidemocratic strategy which determined all relevant relationships in economic terms.
The special challenges that social work in Poland faces were discussed by Ewa Kantowicz (Poland) against the background of the economic and welfare transformation, the rise of a new social policy and a new welfare state since 1989. These transformation processes were accompanied by numerous new legal and institutional changes as well as new standards in the training for and practice of social work
Giedr? Kviesken? und Renaldas Ciuzas (Lithuania), taking their cue from Bruno Latour, spoke for a profession of social work that integrates the problem of sustainability and the relations to the non-human world. They pleaded for an implementation of an expanded ecological consciousness in the theory and practice of social work. Their understanding of sustainability is not exclusively determined by environmental factors but takes into account also economic and social dimensions. Sustainability in their definition is the development and maintenance of institutions, communities, economies and societies which co-exist in harmony with the natural world and all other worlds in the near and distant future.
The Romanian perspective was contributed by Adrian Dan in his presentation “Social Services for Homeless People“, in which he showed a number of statistics that defined homelessness in the urban space in Romania. These statistics assume a number of homeless people of between 11,000 and 14,000 in the urban spaces of Romania. The interim conclusion that the number of homeless people in Romania is low is, however, deceptive since many towns are not taken into consideration in the statistics because of lack of cooperation by the communities. From this Adrian Dan concluded that there is no strategy of the government to deal with the problem of homelessness in Romania. In the discussion, attention was drawn to the exclusionary mechanisms of homelessness in Romania.
The final contribution to the third panel was delivered by Olga Borodkina (Russia) in her talk "Social Work Challenges: Experience of Russian/Finnish Cooperation“. She reported that many reforms in social work in Russia were closely linked to international experiences, of which the Russian-Finnish cooperation is held to be the most important example. Notwithstanding different historical and cultural circumstances and political contexts, Russia and Finland face similar social challenges, such as processes of migration and a greying population. The aim of the Russo-Finnish cooperation is in particular to improve the efficiency of social work with families and children.
In the last panel, Irene Leli?gien? (Lithuania) and Angel? Kau?ylien? (Lithuania) presented the results of their survey of children in nursing homes. The aim of the study was to investigate perceptions and assessments of such children with regard to how well they were prepared for their future lives by social work professionals [this seems to be the most relevant reading of the German original]. It turned out that although the children and young adults thought they acquired good communicative skills and developed positive character traits (friendliness, honesty and a sense of responsibility), they nevertheless felt insufficiently prepared to handle money matters and to cope with everyday life.
Before the final plenary discussion on the theme of this year’s TISSA Conference of "Affirmation or Rejection. Social Work at the Crossroads – Challenges for European Societies“, Rita Braches-Chyrek (Germany) and Heinz Sünker (Germany), gave an introduction to the topic with their talk on “Social Work and Social Change – Reform and/or Revolution. Challenges and Perspectives for Democratic Developments”.