What do you get when two Social Work lecturers from different countries, involved in developing professionals’ urban social work skills, want to work more closely together, but they’re locked in their respective homes? — We Zoom, of course!
Virtual exchange supports intercultural competences, research and practice!
As a part of a workshop series held by my colleague Dorthe Høvids, we found our first opportunity to collaborate around some of our research and teaching areas by using materials created for the Urban SOS project. Dorthe is a social anthropologist and researcher focusing on using ethnographic methods to explore muslim immigrant’s lived experiences in Europe and Denmark as well as lecturing in the social work degree programme at University College Copenhagen. Our common Erasmus project, Urban SOS, brings together educational institutions and work-place organizations—who work in the cities with social issues caused by processes of migration, urbanization and the unequal accumulation of economic growth in many urban areas.
During the project collaborations, we realized that our different curriculums offered Ethnographic writing in Denmark and Qualified Empathy in Finland. Shortly, ethnographic writing uses sensory detail and storytelling techniques to describe and bring a topic closer to a reader. Qualified empathy involves the ability of a responder to engage, identify with, develop an understanding and then to distance oneself from an emotionally charged situation or experience in order to assist without secondary trauma or burnout becoming an issue. Both of these skills are core in our research project so we decided to broaden our student’s exposure through a virtual workshop.
After introducing the two skills and doing an immersive listening exercise about a homeless man in Copenhagen, we had a discussion about the relevance and necessity for ethnographic writing and qualified empathy skills in their future careers in the social services sector with about 30 students from Denmark and Finland on Zoom. The conversation was lively as ethnographic writing and qualified empathy were unfamiliar to many of the students. The feedback was positive and the students shared that they were inspired and learned a lot about the topics during the discussion.
Phronesis and value based analysis
As stated earlier, we based our workshop on the Urban SOS project as well as our research and teaching areas. The project aims to teach educators and professionals a new way of investigating our quickly expanding urban areas. We apply a phronetic analysis model, as developed by Bent Flyvbjerg (2012). Phronetic analysis seeks to clarify values, interests, and power relations as a basis for praxis.
Flybjerg (2012) argues that social science should always involve at least episteme (i.e., abstract theory and concepts) and phronesis (analysis of values and concrete practices)—the combination is what makes ‘it’ matter.
Social science and it’s practitioners must produce value-based deliberations with clear and relevant references to practice. Only by doing so will we ensure that we push our societies in an ethically articulated direction when making decisions and implementing projects, methods, solutions etc.
The alternative is that we blindly follow a societal development that we find unjust or even unethical. Inherent to this argument is an ethical responsibility and a political (or at least normative) motivation of supporting social change through research and education—thus, as phronetic researchers and practitioners, we willingly give up on the idea that our actions, research, and even education, is, or should be, neutral or objective. Instead, it must be transparent, responsible and developed through dialogue. (Rauhala, Høvids & Lehto-Lundén 2020)
He uses four value-rational questions when investigating a specific place, system or organization:
- Where are we going?
- Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?
- Is this development desirable?
- What, if anything, should we do about it?
In the project, we map and analyse intersections between urbanisation, social issues in Europe, and the lived (human) experiences (Rauhala, Høvids & Lehto-Lundén 2020). We are developing a new transnational and interactive platform and educational materials for educators, students and practitioners. We argue that we cannot
Writing reflectively to develop ‘qualified’ empathy
As the project partners create, reflect and write together as part of our project work, we keep coming back to the idea that in order to be present in our encounters as professionals with people living and struggling in the urban context we need to be able to empathically understand their situation in context in order to identify ways to support them.
One of the ways in which to develop this more targeted type of empathy is to write reflectively. There is no greater example of reflective writing than ethnographic writing due to its depth and detail. Ethnography is a type of writing common in the social sciences, especially anthropology. Ethnographic writing uses narrative immersion to share experiential information, alongside objective description and interview data. When we tell stories, we use our own understanding of other people’s lived experiences. This helps us to move into a more empathic and non-judgemental mind-set; the beginning of a search for meaning but not its end result.
Empathy is not the same as understanding, but it is a step on the way to understanding. This brought us back to the issue of empathic understanding.
‘Qualified’ empathy for reducing burnout and stress
Qualified Empathy is a concept and model created as part of a NordPlus project called ”Qualified Empathy”. The project took place at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, with partners in Norway and Denmark as a way to develop diverse and creative teaching and learning methods to help social work students learn and develop more professional or targeted empathy skills.
Qualified Empathy is defined as the ability to reflectively and emotionally separate oneself from another and to understand the context; then in an intentional process, focus on understanding of the other person’s viewpoint both cognitively and emotionally. The three phases of this are:
- We feel like us,
- I feel like you (”as if ”) and
- I know better how you feel, but I am not you.
In the first phase we acknowledge that we belong to certain groups, we identify with them in some way. In the second phase we try to move out of our own ‘shared group’ understanding of the world and closer to the other person’s understanding; to see the situation through their eyes. This shift helps us to develop a greater ‘felt’ understanding from their perspective. In the third phase, once we begin to feel this connection, we need to draw back and acknowledge that we are not the other person so that we do not over identify and become emotionally involved. We need to be able to access our own critical thinking skills and our knowledge of the service system and legislation in order to assist them in creating the best path forward for themselves.
To these initial three phases, we added the additional dimension of action which we see as a critical part of a Qualified Empathy professional’s process. It is an admirable thing to be regarded as empathic but if it stops there, without action, the benefit may only be felt by the worker and not by the individual, group or community they are working with. For the professional, proper use of empathy has been shown to reduce burnout and protect against secondary traumatic stress, which is a common concern for students or social workers new to the field.
The workshop with the Finnish and Danish students was fun and full of discussion. The main take-away’s from the students were:
- Learning new concepts and discussing with students from a different national context but similar educational path was interesting and helpful as a way to support our understanding of our profession on both a local and a global level.
- Interacting with other students, listening to a story of a homeless person, and discussing how the story could be viewed through the lens of ethnography and qualified empathy was valuable and instructive.
- This was a more comprehensive look at skills often overlooked but necessary for professionals when hearing about or encountering traumatic situations.
From our perspective as teachers, we received lots of feedback that this kind of exchange between students from different national contexts was fun and helped the students to practice intercultural dialogue in a third language and put faces to others studying the same profession in another country.
Based on this experience we will be developing a longer Virtual Exchange which will address the student’s desires for longer interaction time with each other. This also reinforced for us the idea that these skills may be beneficial for more than just social services students and professionals. We invite other interested parties to get acquainted with these methods and to explore how they might be adapted and beneficially applied in their fields. For us, this was an afternoon well spent for a university lecturer!
Leigh Anne Rauhala is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (FL-USA) turned Social Work Educator living in Finland. Her background is in the Mental Health sector working with severe and persistent mental disorders in the Community Health Care setting prior to moving to Finland. She has been teaching Bachelor of Social Services students since 2007. She serves as the Mobility Contact for Social Services students and is involved in several international teaching and research projects focusing on Social Work in Urban Contexts (Urban SOS) and Teaching Qualified Empathy.
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