Responses to ethnic and ‘racial’ diversity in social work practice – The Swedish development in historical perspective
Social work responses to ethnic and ‘racial’ diversity varies over time and between places. In some countries it is mainstreamed; in others it tends instead to be side-lined to ‘cultural experts’ and ‘culturally matched’ social workers. The existing – but very limited – research drawing on the situation in Sweden, suggests that in Sweden ethnic and ‘racial’ diversity tend to be side-lined. This is typically understood as related to the universal and extended Scandinavian welfare state regime that frames social work practices; universalism seems to emphasize universal standards in front of particularism. The universal standards assume that the legislative and theoretical framework are so called (culturally) ‘neutral’. In practice this sometimes equals ‘colour or ethnic blindness’ with ‘whiteness’ as present but invisible. This presentation contributes to this research field, analysing how different meanings given to ethnic and ‘racial’ diversity in social work have developed over time in Sweden.
The empirical material is drawn from the main Swedish professional journal of social work (Socionomen). The journal is considered an important platform for debating social work practice in Sweden and has existed for almost sixty years. We have systematically searched all issues from the first publication in 1958 up until 2014. Methodologically we rely on text and content analysis. This includes how issues on ethnic relations are presented, framed and what particular words that are used. This implies an analysis of choices of words and representations which carry underlying assumptions about the issues addressed. By way of analysing the content of the debates in this journal, we can show the varying meaning that has been given to ethnic and ‘racial’ relations in Sweden over time.
The analysis indicates that throughout the years, there is a paradoxical interest in the international dimension of social work. However, for many decades, international dimensions in social work was understood as something situated ‘there’, not ‘here’. While social work practice early on was understood as (culturally) neutral, from the 1970s cultural representations of the ‘other’ begin to appear. While the representations of the ‘other’ varies over time, the cultural representation of ‘whiteness’ remains invisible. Hence, this study supports earlier studies arguing that the ethnic and ‘racial’ relations are side-lined in social work in Sweden. Its particular contribution lies in that it highlights how this has shifted over time.