07 SES 12 A, (In)Justice and Differences
Educational, social and community work with people in situations of vulnerability has been traditionally focused on providing services to those in need and on the treatment of symptoms (human suffering), with a lesser emphasis on the causes of the “problems” (unjust social conditions) or on strategies of community development or activism to challenge (and eventually transform) the conditions that led to inequality and vulnerability (Evans, 2005). However, nowadays, in several countries, there is a growing recognition of the relevance of professionals’ involvement in the formulation of policies for social justice and the well-being of the people for/with whom they work (Weiss-Gal, 2016).
Theoretically grounded on critical approaches that envision educational, social and community work as a praxis committed with conscientization and transformative social change (Freire, 1967, 1970 , Ledwith, 2011, Martin-Baró, 1986, Montero, 2004, Nelson & Evans, 2014), our goal was to understand how professionals in the field become involved in “professional activism”. Even if “professional activism” is intrinsically political (even when professionals are not aware of it), it can be based on different conceptions about the purposes to be favoured when working with people in situations of vulnerability and/or exclusion – and this can assume quite different orientations (e.g., transformative vs. ameliorative) (Evans (2005).
Despite the growing attention of the scientific literature to the political dimension of educational, social and community work, there is clearly a lack of research that characterizes and explains professionals’ involvement in the political field (Freitas, 2010, Speight & Vera, 2008, Weiss-Gal, 2016). Wolff (2013) argues that there is a need to open up spaces for professionals to tell their activist experiences, to inspire others and legitimate this crucial dimension of their work.
This study rests on research gaps identified in the European and international literature. In order to aggregate the diversity of denominations related to the research object and the multidisciplinary scope they cover, we’ve chosen to use 'professional activism' as the construct of analysis, assuming it refers to all political action emerging and being implemented in the work context, i.e., related to the profession, to the intervention field and/or to the target population. However, like any theoretical concept, it is culturally and historically situated and constructed in relation with others (Gergen, 1985). Therefore, it is important to explore the meanings of ‘professional activism’ – and this is exactly what we propose to do in this paper that aims to address the following research questions: How do professionals conceptualize, recognize, and problematize professional activism? What are the meanings they attribute to it? How do they view the impact of this “activism” on themselves, their professional practice and the populations they work with?
By actively involving the participants in a process of conceptual reflection, this study allowed us to characterize the meanings of professional activism for Portuguese professionals who are recognized for developing relevant political work related to their profession, as well as to identify topics/variables to be furthered in future research.
This exploratory and comprehensive study represents the first step of a broader mixed method design research project on this topic – with three complementary studies –, and involves 12 semi-directive interviews with professionals/activists in Portugal. The participants are 6 women and 6 men, between 34 and 75 years old, from several professional/graduation areas (Education, Architecture, Social Work, Psychology, Sociology, Medicine, Law, History and Nursing), working in diverse intervention contexts for/with people in situations of vulnerability: Inclusive Education, Poverty and Social Exclusion, Asylum and Immigration, Health Promotion, Harm Reduction, Right to Housing and Gentrification, Human Rights, Racism and Discrimination, Gender and Disability Equality. The participants’ selection was purposeful – in order to reflect diverse graduation/professional fields and intervention contexts, and also to ensure gender balance – and it occurred through a snowball strategy, recurring to researchers’ personal/professional contacts, by suggestion of the study participants and other professionals in the field, and through the media. All the participants were professionals working in educational, social and community intervention, with people in situations of vulnerability, who were recognized for their political work related to their profession. All interviews were conducted by the presenter (and first author). After explaining the goals of the study, participants read and signed an informed consent form. The interview consisted of three major themes: i) conceptions and meanings of activism in the profession; ii) career, motivations, activism experiences in the work context; iii) pedagogical dimension and impact of activism. The researcher tried to create an empathic and collaborative atmosphere during the interviews and, in order to facilitate the sharing of aspects that were difficult to share/explain or more subjective, motivated the participants to share concrete experiences, to tell stories, describing their activist work and the role of relevant others. The interviews lasted between 50 minutes and 2 hours and 15 minutes and were audio-recorded. All interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed using thematic analysis, aiming to identify and describe thematic patterns and interrelations (Braun & Clarke, 2006) about the meanings of professional activism, that may contribute to its characterization and conceptual development.
From the thematic analysis, four main themes were identified: Taking Sides, Utopian Ideal, Sense of (In)Justice and Praxis. The themes and subthemes reflect patterns in participants’ narratives about the meanings of professional activism, providing clues to its understanding and characterization. We present a thematic map that depicts the main themes, their aggregating subthemes, and the influence and interdependence relations among them. The net of influence and interdependence among the proposed themes suggest a vision of professional activism as a praxis that promotes and is guided by a sense of (in)justice. In turn, this sense of (in)justice demands a positioning in defence of the people with/to whom professionals work, leading to interventions oriented by/towards a utopian ideal of social justice. The findings also show the need to deepen our understanding of this phenomena, raising some questions to be explored in the future: What motivates, predicts or inhibits professionals’ involvement with activism? What do these professionals mean with a ‘sense of (in)justice’ and ‘social justice’? How do they learn how to do activism and what learning results from this practice? How does the discourse on professional activism relate to practice? We believe this paper and the research project it concerns will bring relevant contributions to research about ‘professional activism’, to the scientific knowledge in educational sciences and to future research and intervention in the field of activism, namely through in-depth knowledge about its educational character for professionals and their professional practice. This study will be partially developed in a mobility internship in Brazil which is a context of reference in the field of educational, social and community intervention, especially thanks to its roots in Freirean pedagogy of liberation and popular education (Freire, 1970). This mobility will bring relevant theoretical contributes to this research and promote its discussion and sharing internationally.
Braun, Virginia and Clarke, Victoria. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology, Qualitative research in psychology, 3 (2), 77 – 101. Evans, Scot D. (2006). From amelioration to transformation in human services: Towards critical practice (Doctoral Thesis). Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. Disponível em:https://etd.library.vanderbilt.edu/available/etd-09232005-110224/unrestricted/EvansDissertation093005.pdf Freire, Paulo. (2002 ). Pedagogia do Oprimido. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Paz e Terra. Freire, Paulo (1967). Educação como prática da liberdade. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Paz e Terra. Freitas, Maria de Fátima (2010). Community Psychology as Political Education and Awareness Raising: Resistances and Possibilities in Everyday Life-Suggestion for a Model of Analysis. In Eduardo Almeida Acosta (Ed.), International Community Psychology: Community Approaches to Contemporary Social Problems Vol.I (pp.73-93). Puebla, México: Universidad IberoAmericana Puebla. Gergen, Kenneth J. (1985). The social constructionist movement in modern psychology. American Psychologist, 40(3), 266-275. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.40.3.266 Ledwith, Margaret (2011). Community development: A critical approach. (2nd ed). UK: The Policy Press.ISBN: 978-1-84742-646-8. Martín-Baró, Ignacio (1986). Hacia una psicología de la liberación. Boletín de Psicología, 22, 219-231. Disponível em: http://www.uca.edu.sv/deptos/psicolog/hacia.htm Montero, Maritza (2004). Introducción a la Psicología Comunitaria: Desarrollo, conceptos y processos. Buenos Aires: Paidós. Nelson, G., & Evans, S. D. (2014). Critical Community Psychology and Qualitative Research: A Conversation. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(2), 158-166. doi:10.1177/1077800413510873 Speight, Suzette L., and Vera, Elizabeth M. (2008) Social justice and counseling psychology: A challenge to the profession, in Brown, S. D., and Lent, R. W., eds, Handbook of counseling psychology, NJ: John Wiley, Hoboken, New Jersey, pp.54-67. Weiss-Gal, Idit (2016). Social workers' policy engagement: A review of the literature. International Journal of Social Welfare, 26(3), 285-298. doi:10.1111/ijsw.12239 Wolff, Tom (2013). A community psychologist's involvement in policy change at the community level: Three stories from a practitioner. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 4(2), 2-12.
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