International Field Training In Social Work And Intercultural Communication–Some Reflections From Sweden
International Field Training
Mid Sweden University has a long tradition of international field training for social work students. Over the years we have had more than 1000 students travelling to other countries. India stands out as one important partner and our students have most certainly learned a lot from Indian social workers and scholars. Some of these experiences resulted, on the initiative of professor Marulasiddaiah, in the book “Devotion and empowerment”(Ottelid, 2008).
Another book,“Broadening horizons: International exchanges in social work” (Dominelli & Bernard, 2003) probably represents the first attempt to summarize and draw attention to this area of globalisation. Over the past ten years, published articles on international field training have grown in number and specificity, reporting on different aspects and projects. However, Samantha Wehbi still feels that relatively little is published in academic journals (Wehbi, 2009).
Already in early contributions from the 1970s, fundamental questions were raised when it comes to the way that the education programmes in the West handle international field training. These matters of course have to be continuously explored and analyzed. One important question for schools in the West is: who travels where and why.
International field training in social work programmes has historically mostly been a matter of students from “the West” travelling to countries in “the global South” (Abram, Slosar, & Walls, 2005; Hugman, Moosa-Mitha, & Moyo, 2010; Norman & Hintze, 2005; Pettys, Panos, Cox, & Oosthuysen, 2005; Rai, 2004; Razack, 2009; Tesoriero, 2006) This statement itself should give pause for reflection. Firstly: there has been some professional imperialism, as Hugman et.al. (2010) point out. West has not travelled to learn, they claim, but to educate. While western social workers are regarded as experts, immigrated social workers in the UK for instance, are seen as merely working force, not having any specific expertise. Secondly: To what degree can and should reciprocity be an undertaking for us in the West? How much work do we put into making it possible for students from the global South to travel here and study social work with us? I think the answer is obvious: Not enough.
Another matter is how much we as education providers can and should guide our own students' choice of both country and field training posts. As may be expected, students prefer countries where they feel they can handle the language. In practice, most students opt for English and countries where this can used. Being able to speak Spanish has opened up options for a small percentage of students, while those who actually speak languages such as Arabic, Farsi or Kurdish seldom use this when choosing their country for field training. This shows that it is not only language skills which play a determining role. It is therefore necessary for everyone working with international field training to regularly analyze the motives of the students and the aims of the programme. Wehbi (2009) claims that we must challenge and examine our own work in this area in order to “foster the internationalization of social work without reproducing inequitable North/South relations” (ibid., p. 49).
When it comes to the work areas of the field training posts, there are many factors to consider. Students' specific interests, programme requirements and a number of practical matters must all be well thought-out. It is both sensible and reasonable for educators to have viewpoints in this matter. Both the quality (opportunity to gain relevant knowledge and experience) and the synchronization with the programme in general (topics such as children and families, addiction, fighting poverty, prevention, social justice, migration or human rights) should be included in the evaluation.
Implementing an actual course with preparations for international field training may be of value. Gather students in small seminar groups and get them to reflect over both current and crucial issues in a clear manner. Among other things, it gives them the opportunity to consider their own motives and how these are related to trends and ideologies. With a graded course, field training is given a more noticeable position in the programmes and is raised to a higher status.
The content of the course should in part be about “…knowledge of the specific country: its history, population, government, geography, religion, cultural aspects, industry, social welfare system, social policies, social work and so on” (Ottelid, 2008).
Another significant portion should cover “… ethics, attitudes, values and matters of conduct and behaviour”. It is definitely necessary to work in small groups and in a personally involved manner to concretize and examine the students' own motives for going abroad, discuss the relationship between the “West” and “the global South”, rich and poor, white and black, power in social work, gender issues, and so forth.
The examination part can focus on these two areas: concrete knowledge of the country in question and the critical review of one's own position in relation to central, basic social work issues, such as power, gender, ethnicity and class.
Narda Razack (2009) encourages us to also be aware of how we teach about these things:Critical attention is needed to understand how we teach global issues, how we introduce content on particular topics, how students interpret and integrate the knowledge, whose voices are silenced and, more importantly, what gets discussed and what is erased.”
Obviously, this is not only about how an individual course works. It is instead how the entire education milieu in different ways fosters and supports critical thinking regarding social work, its role and possibilities. Thus, it is not solely about individual lecturers or specific courses. It is about the entire organization and its various functions.
It is by no means an easy task to ensure a good supervision situation for students during the field training period. Despite intense work to pre-assess the quality of the field training and supervision situation, the facts are as follows: the distance is great, communication methods are often complicated, the course co-ordinator at the university has limited opportunity to travel and the risk of a “bad” placement can be substantial if the student does not choose a proven location. However, really unsuccessful field training periods seem to be the rare exception and even if the student chose a relatively unknown field study location, being involved in and taking responsibility for the process often gave the student a realistic view of the content, quality and supervision. This makes you feel like you learned a lot, even though you may have critical viewpoints of how things worked as a whole.
There is probably great development potential in work to ensure the supervision situation, but this requires significant resources in the form of both time and money. Nevertheless, the resources must be invested. Internet-based technology, such as blogs and video calls can surely be utilized more than you might think.
Those in charge of placement should have extensive experience in visiting international field training posts. This is a quality indicator that must not be underestimated. At the same time, the university's prospects of fully taking responsibility for the individual student cultivating basic experiences linked to privileged position, power, ethnicity or gender are always limited. For this reason, great emphasis must be placed on both preparation and follow-up regarding the student as well as formal contacts with supervisors that may include educational aspects. We expect social workers in Sweden to be in need of some training when it comes to supervision, so the same should apply to supervisors abroad. The content of information and training has to be elaborated, since we have to consider contextual conditions as well as upholding respect towards social workers in other countries.
Follow-up work can take different forms. At Mid Sweden University, we have long used a model with seminars along with the International Day, which is open to the public (Mittuniversitetet, 2009). Both the education and the students must be at a high level in this area, as it plays such a large role in development. Instead of having follow-up being something separate from the courses offered after the field training, such parts should be integrated in these courses, expressed in learning objectives and also graded. There is no other way to safeguard and legitimize the entire process. That this really is a chain of learning, from preparation to follow-up, seems self-evident. This must be visible and emphasized in basic, official documents in order to gain the necessary status.
The process also sets demands on use as educators to critical review activities, since there is no guarantee that students' experiences and encounters will lead to positive results – for them or for social work in general. The matter rests on how encounters and experiences are interpreted and understood. It is here that we have a great responsibility.
The Swedish poet and writer Erik Axel Karlfeldt (b. 1864) did not have the term “intercultural communication” in mind when writing his verse on Fridolin (Karlfeldt, 1898/1995). The society of Karlfeldt's day was completely different. Tradition played a greater role and a “shoemaker stuck to his last”. Changes in class and profession were not as common as they are today. Fridolin did not fit the typical image of a peasant since he could “speak with peasants as a peasant, but use Latin with scholars”. With this verse, the writer Karlfeldt implies distinct boundaries between categories of people when it comes to communicating. “Peasants” are a clearly defined group with a specific way of being and communicating. The same applies to “scholars”.
Discussions of so-called “intercultural communication” have become increasingly interesting considering globalization and use of the term culture in certain contexts as a type of replacement for the more biology-based term “race”, at least in Europe.(Kjeldstadli, 2008). This area definitely deserves attention in a university education programme that intends to train students to be able to develop and perform social work from a pluralistic and international perspective. The question is just how attention should be paid to this. What skills and abilities should be tied to “intercultural communication”?
In order to be able to discuss intercultural communication at all, you must first discuss what the word culture could mean in this context.
In everyday use, culture is sometimes thought of as something people “belong to” or “are”. The fact that many say “are” indicates that there is a link to the term identity. “She is really un-Swedish.” “He's a Kurd,” “They're typical Smålanders.” “Those Norrlanders are a quiet bunch.”
You will have a different view of the term intercultural communication depending on how you view these things. Here are two diametrically opposed ideas that may be seen in current Swedish discussion:
a) People are born into cultures, culture is (or becomes) an inherent characteristic of people, cultures are stable over a long period of time, they are homogeneous and have clear boundaries with other cultures, they can be tied to nationalities, nations and geographic locations, they “clash” with each other if they are too unlike; cultures are and can be seen as boxes with people inside, in the “multicultural society” different cultures live side by side in their own enclaves (which some consider “healthy” and good because it prevents “clashes”)
b) There are cultures, but they should be seen as social constructions, they change constantly and sometimes rapidly, life expectancy can vary greatly, all are individuals, each “culture” is extremely heterogneous; culture can be viewed as social actions – a practice, national cultures may even be a thing of the past, the world is globalized and cultures are along with it; it is a talk about cultures that creates categorization, not the other way around.
It is obvious that the first stance in particular (or variations of it) has had a great influence in Swedish daily life. It is not always evident. It is often hidden in discussions and actions, like an understood framework of thoughts.
Stolcke (1995) states that the contemporary cultural fundamentalism, as she calls it, is based on two fundamental premises that are interconnected: that different cultures are incompatible and that because of innate ethnocentricity they are hostile to each other by nature. When you discover this “natural constant”, the element of predetermined hostility towards foreigners, you also see that cultural fundamentalism is just like the less politically acceptable racism. According to Stolcke, the natural constant (hostility towards foreigners and race/skin colour, respectively) attempts in a similar manner to lend credibility to the respective ideology.
When it comes to those who can be called radical constructivists or relativists, Norwegian historian Kjeldstadli (2008) writes that they might be exaggerating the inconstancy of cultures, even though they do it with the good intention of not making differences between people out to be too great. But, he also says that even if you maintain that there is a degree of constancy in a culture, this does not mean that it is uniform or unchanging over time. In this, he seems to agree with Stolcke, who says that she does not for one second want to deny that there are “different ways of organizing the business of life and different systems of meaning” (ibid., p. 12). But, she emphasizes that people have always been moving around (both physically and mentally) and that cultures have shown themselves to be both “fluid and flexible”. She claims that her subject, anthropology, should not pay too much attention to cultural differences as such, but look more at how political context and relationships give them significance. History provides us many examples of how the relationship between different cultures can shift from unproblematic coexistence to ferocious hostility. Culture, according to Stolcke, can be made dramatically important to people in situations of political dominance and conflict. Thus, you should consider differences as something produced in specific political and historic context. This is an important conclusion.
In the post-modern discussion of identity and culture there is a lot that points to the necessity of understanding the terms based on movement, process, transforming, boundary breaking and including rather than something static and set in stone. Movement and change are something we can see all around us. If you take a look at the menu of a roadside restaurant outside of Luleå , the heading “Traditional Swedish dishes" will contain not only pancakes, beef and onions, hash and meatballs, but also kebab in various forms. The fact that pizza, lasagne and noodles have become staples of our family menus also shows how “Swedish culture” embraces and welcomes new impulses, which then become identity material that forms the perception of what is “Swedish”.
Humbly recognizing my ignorance when it comes to the Indian debate, I would still like to refer to a few things that have come to my attention.
Pathak reports and critically discusses Oommen’s message that Indian identity – and thereby Indian culture – does not exist (Oommen, 1997; Pathak, 2006) . According to Oommen, India would not be able to give anyone a cultural identity, only citizenship. Pathak responds to this by saying that India is much more than a political state. India is a part of Indians' collective conscious and is “a perpetual process of becoming” (Pathak, 2006, p. 129). He gives examples of different everyday items and behaviours that unite and goes on to say that the people have a continual and strong desire “to broaden one’s horizon and universe”. Just as cultures are neither homogenous nor static, identities should also be seen from a perspective of change. According to him, again, instead of letting cultural/social identities limit us, we should instead perceive identity as “fluid and inclusive, and engage in a process of creative/dialogic assimilation” (Pathak, 2006, p. 113).
Pathak's remark is important and shows that in many respects it is our own relationship to identities and “cultural association” that determine whether openness and curiosity with others is possible. Pathak also includes gender as a part of cultural/social identities. These are not innate, they are “socially constructed through cultural practices and socialization”. Realizing this frees us from what he calls “limiting identities”. Such limiting identities can also be used, according to Pathak, to stir up hostilities between nations, people and religious or political groups. Pathak describes vivid examples from Gandhi's life and his own life to show how man can transform and develop in relation to his cultural and social identities.
“…my identity is not something fixed – defined once and for all; it is perpetually evolving and experimenting with itself. I am a Bengali. My wife is a Maithili. And my daughter may grow up as more than a mere Bengali or Maithili – an Indian, or even more than that, possibly a universal being!” (Pathak, 2006, p. 129 ff)
Bhabha (2004) presents similar arguments when he discusses cultures and tries to find alternatives to “multiculturalism” as a term and historic phenomenon. He claims that the concept has lost its intellectual legitimacy and represents an incorrect and even (post)colonial perspective of cultures. “Multicultural”, “multiculturalism” and “cultural diversity” are thus terms based on “the recognition of pre-given cultural contents and customs” and thereby are based on the notion of an essential identity. In order to become free of dichotomic thinking, or “negative polarities” – us/them, like/unlike, the one/the other – Bhabha instead wants to talk about negotiation and a meeting in what he calls “Third Space”. This space is characterized by ambivalence and new interpretation. Barlow (2007) uses this term to describe what some Canadian social work students during international field training in India encountered when confronted with environments, people and situations that were foreign to them. This Third Space acts like a threshold (“a liminal space”), a “betwixt and between state”, where words like negotiation, hybrid, tension, transformation, ambivalence and (new) interpretation have great significance.
Another aspect of the language and the words we use to describe (and interpret) reality is that we can only understand the significance of words in their context – political, cultural and historical. It is with this understanding that one should reflect over the argument laid out by Bhabha (2004) in his book “The Location of Culture”. He advocates the following:
“The language of critique is effective not because it keeps forever separate the terms of the master and the slave, the mercantilist and the Marxist, but to the extent to which it overcomes the given grounds of opposition and opens up a space of translation: a place of hybridity, figuratively speaking, where the construction of a political object that is new, neither the one nor the other, properly alienates our political expectations, and changes, as it must, the very forms of our recognition of the moment of politics. The challenge lies in conceiving of the time of political action and understanding as opening up a space that can accept and regulate the differential structure of the moment of intervention without rushing to produce a unity of the social antagonism or contradiction. This is a sign that history is happening - within the pages of theory, within the systems and structures we construct to figure the passage of the historical.”(ibid., p. 200)
The media and everyday language are bursting with examples of how people – more or less consciously – express their view of cultures as “boxes” with a fixed and determined content where everyone in that culture is lumped together: “culture clash”, “meet other cultures”, “We Swedes”, “typical Swedish”, “in Islam”, “among foreigners”, “in certain cultures“ and so on.
In my opinion, at a university we cannot teach about “intercultural communication” without putting quotation marks around the term and starting the discussion by problematising and critically looking at the term culture, how it is used and how it can be understood. “Intercultural communication” is a term which, if used uncritically, helps to establish problematic images of “the Others” who “belong to a different culture”. In fact, I truly believe that talking to people from other countries, with other backgrounds, religion, culture, gender or whatever, never poses a problem unless it is being created, either by you or the other person. But this is rare. If there is something you don’t understand – just ask. It would be very unlikely that you don’t get an answer if the question is respectfully put.
As previously mentioned, you must admit that there are “different ways of organizing the business of life and different systems of meaning” (Stolcke, 1995, p. 12). Should instruction in the classroom then contain “facts” about how people from “other cultures” act, speak, think and behave? Should one teach about appropriate ways to act and speak when meeting “the Others”?
Here we are dealing with a problematic field of literature and thinking when confronted with books that make a big deal about describing such things. Accordingly, Lewis (2006) for example, advises people who are confronted with “the Swedes” to smile when the Swedes smile, to give a humorous speech during dinner (because Swedes appreciate that), to be diplomatic rather than outspoken and to always try to compromise. Lewis also teaches us that “Swedes don’t understand that in some cultures compromise has the negative meaning of surrendering one’s principles.” (ibid., p. 344)
Lewis also advises readers to avoid discussing Israel and Iraq with “Arabs” and not to question “Islamic taboos” regarding alcohol and pork.
This type of “knowledge” about different cultures is based on and sells, more or less clearly, a view of cultures as homogeneous and clearly defined units. This is obviously problematic and in the long term helps to establish stereotypes that serve as the basis for excluding and discriminating against such groups, which at present can serve as targets in a community. Stereotypes are unreasonable and uncritical generalizations that do not belong in university education other than as illustrations of an ideology based on exclusion and institutional racism.
Here, racism refers to a mechanism that allows a certain population to be closed in and arranged according to certain principles for exclusion and admission (Jonsson, 2004, p. 53). Thus, the term is not linked to a “race”, which in most scientific circles has been rejected as a basis for categorizing humans. There is no factual reason to suggest that there are races of humans, even though we are rather different in terms of appearance. Jonsson's description can be linked to Dominelli (2008), who indicates three levels of racism: ”individual or personal racism, institutional racism and cultural racism”. According to Dominelli, these three components interact and serve as the basis for social exclusion.
Despite difficulties and risks, it is reasonable for an intercultural and international social work programme in one way or another to take on the issue of “intercultural communication”. Obviously, it should not be based on learning to speak with “the Others”. It should instead be based on a genuine interest in understanding how people live and think and facilitate interactions in which all parties can feel respected and seen for what they perceive themselves to be. Of course, it is never wrong to learn something about customs and practices, traditions, way of life and daily life of a country if one is considering doing social work field training there. On the contrary, it is a necessity. As mentioned previously, it is a matter of ensuring that students have “…knowledge of the specific country: its history, population, government, geography, religion, cultural aspects, industry, social welfare system, social policies, social work and so on” (Ottelid, 2008). Young Swedish students in general tend to be a group with a lot of travel experience, but confusing this with them having a lot of knowledge about other countries would be a mistake.
There is nothing wrong in reflecting over the “daily life” of people instead of always name this “culture”. We should reflect over shared thought patterns, common religious and ideological ideas, common traditions or behaviours, and this may help free thought and language from the idea that people “belong” to specific “cultures”. This approach does not make it impossible to observe how some people identify themselves more strongly with a specific idea or group association or to reflect on how one can understand this.
The term “daily life” also becomes so obviously linked to gender, class and generation since it is easy to see that the daily life of, for example, poor Indian women living out in the country has hardly any similarities to the daily life of prosperous, middle-class Indian men in the cities. Thus, in a manner of speaking there is no “Indian daily life” or “Swedish daily life”. There are a great number and great variety of Swedish and Indian daily lives. A number of factors limit or open up the opportunities we have to shape our daily life, and knowledge of such circumstances is central in social work.
A critical and updated attitude to the terms culture, identity and globalization must always exist as a basis for all learning about people's daily lives, regardless of their location in the world and their position in society. Naturally, it is good to take the time to think about matters of daily life in a teaching context. This applies in particular to students who themselves have no link to a specific country or any relevant experience in general. The differences between Sweden, India, South Africa, Jamaica, etc. can be significant. Students will always have their personal reflections, thoughts and belief, therefore it is better to make it possible for them to be outspoken and made conscious to students. Only then can they be reviewed with a critical eye.
(Mr) Magnus Ottelid
Director of studies - Master Programme International Coordinator, Lecturer, MSSW Department of Social work, Mid Sweden University, 831 25 ÖSTERSUND, SWEDEN
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