Finland (University of Helsinki): Articles and Good Practices in Systemic Social Work in Finland Print


Katarina Fagerström

Doctoral student University of Helsinki

The history of systemic social work can be placed among the case work tradition in social work. Systemic thinking in social work was brought to Finland from Canada in the 1970ties by Kalervo Kinanen. In comparison to more individualistic approaches in the case work tradition, the common interest in systemic approaches was to see the client in a larger perspective and to take his or her social environment into account while planning the ways of approaching the individual and the whole systems or networks involved (Toikko 2005, 202-23). The emphasis still is on the interaction between professionals and the clients, who later in the professional vocabulary have been constructed, as “citizens” “service users”, “customers” or “patients” depending on the context and our way to construct the relationship (Juhila 2006).

Systemic social work developed in the practises of family therapy, brief therapy and network therapy. Systemic thinking and family therapy have long traditions in finish psychiatric research and treatment. The work of Yrjö Alanen and his colleagues (1997; 2000) in the 1970ties and 1980ties and his research findings in the field of treatment of schitzofrenia was ground breaking for systemic thinking in finish psychiatry. The work with “Open dialogue” of the Keropudas team in Western Lapland has during recent years made progress in the treatment of psychotic crises (Seikkula 2002; 2003).

In social work both the theoretical and practical emphasis has moved from therapeutic methods into social interventions and practises in multi- and inter-professional networking. In connection to the linguistic turn in social sciences the theoretical assumptions in systemic social work have moved from modern systems theories to post modern social constructionist approaches.  The choices of words are central in the social constructionistic (Anderson & Goolishian 1988, Anderson 1997) or constructivistic (Parton & O’Byrne 2000) approaches. At the same time the concepts used have changed from “systemic” to “dialogic”, “narrative” or “solution focused” in the finish professional practice vocabulary. Through reflective and reflexive approaches in social work there are attempts to construct the professional relationship from vertical expertise to more horizontal forms of expertise (Juhila 2006, 137-139; Parton & O’Byrne 2000).

Karen Healy (1999, 122) points out, that it often is difficult to reach a horizontal relationship, because the social worker and the service user are positioned into hierarchical polarities: professional  versus lay knowledge, official versus unofficial, voice versus silence, researcher versus object of research, privileged versus poor, powerful versus powerless. It is culturally evident, that the social worker always is positioned in the previous position and the service user in the latter. To establish a horizontal relationship is a real challenge in social work that needs to be taken.  That is, if social work is aiming at transcultural work, that acknowledges differences and where crucial aims are the service users’ participation, full citizenship and a strong community (Juhila 2006, 138-139.)

In dialogic thinking the theoretical argumentation is influenced by the Russian literature theorist Michael Bahtin (1981; 1984). Dialogic network practises have been developed by Tom Arnkil and Esa Eriksson(2007; 2009) at the National Institute of Health and Welfare (THL) in Finland. Practices like “future dialogues” and “Taking up one’s worries” have been implemented in different areas of social work in Finland.

The narrative approach follows the work of Michael White (2007; 2011) with an emphasis on power in terms of Michel Foucault. The solution focused practices have in Finland been developed by Ben Furman and Tapani Ahola (1992; 1998).   In social work family group conferences has become an established practice, which could be seen as a practice in the field of systemic social work.


Alanen, Yrjö (1997) Schitzofrenia: Its origins and need-adapted treatment. London, Karnac books.

Alanen, T. & Lehtinen V. & Lehtinen, K, Aaltonen, J. & Räkköläinen ,V (2000) The Finnish integrated model for early treatment of schitzofrenia and related psychosis. In Martindale, A. Bateman, M. Crowe & Margiseon, F. (Eds.) Psychosis: Psychological approaches and their effectiveness (pp.235-265) London. Gaskell.

Anderson, Harlene & Goolishian, Harry (1988) Human systems as linguistic systems: Preliminary and evolving ideas about the implications for clinical theory. Family Process 27, (pp.371-393)

Anderson, Harlene (1997) Conversation, language, and possibilities. New York. Basic books.

Arnkil, Tom (1999) Anticipation dialogues: Vertical and horizontal dialogue methods for strategic management and smart networking. Helsinki, National Research and Development Centre for Wellfare and Health ISSN 1235-4775; 3/1999

Bahtin, Michael (1984) Problems of Dostojevskij’s poetics Theory and History of Literature: Vol.8 Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Eriksson, Esa & Arnkil, Tom Erik (2009) Taking up One's Worries A Handbook on Early DialoguesTaking up One's Worries

Furman, Ben & Ahola, Tapani (1992) Solution Talk: Hosting Therapeutic Conversations.

Furman, Ben (1998) It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood: From Adversity to Resilience.

Furman, Ben (2004) Kid’s skills – Playful and Practical Solution Finding with Children.

Heino, Tarja (2009) Family Group Conference from a Child Perspective. Nordic Research Report.

Juhila, Kirsi (2006) Sosiaalityöntekijöinä ja asiakkaina. Sosiaalityön yhteiskunnalliset tehtävät ja paikat.

Parton, Nigel & O’Byrne, Patrick (2000) Constructive Social Work. Towards new practice. McMillan press, Basingstoke.

Satka, Mirja (1999) Conceptual Practices in theorizing the Social Work Past for the Future in Karvinen, Pösö & Satka (1999) Constructing Social Work Research. SoPhi. Jyväskylä University.

Seikkula, Jaakko & Arnkil Tom (2006) Dialogical meetings in social networks. Karnac books.

Seikkula, Jaakko (2002).  Open Dialogues with good and poor outcomes for psychotic crises: Example from families withth violence. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 28, 263-274.

Seikkula, Jaakko & Olson, Mary E. (2003) Open Dialogue Aproach to Acute Psychosis: Its Poetics and Micropolitics. Family Process, Vol 42, No 3. (pp. 403-418)

Seikkula, Jaakko (2008) Inner and outer voices in the present moment of family and network therapy. Journal of Family Therapy vol. 30, 478-491.

Toikko, Timo (2005) Sosiaalityön ideat. Johdatus sosiaalityön historian. Vastapaino, Tampere.

White, Michael (2007) Maps of Narrative Practice. Norton

White, Michael (2011) Narrative practice: Continuing the Conversations