Austria (FH Campus Vienna): Thoughts on Austrian Systemic Social Work Print


Bernhard Lehr

FH Campus Wien - University of Applied Sciences in Vienna

This is one of so many possible reports from me as a lecturer at the University of applied Sciences “FH Campus Wien – Department for Social Work” in Vienna as well as a systemic supervisor and social worker and trainer in courses of ASYS:

When I studied social work in Vienna in 1981 till 1983 at the so called “Social Academy”, which was in those days a newly formed institution - a form of higher school, but not university – I was very lucky to meet Walter MILOWIZ, a young professor teaching psychology and methods of social work. I remember he told us about theories of communication based on WATZLAWICK, BEAVIN and JACKSON, HALEY, also on BATESON, VARELA and GLASERSFELD. We had experience in group dynamics and he always mentioned communication circles and the development of vicious circles in interaction of persons. He always said that all kinds of methods (regardless of which therapist school) are allowed to be done, but the only thing important is to proof the intention of doing this method and to reflect the effects by systemic thinking, from a meta level and that there are special methods emerging from systemic thinking.

Why do I mention this? Austria is a state where it is very important to show from where you are, from where you come: A little state with little federal states, those with little regions, people come from villages or towns, they have higher schools or not, they belong to the main religion or not, they have a great connection to the main parties or not … And so it was and it is sometimes still important to make sure to what (scientific) background you belong. When I was student, we quarreled whether FREUD or ADLER or REICH is the best and about the values of new theories. Thanks to GOD, Mr. WATZLAWICK was born in Austria!

The first social workers I know who declared to work in a systemic way were counseling in centers for family work. Most of them had learned family therapy.
Still studying and later on I learned to know LÜSSI, STAUB-BERNASCONI, SATIR, PALAZZOLI, CECCHIN, ERICKSON et al.

I began to work in a prison in Austria as a social worker and, aside of the knowledge learned, one basic systemic principle helped me to do this work: the axiom of circularity of interaction and in consequence of this: there is nobody to blame, there is no real cause even for bad things. That means to be not only impartially but even partially to all parts. This is a very important tenor in work with delinquent persons and connected institutions like justice and police.

In the eighties and nineties social workers and criminologists developed the victim-offender mediation and new forms of sanctions to delinquent persons. I think this is a product of systemic thinking in social work.

Later on I worked with people having alcohol problems und suffering on homelessness, further on I had to look after persons suffering on very strong psychiatric diseases. I think in all those cases it is important to think in systemic way: the position of social work is between all concerned systems (so called clients or helping institutions or society), as a social worker I do not belong to one of them. My part is to look on their interaction, their communication and help them all if there are some vicious circles. It does also mean that my colleague social worker is as “client” to me as the so called “client”.

Later on I began to counsel jobless persons suffering on alcohol or drug abuse or other great problems on some few hours a week. For example one systemic method is not to talk about joblessness when counseling a jobless person, not to ask about alcohol abuse when counseling a person with alcohol problems. And I do a good job with this convention. Here I am influenced by Kim BERG and Scott MILLER, by Ben FURMAN and Tapani AHOLA, by Steve DESHAZER et al., the so called solution focused theory.


And Heinz VON FOERSTER and the cybernetic and constructivism became a wonderful enrichment to me and to others. And thanks to GOD, VON FOERSTER was born in Austria!

I began to teach part-time at the “Social Academy” since 1991.

In 1996 Walter MILOWIZ and I decided to found ASYS (a circle for systemic social work) in order to make sure that it is important to think in a systemic way, to have a systemic tenor in order to avoid using so called systemic methods in a non-systemic way. Walter MILOWIZ and Anneli ARNOLD (she is an immigrant from Finland to Austria) developed already a course for systemic social work as an advanced training. These courses produced some very conscious systemic social workers in Austria working in different institutions.

In 2002 the FH Campus Wien replaced the Social Academy. Walter MILOWIZ retired from teaching there.
Nevertheless I and some of my colleges try to teach systemic theories. And it seems like a mirror picture of social work in practice: there are many authors and texts about systemic theories so that students and social workers in practice miss an overview of systemic theories, they are very often confused. They learn to use systemic and solution focused methods in counseling, but there is very little time for teaching principles and to have practice and experience and enough reflection.


Austrian social workers and therapist and psychologist and many other professions are influenced by systemic thinking from scientists from all over the world – like my colleagues describe in their texts about Swiss, Germany and Finland.
I know some institutes declaring their systemic tenor and methods:
A specialist department in Vienna (called FAWOS) for persons and families in danger to lose their homes (they had a course with Marianne RÖSSLER in counseling in a solution focused way)
A team of social workers counseling old people and their families in Vienna (from the Kuratorium Wiener Pensionistenhäuser – they had a course with Walter MILOWIZ and me);
a new project in helping to change interaction of families in danger being divorced by child welfare institutes because of violence against the children (BIENENHAUS in Mödling/Hinterbrühl – they declare to work in a systemic way in social pedagogy)

and we have social workers doing their work in systemic tenor in very different institutions.

It is my intention as a lecturer at FH Campus to sustain the principles of the “Vienna School” of systemic social work: to note especially the circularity of communication and to advice the students of asking the question: “How does it work?” and not oriented on causality: “Why does it work or not in this or that way?”