Social workers’ experiences with preventing violent extremism in Norway
In this post Håvard Haugstvedt examines social workers' participation in multi-agency prevention work against violent extremism. The additional responsibilities cause tension in client meetings in particular, as social workers feel drawn to both their traditional ways of doing business, and to practices more influenced by police and security services. Social workers handle this by using both emotion management strategies, and social support from peers and supervisors.
During the last decade in Norway social workers have had a formal part to play in the national strategy to prevent radicalisation and violent extremism (PVE) at a local level. This part is played out by engaging with other services and organisations, such as schools, health services, police, and to some degree also the police security service (PST) in multi-agency cooperation. In addition, social workers engage directly with individuals who have been deemed at risk of further radicalisation and are tasked with providing prevention and follow-up services aimed at helping and supporting them. Through these interventions social workers may engage with, try to influence, or debate the ideological positions of their clients, which could be leaning towards right-wing or Islamist extremism, among others. This task appears to represent a shift in the tasks and responsibilities of social workers, who historically have close ties with charity, support, and humanitarian work. So, how do social workers engaged with this kind of prevention work experience it, and how do they deal with the challenges that possibly surface in client or multi-agency meetings? To answer this, I conducted an explorative qualitative study using 17 in-depth interviews and two focus-group interviews with highly experienced social workers in Norway.
How do they perform this kind of prevention work? Social workers approach this prevention work relying mostly on traditional strategies. Let’s have look; First, Norwegian social workers understand and approach the task of PVE as a social issue, and they lean on common social worker strategies. Central to these strategies is establishing some level of trust between themselves and their target group. Also, as they do with other issues, they explore the clients’ own understanding of their needs and start working from there. Next, through cooperation with police and with PST in some cases, social workers are expected to participate in more ‘secretive’ practices, where sensitive information flows more smoothly, without clients’ necessarily being aware of this. A quotation from one of the interviews provides an example of this:
Participant: The power imbalance in this cooperation is pretty off. So, when the police and security service enter the playing field, it’s like, “Everything we do now is secret. We can’t give you any information, but we want information from you.” And that can be pretty massive to go up against.
Interviewer: Right, and you have experience on how this cooperation is perceived [by the clients], when they get ear of it?
Participant: Yes, and that did not go well. Because these services want things to go “under the radar.” So, the client’s sense that I am doing something that they don’t exactly know what it is. And suddenly, when they hear about it later on, they want to know why I spoke to these guys [in secrecy].
This happens in a cooperative field where the jurisdictional lines are far from clear. Another short example illustrates this well:
Yes, it’s a bit like, “Oh, who are you really? Are you a police officer? Who are you really working for?” And because they [clients] have that knee-jerk reaction [to issues with police], it creates an uncertainty. And since I actually cannot draw a clear line between the municipality’s work, with follow-up and care, and those controlling and monitoring the groups, it gets a bit messy. I understand very well that the confidence in us gets weakened by this.
Several types of settlements occur between social workers and the police, and PST in particular. Of these, subordination to PST raises the most ethical dilemmas for social workers. This practice, and especially subordination, runs the risk of creating blurred roles of policing and support, with inherent differences in transparency practice. The conflict occurring between these two expectations (from their own professional background, and from cooperation with police and PST) creates emotional tension among social workers. The following quotation from the interviews shows how this kind of tension can be experienced:
“It’s not easy, because I think you’re constantly challenging yourself in terms of what you accept, what to endure, how to handle the information [from the clients]. So, I think that, yes, it may sound simple, but it’s not. It does require a lot from you. These are, for me, the most demanding conversations—the conversations I have where what he says really challenges my core values. He has some opinions that make me feel like my body is being torn apart.”
To cope with this kind of challenge in client meetings, social workers apply emotion management strategies as well as social support from peers and support staff. Emotion management is a mundane strategy whereby the display of emotions is put in line with certain private or professional expectations from one’s surroundings. Several distinct strategies were found among social workers doing PVE in Norway, such as biting their teeth and suppressing their own emotions. However, other ways of adapting to this tension is ‘dressing up’ in a professional character to shield oneself through an act of role-playing, as well as trying to understand the clients’ perspectives. An example of the latter strategy:
There is a lot I hear that seriously clashes with my own values, and it triggers something in me. I must be aware of that. But it sometimes helps to think, “Where does he get those thoughts from?”, “Why is that person thinking like that?” from his other point of view. It helps me deal with the situation and respond to it. […] Instead of confronting, try to see where it comes from.
These strategies are used both reactively (without preparation and happening in the moment) and proactively (by being in a prepared state of mind for what might happen). The other strategy, social support, is something that happens outside of client meetings. In these cases, social workers rely on acknowledgment and support from peers, managers, and supervisors. This may be emotional support from peers, but also more structured ways to critically evaluate and reflect upon practice, such as through individual or group supervision.
A proactive suggestion
Both emotion management and social support are defensive or reactive in nature: they happen after something challenging has occurred. However, as an extension of social support, social workers can and should play a more proactive policy game. They can do this by communicating new developments and challenges from the practice field, through organisational and professional channels, towards policy makers. Such efforts may contribute to draw clearer demarcation lines between the tasks and responsibilities of social workers and that of the police or PST. The findings from this work show signs of a development of the social worker role, now also involved in efforts to influence ideological violence in Norway.
From the starting point of this research in 2017, several changes in the multi-agency work appear to have happened. In late 2020 I conducted several sessions of member-checking with the study participants. This means going through a synthesis of the main analytical findings and receiving their feedback in turn, as a method to reinforce the findings’ validity. Through this process, several developments were mentioned by the participants. Most prominent of these was the relationship and communication with the police security service. It appeared that the different roles of social workers, and of police and PST, and their different professional backgrounds, had become more stable. Several of the participants that previously had experiences of challenging jurisdictional struggles and strong professional debates with their security partners, now had more balanced experiences. This is not surprising, and in line with past research on such cooperation in other contexts. Establishing cooperation with partner agencies takes time, and is improved when roles and responsibilities are more clearly understood and individuals involved get to know each other.
This is a condensed summary of Håvard Haugstvedt's PhD thesis, “Managing role expectations and emotions in encounters with extremism: Norwegian social workers’ experiences”. The full thesis can be found here.
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