The interdisciplinary Studies on Social Work is a research cluster (NEITS - Núcleo de Estudios Interdisciplinarios en Trabajo Social, (www.neits.cl) carried out at the University of Chile at the Department of Social Work. NEITS emerged in 2019 as part of an innovative educational project aimed at transforming social work education in the country. This initiative postulates that in order develop critical interpretations and transformative proposals to address the challenges social work faces today, the profession needs to examine itself and assume its intellectual duties. In this sense, NEITS aims to develop and deepen the discussion on social work by examining its historical, epistemological, theoretical, methodological, political and ethical foundations as well as shedding light on its controversies, internal crises and contextual challenges at both the local and global scale.
The school of social work at the University of Chile has a long and turbulent history due to the country’s political past. In 1974, during Pinochet’s military dictatorship, the school was forcibly shut down due to its critical approach and ideological links to socialism and Marxism. The school was considered an incubator for subversive and dangerous thought for which many students and professors suffered political persecution (Sepúlveda, 2016; Ávila and Bivort, 2017; Del Villar, 2018). While democracy returned to the country in 1990, it was only in 2014 that the University re-opened the social work program within the Faculty of Social Science. This re-opening was an opportunity to develop an innovative proposal for social work education that differed from the more traditional social work educational programs available in the country. This innovational project was underpinned by critical social science approaches aimed at working towards redistribution and recognition of all citizens (Fraser, 2016). The proposal was based upon the articulation of i) social work research, ii) professional intervention and iii) public engagement with ‘non-academic’ sectors (service users, state ministries and public policy administers, NGO’s, professional associations, social organizations, collectives, and social movements).
In order to work towards its mission, the social work Department organized different clusters aimed at producing research, organizing intervention projects and conducting public engagement. Thus, the clusters have been conceived as the core proposal of our innovative social work program, replacing more traditional social work education field practice settings. Undergraduate students begin participating in the clusters during their third year. Since social work undergraduate education in Chile has a 5 year duration, students have the chance to participate in three clusters (third, fourth and fifth years) during their studies. In addition, the students from our Social Work Master Degree program choose a cluster within which to develop their thesis. Each cluster is formed by undergraduate and postgraduate students, internal and external academics, professionals, public and/or private agencies, social organizations and movements that work together conducting research and intervention projects from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Until 2017, the Social work department had the following 5 working clusters: Socioeconomic Relations and Social Movements, Effective Innovations in Public Policy, Complex Territorial Systems, Society and Reinsertion, Diversity and Gender: Intersectional Feminist Approaches. In 2018 the Interdisciplinary Studies on Social Work cluster was formed in response to the need to return and strengthen the profession’s critical tradition at the University of Chile.
The NEITS initiative, as well as all other clusters within the Department, are anchored in critical approaches to the social sciences and their translation into research and social intervention processes. The particularity of NEITS, however, lies in its focus on social work. In other words, the object of analysis of the cluster is social work as a profession and as an academic discipline. From this perspective, the critical re-visiting of social work history is considered crucial in order to allow for the emergence of diverse interpretive keys that can help decipher the challenges the discipline faces today, while also examining the epistemic, conceptual, political and methodological debates that take place in the current context.
NEITS is formed by academics from diverse disciplines, social work students from undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and professional associations. All these actors undertake joint research and practice from an active, collaborative and participative approach, seeking to promote public engagement and diminish the gap between young and senior students, students and professionals, and between academic and professional worlds. It seeks to articulate theory and practice as well as research and social intervention.
Currently, NEITS is undertaking four projects related to i) critical historiography of social work, exploring the contributions of the Chilean Collective of Social Work -an intellectual movement of female social workers developed during the dictatorship in the 1980s-; ii) theoretical debates in Latin American social work, examining the main trends and theoretical perspectives in social work publications and contributions within the region; iii) research trajectories of Chilean social workers, utilizing a longitudinal approach to study the research pathways of social workers in diverse institutional environments throughout the last 10 years; and iv) political horizons, ethical dilemmas and acts of resistance exerted by Chilean frontline social workers in the current neoliberal context. All these projects are underpinned by critical approaches to history, theory and the political agency of social work and social workers (Vidal, 2016; Matus, 2018; Reininger, 2018; Muñoz, 2018; Rubilar, 2009; Galaz and Rubilar, 2019). The approaches underlying the research projects seek to challenge the neoliberal rationality that pervades the very history of social work which detaches past, present and future of the profession; neutralizes its theoretical basis; dissociates theoretical approaches from geopolitical foundations; and understands professional interventions as control and subjugation.
The NEITS initiative expects to contribute to the development of dense and complex understandings of social phenomena of high public interest, the generation of disciplinary knowledge in dialogue with other disciplines, and to the creation of critical and transformative social work repertoires and strategies.
Primarily the NEITS initiative’s collaborative and participative approach has been one of its greatest strengths since it has promoted fluid dialogue and exchange between students, national and international professors and researchers, social work professionals, and Chile’s main social work professional association (Colegio de Trabajadores Sociales) by organizing dialogues, workshops and seminars. These encounters have not only promoted public engagement and the transfer of knowledge by breaking with traditional elitist academic practices,but have also worked towards diminishing the gap between two historically separated spheres (academia and practice) (Aylwin et al., 2004; Matus, 2018). Furthermore, the research undertaken by NEITS has led to important findings on the challenges the profession faces today in a highly neo-liberalized context (Muñoz, 2019).
About the initiative’s limitations, one of the biggest hurdles NEITS has faced has been overcoming traditional conceptualizations of social work “practice” or field work settings and projects. Historically social work education in Chile has consisted of numerous field placements in which students are placed within organizations and work under institutional supervisors who assign students specific tasks throughout the semester. This consolidated conceptualization of “practice” has proven difficult to overcome not only in working with different organizations and professionals but also with students who expect to learn certain “practical” knowledge in such formalized settings. While this is currently a challenge due to the initiative’s pedagogic innovation and the preconceived notions of social work practice settings, we predict this will diminish over time with greater diffusion strategies that permit debate and discussion on this new educational model.
A greater challenge this new educational model faces is rupturing the social imaginaries of social work that limit the discipline’s transformational potential. Social work in Chile has traditionally been considered a poorly valued profession, both in academia as well as professional circles. This lack of visibility and prestige requires advancing towards rupturing ingrained cultural beliefs, a practice undertaken by social work pioneers since the birth of the profession (Reininger, 2018; Aylwin et al., 2004).
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Galaz, C. and Rubilar, G. (2019). Experiencias profesionales en intervención psicosocial: el ejercicio narrativo como metodología de reflexividad y vigilancia epistemológica. Revista Latinoamericana de Metodología de las Ciencias Sociales ReLMeCS 9(1), e050.
Sepúlveda, L. (2016). Algunas reflexiones acerca del ejercicio profesional del trabajo social durante la dictadura militar. In P. Vidal (Ed.), Trabajo social en Chile: un siglo de trayectoria (pp 141-154). Santiago de Chile, RIL.
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