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Researching history of restraining practices in children’s residential care: methodological considerations


Background. Residential care has become a pertinent part of the Finnish child welfare services over the past 150 years. In the context of institutionalised care, the dilemma of care and control has always been controversial. Residential units are meant to provide security and care for children in everyday life. Simultaneously, it has been possible to control, restrict and sanction children for a variety of reasons and ways in these units. Nowadays the purpose of these practices is described by welfare terms: they are used as a form of intensive care for troubled children. In the past, however, they have been described differently and sometimes even used as a form of physical punishment. We do not know how these restrictive practices, policies regulating and concepts describing them have changed in the past because these questions are only slightly problematised in Finland.

Purpose. In the Finnish context there is a lack of the statistical information on the frequency of these practices, the understanding of in what kind(s) of situation(s) these practices are implemented and with what kind of children and how they are justified in everyday life. The historically oriented qualitative case study design offers one opportunity to consider some of these shortcomings and to gain in-depth knowledge of the phenomenon under examination. This paper considers some methodological aspects of the historically oriented qualitative social work research by using my own on-going PhD research data as an example[1].

By restraining practices, I mean such special and extreme activities which 1) differ from the usual regulative practices of everyday life and 2) restrict children's possibilities to act and participate in the usual way in a residential institution (e.g. the limitation of the freedom of movement and special restrictions like isolation and intensive care). The physical, spatial, temporal and the intertwined themes of care and control are important elements of these practices. They are regulated by legislation, guidelines and other policies. In my PhD research, I examine how the restraining practices have been implemented in the everyday life of a residential care institution, how they have been regulated and what kind(s) of discourse(s) both normative regulations and actual practices have illustrated.

Method and data. The methodology of this single case study is based on the frameworks of the institutional ethnography by Dorothy E. Smith (1999) and the genealogical method by Michel Foucault (Foucault 1977: Skehill 2004). The institutional ethnography emphasises the notion of the world as text-mediated and how texts contribute to governing and practices in everyday life. Michel Foucault's concept of genealogy is useful in analysing how certain discourses have become dominant while others have disappeared (Skehill 2004).

I started this study by problematising the current restraining practices and the policies regulating them. After preparatory work (the selection of the case study institution, the application for a research permission), I got into the field and began to collect the data simultaneously from the archives and this particular institution. The data is nearly collected and its analysis is in progress.

The roots and written documents of the case study institution go back to the beginning of the 20th century. The generous data includes e.g. 1) written documents such as daily reports, the diaries of punishments and children's case files, 2) 14 oral interviews of previous staff members and other key informants, and 3) policy documents, professional texts, laws and guidelines. The data is fragmented and there is not a single source of material which would offer answers to my questions. I have collected the data on a constant dialogue with different actors and there has been a strong ethnographical dimension throughout the data gathering process. Some of this material is not archived and I have found it by chance. The access to these kinds of institutionally contextual documents and oral information would have been elusive without the ethnographical approach. Therefore it has been very meaningful methodologically and ethically; it has enabled me to study this rather sensitive topic in-depth. The ideas of institutional ethnography have also helped me to locate the different sources of data and to analyse their relations (Smith 1999).

Preliminary findings. This kind of case study material constructs interesting pictures of the times and embodies the essential institutional memory of the grass-roots level. The preliminary data analysis illustrates that various restraints have been used in this particular institution over the years. The diaries of punishments have offered statistical information for example on the frequency of restraints. Forms of restraints vary (e.g. corporal punishing has been abandoned since the early 1950s), as well as the reasons why they have been used and how they have been justified. The documentation of these practices contains mainly adults' voices even though children's viewpoints have become more visible since the early 1960s.

Key references

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish. The Birth of Prison. London: Penguin Books.

Skehill, C. (2004). History of the Present of Child Protection and Social Work in Ireland. Lewinstone: the Mellen Press.

Smith, D. E. (1999). Writing the Social. Critique, Theory and Investigations. Toronto: University Press of Toronto.

Contacts: Susanna Hoikkala M.Soc.Sc, PhD student (social work), University of Helsinki, Department of Social Policy Studies, P.O.Box 18, FI-00014 University of Helsinki, E-mail: susanna.hoikkala@helsinki.fi, Phone +358 40 5081188.


[1]. This PhD research is funded by the Academy of Finland (110593/2005). It is a part of the research project called 'A Socio-Legal Study of the Change in the Institutional Practices that Regulate Generational Relationships' which is led by Dr. Academy Research Fellow Mirja Satka, University of Jyväskylä.


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