How did a researcher turn into a social worker?

Researcher Johanna Niemi is a member of a team studying social borders in the Vuosaari area. What happened to field work as the roles of researcher, activist and friend were blurred?

Our research and fieldwork in Vuosaari, Helsinki, which we have been doing as part of the Is Finland becoming polarised project, has been going on for almost two years. Our aim was to study communities in Eastern Helsinki and divisions in what is one of the most ethnically and socially diverse areas of Finland. Our team comprises three members: a historian, a journalist, and myself, a sociologist. My contribution involved studying the networks of “new Finns” and gaining the trust of the community through perhaps slightly unconventional means. The roles of a researcher, an activist, and a friend became blurred in our fieldwork. This added some dilemmas to the research, but it was also definitely one of the greatest strengths of the work.

Fieldwork is usually carried out as a separate entity, collecting data which will later be broken down and analysed. The same applied in this project, but we did not know a couple of years ago that our “fieldwork” would also go beyond gathering data. The situation in the community that we studied happened to be such that they were constantly in need of help in practical matters. For example, finding out how a person can get into a private hairdressing school in Helsinki is not research, but helping with that and numerous other things was tangible evidence of the daily problems that these immigrant women face. It represents valuable (research) information, which often cannot be obtained by asking or by observing from the outside. I learned to understand the daily life of new Finns specifically because we became friends and I was able to help them on a daily basis. The trust that was built between us allowed me to get deeper information, which has been vital.

We studied the social divisions of the area by examining a few local communities. One of these – the community with which I personally spent the most time – is “the women of Kallahti”. They are a group of immigrant women who meet in the Kallahti Youth Centre in Vuosaari every day. The majority of the women are Muslims who came to Finland more than 10 years ago; their common language is Arabic, and most of them are multilingual, i.e. they also speak Finnish and Somali, for example.

We began by interviewing each woman, inso ar as this was possible in terms of having a shared language. Thankfully, there were often multilingual friends about who were willing to act as interpreters. I spent a lot of time with the women in the Kallahti Youth Centre. Often, the women would sit around a table at the back of the kitchen, and there was a prayer room next door. I found a place at the kitchen table by starting to study Arabic: The women were happy to teach me the basics of their own languages, and we had something to talk about every day. A large notepad and a pen were the best way also to get to know the women with whom I did not share a language.

The realities of the women revealed themselves to me through daily issues. When I asked them how there were doing, a common answer was: “I am good, but I have problems.” What kinds of problems? For example, what kinds of forms are needed for the Social Insurance Institution of Finland or the job centre, or can I pay for my child’s football practice in three instalments?

It all began with one person asking for my help in a small mundane matter, then another, and soon the requests for help became a part of our daily interaction. I did not make a conscious decision to begin helping the women, but it would have felt extremely stupid and irresponsible not to do so. Instead of being a mere observer, I began to represent something else to the women. I got online banking details for them, helped them to write job applications, and was asked time after time: “What should I do when…?” I answered if I could, but I never intervened in personal issues, such as family affairs or relationships. We did, however, often talk about those subjects. The biggest question at the beginning of the project was how we were going to reach the communities: How could we get close enough to truly understand the different realities of Finns? Studying the daily lives of people, and just generally getting to the level of everyday life, is the most interesting aspect of this kind of research. That is also the level that enabled us to not just watch but to also act. It also helps with research ethics – both the researcher and the subject get something out of the process.

The idea of the Vuosaari project was always to try to build a new kind of a research concept, one based on more of a hands-on approach than an academic one. The project has been a good example of how research into social problems can also help to solve those problems, at least on a small scale. One example: It has taken one immigrant woman living in Eastern Helsinki 12 years to get into the Finnish labour market. She had young children, her Finnish was not very strong, and her level of education and high enough benefits together are the reason why she, and many other women in her situation, has stayed at home. It took us one day to write her CV and a job application together. There are obviously no guarantees that she will get a job or a place in an educational institution this autumn. But it is possible. Telling her which government agencies and education and employment services to contact took another day. In a matter of a couple of days, the woman’s life took a huge step forward, and I learned why she had been stuck for so long.

Debate on the impact of research is necessary and welcome, but it often involves – for a good reason – using big words for big issues. How does social research, for example, impact on society? Perhaps we could also talk about how research can help to make a positive impact on the lives of the subjects. In addition to two researchers, our research team included a journalist and, for a while, a photographer. After two years, we now know that we would also have needed a social worker. We took on the role of a social worker as much as we could.

Practice-based research, i.e. research that involves participating in the life of the community that you are studying, is a good way to increase the impact of research on society. “Look for good problems”, say wise professors. It is a good piece of advice. It is possible for researchers to do more than just describe, understand, and explain phenomena. It is possible to do things that have a positive impact on the lives of the subjects – even if it is one job application at a time.

It is important to keep drawing boundaries all the time and to remember what your job is. I did not volunteer to teach Finnish, even though there was a shortage of Finnish teachers. I did, however, spend (working) time looking for teachers. I cannot say whether producing information necessarily requires distance, and whether it is possible to stay objective if you are yourself immersed into the world of your subjects. Social problems look different through the eyes of the subjects, and those eyes become your eyes. It changes the role of the researcher, but it also definitely increases the researcher’s understanding of their subjects’ lives and preconditions.


Johanna Niemi