Long reads


Sonja Miettinen, winner of the Vuoden Tiedekynä academic writing award 2022, wants to make hanging out part of the work of care homes


Long reads


Sonja Miettinen, winner of the Vuoden Tiedekynä academic writing award 2022, wants to make hanging out part of the work of care homes

Sonja Miettinen, who has carried out in-depth research on the social interaction of people with profound intellectual disability in group homes, found that care workers lack permission from the organisation’s management to be present with the people they are caring for. Miettinen’s article, which is based on her ethnographic research, has won the Vuoden Tiedekynä award worth EUR 25,000 for outstanding academic writing in Finnish. After getting stuck in her writing process, the researcher began to make progress again when she decided to change the language from English to her mother tongue, Finnish.

In her award-winning article, Sonja Miettinen describes her findings which are based on her observations of the social interactions of three adults with profound intellectual disability in group homes. Called Anna, Leo and Sebastian in the article, the three people with intellectual disability each communicate in their own way, without spoken language. At a pre-lingual level, they are all able to connect with other people, but the group home environment limits their ability to develop and use their social interaction skills.

Miettinen found that group home practices leave little time and room to develop social interaction with residents with profound intellectual disability. In everyday social interactions, caregivers change, retreat to their own spaces after completing their physical care activities, or may feel unsure whether they can hold the hand of a resident they are caring for while feeding them. Yet, these moments of contact that are based on touch promote the inclusion of people with intellectual disability, the realisation of their basic rights and the dignity of the individual.

“In terms of physical care, residents with intellectual disability are extremely well cared for. Yet at the same time, they spend long periods of time alone. They lack capable and competent companions to interact with. What is needed in group homes is the realisation that there are other ways of interacting besides verbally. It is important to give a person with intellectual disability time and to adapt to their way of communicating,” Miettinen says.

Miettinen hopes that the objectives and rules of care work will be reformulated in Finnish care organisations. This would allow practices to be changed so that they strengthen the possibilities of people with intellectual disability to operate.

“Change cannot be brought about by individual carers. Instead, it must start with nursing managers and buyers. Researcher Hilary Johnson and her colleagues have suggested that hanging out and having fun should be defined as legitimate work tasks for employees working with people with intellectual disability,” says Miettinen.

Sonja Miettinen istuu junan vanhan rahtivaunun reunalla.

Before winning the prize, the article was rejected twice

Sonja Miettinen is the Head of Research at the Finnish Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. She has been involved in disability studies for her entire career since completing her doctoral thesis. She had not previously studied people with severe intellectual disability, but came across the topic during a joint research project with Professor Simo Vehmaa and Researcher Reetta Mietola.

Miettinen was surprised by the warm welcome they received in care homes.

“Many people seemed to think: at last, someone is paying attention to these people’s situation. The field study period was long, lasting two years. This was my first time carrying out an ethnographic study. I liked the method a lot and the research became very important to me. I want to continue to highlight the experiences of marginalised people through ethnographic research,” Miettinen says.

“As a researcher, I was part of the day-to-day life of the care home and helped out when needed. For example, I pushed a wheelchair when we went for a walk. I had a role to play and I felt like I was given an insight into another world. I wanted to show the readers of the article this other world too,” Miettinen explains.

Before starting the fieldwork, Miettinen received empowering training on interaction which prioritises seeking interaction on the terms of the person with intellectual disability. This kind of interaction is based on touch and being present. After the same training, the nurse of one of the intellectually disabled people Miettinen observed, known as Anna in the study, saw Anna in a new way as a social being.

The process of writing the article was lengthy, and the manuscript was rejected twice before it was accepted. The process literally led through difficulty to victory.

“In my article, I try to describe non-linguistic interaction linguistically. It was liberating to realise that I needed to be able to articulate my subject in my mother tongue instead of writing about it in English. Before that, I had received feedback that I was choosing words whose connotations are problematic in one way or another.”

“I also started to make progress after Anthropologist Don Kulick urged me to forget the traditional structure of social science articles, in which a quote from an interviewee is followed by analysis. He encouraged me to describe recurring patterns of behaviour instead of focusing on quotes,” Miettinen explains.

Miettinen offers a few cautious tips for writing a research article.

“Of course, the research process must be based on proper research, and the research question must be interesting. In my own writing, I consider it important to hold the reader’s attention right from the start and to keep the tension going to the end. I don’t want the reader to have to put too much effort into reading my text.”

Sonja Miettinen won the Vuoden Tiedekynä academic writing award with her article Syvästi kehitysvammaisen aikuisen mahdollisuudet yhteisyyden kokemiseen – Etnografinen tutkimus sosiaalisesta vuorovaikutuksesta suomalaisissa ryhmäkodeissa (Opportunities for an Adult with Intellectual Disability to Experience Togetherness – Ethnographic Research on Social Interaction in Finnish Group Homes). The article was originally published in issue 85 (2020:2) of the journal Yhteiskuntapolitiikka.

The Vuoden Tiedekynä award was presented to Miettinen on 17 May 2022 at the Lauttasaari Manor. This year’s winner was chosen by Professor of Sociology Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen.

Read the award-winning article (in Finnish)