A social pedagogical perspective
on milieu therapy
Milieu therapy comprises different theoretical perspectives and
treatment ideologies. Some perspectives focus on treatment, the
aim of which is to change the person in the situation, while other
perspectives have their emphasis on how resources can be used to
promote change through activities and interaction. The main focus
is on what is being done in conjunction with others, analysing how
possibilities for action can be limited, and the meaning of participa-
tion as affording the opportunity to learn, see and understand the
possibilities in the context where the interaction is taking place.
Different perspectives on milieu therapy often limit attention
to either the treatment process or the residential milieu, and even
when both the individuals and the environment are considered, they
are often regarded as separate entities, rather than being defined as
mutually interdependent and interactively related. Even people
who claim to work on a milieu therapeutic basis in a residential
institution for young people, when asked what they are doing, will
state that they are working with treatment, and will use a variety of
terms from ego psychology as transference to parallel processes and
projection to describe what they are doing.
The statement builds on teaching and supervision situations with staff from
schools and treatment homes in Western Sweden, and participatory observa-
The ideal therapeutic treatment milieu is described by Gunders-
son in terms where the milieu is supposed to contain five thera-
peutic activities: containment, support, structure, involvement and
validation (Gundersson J. 1978). Gundersson’s variables were found
to be present in a psychiatric ward that he studied. If the staff were
asked to give examples, or, as in my case, a researcher is given the
opportunity to participate as an observer in such an institution, it
becomes clear, both from what is said and from observations made,
that what they are really doing is acting in pedagogic processes. The
title of the institution which is the object of the present study is
‘school and treatment home’, and the staff talked about the school
as the core of the institution. The minimum of educational training
for staff members was 30 ect credits in social pedagogy.
Björn Widinghoff (2000) and Christer Cederlund (1996) have
made similar observations. Even if the pedagogical dimension is
mentioned in many of the descriptions and definitions of what
milieu therapy is, or should be, pedagogical perspectives and learn-
ing theories are seldom used as a theoretical base for action. These
important points of departure are often displaced to give space to
other theoretical perspectives. Widinghoff argues that even if other
authors have stressed the pedagogic dimension and the importance
of creating a learning milieu, they have not succeeded very well in
developing the pedagogic perspective (Widinghoff 2000, 304).
Through his research, Crister Stensmo (1979) experienced that
many therapeutic communities that treated people addicted to
alcohol or drugs regard the work they carry out as pedagogical.
‘A therapeutic community can be looked upon as an educational
system’ (Stensmo 1979, 237). Sven Hessle (1985, 115–116) prefers to
talk about social pedagogical communities instead of therapeutic
What does it mean to work from a social pedagogical perspective
in milieu therapy? What is the difference between this perspective
and the contextual didactic perspective in which a milieu is created
that promotes the possibility of constructing new knowledge or
gestaltning experiences? Is what we encounter in fact two sides of
the same coin?
Traditionally social pedagogy includes child protection (Rasmus-
sen 1984; Lihme 1988; Kvaran 1996) and cultural work that is
involved with both youngsters and adults (Addams 1910; Swedner
& Swedner 1995). Cultural pedagogy, however, is close to sociocul-
tural animation where work is often undertaken with adults in an
educational situation. The pedagogue is a socialiser who works to
strengthen people’s awareness of their own abilities and their con-
textual resources (Talerud 1985).
During the 1970s, there was great debate about how human
beings could be integrated in society and how to work with net-
works. From the theoretical perspective of social pedagogy, it is
stressed that the human being develops in an interactive process
with others. Social pedagogical theory has a group perspective.
Ronnby, for example, argues that social pedagogy can be used as
part of community work when working with groups from a mobili-
sation perspective. He also believes that socio-political strategies are
necessary to build a platform for social actions where the members
of the mobilising group can stimulate each other and exchange
ideas (Ronnby 1981; see also Wahlberg 1998).
Social pedagogy consists of two words: social and pedagogy and
the discipline’s founders have been inspired by social philosophy
and social theory. In his Philosophy of Law, Hegel (1821) argues that
three integrating mechanisms are important for the individual in
becoming an integrated member of the national society. In society
there are three different spheres where the individual learns the ethi-
cal code: Family, Civil Society and the State. The family is the basis
for the spontaneous learning processes such as work, standard of
living, love and care all based on closeness, relationship and kinship.
The civil society comes next with trade, economic and industrial life
(today this is called the market), local groups, religious communities
and all other sorts of communities. Lastly comes the national state
where the legitimate law is or is not transferred into legal law.
These are thoughts that can be rediscovered in Comenius’
Didactica Magna (1667/1989: Chapter 28). Hegel meant that the
local ethical norms had a double nature. Firstly they were the
basic demands for the individual that he must do things for the
common best, secondly the ethical norms were developed and con-
firmed through a working community and by doing things together
Natorp (1899/1974) was inspired by Kant’s thoughts on the
life of the will, and by Tönnies’ theories of ‘Gemeinschaft’ and
‘Gesellschaft’. Talerud (1985) believes that social pedagogy is close
to Durcheim’s sociology inspired pedagogy, American educational
sociology, Dewey’s democratic ideal of socialising children (Talerud
1985, 25) and Kerschensteiner’s citizen education through group
work and self-government. Kerschensteiner was inspired by Dewey’s
learning by doing and the southern German working culture.
The theory of activity was put into practice by Harald Rasmus-
sen. He defines social pedagogy as an activity where one works with
a purpose, and towards a goal. The activities are aimed at caring for,
raising, socialising and educating the child inside the framework
of a residential institution. He argues that one has to differentiate
between social pedagogy and special pedagogy; the latter belonging
more to the sciences of medicine and psychology than to pedagogy
Jenner states that milieu therapy describes different treatment and
therapeutic principles, while community therapy, social psychiatry
and social therapy describe different areas of treatment (Jenner
2000). In the therapeutic community, a therapeutic learning milieu
is created as a small model of a societal community where different
civic roles can be experimented with, and in which the socio-cul-
tural process is an integral part of the treatment (Jones 1968). Max-
well Jones (1968; 1973) talks of the ‘living-learning situation’. The
creation of a therapeutic community, in his view, calls for learning
of a peculiar immediate and personal nature on the part of all those
involved in treatment.
To some extent this can take place in a day-to-day fashion, but
particular crises that arise in the community offer opportunities
for intensified learning, or what we call living-learning experiences.
These involve the face-to-face confrontation of all the people con-
cerned, and the joint analysis of the current interpersonal difficulty.
Each individual is helped to become more aware of the thinking
and feelings of the others, and this leads to a more comprehensive
and holistic view of the situation as it affects each of the person
involved. This exchange to a great extent revolves around conscious
factors. Frequent exposure to situations of this kind, if handled skil-
fully, can contribute to personality growth and maturation (Jones
1968, 105– 112; Jones 1973).
Milieu therapeutic work comprises three basic principles: mutual
(reciprocal) communication, joint resolutions and the development
of a therapeutic culture. The key concepts are democracy that
demands dialogue, voluntary participation and responsibility for the
daily living, experience, learning and teaching situation in which
new roles can be experimented with. A tolerance for symptoms
and an openness to share what is being achieved is also important
(Fog 2000; Jenner 2000). Birgitta Bechgaard (1995) has stressed that
milieu therapy has its starting point in specific actions, and this is
something which differentiates it from psychotherapy; its methods
are both psychological and pedagogical. Kvaran (1996) sees milieu
therapy as caring, raising/socialising and treatment. Through milieu
therapy the young individual is afforded the opportunity to create
new relationships and gain new experiences.
If the term milieu therapy is to be used, it is necessary to describe
what it is in the milieu that makes it therapeutic. The milieu itself
cannot function neutrally (Vedeler 1973), rather it must be created
in relation to the clients that are being treated (Aichorn 1978; Bettle-
heim 1950; Redl &Wineman 1952 a&b). At first glance this state-
ment seems obvious, but in fact this is not so. How can a milieu
that functions as a therapeutic catalyst and a learning environment
be created? The contextual didactic provides a theoretical perspec-
tive on how to create a learning milieu in everyday life that affords
an opportunity for development. From this perspective learning and
development are produced through the actions and activities of the
human beings who are participating in the everyday situations.
What is a social pedagogical perspective?
The Greek concept pedagogue is a compound of three aspects
‘pais’ — child, ‘agein’ — guidance ‘paidagogos’ (Talerud 1985), and
also ‘agogy’—change. The focus in social pedagogical praxis is on
the social and emotional side of raising and guiding a child into
the socio-political and sociocultural frame of a society. This means
that it is necessary to work from both a socialising and re-socialising
perspective, and to be conscious of the production and reproduc-
tion of meaning in the context where the social pedagogical situa-
The principle of social pedagogy takes its starting point in
Comenius’ didactic (1667) What, how, when and through what
means? Comenius’ main focus was on the how aspect (Krogsmark
1989, 21). He believed that both girls and boys should be educated:
the girls so that they could educate their own children. It was
important, Comenius believed, to work both with the senses and
cognitive aspects in raising a child. The child should be guided into
the sociocultural community by means of showing and presenting
(Chapter 28:4) and later into society (28:8) This entailed learning
through doing (26:11) but also learning by following those more
experienced adults (26:12).
This can be rediscovered in Pestalozzi’s pedagogics and in
Dewey’s learning by doing. It can also be seen in Marx’s concep-
tualising of praxis (Kroksmark 1989). The human being’s need for
guidance, and the fact that perception and apprehension have to be
verified by systematic observations leads us to another principle in
social pedagogical thinking—to pay attention, see, reflect, under-
stand and choose a method of action. The individual in question
provides another factor to be taken into consideration, what is his
or her life history and how this ‘governs’ his or her way of perceiv-
ing, understanding and choosing a course of action.
Social pedagogy was developed as a response to the social misery
that followed the industrial revolution. Work became labour, and
the former work communities were changed. A new conceptuali-
sation of what work was occurred. Concepts such as experience,
group solidarity and togetherness lost their meaning. Children
became part of the labour force; they were no longer guided into
the working collective and socialised by a more experienced adult,
and thereby missed their citizen education. Poverty, starvation and
epidemic diseases were endemic and child mortality rates were high.
The next generation of the labour force was in danger.
At the same time a feeling of both guilt and fear grew among
people with a sense of humanity. Something had to be done! The
socialising community had to be re-established, and socio-political
reforms and social work with social pedagogy as the pedagogy of
distress (Notpedagogik) became the answer to solving social prob-
lems. Children were seen as the primary rehabilitation / re-socialis-
ing objects. (Pestalozzi in Rusk 1979; Natorp 1899; Makarenko 1977;
Konrad in Mertens 1998; Rasmussen 1984; Madsen 1995; Lorenz
1996). Direct social pedagogy was directed towards a re-socialising
process in institutional settings while indirectly social pedagogical
work aimed at promoting and recapturing people’s ‘own’ culture.
This cultural and educational social pedagogical community work
took place in the settlements in London, Chicago (Addams 1910;
Swedner & Swedner 1995) Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen.
The word social pedagogy was used in 1851, in the book Weg-
weiser zur Bildung für deutsche Lehrer by the German educator and
school politician, Friedrich Adolf Diesterweg. He looked upon
social pedagogy as an individual pedagogy. Children, he believed,
should be ‘helped’ to behave and to become responsible by means
of the educational power that was in the milieu. They had to be
integrated through commitment, engagement (Verplichtung), train-
ing and education. Poverty had to be prevented by socio-political
reforms, and the pedagogue had to be conscious of how to draw the
line between acting pedagogically and reacting politically against
the result of the industrial destitution. He did not see social peda-
gogy as a reconstruction of community.
Paul Natorp (1899/1974) was also developing the concept of
social pedagogy. It was his belief that social pedagogy is aimed at
participating in the process of educating people so they get a firm
character and can be integrated into the community and the society
where they are living. He sees social pedagogy as the core in the
socialising process. The new generations have to be guided into the
cultural community in which they are participating.
Natorp (1974) also stresses that looking upon the concept of
socialisation as a case for the individual is an abstraction. Rather
human beings are socially formed in an interactive process and gov-
erned by social norms both in connection with feelings and the will.
We become human by participating in the construction of human
culture in the community where we are living. Our understanding,
common sense, comprehension and intelligence are formed in the
context of where we grow up. Pedagogy must, therefore, be a social
pedagogy that takes its starting point where and how the individual
is living his/her life in relation to the life of the cultural community
in which he/she is participating as a whole, and how he or she is
interacting in different forms of communities. From the family,
friends, peer group, neighbourhood, to the municipality and the
state (Comenius a. a. Hegel a. a. Natorp 1974 p 90– 94).
Human beings learn and are educated in participation with
others. They learn to act, to see as and to conceptualise by observ-
ing and listening to what adults present; their forms of life in the
sociocultural context they are living and how they are doing it.
They become conscious of what their world represents and how to
behave there, but also that there might be different rules in other
social contexts. They learn to perceive the meaning of the world of
ideas and thoughts through verbal socialisation (Natorp 6th edition
1974). In the post-modern society, they must learn to perceive and
behave in different worlds.
Social pedagogy as a participatory learning process
Klaus Mollenhauer (1996) argues that in the process of the repro-
duction of meaning in raising and educating children, we show
what is important for us. It is difficult to think of an educational
action where the adult, whether consciously or unconsciously, does
not tell something about his or her cultural values or forms of
language (Wittgenstein 1981). Wittgenstein believes that speaking
a language is part of an activity where our words convey meaning
through our actions.
Mollenhauer stresses that the more complicated the social life is,
the more difficult it becomes for the child to get in touch with what
is needed for socialisation and education. When the child’s everyday
world does not contain what he/she needs for the future or when
everyday events in the community have become too complex, basic
pedagogical problems become of great significance — how, when
and what can the child learn from the immediate experience they
gain? Adults have to present both their own forms of life and guide
the child into that part of the sociocultural world and history that
is outside their nearest field of experience. The adult has to select
what is to be told or shown.
This is what Mollenhauer calls representation. The socialpeda-
gogue has to be aware of what she presents and represents, and
what, how, when, and by which means children or young people
can learn from their own life biography and experience. How does
the cultural store they bring with them correspond to the contextual
norms and values of the group in which they are situated and what
is necessary for them to learn about from other parts of society? In
order to succeed it is necessary to believe that the child or young
person can be educated, and that such processes are helped by self-
activity (Mollenhauer 1996).
Klaus Mollenhauer is referring to the Utopia he found in Pesta-
lozzi’s work when he built his community based model on farming
and a boarding school. In the morning, the children were educated,
and during the afternoon, they took part in the practical work in
the house and the garden or they went on excursions to study
nature. Pestalozzi’s work was based on a humanitarian, democratic
and social dimension. He stressed the need to develop relation-
ships through the use of feelings, engagement and involvement.
He wanted ‘to warm their hearts and develop their minds, and
through self-instruction to elevate in them a sense of inner dignity
and worth of their nature’ (Rusk 1979, 139).
Mollenhauer believes that when the forms of life no longer pro-
vide meaning, then a base for responsible education has to be found
in the basic elements. This element is not the abstract construction
of an interactional structure between the adult and the child, but
a concrete social situation in a household. The household is both
built on a personal relationship with regards to what has to be done,
and the material problems living in a community brings. The life
in a household or a community became one of the cornerstones in
milieu therapy as the field of situational learning.
Experiences from cultural social pedagogical work have shown
the importance of working with young people’s life stories, and also
that this must take its starting point from their experience horizon,
although of course it does not have to stay there. A learning milieu
and a team feeling (Talerud 1995) were created in projects where the
young people had to work as a team and make use of their different
competences in their participation in the production process. They
had to show responsibility and no one person was more important
than the other (Talerud 1995). Other projects showed that second-
ary control from the pedagogue was diminished. The pedagogical
process developed from law and order to love and order (Lihme
1988). Lihme defines social pedagogy as a process in which three
parts participate: the child or young person, the pedagogue and
what they are doing together. All parts are involved and attention is
focused on what they are doing together instead of how the child/
young person is behaving, and both can make use of the opportu-
nities created by mutual engagement and commitment. Through
this a relationship could be constructed, and not one that had been
artificially created (Makarenko 1975; Lihme 1988; Freire 1972).
According to the activity theory, a human being is what he or she is
doing. Our feelings, values and thoughts are developed through our
own everyday activities. Vygotsky (1978) sees activities as the princi-
pal agents of cognitive development. He believes that we have both
goals and motives in our actions. He defines the difference between
a child’s developmental level as defined by the type of problem that
a child can solve independently and the proximal developmental
level problems which the child can solve with an adult or together
with a more experienced child at the same age. Vygotsky stresses
the importance of experience as a starting point for new adventures
(Vygotsky 1978; Vygotsky & Luria 1956 in Bronfenbrenner 1993,
Barbara Rogoff (1993, 122) focuses on the interactive process in
learning through problem solving, working both alone or in co-
operation, and in activities that are linked to cultural institutions
inherited from previous generations, which are transformed to fit
current needs and also anticipate future need. She defines the differ-
ence between apprenticeship, guided participation and appropria-
tion in this way. ‘Where as the metaphor of apprenticeship calls
attention to the sociocultural organization of cognitive activity, and
guided participation refers to interpersonal interaction and arrange-
ments appropriation is the process by which individuals transform
their skills and understanding through their participation. Appro-
priation occurs in the context of engagement (often with others)
in a sociocultural activity, but focuses on the personal processes
of transformation that are part of an individual’s participation.’
(Rogoff 1993, 138).
Barbara Rogoff also stresses that children’s social interactions and
involvement in activities are dynamic and inseparable from the cul-
tural context, in which children engage in shared thinking as well as
the comparison of ideas with companions in varying levels of skilled
relationships, and which also vary in the symmetry of status. These
variations in skills and status of partners are likely to be important
to the full richness of the understanding of skilled cultural activ-
ity that children can develop. She suggests that the apprenticeship
model is often applied to systems of practice that are valued by the
reader. For example, she argues that ‘Children’s literacy develops
through participation in a community of readers and writers, and
skill in weaving develops through participation in weaving with
more skilled weavers using the tools of weaving in the context of
this economic activity. However, the apprenticeship model can also
be applied to understanding the development of practices the reader
may prefer to prevent, such as learning to participate as a victim,
and perpetrator in abusive relationships, or learning to handle life
problems through aggression or drugs’ (Rogoff 1993, 149).
Contextual didactics in institutional care
In 1997–1998, I was supervising a contextual didactic project called
‘freedom in institutional care’. In an earlier study (Fog 1998 a & b),
I described the process of developing a learning organisation in
the context of a ward in a residential institution for young women
taken into care by the local authorities. The article can be read as a
narrative description of what it means to a researcher to take part
in a participatory action research process. I stressed the importance
of focusing on the sociocultural understanding in the organisation.
New praxis demands that a focus is placed on the experience of the
employees’ life forms, their way of working and from what theoreti-
cal perspective they perceive what is happening. This knowledge is
used as a starting point for understanding what is going on in the
different person-to-person situations, and to question the estab-
lished way of working and the working culture.
The process of developing ‘Local knowledge’ demands a double
competence from the researcher; the gift of being able to handle
emotional processes that are prefaced on the creation of trust, and
the ability to take part in rational processes of decision-making and
planning. The participatory research design gave the young women
who had been taken into residential care the possibility of influenc-
ing and participating in the shaping of the living areas when the
ward was being rebuilt. The consequences were that they felt a sense
of responsibility for these areas, and ensured that newcomers to the
ward learned how to behave so that ‘nothing happened’.
To take part in such dialogic social pedagogical processes requires
time. Democracy as a form of life demands time for talking about
what is happening, arguing for what is felt to be right and wrong,
as well as an openness to accepting criticism and protests. It is a
process in which the points of view of others are listened to and
considered as a possibility for gaining an understanding of the
other’s world. As time went by, the staff managed to discuss openly
how they were involved and engaged in the different everyday situ-
ations, and also to discuss the conflicts that arose and how they
The staff were very good in one-to-one situations, but they did
not observe or interact with the destructive forces in the group, and
at times destructive power games emerged. They became conscious
of the power that is embedded in close relationships and how to
influence the lifestyle of a young woman without colonising and
manipulating. To show trust is to surrender and become vulnerable
or as K.G. Løgstrup expresses it ‘we are carrying each other’s life in
our hands’ (Løgstrup 1986, 32). To show trust means that you do
not have to think about whether or not you trust the other person,
this happens implicitly.
The staff were working from an ecological cycle perspective with
animals and plants. This became a learning situation for both the
young women and the staff as they were working with the meaning
of everyday situations. The young women were part of the project,
and also had individual activities together with staff members of dif-
ferent ages. Sometimes the question could be asked as to who was
guiding whom in the situation in which they participated. From a
social pedagogical perspective they were ‘catching’ and using every-
day situations as they arose, and sometimes they were ‘surrendering’
to the situation in order to learn more about it (Wolf 1976).
The staff were using both their own and the young women’s
experiences and resources as a source of strength in order to try to
develop and then cross borders for action, development and change.
The actions and the interaction between the young people taken
into residential care and the staff were inseparable from the situ-
ations that appear in the culturally formed institutional context.
Now and again it happened that the residential care which was sup-
posed to be a socialising (corrective) process became a destructive
process where young women were guided by their peers and learnt
the ‘tricks of the trade’ of prostitution. They began to develop the
identity of a whore in the way they were dressing and their use of
makeup, and at the same time they were challenging the staff.
When these situations were described in the supervision group,
the staff became conscious of their class-specific norms, values and
ideals. In their view, what it meant to be well-behaved and ‘become
respectable’ (Skeggs 1997) often clashed with the ideals of the young
women. The discussions showed the importance of the effects of
the social milieu, and how there was a need for openness and an
opportunity to discuss these different ideals and the consequences
of dressing in this manner.
The concept of contextual didactics is concerned with a learning
milieu, and its purpose is to create favourable working conditions
and activity milieus that result in individual and collective learn-
ing where experiences are appropriated (Mattson 1995 in Löfberg
and Ohlsson ed., 139). In contextual didactics, learning from the
perspective of the learner is seen in terms of constructing some-
thing. The contextual world surrounding the individual becomes
something that is still changing, and new aspects and possibilities
appear. The world is to be appropriated. From this perspective, the
world becomes more than the natural environment, it also includes
other human beings with their comprehension, understanding,
ideas, norms for behaving and values (Löfberg 1990). A key concept
developed by James Gibbson (1979) is affordance. The theoretical
basis of this concept is gestalt psychology and Gibbson emphasises
that the milieu itself invites action (Widinghoff 2000). The project
showed that the activity could provide the opportunity to talk, and
that time becomes an important factor. Participation in a social
pedagogical situation requires time, and must require time.
‘When we are working together in the kitchen, I observe how
much noise she is making, slamming the pots and so on, and it
shows me how she is feeling, and I try to get her to talk about it.
Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I have to wait for her to come
and talk about it. Actually she has started to do so…’ ‘Sometimes
when we go up and visit the lambs it calms her down, and we can
talk about what is needed to fulfil our project, we are working on
the hen yard, you know…’.
Doing something and communicating what and why this is
being done in a working situation with a young person taken
into residential care provides you with an opportunity to see other
sides of his or her capacities, and the active changes that take place
during the activity. Adults can gain perspectives on their patterns
of action and how they appropriate their experiences. Working in
a project with animals also provides the opportunity to talk about
existential issues such as life and death. To be the midwife when
the lambs are born provides an opportunity to show responsibility
in the real world, and also to experience that death can be a part
of birth, and that human beings cannot control nature. Slowly it is
possible to construct and establish a relationship through the activ-
ity. It is a relationship that can involve conflicts, disagreements and
confrontations and also sorrow, pain, joy and having fun together.
In the later situations the hierarchy in the relationship between the
adult and young person can be diminished, and both participants
reveal who they are and what they enjoy doing.
In Dewey’s words: ‘Experience has to be formulated in order
to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it,
seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact
it has with the life of another so it may be got into such form that
he can appreciate its meaning’ (Dewey 1916, 6 quoted from Rogoff
a.a.). Dewey continues by saying that except in the case of banali-
ties or something that is obvious, it is important to make use of
imagination and fantasy to incorporate parts of the other’s experi-
ences in order to be able, in a sensible way, to tell about one’s own
experience. All communication is reminiscent of art. Every social
situation affords an opportunity for development to those who are
involved. It is when it is founded on a form it loses its vital force.
(Dewey 1997, 39– 40).
The situation he is describing is a person-to-person, interactive
process that leads to change where it becomes important to have
a sensitive ear and an eye for non-verbal communication and the
meaning of sociocultural, gender-specific experiences. It demands
Sociocultural competence in a residential institution (Fog 2000)
is defined as knowledge about one’s own culture, its concepts and
ideas, and about how to read these in relation to those of others
(in this case clients, apprentices, young people and colleagues), and
how to select and appropriate action on the basis of this knowledge.
Sociocultural competence is seen as personal knowledge (Polanyi
Michael 1983) with tacit presumptions that function as an active
Someone who is socioculturally competent pays attention to,
and is conscious of his or her reflections in action (Schön 1983;
Molander 1993). She or he is influenced by the tacit presumptions
that function as the active background imbedded in culture, norms
and the value system. He or she sees this in relation to what they
have learned through the educational process in which they have
participated and in relation to which the culture of the local insti-
tutional organisation is of importance. The person who is the bearer
of a sociocultural competence takes into consideration what sort of
meaning is produced and reproduced in the institutional setting.
They must be aware of what patterns they are bringing into the
interactional process, and how they influence what is being reacted
to, what is seen and what is ignored, and what sorts of action are
being taken. It is the art of using everyday situations and experiences
in professional work, reacting, embracing and sometimes surrender-
ing to the situations as they occur, and making use of them. It is the
use of one’s personal knowing and knowledge (Polanyi 1967; 1969;
1983) combined with conscious awareness that the obvious is not
always so obvious. Self-knowledge has to be reflected on especially
when working with people from other cultures or lifeforms. The
theoretical knowledge that governs an individual’s explanations and
observations has to be seen as a historical, cultural and contextual
construction. When the client-group changes it might be necessary
to change perspective.
The socioculturally competent socialpedagogue works on the
basis of personal knowledge learnt though participation in both his
or her culture and the one in which he or she lives and works. She
acknowledges how this socioculural institutional understanding and
knowledge functions and how the values in life forms and modes
of help act as a tacit presumption for her work. It is suggested that
some of the old truths in social work should be revised. Know your-
self in relation to the other and know your local socio materialistic
field. Seeing the possibilities in reality creates new social pedagogic
possibilities in institutional settings.
I started this paper by stating that very often when describing
their work, people who work with milieu therapy talk about treat-
ment and not pedagogic work. It seems as if what Mary Theophi-
lakis in Behandlernas hus is naming ‘the effect of history on the
present’ still dominates milieu therapy. Once pedagogy in residen-
tial work was corrective work, often suppressive and humiliating, or
it was a form of behaviour correction. The group of clients changed
from being maladjusted youths who had had to learn to behave and
become respectable, to early disturbed and disorganised children
who were difficult to control or, as Redl and Wineman (1952a)
expressed it, “children who hate”.
These children had to interact in a therapeutic milieu and be
treated so that they could rebuild or construct their capital of trust.
They had to build or reconstruct their ego-functions and conse-
quently psychological theories came into work as a platform for
understanding what was going on in their different everyday situ-
ations. The ‘how’ was deported into the background and it was as
if it was expected if you understood you did not have to think of
how to choose a course of action. Rather, it was seen as important
to work on developing relationships as a subject to a subject (Buber)
and to take part in a communicative process where the power was
Earlier authors who had discussed how to create a milieu that did
not cause the child or young person who had been taken into care
a sociological shock (Redl & Wineman 1952b) were forgotten. This
could be, for example, how to work with key situations (Bettelheim
1950) which sometimes require a back-to-basics approach, such as
learning to use toilet paper, brushing teeth, taking a shower so
people can come close to you physically without feeling disgusted.
The milieu has to be a therapeutic instrument and it has to be
planned so that it invites further learning. This means that its aims
have to be discussed in terms of how, when and through which
means. An institution that purports the use of milieu therapy must
take into consideration basic principles (such as democracy that
demands a dialogue, voluntary participation, responsibility in daily
life, experience and the learning situation).
My observations showed that the easiest thing to work with was
responsibility because it was so easy to see when the young people
were irresponsible. Usually, the focus was on the young person and
not on the interactive situation between two or more partners.
Sometimes it was a question of age as to who was the most respon-
sible. However the older participant could resort to the use of force
if the younger had forgotten that he or she was part of a hierarchi-
cal system or if he or she became too troublesome. Democracy was
difficult to practice.
It was also difficult to learn to look upon the creative survival
strategies that appeared as destructive actions as a resource that had
to be transformed. It was as if the meaning of the words democracy
and responsibility was diminished to who it was that was going to
decide. The dialogic process how a decision could be reached and
how to take action as a result of the decision were not taken into
consideration. It was difficult to let the young people take part in
the planning of the everyday life on the ward. So when planning
processes were to take place in the group on the ward it became
quite chaotic. The staff had to learn to explain what they meant,
why they were saying something, and how they had come to a cer-
tain decision. But as time went on the young women took part in
forming the rules on the ward, they learned to be the chairwoman
of a meeting and they showed responsibility so that decisions were
in fact implemented.
Therapy is seen as working from a psychological or psychiatric
perspective even if the terms used are work therapy and other
medical treatments (Hagqvist 2000). Sven Hessle’s term ‘social
pedagogical milieus’ might be more appropriate if the key princi-
ples from milieu therapy are practised. This involves the creation
of a contextual didactic milieu that provides opportunities for
learning processes. Here we can utilise Pestalozzi’s household as
the field of situational learning and to plan this we need to put
Comenius’ pedagogic principles — what, how, when and through
what means—into action. Guided participation might be a start-
ing point that is followed by planned activities with a purpose and
a goal when the final goal is that the young person should become
increasingly independent and prepared to live her life outside the
institution. The consciousness of the power element in a close
relationship is always a truthful follower in the social pedagogical
process. It is necessary to work from the knowledge that the rela-
tionship is not permanent. The socialpedagogue is just a person in
an institution who is acting as a midwife in the process of building
a relationship capital and who is also in the process of helping the
person to gain the tools so he or she can be empowered and manage
the life outside the institutional setting.
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