Art has been considered a way of enabling participation and creating equality in social work. However, there are concerns that participatory practices are co-opted and used to serve the needs of the powerful. This paper, based on an ongoing ethnographic doctoral research project, analyzes how arts-based practices, particularly those of applied theatre and performance, can be used as means for participation and democracy in the context of social work. The project is conducted through participating in two processes that utilized arts-based practices in municipal social work with adults in Finland. The research objective is to critically analyze what kind of participation is created through the use of multisensory and embodied arts-based practices. The practices studied are playback theatre (a form of improvised theatre in which a company of actors perform enactments of stories told to them by the audience) and social circus (offering guided circus activities to groups living in precarious personal or social situations).
The two participating groups consisted of service users and social workers who were co-developing social services and exploring the use of arts-based practices together with professional artists. The groups also held dialogical meetings with stakeholders, such as local social service officials and politicians. Data was gathered from 2016 to 2018 through participant observation, photographs, video and audio recordings and interviews.
According to preliminary analysis, arts-based practices can be used to create and illuminate common ground between professionals, stakeholders and service users. Arts can affect the power dynamics between social workers and service users. However, there are strong limitations to social service users being able to influence their services or the society in general, and these need to be addressed also while engaging in arts-based practices.