Social Education and Popular Education: A View from the South

Spider Art by Claire

Rosa-María Torres
Closing conference AIEJI XVII World Congress
“The Social Educator in a Globalised World”
Copenhagen, Denmark, 4–7 May 2009
(edited transcript of original presentation)


When I was invited by AIEJI (International Association of Social Educators) to be a keynote speaker of this world conference, I had only vague ideas of Social Education. I thought of it as a foreign, European concept and movement, distant from the realities, thinking and practices in the South (“developing countries”). Accepting this invitation was therefore for me both an honour and a research and learning opportunity.

I learned that this is an evolving European construct, with specificities in each country, with an ongoing internal debate about its nature, dimensions and purposes, and with growing presence in countries in the South. There is no European consensus on the denomination and definition of Social Education and on social professions in general. Socialpædagogen, the biweekly magazine of the Danish National Federation of Social Educators circulated at this congress, highlights diverse Social Education experiences throughout the world "working with children, young people and adults who need special care due to physical or mental disabilities, or social problems." One distinctive feature of Social Education is that it deals with vulnerable groups and with the entire lifespan.

It was not easy to find references to Social Education programmes in Africa and Asia. References were also scarce in Latin America and the Caribbean, beyond the hub created by AIEJI’s world conference held in Montevideo-Uruguay in November 2005. In Latin America, Uruguay is the country that has embraced Social Education in the most visible manner, taking the French model as initial source of inspiration. ADESU - Asociación de Educadores Sociales del Uruguay
is an active national association. Nearly 300 professional Social Educators have been trained over the past few years. Many of them are working in diverse intersections between government and non-government, academic and action-oriented programmes. Last week I was in Uruguay invited by the Ministry of Education and happened to meet some of them. There must be something good in this profession that is able to attract such bright, critical and socially committed young people.

There are activities in Brazil associated to the Popular Education movement. The Department of Education of the University of Sao Paulo, for example, has organized a series of International Encounters on Social Pedagogy, with the idea of institutionalizing it in Brazil as a profession linked to non-formal education, NGOs, and social programmes (See Portal de la Pedagogía Social . See also Associação dos Educadores e Educadoras Sociais do Estado de São Paulo - Aees SP). Through informal conversations with Latin American participants in this congress, other activities have surfaced: a Social Pedagogy programme started by a private university in Argentina; a small group operating in Chile; in Nicaragua, an institution that trained social educators for over two decades is not operating any more but there are ongoing activities linked to institutions in Spain. In general, it becomes apparent that initiatives termed Social Education in Latin America still have little visibility.

Social Education and Social Pedagogy

The term Social has come to be added, in several fields, to mean different or alternative

- The World Social Forum (WSF), organized by progressive forces in the South and in the North, was launched in 2001 and was held for the first time in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Since then, the WSF is run in parallel to the World Economic Forum held in Davos.
- Social Economy is expanding as an international movement with roots and practices in the South. It proposes an alternative economic model to the neoliberal model. Social/Solidarity Economy is a work-centred economy that places people at the centre, is concerned with solving the needs of all and with preserving ecological and social equilibrium, promotes human solidarity, collaboration and networking rather than individual or corporate accumulation of profit or power. (See for example RILESS, Red de Investigadores Latinoamericanos en Economía Social y SolidariaNetwork of Latin American Researchers in Social and Solidarity Economy). In some cases, a Social and Solidarity Pedagogy is associated to such alternative economic initiatives ( See, for example, the Programa Pedagogía Social y Solidaria organised by the Departamento Administrativo Nacional de la Economía Solidaria - DANSOCIAL in Colombia).
- Social movements have emerged in many countries as a new important social and political actor, especially in Latin America.

As for Social Education, the term in Germany and in the Nordic Countries continues to be Social Pedagogy, a tradition of progressive thinking and practice, often associated to, or translated as, "community education." Here is an explanation of the differences between both concepts, found in a leaflet available at a stand of this conference:

’Social Education’ is the official translation of the Danish term ‘Socialpædagogik’. In this module we will use the term ‘Social Pedagogy’ as it indicates the fact that social pedagogical care work embraces much more than what is usually conceived as ‘Social Education’. ‘Social Pedagogy’ provides a unifying concept of work with people in many formal and informal institutional settings.” (Social Education and Pedagogy in Denmark”, VIA University College, Peter Sabroe, Department for Social Education, leaflet).

In other contexts, differences are made between Social Education and Social Pedagogy. Again, there is no consensus on the use of these two terms in Europe.

Social Education and Popular Education

While the term Social Education is not familiar in most countries in the South, its practice is widely extended. In fact, in every region in the world we may find specific and endogenous emancipatory education movements. In Latin America, Educación Popular - Popular Education - is rooted especially among civil society organizations. Just like with Social Education, there is not one single definition and there are various trends within the Popular Education movement. Many associate it with Paulo Freire; others consider it a development that preceded and surpassed Freire, and that is nurtured by many sources. Many link it to adult and non-formal education; others consider Popular Education an embracing category applied to children, youth and adult education, in and out of school.

The term popular refers to the socio-economic status of learners/participants, to the context and to the purpose: promoting awareness, social participation and organization for people’s empowerment and social transformation. What defines the popular educator is his/her social and political commitment, not his or her educational and professional background. Popular educators often work as volunteers or with very little remuneration, and with some short training. Training and professionalization of popular educators are old requests.

The table below is an attempt to compare Social Education and Popular Education in their respective contexts. 

Comparison between Social Education and Popular Education

Social Education
Popular Education
(Latin America)
Historical context
1940s – wake of World War II
AIEJI (International Association for Social Educators). Original name Association Internationale des Éducateurs des Jeunes Inadaptés - created in 1951.

“From charity, assistencialism and philanthropy to social wellbeing as a human right.”
1960s-1970s – wake of Latin American military governments and dictatorships.

Brazil, Paulo Freire’s ideas and work.

Human liberation and emancipation.

Religious groups and churches involved.
Original target population
Homeless and orphaned children in the wake of World War II.
Illiterate adults (by 1950s half of the adult population in the region were illiterate).
Current target population (historical perspective)
Adults (disabled)
Third age
Social movements
Characterisation of target populations
Ill-adjusted, maladjusted or poorly adjusted
At risk
With special needs
Low schooling
Characteristics of educators
- Emphasis on professionalization and on continuous education and training.
- Defence of employment and of working conditions.

- Little attention to professionalisation or career development.
- Diverse training opportunities offered, often short. A few universities and NGOs offer university degrees.
- Often work on voluntary basis.
Organisation of educators
Organised in unions and/or professional associations.
National, European and international organizations.
- Not organised in unions or professional associations, sometimes organised in local associations.
- Local, sometimes national and also international organisations (i.e. CEAAL - Consejo de Educación de Adultos de América Latina, NGO network).
- Social movements have their own Popular Education bodies and programmes.
Identified similar occupations
Social workers, teachers, nurses, psychologists, therapists.
Teachers, social workers, extension workers, community agents, community leaders, cultural animators.
Work environments
Mainly non-formal education, non-school environments
Areas of work
Specialised education
Conflict mediation
Sociocultural animation
Adult education
School education
Environmental education
Leisure education
All potential areas
Social change
Social justice
Awareness (Conscientisation)
Social change
Political change
Social justice
Culture of rights
Learners' voices
Learners' voices
Dimensions of work
Pedagogical, social, political and ethical

   Elaborated by Rosa-María Torres

In the South most educators are ‘social educators’

The majority of educators in ‘developing countries’, within and outside the school system, deal with problematic socio-economic contexts and with major challenges facing individuals, families, groups, local communities and national societies.

The situation of rights denied to the a large portion to the population in many countries in the South presses the public school system, and educators working in it and on its margins, to deal with unsatisfied basic needs of the school population (i.e. food, health, affection, security, etc.), whose satisfaction would normally correspond to the State and to the family. This erodes the school’s main teaching-learning mission and further jeopardises the quality of educational provision. Thus, the borders between social workers and educators as well as between social action and political action, tend to be thin and blurred. 

When poverty affects the majority of the population, economic and social exclusion/inclusion imply massive phenomena that go beyond well-intentioned small-scale interventions or focused ‘alleviating poverty’ policies. Poverty is a structural condition that, as such, requires major changes in the current economic, social and political model that leads to massive exclusion and poverty. Such model and its change is no longer national in scope; it has been deepened and globalised, thus requiring global alternative thinking and concerted action. Social educators and other progressive forces in the North and in the South need to work together in the building of a new global ethics that fights social injustice and promotes equality at local, national, regional and global level. Democratizing global awareness, global protest and global solidarity vis à vis the most vulnerable majorities and minorities in the world is at the very heart of the efforts towards global social networking.

The objective is not only good quality education for all, but good quality of life for all

However, the notions of ‘quality of life’, ‘welbeing’ or ‘prosperity’ are not universal. The traditional ‘developed’/’non-developed’ or ‘less developed’ dichotomy used to classify countries, is being revised. ‘Human development’ and human satisfaction and realization are not linear categories defined between more or less and measurable by universal quantitative indicators; they are cultural, social and political constructions shaped in concrete historical circumstances.

The notions of ‘quality of life’ and ‘personal satisfaction’ adopted by the Gallup Worldwide Quality of Life Survey are not necessarily perceived as such in countries in the South. Gallup’s ‘quality of life’ places consumption
at the centre. The question asked in the survey is: “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your standard of living, that is, with all the things you can buy and do?.” On the other hand, the concept of Buen Vivir (‘Good Living’, Sumak Kawsay in Quechua indigenous language) in the Andean countries in Latin America places harmony at the center and is defined by three relational dimensions: harmony with nature, with oneself, and with others.

Global networks, global solidarity

In a globalised world, the role of agents of social change acquires also a global dimension, a global dimension that honours diversity, equality, inter- and multi-culturality, and rejects universal models, homogenous policies and perpetual hegemonic North/South relationships and ‘cooperation’ patterns. The wider the scope and the territories reached throughout the world, the greater the need to acknowledge and incorporate diversity to vision and to practice in all spheres.

The new challenges posed by the many world crises – the development crisis, the financial crisis, the food crisis, the energy crisis, the ecology crisis, the work crisis, the education crisis – call for radical rethinking, reshaping and re-articulation of education and learning systems worldwide. They also create new opportunities and urgencies for networking and solidarity, configuring new frontiers that challenge conventional ‘developed’/’less developed’ and North/South distinctions. The time is ripe for stronger multidisciplinary, trans-sectoral and inter-institutional linkages as well as for more and better-coordinated work with organized groups, families and communities rather than with isolated individuals.

There are conditions for effectively adopting Lifelong Learning (LLL) as a new global paradigm for education and learning, overcoming the dual educational agenda -- LLL for the North and primary education for the South. Social Education is well positioned in this endeavor: learning beyond the family and the school system, an ageless category and a continuum.

The alternative and alterative nature of Social Education

The world has become a hostile and uncertain place to live for the majority of the world’s population. Inequality within and between countries is growing. In many regions and countries (both developing and developed), the battles against poverty, unemployment, hunger, school dropout, and others are not making progress. For millions of people, and especially for the most disadvantaged, the word future does not entail hope anymore.

In this context, the room for Social Educators is likely to expand. Many will view it as a damage-control device, ready to fill in the holes left by education and learning systems that are not doing their job properly -- the family, the school system, mass media, politics. Not accepting such remedial and compensatory role implies among others assuming an explicit political role vis a vis the need for systemic and structural change at local, national, regional and world level.

In fact, all education should be social, empathetic, relevant, contextualised, differentiated, responsive to specific needs and cultures, aimed at enhancing learners’ critical thinking, empowerment, autonomy, participation and organisation for personal and social transformation. Being alternative is not enough; the real challenge is becoming also alterative -- a social, political, pedagogical and ethical force that pushes others towards major changes in all these spheres.

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