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The essence of social pedagogy

Paul Stephens


I’m currently writing an academic text. The provisional title is, The Essence of Social Pedagogy. I have some misgivings about this title because social pedagogy is interdisciplinary by definition. That is spelt out in the adjective – Social – and the noun – Pedagogy – that together announce its soul.

For all that, I believe that a quandary only arises if one rigidly demarcates the two domains: the social and the pedagogic. I don’t do that. Instead, I regard social pedagogy as a fusion rather than an entity. Moreover, in the fusion, it is possible to discern different weightings.

When I study generalized linear models on my own in the early hours, and all is silent, this is an almost exclusively pedagogic event. Permit me to give pedagogy a 98% weighting on the “social” and the “pedagogy” weighing scale. On the other hand, when I am with my friends watching my favourite football team, Arsenal, playing the game, this is an overwhelmingly social event. Chants and other rituals are so well rehearsed that pedagogic concerns are almost absent. I would judge the weighting here to be 98% social. These are not interval data, merely intuitive impressions.

In reality, the social and the pedagogic in social pedagogy saturate each other, but – arguably – to varying degrees. When I go beyond the internal constituents of a single discipline – in this case, social pedagogy – and enter interdisciplinary domains, things get even more complicated. Subject balkanisation – an insufferable beast – invariably enters the dispute. Thank goodness, I don’t have time in this short seminar to get into that debate.

For present purposes, if we want to find social pedagogy’s stand-alone signature in the quintessentially larger whole – namely, the Theory of Everything – it helps to pick out some relatively distinctive features; at least until such time as Professor Hawkings’s laudable objective is finally reached.

So here goes! I shall start with theory.

Social pedagogic theory                                                                                  

The origins of classic social pedagogic theory, at least in its explicit form, date back to Germany during the period from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century. Among the most significant pioneers, Paul Natorp (1854-1924) and Herman Nohl (1879-1960) stand out. Interestingly, Nohl (cf. Hämäläinen, 2003) regarded social pedagogy as an educative process based on compassionate values. The emphasis on the nurturing of self-efficacy through a labour of love still remains at the heart of contemporary social pedagogy in Continental Europe. But now I’m moving into practice issues. Even so, how is it possible to separate theory from practice. The question is of course rhetorical.

While social pedagogy has much to offer the Anglophone world (where the discipline is in the early stages of development), a lot of the early German writing contains convoluted grammar and long sentences. I have “begged, stealed and borrowed” expert help from three German academics, one of them a Professor of Social Pedagogy. They have helped me to translate an important definition of social pedagogy that comes from the pen of Natorp himself (1904, p. 94):

 ‘The social aspects of education, broadly understood, and the educational aspects of social life constitute this science’ [social pedagogy]. My brackets.

In a stroke of genius, Natorp (1904) has laid bare the essence of social pedagogic theory. He has identified the social in the educational and the educational in the social. To put it another way, education is a social pro-cess and social life is an educational process. This might sound obvious. Yet the dichotomization of the “social” and the “educational” into two separate domains has strong roots; particularly in the UK, where social care and schooling are still often seen as having separate functions.

But for Natorp (1904, p. 94), education and social life were inseparable because, ‘The concept of social pedagogy recognises that the education of the individual … is socially conditioned’.

That’s the theory part of this short discussion.

Social pedagogic practice                                                                                 For the practice part (the benevolent kind; yes, there are malevolent social pedagogies. Consider Nazi Germany, for example), I turn to a Finnish social pedagogue, Juha Hämäläinen. He (2003, p. 71) famously wrote that:

‘Historically, social pedagogy is based on the belief that you can decisively influence social circumstances through education’. By that, Hämäläinen is saying let’s prevent social injustice and promote social justice using emancipatory pedagogic means. I agree.

I would like to stop here so that we can have a conversation, or, even better, a dialogue.



Hämäläinen, J. (2003). The Concept of Social Pedagogy in the Field of Social Work, Journal of Social Work, 3, 1, pp. 69-80.

Natorp, P. (1904). Sozialpädagogik. Theorie der Willenserziehung auf der Grundlage der Gemeinschaft [Social Pedagogy: the Theory of Community Will; in German]. Stuttgart: Fr. Frommann Verlag (E. Hauff).

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