Changing Rhetoric - Changing Institution:

The process of democratisation in an Estonian total institution

Judit Strömpl



This article is an attempt to describe the process of changes in a closed institution for troubled young females that took place in transition-time Estonia. The data for analysis was produced in K. Special School in 1997 during an ethnographic fieldwork. The institution under study was founded during the Soviet era and was reorganised in 1990.

The process of democratization is observed through rhetoric of change used by the staff. Through rhetoric the social actors express not only their persuasions, but also demonstrate their choice of paradigm and commonality they wish to belong. Changes start with adopting a new rhetoric. However, the terminology and argumentation is influenced by local meaning, i.e. the words have different nuances in meanings of used terms.

The present data analysis shows that in case of the the entity of new rhetoric is characterised as an opposition to the Soviet reality, i.e. the "new" school is constructed as opposed to the "old" Soviet one.

However, the meaning of terms that expressed new democratic values have changed because of practical operation. It is not possible to achieve real democratisation in context of a total institution. The rhetoric of change started to include the change of rhetoric. The manager staff have spent a lot of time explaining the 'real' meaning of terms that they are using to adjust the ideological concepts to practical operation and give interpretation to their activity.



The current research observes the process of changes in residential control/care of delinquent/troublesome youngsters expressed in staff’s verbalised descriptions. The study was carried out in K. Special School - a closed institution for delinquent (official Estonian term) female youngsters in 1997 using the ethnographic research method. The aim of this research in general is to observe and give an interpretation of the processes that were going on in residential care during the transition of the Estonian society after the restoration of independence.

The institution under study has existed since the Soviet era and most of the staff are from that time. How the staff members speak about the changes and about the residential care of girls, how they interpret their activity - it is one of the basic issues for the analysis; and also what people mean when they use such ‘new’ terms as ‘democracy’, ‘care’, ‘child-centred approach’, etc. Tension between the new terminology, new patterns of professional practice and the old heritage is in the main focus of the study (see Strömpl 2000).

In the current paper the rhetoric of change will be analysed. The term ‘rhetoric’ is used in social constructionist tradition as a form of discourse (Gill et all 1997), a verbal expression of convictions of social actors (Atkinson 1990, Billig 1991, Burke 1989, Hunter1990, etc.). The rhetoric’s peculiarity is its evocative and persuasive character. Rhetoric expresses ideological concepts of social actors and their argumentation. Rhetoric analysis clarifies what the actors think about the phenomena and processes around them or how they want to think about them or what kind of image they want to create about their attitudes in the eyes of other people. The chois of rhetoric by the social actors demonstrate their choice of paradigm where they wish to join. Through rhetoric the social actors express their wish to belong to certain philosophical or ideological system of value. People do not create their own ideology and rhetoric, but join to already existing one and use its terminology and argumentation (Billig 1991:6-7) In present article the aim is to have a look how the process of changing in Estonian residential control system is expressed in rhetoric that the actors are using. This process is important for the creation of future system of managing troubled young people in Estonia that does not exist now at all. On the basic of this research it is possible to see the potentials for future: the reality and the wishes what people tied with the problem do and have.


The institution

The K-school was founded in 1965 as a vocational secondary school for female youngsters who have broken the law, loitered, ignored moral norms, etc. and require strict education. In 1990 the school was reorganised into a special school which provides compulsory basic education. Despite the reorganisation the goal and function of the institution did not change - it is still "a closed educational institution for girls who have broken the law or have systematically avoided school, loitered, ignored moral norms, and require strict education" (Rajangu et al. 1997, p.32). There are three such kind of institutions in Estonia: two for male youngsters (one for Estonians and one for Russians) and one for females (both Estonians and Russians). Reformatory schools are under the supervision of the Ministry of Education as it was in the Soviet era. In the Soviet era the youths were sent to the institutions by Juvenile Commissions, which were staffed by the local soviets. These commissions had carried out the functions of juvenile courts. In the period 1991 to 1998 youngsters were sent to the institution according to the decision made by a special commission at the Ministry of Education. Because of lack of competent organs and ruling legislation, sending to a special school was defined simply as changing the school with the parents’ consent. There was also a contradiction between the existence of such kind of closed (i.e. punitive) institutions and the Constitution of the Estonian Republic that excludes the possibility to set a limit to personal freedom without a court decision. This fact gave to special schools an opportunity to transform from a punitive institution into a care giving one. In 1998 the ‘Law of intervention methods of juveniles’ was passed. According to this law the newly created Juvenile Commissions are the decision makers in using different intervention methods, whereof for using the strongest intervention method, that is sending into a special school court permission is needed. It increases the possibility for the conversion of the institution into a more punitive one.

The ‘old’ and the ‘new’ school

Speaking about the changes at the special school the staff repeatedly used such expressions which constitute peculiar key-words in characterisation of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ institution and these key-words form binary oppositions.

These oppositions emphasise differences between the ‘two’ institutions: the ‘old’ before the reorganisation and the ‘new’ after it. The characterisations of the ‘two’ institutions by different actors (staff-members) were in general similar, differences could be noted in different appraisals about the same phenomena. The different appraisal of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ institution depends on the relations of the appraiser with the present management (power-bearers), because the new processes and phenomena are directly linked with the new management. Still, except for the new headmistress all the other managing staff members are from the old middle-level staff.

Here are some quotations from the interviews and free conversations in characterisation of the ‘two’ institutions:


"Before, our special schools were very closed and authoritarian. ... There was a lot of violence here… In fact, everything was done coercively starting from the morning gymnastics and ending with uniform. Nobody wanted to do it (gymnastics)" (manager-staff)

The strong regime enlarged also upon the staff:


"Here at the school was much violence. And control, of course. Also we (middle staff) were under control. For instance, when we received a possibility of telephone installation here the old head took only one number for the school even though it was possible to install also in our homes as well. ‘You shouldn’t talk so much with each other’ she said. She was afraid we would communicate behind her back. Any type of relationship between us was condemned..." (ex-teacher, pensioner, 30 years experiences at the institution)


"We (the middle-level staff) had to be answerable to our superiors in everything... The girls were punished by superiors and we were abused and humiliated by our bosses." (middle-level staff member)

The hierarchical relations at the institution are exactly expressed by the Russian expressions that even Estonian staff members used in their narratives: “Íàñ âûçûâàëè íà êîâåð” and “Ìû ïåðåä íà÷àëüñòâîì ïî ñòðóíêå ñòîÿëè" (idiomatic Russian, meaning "account for").

The ‘old’ school appears to us as an authoritarian institution which is described in terms of ‘violence’, ‘coercively’, ‘abuse’, ‘humiliation’, ‘punishment’, ‘control’, ‘closed’, etc. There was a strong vertical hierarchy where the people standing on the lower level had to obey the uppers without any disputation. The levels of the hierarchy were clearly divided, especially between the staff and residents.

The ‘old headmaster’ as a symbol of the ‘old’ institution

Very often the description of the old school was described through the former headmaster, who was on duty almost all the time of the previous school (from 1966 to 1990) and who the staff spoke about as a symbol of that time.


"If you only knew our old headmaster! She was a real Stalin in a skirt." ( middle-level staff)


"She was a real tyrant. She had to know everything. As a rule the staff was always guilty if something happened and the staff was also punished for any matter ." ( middle-level staff)


The process of ‘democratisation’, changing into a ‘new’ school

The changes after the restoration of the independent Estonian Republic found a representational expression in the title of the book edited by Lauristin and Vihalemm ‘Return to the Western world’, which rhetorically expresses the main aspirations of the Estonian society on the whole (Lauristin et all 1997). This title expresses a deep belief that the Estonian society essentially belongs to the Western world and that the time of the Soviet occupation was a violent deviation from a natural, normal development of the Estonian nation, illustrated by the story of Jonas, a sentence of which, namely Jonas coming out of the fish, can be found on the cover of the book.

Lauristin starts her discussion of the essence of the transitions with a quotation from Huntington’s "The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order":

‘Spurred by modernisation, global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines. People and countries with similar cultures are coming together. Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart. ..."

The chapters in the book prove the idea that Estonia and Estonian society belong to the Western world and the Soviet time was historical violence against the Estonian society and now the process of transition is natural one. In this respect the concept of ‘Western’, ‘new’ or even ‘Estonian’ could on certain conditions be used as synonyms, especially in contrast to the concept of ‘Soviet’.

One can speak about the Estonian construction of the ‘Western world’. In general the transition is described as a ‘return’ from the Soviet centrally planned economy to the free market economy, to humanistic ideology and legislation, and in developing personal individualism in place of Soviet collectivism (Lauristin et all 1997, Estonian Human Development Reports 1996, 1997, 1998,1999). This personal individualism means that an individual, a human being becomes more valuable. The person is brought to the centre of attention. This is one of the Western values constructed by Estonian people which could be observed in the special school under study.

With ‘democratisation’ some ‘new’ terms like ‘child-centred approach’ in place of ‘authoritarian approach’, ‘openness’ in place of ‘closeness’, ‘help’ and ‘protection’ in place of ‘punishment’ and ‘influence’ in place of ‘coercion’ appeared. In comparison with this ‘old’ school the ‘new’ one is described by the staff just in opposite terms. The first attempts to change the life inside the school were to act differently. If earlier authoritarian methods prevailed then now the staff try to act ‘democratically’, if earlier the main work method was punishing the residents then now the staff try to influence them to change their mind and behaviour using care. If earlier the residents were ‘just bad girls’ in eyes of the staff then now the staff see the problems of the residents more as a complex: the residents are not only badly-behaved young women but also victims of different circumstances. They have many problems the reasons of which proceed not exactly from the residents’ badness. Thus the terms ‘troubled’, ‘troublesome’, and ‘girls in trouble’ replace the terms ‘delinquent’, ‘deviant’, ‘behaviour deviation’ and the like. At the same time if the residents are not ‘just bad’, but have problems and not even because of them, it would be unjust to punish them. They need care as victims. The rhetoric of care and help replaces the rhetoric of punishment in the vocabulary of the institution’s management. Though, the concepts of care and help have their own specific meaning in the institutional usage.

Let us have a look at the next quotation, where one of the ideologists of the ‘child-centred approach’ in the management is talking about her work-method:

"First of all I listen to the child. It is very important to listen carefully and try to understand what her problem is… I think and analyse carefully every word. … Then it is extremely important to make the child believe me. That is why I never lie to the girls. If she believes me, she will agree to come with me, I can influence her. It is more difficult with those children who have some innate negativist character or who were under a strong negative influence before. Likewise, it is difficult to work with this Satanist girl. Only now she is starting to collaborate with us. … Long time experience and feelings help me in this work. Sometimes I do or tell something unexpected. It helps, and humour, of course. … It is most important to deal with a child not using authoritarian methods. I take examples from life, I want to make the child believe me; I look into her eyes and even try to hypnotise her: I want to help you. And I deeply believe in what I am saying. As I already said I never lie to a child. So that the child would believe I am not her enemy, but oasis, where she can receive help. … I also observe every child individually, study, think and analyse and suddenly understand what the right activity for her is…."

At first sight the wish to help is expressed in this child-centred rhetoric. ‘Listen to a child’, ‘listen carefully’, ‘understand her problem’ . But what does ‘to help a girl’ actually mean? From the next sentences it becomes evident that the staff’s aim is to influence the girl to ‘to come with me’, ‘to collaborate with us’( i.e. the staff). Thus to help the girl means to make her collaborate with the staff. It was the aim of the staff also in the ‘old’ school, but then they used authoritarian methods coercing for collaboration through punishment. Now the staff ‘make the child believe’ them and as a result the resident will be ‘influenced’ by the staff for collaboration. The difference is to reach the aim of the institution (i.e. to make the residents collaborate) through manipulating the residents. But it does not work every time and in every case. There are some disruptive moments: ‘It is more difficult with those children who have some innate negativist character or who were under a strong negative influence before.’ It is a quite diffused opinion (see, for instance, Willis 1981, Kelly 1992, Scraton 1997, etc.). In this kind of problems the staff have to use different methods that are often the old well known methods of punishment. In an other conversation she told me:

"Our girls have to understand that they have to change their mind and behaviour, they have to learn to discipline themselves. It cannot happen without some coercion."

The quoted staff member repeats twice that she never lie to the girls. Though, I could see for many times that she hid the truth or gave incorrect information to the residents. She not only lied herself, she also forbade me to tell the residents the truth about my research and I was allowed to do my fieldwork only on condition that the residents will know nothing about the research. Because of that I had many unpleasant moments when I had to answer the residents’ questions why I had come to work there. This kind of ‘not telling the truth’ was explained by the manager staff as acting in the best interests of the residents. In the best interest of the residents is also to protect them (more about the rhetoric of protection see: Strömpl 2000). Probably, the reason of such activity was lack of trust towards the residents, on the one hand, and the researcher as a stranger, on the other.

The new headmistress as a symbol of the ‘new’ school

The styles of activity of the two headmasters are definitely different. The first difference is in participation in the institution’s life. As the ‘old’ headmaster had to control everything she had to be everywhere, know everything, i.e. participate actively in the school’s life. Her office was situated just in the middle of the building, on the ground floor between the hostel and the school. From the windows she could see the entrance gate and the school yard. Now this is a poly-functional room shared by the deputy who is responsible for the work in the hostel and other staff working there. Here educators’ meetings are held, and also some of the classes and video demonstrations for the residents are carried out.

The headmistress’ new office is on the first floor, in the school wing of the building, and behind two doors. This is a newly decorated and nicely furnished room, provided by a computer, answerphone, fax, etc. There is a large table in this room which I thought could be a good place for holding staff-meetings, but not a single staff-meeting took place there during my fieldwork. They were held in class- or staff-rooms. The windows of this room look out on a deserted garden behind the building, seldom used by the residents and the staff.

Some of the middle-level staff members expressed their discontent with the fact, that the headmistress almost never participates in the school activities or in educators’ meetings, in a word does not participate in the school’s life.

‘The old headmistress’ office was downstairs, where is now V.’s office - she was always in every action, she had to control everything. But now, where is the head office? It is far from us. On the first floor in a school part behind two doors! Who goes there?’

I was also surprised how seldom the headmistress could be seen at school and especially among the residents. In answer to my question "When are you satisfied with your work?" she said:

‘When the school solves its problems. I mean when the staff, the people are successful in solving their problems. If I solve some problems, it does not help, the people have to learn to solve their problems by themselves."


She spoke about her dreams of a good team, also about her wish to deal more with educational work, i.e. to relate more with the girls, but unfortunately she has no time for this. She spoke about her wish ‘to make this building nice. You know, to educate through beauty. This takes money, but we have very little money. Only 100 000 kroons per year!’.

It was quite difficult to get a clear picture of the headmistress’ activities and attitudes. During an interview and some free conversations she also used the rhetoric of the new management and child-centred approach, but I failed to see her in any activities among the residents. At the same time her expectations towards the teachers were expressed in the following quotation:

„The staff have to give all of their knowledge and skills to the girls. I want them to share their lives with the residents, teaching them everything they know. But, unfortunately, we have many old educators. They come from the Russian period. And they want to behave as they did previously. For instance, one educator had to accompany the girls to do some gardening. But she put on white high-heeled shoes. What work could she do in the garden? She could only command."

If to compare the headmistress’ activity and rhetoric everyone can draw his/her own conclusions. There is a deep gap between the rhetoric and practice. However this is not the only gap between the rhetoric and operation at the institution.


Despite of contradictions there is no reason to doubt the sincere wish of the management to change the life inside the reformatory expressed in the rhetoric they used. The using of such rhetoric shows the real wish of managers to join to the Western world values in dealing with female youngsters in trouble. First they start to use a new terminology, but with their own meaning that create such kind of opposition to that what was earlier. If the old system was built on the staff authority that expressed in total control and punishing the residents than now the new system is named child-centred with minimum control and in place of punishment is using care. If earlier the aim was to subordinate the residents to the institution rules than now the residents should understand by themselves that it is in their interest to subordinate the school rules. Here is the reason of contradictions: it will not be possible to achieve real democratisation in the context of a total institution. It is nowhere possible to get over this contradiction (see Kelly 1992, Wardhaugh et all 1993, etc.). The terminology started to change its meaning. Thus, the rhetoric of change includes the change of rhetoric. The manager staff have spent a lot of time explaining the ‘real’ meaning of terms that they are using to adjust the ideological concepts to practical operation and give interpretation to their activity. Moreover, during this activity the meanings were also transformed. For instance, while in the beginning the concept of ‘democracy’ excluded any ‘coercion’ then later an amendment was done: on certain conditions some coercion is allowed.

J. Baudrillard writes(1997) that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist system the functions of western values also disappeared because of infraction of balance between the two systems of values. It was possible to observe the existence of the so-called ‘Western’ values constructed by Estonian people, in particular at the K. school. These values were constructed as opposites to the Soviet ones. During the process of ‘westernisation’ of the Estonian society the values go through transformation and change their meanings.



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