The “Common Sensing” of Social Work in Britain

A guest post by  David McKendrick (Lecturer in Social Work, Glasgow Caledonian University) and Jo Finch (Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of East London)

The British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron regularly invokes the notion of “common sense” as a means of explanation or resolution to a variety of complex social issues; from referring to a Supreme Court judgment that denied prisoners’ voting rights, as a “victory for common-sense” (Morris, 2013), calling for “an urgent outbreak of common sense” (More Bridger, 2014) when discussing the arrest and imprisonment of the parents of Ashya King, a seriously ill child removed without medical consent from a British hospital in 2014; describing an EU court ruling on benefit tourism as “simple common-sense” (BBC, 2014)  and of importance to this debate, urging social workers to use “common-sense” when dealing with child abuse (Holeman, 2015). As it can be seen, Cameron and his government regularly invoke “common sense” but rarely is it qualified. Rather, there is an assumption that everyone shares the same understanding, as it so obviously simple, and so recognizable and universally agreed upon, that it does not merit qualification.  Indeed, this seems a key ingredient in what we previously referred to as “thin narratives” (McKendrick and Finch, 2016), using simplistic and anxiety provoking narratives to explain complex social phenomena.

The concept of common sense therefore, needs urgent attention and critical analysis,  because of its profligate and indiscriminate use, and the tacit implication of familiarity that comes with it. Common sense in this particular idiom, suggests a set of ideals and values that are so clear and straightforward, that they are widely shared and accepted, and as such, there is no other realistic viable alternative, “it just is”. The problem with such an argument as Foucault pointed out in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) is that such discursive formations operate as a boundary, a set of inalienable rules operating at a subconscious level to guide our thinking.

To suggest that any issue is one of “common sense” therefore, indicates that there is only one uncontested perception of the issue and that if your view or opinion is different from that which has been expressed, then it is you at fault and it is you who differ from the consensus. You become an “other”, a minority, one who differs from the concord on a matter that is so clear and unconscionable, that the agreed position needs no further elaboration or explanation. Conferring an outsider status thus legitimises people being on the margins of society, and, by requiring social workers to use “common sense “ in their work and in their understanding of social problems, may similarly confer outsider status. Thus users of social work and social workers become inextricably linked and located in the territorial and dangerous margins. As such, both users and workers are viewed with innate scepticism and suspicion.

Such scepticism and suspicion dominated the thinking of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who saw common sense not as something that was as straightforward as to be held in common, but rather as a construct of those who had the power, security and privilege to define what could be held as common sense. For Gramsci (1971), common sense was the defined by the: “diffuse uncoordinated features of a general form of thought common to a particular period and a particular popular environment” (1971, p.300)

Gramscian common sense was articulated through the prevailing political and cultural environment which allows those in possession of the privilege to define the period and popular environment thus enabling the powerful to define common sense. Bringing the discussion to the present, in a political environment dominated by a neoliberal consensus common sense becomes whatever the elite define it to be; allowing the hegemony of the powerful to be defined by the powerful; while simultaneously preventing the outsiders, the “others”, access to the levers of power. Locating individuals or professions on the outside, “othering” them, allows the dominant to dominate and the dominated to remain powerless.

Cameron and the government’s continuing emphasis on common sense can therefore be seen as a powerful tool in their maintenance of neoliberalism and the hegemony that it promotes. The “common sensing” of social work, seen in such policy pronouncements,  the constant rounds of inquiries and reviews into social work education and training, new, employer based forms of social work training, and the uncritical promotion of the bland, and apolitical knowledge and skill statements  as the measure of social work competence,  all point in one direction.  If all it took was just “common-sense” to work in social work – why do we need such a demanding university education? Indeed, the employer based training schemes (Frontline, Step Up and Think Ahead)  are the inevitable outcome of such “common-sensing” rhetoric.

There is a subtle, but powerful and concerning linguistic and psychological device in operation, which de-professionalises social work further, and reduces opportunities to challenge powerful and unjust structures which support and scaffold neoliberalism. When Cameron invokes “common sense”, it also implies the fault lies squarely with individuals, ignoring the structural aspects of neoliberal ideology and its contribution toward the issue under exploration.

Cameron’s common-sense rhetoric therefore, is far from benevolent; rather it speaks of a fundamental challenge to the ethics and values of the social work profession. By deploying a seemingly benign linguistic device,  which masks the promotion of a neoliberal world view, he erodes a key tenet of social work, that is, the necessity to understand not only the individuals’ lived experience of the world, but the political and structural environment they are exposed to, and are impacted by. In “common-sensing” complex social problems and the tasks of social work, he demonstrates his own position of power and advantage, and uses it as a means of de-professionalise and demonise social work further, pushing it out further into the margins, where there is a serious risk of being co-opted into neoliberal narrow and dangerous versions of social work.

David McKendrick is a Lecturer in Social Work, Glasgow Caledonian University and Jo Finch is  a Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of East London. They previously  posted  ‘The non-linear-war on social-work in the UK -extremism, radicalisation,troubled families and the recasting of safeguarding’ on this blog. They are the authors of  McKendrick, D., & Finch, J. (2016). ‘Under Heavy Manners?’: Social Work, Radicalisation, Troubled Families and Non-Linear War. British Journal of Social Work.

References 

BBC (2014) “EU ‘benefit tourism’ court ruling is common sense, says Cameron”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30002138 (accessed 21/3/16)

Focault, M. (1969). The archaeology of knowledge. London and New York: Routledge, 2002

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. Londen: Lawrence & Wishart.

Holeman, M. (2015) David Cameron: social workers must use ‘common sense’ to tackle child abuse  – PM warns of child abuse ‘on an industrial scale’  The Daily Telegraph “http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11447851/David-Cameron-social-workers-must-use-common-sense-to-tackle-child-abuse.html  (accessed 21/3/16)

McKendrick and Finch (2016). ‘Under Heavy Manners?’: Social Work, Radicalisation, Troubled Families and Non-Linear War. British Journal of Social Work.

More Bridger, B. (2014) David Cameron calls for ‘common sense’ as Ashya King’s parents plan to sue   http://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/parents-of-ashya-king-to-sue-hospital-and-police-over-cruelty-claims-9706118.html  (accessed 21/3/16)

Morris, N. (2013) “A great victory for common sense”’: David Cameron hails Supreme Court judgment as murderers lose fight for prisoners’ voting rights http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/a-great-victory-for-common-sense-david-cameron-hails-supreme-court-judgment-as-murderers-lose-fight-8883382.html  (accessed 21/3/6)

Image Credit | World Economic Forum

3 thoughts on “The “Common Sensing” of Social Work in Britain

  1. Many thanks David and Jo. Very neat blog.

    Common sensing (rather than commoning) is prevalent in liberal individualist approaches in social work. And thanks for the Hall and O’Shea reference Neil.

    I’m struck by how in the battle for ideas since Enlightenment thinking common sense has come to dominate populist politics and culture. Himmelfarb discusses the Common Sense School of Reid and Stewart as offering a very different moral authority to the French and Dutch Enlightenments. Also see http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/reid-selections-from-the-scottish-philosophy-of-common-sense

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