One of the core tenets of the social work profession is a commitment to social justice. It is widely argued that this commitment to social justice is what differentiates the profession from other professions like psychology or counselling (Marsh, 2005; Wakefield, 1998). This commitment to social justice features prominently in western social work codes of ethics, most of which place an obligation on each and every social worker to be actively combatting injustice and taking positions on matters of government policy (Kleppe, Heggen, & Engebretsen, 2015).
But the florid language of official social work documents bears little relation to the daily practice of most social workers. Rather than changing social systems most social workers are working within existing systems attempting to obtain the best possible outcome for clients (Baines, 2010). This is understandable given the current environment where many clients are in severe need and require immediate assistance. Unfortunately there is increasing evidence that this has led to a situation where social workers feel they are unable to take action on structural issues. For example a recent study from the UK found that many social workers felt overwhelmed by issues like poverty and as a result adopted an individualistic focus which was often risk oriented (McNicoll, 2017).
This reflects the findings of my own research (unpublished) which looked at how social workers integrate social justice into practice. In my research I found that social workers viewed themselves as relatively powerless when confronted by structural injustice. Because of this they were limited to helping clients navigate existing systems. This is a noble and oftentimes incredibly difficult thing to do, but on its own it is not achieving the kind of social change which the profession has committed itself to achieving (McLaughlin, 2006).
Historically though the profession has been a strong force for social change. Since its origins social workers have been making the connection between individual problems and social structures. Due to an understanding of this connection social workers have consistently played instrumental roles in campaigns for social reform and social justice. In my opinion we have slipped away from this type of work and have drifted towards individualistic responses to social problems.
Given this, I think it’s worth considering what a social change oriented profession would look like, and what it might be doing. Here are a few of my ideas about what a profession which was deeply committed to social change might be doing. I don’t intend these to be taken as definitive statements, rather these are personal opinions intended to spark further conversations.
- Social workers and organisations would be actively working with Māori to advance their interests. Instead of co-operating with systems which are eurocentric social workers would be seeking to find out what Maori want to achieve and would be working with them to achieve this. I believe that this could involve a refusal to implement so called ‘evidence based practice’ if the methods of practice were not developed by and for Māori. As social workers we would be actively seeking to transfer power to Māori so they can exercise rangatiratanga.
- We would be equipping social work students with the tools, knowledge and confidence required to run social campaigns. This would be prioritised to the same degree as the teaching of individual micro-level skills and methods. For example most social work programmes teach interviewing skills which are then applied on placements. I imagine a social change focussed programme would teach campaigning skills in the same manner; with the expectation that social work students would then actively apply these skills.
- Social workers would stop co-operating with their own exploitation. This would mean fighting for decent hours, pay and working conditions. Burnout and exhaustion would not be commonplace within the profession and we would be prepared to fight for our rights.
- We would (probably) be the enemy of government. Confronting existing institutions which act in the benefit of the few is going to mean we would make enemies. This could present an existential threat to the profession given an overwhelming reliance on the state for funding and power, but we cannot pretend that we can be allied both with the government, and with the exploited of society.
- Social workers would be vocal in their communities and in the media talking about the poverty, exploitation and inequality which we are faced with. Instead of quietly dealing with the disastrous consequences of neoliberal capitalism we would be holding those responsible to account.
- We would actively work to politicise those we work with through the process of conscientization. This would be as routine as giving out any other kind of information to clients.
These are just a few of my own ideas and I expect that others will have very different ideas about what it is the profession should be doing. I would be interested in the perspectives of other social workers, students, and academics. I’d love to know what others thought about where the profession currently is and where we should be going. Are we pretty much in the right place or is the commitment to social justice in a state of crisis? What do you believe a social justice oriented form of practice look like and how to we go beyond advocacy to systemic change?
Bywaters, P. et al. (2017). Identifying and understanding inequalities in child welfare intervention rates: Comparative studies in the four UK countries. University of Coventry. Further info and links here.
Kleppe, L. C., Heggen, K. M., & Engebretsen, E. (2015). Dual ideals and single responsibilities – A critical analysis of social workers’ responsibility for the ideal of promoting justice at the individual and the societal level. Nordic Social Work Research, 5(1), 5-19. doi:10.1080/2156857X.2014.891534
Marsh, J. C. (2005). Social justice: Social work’s organizing value. Social Work, 50(4), 293-294.
McNicoll, A. (2017). Is tackling poverty no longer ‘core business’ for social workers? Community Care. March 15, 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2017/03/15/tackling-poverty-longer-core-business-social-workers/
Wakefield, J. C. (1998). Psychotherapy, distributive justice, and social work revisited. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 69(1), 25-57.
Image credit | John Darroch