It is not difficult to be pessimistic about the future of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand at the present point in time. However I want to convey a sense of genuine optimism. Read on and I’ll explain why.
Social work has always been a challenging and conflicted job – that is the beauty of doing it well. It is important to have a critical understanding of the relationship between our practice and its wider context, historically, and in the now. According to Featherstone, White, and Morris (2014, p.36), social work needs…
… to abandon a belief in its essential innocence and to recognise its history under all sorts of problematic political regimes. The dominant child protection paradigm fits within a highly individualistic approach to families and, in essence, is consistent with a neoliberal emphasis on individual solutions to what are public troubles manifesting in private pain and sorrow.
Social workers have always juggled elements of care and control and our history cannot be easily celebrated. In particular, the harrowing historical (and recent) record of lives blighted by state abuse in institutional care – especially for Māori – is not something to be proud of. It is something that we need to front up to as a profession.
However, in the welfare state era progressive and emancipatory practice did happen in both state and not for profit systems. Social work was often an effective voice for impoverished people and resources were provided to enable dignity and security within a state sector structure that (at least nominally) aimed to be inclusive. Social workers exercised their powers for good or ill in the space between the state and the disadvantaged. Social work has always been close to the state – perhaps too close. Many practitioners have walked the line in this contradictory territory – sometimes ‘in’ and sometimes ‘against’ the state (LEWR Group, 1980).
Inequalities and oppressive relations in terms of race, gender and class were concealed or, at times, ‘normalised’ and rendered unspeakable during the welfare state era. Social work has never been a comfortable profession. Social workers assisted the excluded within a capitalist system which is designed, inevitably, to exclude (Callinicos, 2006). They saw – as they do today – socially generated suffering that most ‘middle New Zealanders’ do not see. This practice location is demanding: it requires specific skills and knowledge; expertise in connecting the big picture with the lives of individuals and families and the capacity to work in ways that create trust with those who have little reason to be trusting. This kind of work is not science. It is not evidence-based intervention designed to change problem behaviours exhibited by problem people. It is speaking with and speaking for people who are experiencing problems that are socially and economically generated.
Now, here’s the rub. We are now in a different game with new rules and new language. It is a game we are not well prepared to play. The story is familiar. We have endured three decades of economic reform which has moved us ever-further from the egalitarian value base that social work subscribes to (Hyslop, 2016). As structural understandings of social inequality have been superseded by individualised explanations for social failure, the social work discourse has found itself increasingly at odds with mainstream political dogma. This process has radically accelerated under the current National-led Government (2008 – ?). There is a central place for social work in this new regime but it amounts to a sanitised, scientised and depoliticised form of practice. It is designed to fix and discipline the disadvantaged – to stop families reproducing disadvantage. This is the new social work for a new political and economic reality. The old social work voice is surplus to requirements. I wonder why this might be the case?
So where is the optimism? I’ll tell you. I think that the practice of social work and its democratic value system continually generates an understanding of social disadvantage that goes beyond simplistic behaviourism and neo-fascist eugenics. Social workers see economically generated systemic social inequality – ‘period’ – as the Americans say. The relational communication skills which social workers developed and applied in the welfare state era were often based around negotiation, mediation and compromise. This stance will not work with the neoliberal future-eaters (Harvey, 2005). The profession is beginning to realise this. Oppression generates resistance. We have been a compliant profession for too long. We are beginning to refuse to run faster, work longer hours, slave away at compliance exercises and somehow find time for our clients. We are organising industrially as exemplified by the work of SWAN within the PSA structure.
Those of us who can are speaking out in these critical times. We are moving beyond disabling analysis and developing progressive alliances with other groups in order to resist the current political hegemony. We are witnessing a renaissance of debate about the value, meaning and purpose of progressive social work – challenging economic processes that perpetuate exploitation and social exclusion: gross income, health, housing and educational inequality in a land of plenty. We cannot expect this movement to be led by practitioners as they battle through their unforgiving ten hour days – hoping, as many do, that promised state reforms will at least provide some injection of resources to make their jobs a little more manageable. Many are (or feel they are) silenced – contractually muzzled. But social workers are not stupid – they work in the social world – they know the score / they know what ‘causes’ their clients’ problems. Social workers are active in the third space – on-line – forums like RSW provide an opportunity to disrupt the fake news. Resistance is growing as social workers come to understand that their identity is being hijacked and redefined without their consent or input. The ultimate answers are political but our view and voice is critical and we are making ourselves heard. That is my optimism.
Callinicos, A. (2006). The Resources of critique. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Featherstone, B., White, S., & Morris, K. (2014). Re-Imagining Child Protection – Towards humane social work with families. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.
Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, UK; New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hyslop, I. (2016). Social work in the teeth of a gale; a resilient counter discourse in neoliberal times. Critical and Radical Social Work Journal, 4(1),21-37.
London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group (1980). In and Against the State. UK: Polity Press.