Away from the daily grind of social work practice, in the lofty land of international definitions and professional bodies, social work is nominally aligned with the struggle against oppression and the pursuit of social justice. This identity claim is contradictory on at least two fronts. First, it is ideologically fudged in the sense that the nature of social justice and the conditions for establishing it are politically contested. Unsurprisingly, such umbrella definitions reflect a compromise position. International social work organisations have not – and they are not about to – condemn the injustices inherent to globalised capitalism (Gray & Webb, 2013).
Any attempt to explain the role and function of social work must of necessity seek to answer, or at the very least to address, one basic question: what is social work? (Asquith, Clark, & Waterhouse, 2005, p.10)
Perhaps more importantly, this commitment to social justice also sits in tension with the contemporary experience of practice in a tightly targeted and controlled neoliberal environment – within the context of late capitalism. Nevertheless, it can be argued that such global definitions are useful because they provide a normative, aspirational identity – a reference point for what social work ought to be. The contrast between what social work could be and how it is experienced in the real world of practice can be understood as productive. In Marxist dialectical analysis such contradiction is the engine which drives social change.
There is a radical tradition within our profession but it is also important to recognise that social work is a broad church which carries repressive histories (Featherstone, White, and Morris, 2014). In his recent ANZSW journal article Duarte (2017) asserts that social work is a socialist enterprise ontologically – in terms of its in-built identity. As much as I might like this to be true, I am not convinced that social work has a clear essence that is connected with the goal of liberation from oppression. In reality social work has a conflicted history involving both care and control. However, I do believe that social work is potentially subversive. The every-day practice of social work is confronted with the human consequences of economic inequality which are, in turn, the inevitable product of a capitalist system of ownership and production (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2005). Inherent systemic inequality is hidden and one potential function of social work is to continually expose this reality.
Although the idea that social work should rediscover its radical soul is potentially inspiring, it can also be disabling in the current political context. I think the problem goes something like this. The idea that social work has a subversive nature begs the question of why the profession has not consistently adopted a more radical mission. The answer that is generally arrived at is of the “yes, but …” variety. Our common sense – our ideologically constructed horizon of possibility – tells us that the realities of power, influence, interest and social structure will not support radical practice. This voice instructs us to be sensible – to accept that there are boundaries around what is real and possible – our power is limited, compromise is unavoidable.
Such an analysis can be deeply disempowering. In order to move forward we need to abandon the idea of a fixed reality. The notion of dialectical change – that contested movement is the essence of identity – leads to a much greater sense of agency and empowerment. It is more useful to understand the role and function of social work as something which is actively produced – actively struggled over. We need to put ourselves – our beliefs, skills and intensions – into the picture. Social work does not have a fixed identity that will necessarily lead anywhere, but social work theory and practice can be connected with challenging systemic oppression if we are prepared to make it happen.
We need to promote practice that challenges the fundamental distributive inequalities that underpin Aotearoa New Zealand’s social deficit. The thing about being human is that we have an individual and collective capacity to shape the world. As Marx himself suggested, the social and economic circumstances are not always conducive but we create our own history. The object of understanding how a socially unjust society is perpetuated is to change this state of affairs. Social workers can help to do this – don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Image credit: Sean P. Anderson
Asquith, S., Clark, C., & Waterhouse, L. (2005). Scottish Executive: The Role of the Social Worker in the 21st Century – A literature Review. Retrieved from http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2006/02/02094408/0
Duarte, F. (2017). Reshaping political ideology in social work: A critical perspective. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29 (2), 34-44.
Featherstone, B., White, S., & Morris, K. (2014). Re-Imagining Child Protection – Towards humane social work with families. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.
Gray, M. & Webb, S.A. (Eds.), (2013). The New Politics of Social Work. (pp. 145-158). Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave MacMillan.