As we know, social work is a broad church with many different fields of practice. As a teacher in a social work programme I often tell students that this depth and variety is one of the beauties of the profession. In this sense, unifying definitions are always something of a challenge. For example, some earlier blog posts have questioned the supposed professional commitment to social justice when social workers generally help people to adapt to our exploitative social and economic system, rather than working to radically change it.
More disturbingly, social workers can potentially entrench social injustice by working in systems that discriminate against certain sections of the population in structurally unequal societies. Social work can therefore be understood as a complex and contradictory undertaking. However, in this short post I would like to keep things simple. I think it is important to cut to the chase a little and get one or two things straight.
Social workers engage with people who are positioned near the bottom of the social and economic heap. Our job is to support and advocate for the interests of this group of people. This is the central reality for social work in my view. I sometimes wonder what part of this others don’t understand. It is how we interpret this reality – what we do in response to it – that is important. There are exceptions to this generalisation of course and there are also patterns and intersections. Some groups of people are over-represented amongst those who are pushed to the margins. Accordingly, it is important to strive for a more tolerant and inclusive society. Nevertheless, it is also important to be clear that social and economic arrangements that systematically reproduce social disadvantage and exorbitant wealth will not be fundamentally changed by altering people’s attitudes to those who are different from themselves. Neoliberal tolerance of diversity doesn’t address problems embedded in the structure of capitalist social and economic relations.
This is not to say that the efforts of those who work for a more tolerant and socially liberal society are futile. Developing meaningful constitutional recognition of Maori rights as tangata whenua, reforming prisons, or creating a child welfare system that recognises the pressures of poverty, are all vital progressive activities for example. Currently there is struggle and opportunity for movement on all these fronts. However, I would like to emphasize here that the reproduction of social inequality is a fundamental systemic function of liberal capitalism. Sorry about that. Accordingly, we also need to envisage and build a social world that is not based on protecting private property and exploiting the labour of others. Am I being utopian? I hope so. Can we work for both reform and revolution? I think so – but there I go again … drifting into the realm of the complicated. Let’s just focus on the main point here: we best serve the exploited when we eradicate exploitation.
Image credit: The unnamed