Reclaiming social work with soul

A guest blog post by David Kenkel, Senior Lecturer in Social Practice at UNITEC.

We work in a social work environment where our instinct and education tell us that the problems people face are structural, but the push of practice is often towards individualising both problems and solutions. Resolving this contradiction at the practice level is one of the great challenges that social work must engage with over the next few decades if it is to rehabilitate its social justice soul.

Social workers are no more immune than other citizens from the corrosive effects of the tired neoliberal story that success and failure is ultimately to do with individual effort. It’s a story that is constantly repeated and almost unavoidable. What this convenient piece of fiction consistently ignores, or renders invisible, is the power of context and history in determining life outcomes (Kenkel, 2005). Arguably, we have all been suckered by this narrative to some extent. In my opinion, where social work has been most suckered in recent times is through buying in to a focus on evidence-based practice for fixing individual trauma.

This preoccupation is a wonderful strategy for ignoring the fact that the genesis of trauma – (if you track it back) – is almost always to do with histories of oppression, marginalisation and socio-economic disadvantage. I am interested in how we might develop a future social work practice that embraces an empowering recognition of the impact of context and sheds the tendency to blame the individual for their situation.

Some people call this kind of imagining pre-figurative practice and I think it offers a powerful tool for envisaging what social work practice might be like if we stopped kidding ourselves about the causes of the problems our clients face. Pre-figurative practice might be simply described as the business of acting today as if a hoped-for future is happening now (Boggs, 1977). At its simplest, pre-figurative social work practice might mean acting in ways that have our knowledge of the impact of history, context and politics at the forefront of what we do rather than uneasily hidden away in our social justice consciences.

I had a prefigurative practice moment just after the 2008 global financial crisis. I was co-facilitating a stopping violence program in a deprived suburb in Auckland.  Most of the all-male participants were people who, while certainly fully culpable in terms of assaulting or hurting their partners, did not themselves have great lives. These were not successful happy guys on the top of the economic food chain. A shared characteristic was that all these men were poor.

One evening a man disclosed that he was feeling bad about himself because he could not get a job, despite having gone for 15 interviews in the last month or so. He blamed himself for not being able to get a job and told the group he felt pretty crap about himself.  I found I could not stop myself from making a statement situated in a political context rather than individual responsibility ideas:

I stated – (from memory)

“Doesn’t it suck! – when economic decisions made by someone on the other side of the world end up making you feel like shit about yourself because you can’t get a job”.

There was a lot of nodding from the group and the conversation amongst the guys was interesting after that. There was much rueful acknowledgement that times were damn hard, and everybody was in the same boat of blaming themselves about the personal impact of economic decisions made outside New Zealand. Other guys admitted to feeling the same way about how the economic decline had impacted on how they thought about themselves. I believe I saw that night the beginnings of a solidarity of recognition about how social and economic forces impact the individual in ways the individual does not control.

I have reflected deeply about that night ever since. It was one of the times in my direct social work practice where I moved away from individualising problems toward structuring personal difficulty as part of a larger story that is outside of individual control.

What might a prefigurative social work practice look like if enacted today?

Well firstly, we might have to stop calling the people we work with clients, and instead recognise through our language that they are people just like us who are also positioned by social forces outside of individual control.

Secondly, the focus of the work might shift somewhat – away from encouraging individuals to attend to their individual problems and move towards assisting them to find solidarity with others struggling with the same difficulties.

Thirdly, it might mean encouraging our clients to be politically active, while also being politically brave ourselves. If change does not happen at the level of the individual, then it must happen at the level of the broader collective. Social work needs to be at the forefront of this, and that means a level of political courage amongst not just individual practitioners but also social work leadership.

For myself, what I like about the idea of a social work prefigurative practice able to overtly name social injustices and stand alongside the people we work with is that I could keep my conscience where it truly belongs. That is close to my heart and at the forefront of what I do instead of tucked away in my back pocket during my daily work.

Image credit: Kathrin & Stefan Marks

References

Boggs, Carl. (1977). Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers’ Control. Radical America 11 (November), 100; cf. Boggs Jr., Carl. Revolutionary Process, Political Strategy, and the Dilemma of Power. Theory & Society 4, No. 3 (Fall), 359-93.

Kenkel, D. (2005). Futurority:  Narratives of the future; thesis submitted for Master of Arts in Social Policy, Massey University, New Zealand.

 

15 thoughts on “Reclaiming social work with soul

  1. A belated thanks for your comments David! Most thought provoking. The challenge of creating ‘just’ social work change amidst structures that can be unjust both in practice and ideologically is as always, challenging… I do wonder what a ‘just’ [social work] ideology would look like…

    …I would love to engage with an aotearoa nz social justice focussed conference for practitioners, students, and educators sometime soon…

    nga mihi e hoa
    Jimi McKay

    1. Thanks Jimi,

      I’ve been playing around with the question of a social workers political party. (as a fun thought experiment).
      Fascinating to speculate about what the key policy positions and aspirations would be.

      The sort of conference you describe sounds great! – lets do it.

      1. I was reminded of the SANNZ conference in December that will have a “Social Movements and Resistance Stream” to it….
        Regards
        Jimi

  2. Hi David
    I think critical feminist social work in the fields of sexual assault and family violence in Victoria (Australia) are solid examples of this type of practice. Looking at, and understanding, the violence as both individual responsibility of the perpetrator but also a structural systemic concern that everyone needs to address and participate in. Small changes over time and ‘rebellious acts’ are crucial.

    1. Thanks Deborah, I completely agree with you. Its important to be reminded that some fields of practice retain a passionate analysis that, I’d suggest, operate as a very powerful strategy of resistance to the ever present background hum of neo-liberalisms individuating story.

      What has saddened me at times is watching agencies that started driven by passionate people with a strong shared analysis and grassroots connections drift over time toward individuated service delivery. Passionate founders become replaced by social work staff whose primary expertise is the delivery of the fashionable model of the day. Most recently, the fashion seems to be trauma informed practice.

      In my opinion, one of the more insidious aspects of the prevalence of neoliberalism is the extent to which the funding and compliance climate it creates can all too easily function over-time to systematically de-radicalise organisations. My friend Paul Paul Prestidge and I wrote an article several years ago about our observation of this kind of shift in the field of community development. Link as follows:

      https://www.unitec.ac.nz/epress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Community-Development-and-the-Policy-Governance-Approach-by-David-Kenkel-and-Paul-Prestidge.pdf

      Your thinking much appreciated and in particular the reminder that critical feminist social work remains a site of passion, analysis and effective resistance to neo-liberalism’s story of who and what people are.

      1. Hi David,

        I am going out on a limb here as I do not normally post however after our conversation on Friday and your mention of funding I felt compelled to. As I mentioned to you already, I think you have nailed it and I totally agree with you that the funding and compliance aspect of neoliberalism is easily the most insidious aspect of it all.

        Late in life I have found Gramsci and I think his Theory of Hegemony, with its basic premise that we are not only dominated by force but also by ideas dovetails quite nicely into how the state achieves compliance through the application of the funding model.

        It is by requesting and accepting funding through a funding model that hegemony by the funder over Aotearoa New Zealand social work practice is achieved. I would also suggest that this relationship unintentionally provides a greater level of ‘consent’ and ‘legitimacy’ to one practice framework over another, reinforcing dominance by ‘approved’ practice methods.

        It is not so much who provides the funding (although that is important) but more the conditions attached to each funding stream that may be augmenting the dominance of funder ideology over practice.

        How do we change this? I have not got the answers just yet however by openly talking about we can (maybe) start seeing some gaps we can exploit.

        1. Thanks Luis,

          Yes, I think you’re right – the funding structures and compliance processes act to normalise. i.e. they are one aspect of a hegemonic widely available to schools that operates make a neoliberal worldview seem ordinary, inevitable and only commonsense.

          I agree Gramsci is great! – I have always been more interested in the social effects of neoliberalism than the economic. While of course they are intertwined, it is the social effects that most powerfully shift how we make sense of the world.

          A guy called Michael Apple put beautifully suggesting that the great success of neoliberalism has not been its economic effects but the extent to which viewing the world as a competitive field now seems only commonsense. A number of authors have explored the extraordinary amounts of money that have gone into influential right wing think tanks that pour out great volumes of literature and policy to support the view of the world as a competitive field.

          The tentative conclusion that Paul and I came to – (looking at the ways that our governing structures in the NGO world replicate and reproduce neoliberal norms) – is that a key task as community activists is to begin the process of decolonising our own practices from the individualising and hyper- responsibilising effects of neoliberalism.

          In other words, we need to clean out our own thinking, before we rush to implement new structures. The effects of the neoliberal hegemony will be with us for decades to come. I suspect it will be our children and grandchildren who will look back and say, wow! Did they really believe that kind of crap back then! What a horrible way to view the world!

          in the meantime, strategies of multiple insurrection, and looking for the cracks and spaces where something new and different can emerge seem a really sensible approach for now.

          Your thoughts much appreciated

          1. Tēna kōruā David and Luis great conversation. Being forced into constant competitive mode is a prevalent malignant feature of academic life also, as a feature of the same neoliberal dynamics. We are constantly measured- universities love quantitative measures – student evaluations, # publications and the impact factors of journals, # downloads # citations and so forth. Pro bono research and contributions to professional development in the field are only valued if dressed up as ‘knowledge transfer’ or have ‘strategic’ value. Even the good old critic and conscience role of universities is measured in terms of the ‘impact’ and ‘visibilty’ of our work. It’s a very seductive ideology and important for us as it is for practitioners to ask ‘why am I doing this’ and ‘who benefits’.

        2. Thanks Luis,

          Yes, I think you’re right – the funding structures and compliance processes act to normalise. i.e. they are one aspect of a hegemonic widely available to schools that operates make a neoliberal worldview seem ordinary, inevitable and only commonsense.

          I agree Gramsci is great! – I have always been more interested in the social effects of neoliberalism than the economic. While of course they are intertwined, it is the social effects that most powerfully shift how we make sense of the world.

          A guy called Michael Apple put it beautifully suggesting that the great success of neoliberalism has not been its economic effects but the extent to which viewing the world as a competitive field now seems only commonsense. A number of authors have explored the extraordinary amounts of money that have gone into influential right wing think tanks that pour out great volumes of literature and policy to support the view of the world as a competitive field.

          The tentative conclusion that Paul and I came to – (looking at the ways that our governing structures in the NGO world replicate and reproduce neoliberal norms) – is that a key task as community activists is to begin the process of decolonising our own practices from the individualising and hyper- responsibilising effects of neoliberalism.

          In other words, we need to clean out our own thinking, before we rush to implement new structures. The effects of the neoliberal hegemony will be with us for decades to come. I suspect it will be our children and grandchildren who will look back and say, wow! Did they really believe that kind of crap back then! What a horrible way to view the world!

          In the meantime strategies of multiple insurrection, and keeping a sharp eye out for the cracks and ruptures that might allow for new possibilities to emerge seems only sensible. And, above all we must keep talking. I suspect that it is in solidarity with others that new options will emerge.

  3. Isn’t the true nature of “neo-liberal” theory’s rationalization of individualization a way of shifting responsibility for the poverty and deprivation created from a failure of those who have power to take responsibility for their part of the social contract of production? …or in shorter more harsh terms a polite and convoluted way of saying “we have all the “goodies” you mugs gave us with your labor, and you want paying? ….Good luck with that!”

    1. Thanks Jayne,
      Well put, I completely agree. You make an excellent point and its good to be reminded that neoliberal policies do not just site fault within individuals affected by systems but also operate to invisibilize the culpability of those who most benefit from unfair social structures.

    2. Thanks Jayne,
      Pithily put – and a great reminder that neoliberalism is – (amongst other things) – a responsibility shifting machine. Neo-liberal social and economic policies shift blame onto the shoulders of those who suffer under its systems and shifts responsibility away from those who benefit from them. The poor are encouraged to blame ‘self-not-system’ for their predicaments and the rich have the pleasure of the guilt free experience of wealth and privilege, because after all, their wealth is a consequence of individual hard work rather than a system designed to advantage a few and disadvantage the many.
      Thanks for your input Jayne. Let’s keep the dialogue going.

    3. Thanks Jayne,

      Pithily put – and a great reminder that neo-liberalism is – (amongst other things) – a responsibility shifting machine. Neo-liberal social and economic policies shift blame onto the shoulders of those who suffer under its systems and shifts responsibility away from those who benefit from them.

      The poor are encouraged to blame ‘self-not-system’ for their predicaments and the rich have the pleasure of the guilt free experience of wealth and privilege, because after all, their wealth is supposedly a consequence of individual hard work rather than a system designed to advantage a few and disadvantage the many.

      Thanks for your input Jayne. Let’s keep the dialogue going.

  4. Great blog post David. Whilst I agree with you on the idea of prefigurative practice, I think we have to be realistic about the potential to do this in different kinds of organisational contexts.

    In state controlled or state funded settings (including most NGOs) run by neoliberal managers, it’s possible to be “in and against the state“, but only to a very limited extent. To imagine otherwise simply leads to despair and disillusionment. In these settings such practise would need to be by subterfuge and take advantage of whatever vanishingly small discretion is left to social workers as street level bureaucrats.

    There are some, but not many, organisations that establish themselves from the outset as advocacy-based and depend on voluntary effort and donations to sustain themselves without state funding. There the prospects for prefigurative practise are much better: Auckland Action Against Poverty is a shining example.

    A third possibility is to work within an explicitly socialist organisation that engages directly with communities in base-building activity (like the Black Panthers did back in the 70s). In the USA Philly Socialists is a contemporary example of that approach, and there are some instances of ‘serve the people’ and ‘fight the power’ projects emerging in Aotearoa New Zealand: see for example, People Against Prisons Aoteraoa as an issue-based example, and Wellington Socialists as a – very embryonic – place-based example. These latter types of organisations offer, in my view, the best prospect for prefigurative, community controlled, social welfare and mutual aid linked to a longer term aim to build socialism from the bottom up. But they are definitely not ‘professional’ social work organisations: these are organisations that people contribute to in their own time, and that is their strength and their weakness. Thanks for the post, and the link to Carl Boggs, very thought provoking.

    1. Thanks Neil, you nail down the issue very clearly. I’ve had multiple conversations with social workers in the field expressing their frustration with holding a critical theory analysis, and, not being able to express this in their daily work. An enormous tension I think, within the social work field, and perhaps the most fundamental problem we face. I agree that for many people in social work there is a silencing quality to the nature of our funding agreements and busy caseloads. I wish I could offer a simple solution to the question of how does one be politically active, recognising of the contextual impact, and still pay the mortgage. Speculatively – I am inclined to think that some kind of crafty, street smart and interstitial approach is some kind of small answer. I like the work of Wakom Bey in suggesting that the answer is never revolution rather it is a series of insurrections. The kinds of actions and activities that allow small rebellions to emerge, and then re-submerge back into the mundanity of busy practice life. What I can imagine is a continuous, and nomadic, call for multiple insurrections. One of the big challenges for me is how do we keep the social work soul strong in the face of the demands of unsympathetic and KPI driven bureaucracies. I incline towards the spirit of secret rebellion, the sorts of actions that do not cost jobs, but do continually remind us and our colleagues that social work is at its heart a radical profession. One might imagine, cells of social work practitioners continuously plotting with a questioning mind of: so how do we remind ourselves, each other and the broader world that our client’s troubles have their origins in structural inequities not individual fault.? As educators, the question becomes how might we encourage our students to keep the flame of outrage against injustice alive in the face of the busy demands of practice? no easy answers! However, I do tend to think we need to inculcate the spirit and techniques of sneaky resistance. Particularly for those who go into mainstream organisations as well as those who are lucky enough to work for organisations such as AAAP. I deeply appreciate your perspective on this, and welcome further conversation.
      Naku noa, na
      David K

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