A guest post from David Kenkel :
Alongside the story of social work as a force for social good is a more terrible history of social work as a force for controlling populations in service to the interests of political regimes and dominant cultural groups. For instance, the 20th century saw social work actively complicit in the social control function of right-wing and fascist governments. It is perhaps past time for us to be open about these histories if we do not wish to repeat them.
As Ferguson, Ioakimidis & Lavalette (2018) assert, post-WW.2 hundreds of thousands of children were uplifted by social workers in Spain and Greece for the sin of having parents with left-wing leanings. Many thousands of adults were forcibly incarcerated in mental institutions for suffering from the supposed mental illness of socialism. In Greece, how to fight the insidious influence of communism was on the teaching curriculum for social work students until the mid-1960’s (p.61).
These authors also point out that social work has also been an active player in attempts to destroy indigenous cultures throughout the world. Typically this has involved the removal of children from indigenous communities and their placement into dominant culture institutions or families.
Until very recently this was justified as ‘in-their-best-interests’. This is not ancient history; it is recent and brutal and still with us in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2019.
Social work as a profession (and the governments that pay social workers) tend to be besotted with the science of ‘who-knows-best’. Our profession tends to forget that the science of ‘who-knows-best’ in any social arena is ‘always-also’ the politics of ‘who-knows-best’.
As in the recent justifying talk of placing traumatised children in safe, stable and loving homes in Aotearoa New Zealand, the removal of Spanish and Greek children of the left was ideologically rationalised as the compelling need to free them from dangerous ill-thinking parents and to ensure their futures with wholesome right-thinking carers. In ANZ, as in Greece and Spain, the politics of oppression is over-written by saccharine discourses of individual children’s well-being.
There is a form of trickle-down effect that is not economic, but instead to do with how the dominant political ideology of the day spills down the slopes of our hierarchical society to affect the lives of everyday people. In the instance of social work, ideologies trickle down to determine policy and then trickle down to the selection of research to justify policy, which then trickles down to the practicalities of who gets funded. For social work the final level of trickle-down is how practice is taught and conducted on the ground. Political ideology and what is encouraged to be understood as ordinary and normal are intimately linked (Kenkel, 2005). The social work profession is no more immune than the ordinary citizen to this kind of pervasive encouragement to adopt (and in Social Work’s case enforce!) the cultural norms and common understandings of dominant interests.
It is no accident that our previous Government’s commitment to seeing social issues as not structural, but as individually generated, led to a wholesale (well researched) commitment to individualising and responsibilising modes of social work intervention such as ‘trauma-informed practice’.
At this moment of potential change in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is important to remember that we are not yet three years removed from a whole-of-government approach to welfare that was obsessed with social investment; a focus on supposedly evidence-based best practice involving the fixing of individual trauma and the ruthless concealment of structural poverty and colonisation as primary drivers of inequality and struggle.
It is also important to note that the primary policy planks of the current reforms to welfare in ANZ are still those developed by the last Government. The question of why social work policy is still being driven by a right-wing agenda determined by the previous regime is an important one. The answers are (I sadly suspect) reasonably simple:
Firstly, the ‘sunk-cost-fallacy’ – where so much money has been invested into an approach that it seems impossible to step back from it.
Secondly, the employment of multiple consultants at MSD / OT who are career specialists in individualising approaches to social services: technocratic ‘experts’ who remain on contract and are deeply embedded in supporting previously set directions for social work.
Thirdly, a naivete on the part of new MP’s; meaning that they do not understand how hard it is to deflect policy direction, and, how skilled Wellington bureaucrats are at making the unpalatable seem plausible to the point of inevitability.
Frankly, this government needs to do better. This will take political courage, a willingness to confront entrenched in-house interests and to challenge a social work ideology that looks to betray the aspirations of Puao te Ata Tu.
Ferguson, Ioakimidis & Lavalette (2018) argue that instead of relying on the all too often politically embedded rationalities of science and psychology, social work needs to return to its activist and collectivist roots. At its simplest, this means alliance with those we work with and the clear-cut understanding that social structure determines social outcome. In describing the social work history of Greece and Spain they state the following:
It is important to highlight in these circumstances, social work was conceived, developed and presented as a respected ‘science of charity’ in opposition to the principles of solidarity inspired by socialist movements (2018, p 60).
As Kendra Cox articulated some time ago on this blog, we need to be more than cogs in state regimes designed to punish the non-compliant. If social work in ANZ is to escape being another dismal example of social work’s propensity to serve right-wing capitalist ideologies, we need to pay heed to the ideas of activist practitioners. Alistair Russell (2017) argues for competent solidarity, asserting that when social work languages the people we work with as ‘clients’, we lose sight of the fact that those we work with are people just like us at the mercy of larger structures that are exploitative by design. If social work is to resist being the tool of an oppressive economic juggernaut we must aspire to a vision and practice of solidarity with those we support. Social work as a profession might consider dropping the word client as a first step.
History and the future
To move forward with integrity we must acknowledge our history of harm. As much as we might desire to be a source of liberation and assistance, social work for many peoples in the world has been (and continues to be) a cause of social suffering. Social work educators need to equip graduates with the tools to struggle for a social work that imagines a different world, not one that merely cynically adapts to the world as it is. If we wish to do better in the future, we need to both acknowledge our complicity with policies that have harmed children and whanau in Aotearoa New Zealand, and our complicity in the violence of colonisation.
If we acknowledge this history and shift towards a position of struggle with those who suffer under the burden of oppressive social, cultural and economic structures, only then can we can begin to move into the future as a profession genuinely committed to the empowerment and liberation of people.
Image credit: Nicu Buculei Freedom?
Ferguson, I. Ioakimidis, V. & Lavalette, M. (2018). Global social work in a political context: Radical perspectives. Policy Press. Kindle Edition.
Kenkel, D. (2005). Futurority: Narratives of the future. Thesis submitted for Master of Arts in Social Policy. Massey University New Zealand.
Russell, A. (2015). Radical community development: we do talk politics here. Whanake: The Pacific Journal of Community Development. 1(1), 58-64.