The Government promised us capitalism with a human face. To be fair, serious political attention is being directed at the social consequences of capitalism for the first time in decades. However, the soothing language of wellbeing can be deceptive. I think it is important to understand that this public policy initiative has serious limitations which are disguised in the current political context. Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZ) is a small liberal capitalist society. This model of economic, social and political arrangements sets the possibilities for reform and limits our perceptions of alternatives. I will argue here that we need to think outside of the liberal capitalist box if we are to imagine (and make) real distributive change.
I have incorporated some simple arithmetic in the title of this blog post because I want to make the key point clear. As the Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft stated in a recent TV1 interview elaborating on his October 2018 State of Care Report, the proportion of children in state care who are Māori has risen to around two-thirds. Although the report itself is mainly concerned with the proposed development of community group homes as an alternative to institutional care, the text does focus on the lost opportunity for whanau, hapu and Iwi empowerment envisaged in the CYP&tF Act, 1989 and argues that we have a chance to reclaim this vision under the provisions of the reconfigured Oranga Tamariki Act. In many ways it is encouraging to see the Commissioner asserting this position, however the full picture is glossed over somewhat.
We live in a social system that is configured by relations of class and privilege which are economically produced and reproduced. We need to understand the relationship between this reality and the past, present (and possible future of social work). This involves recognising the context of our practice and engaging with the contest of interests and ideas which surround us: questioning the dominant psychologised discourse and bringing critical social and political voices back into theory and practice.
Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the ANZSWWER symposium in Adelaide on the topic Disrupting the Narrative – Creating a Progressive Future for Social Work. I argued that social workers have historically worked with oppressed people in ways that are either caring or controlling and which often involve elements of both.
Neoliberal capitalism and instrumental science are a powerful combination but they are not the only games in town. The challenge for social work in the face of contemporary systemic inequality is to work alongside those who are constructed as our clients – with people rather than on them. Service users are not products to be developed or projects to be built. The following slides explore and develop this historical imperative and consider progressive strategies relevant to the here and now.
The Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (SAANZ) Conference – ‘the future is in the past’ – is being held at the Victoria University of Wellington this year: 4-7 December 2018. The following link takes you to a call for papers. Following the very successful incorporation of a Social Work Stream at the 2017 SAANZ Conference in Dunedin, the 2018 Conference will include a social work stream under the broad theme of Disrupting the Narrative. We hope to see you there.
Image credit: Global Justice Now
When thinking about the past, present and future of social work it is instructive to bear in mind that its theory and practice is politically located (Gray & Webb, 2013). More specifically, social work in the Western context is embedded in the historical evolution of capitalism. Capitalism is a dynamic, often mesmerising, means of production and distribution which is both creative and destructive. There are some major difficulties with it as a model of development. As Karl Marx pointed out, it exploits working people, extracting surplus value from their labour (Hollander, 2008). Why do you think manufacturing has shifted to distant sweat-shops over the last forty years or so?
Social work practice has its challenges and contradictions in a class society, so all the more reason to make meaningful connections between practice quality and social injustice. Hope, they say, is important not because a just society is easy to create – it is important because the struggle for social equality is valuable in itself. I recently had the opportunity to attend the launch of an anti-poverty practice framework for social work in Northern Ireland.
This framework seeks to build an understanding of material deprivation into all fields of social work practice. In themselves, new frameworks do not transform child welfare work that is driven by risk aversion and managerial constraints but this sort of re-thinking and commitment to a poverty-informed practice focus is a powerful beginning. It could and should be done here. The slide-show below (presented at the SWSD conference in Dublin) explores some of the questions we need to ask ourselves if we are to move from rhetoric to reality.
I may be talking out of turn – as an old Pakeha bloke that is – but I think it is useful to reflect on the bicultural journey in Aotearoa-New Zealand. So, I’d like to share some of the things that trouble me. Within the boundaries of the liberal capitalist state one of the most useful and progressive things we could do as a society is introduce compulsory Te Reo Māori into all levels of the education system. That would make a difference in a generation. We are told we don’t have the teachers but it could be done if the political will was there – with money, effort and commitment. Imagine a bilingual Aotearoa.
We have been talking, in varying ways, about social work and social justice on this blog for a long while now. Is this relationship possible, sustainable, realistic? We do need to keep talking about this and, more importantly, we need to start doing something about it or you can probably forget about it in ten years – the project will have been eradicated! I would like to know what others think – can social work be a force for progressive social change?
Oranga Tamariki has its challenges, as does every statutory child protection social work system across the English-speaking world. Something needs to change. I’d like to begin to talk about what a better system might involve. The one that we have risks being part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution. We need to accept that the work is complex and that it is not an exact science. We have become over-organised by risk. Statutory child protection does not have to be associated with policing the risk-sodden poor and it can be reconstructed as an anti-oppressive activity (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris & Warner, 2016). I think that greater awareness of how the effects of material inequality are played out in the lives of children and their families is critical to the development of more effective child protection social work.
In social work we are sometimes prone to the lure of mantras, because they can help to keep us focused – help to ground us and simplify our complex jobs. By mantras, I mean the idea of neat and self-evident truths that can fundamentally inform or guide our practice. Politicians are also attracted to slogans. The pervasive concept of evidence-based practice is perhaps the most obvious current example of this. Who would argue with the idea that policy and practice should be guided by the notion of ‘what works’, and what can be shown to work? This is common sense, is it not? However, like all short forms of doctrine, such mantras always conceal as much as they reveal. Who defines the nature of problems? (Hibbs, 2005). Accordingly, what practice and policy outcomes are we looking to measure? Who decides what counts as evidence? (Pease, 2009). Ultimately, whose interests are served?
Pure or neutral concepts don’t really exist because they are applied in a social and political context which is constructed by relations of power. In order to understand power interests we need to look below the surface of social relations. Arguably this insight is what distinguishes the identity of social work. Understandings of behaviour in the social world are informed by deconstructing the wider social and political context. Such an analysis can be discomforting, partly because it often takes us beyond assessments of good and bad; beyond simple black and white narratives. Social workers are required to engage with complexity.
This approach is also what gives social work its radical potential – its capacity to trouble the status quo by exposing concealed assumptions. We are potential canaries in the neoliberal mine. The current drive for trauma-informed and child-centred practice is a good example of a particularly powerful self-evident truth. Who could argue that the welfare and best interests of children must be kept at the centre of child welfare social work? Who would query the need to disrupt inter-generational cycles of trauma? However, if we begin to examine the wider ideological context, some troublesome issues are brought to light. In relation to the design of new statutory practice processes, the introduction of fresh tools or the elevation of practice principles like the contemporary mantra of child-centred practice, it is critically important to ask the question, ‘why now?’ in this place and time? (Garrett, 2009, p. 880). Is it a coincidence that the child-centric practice emphasis that colours recent changes in the law and related practice frameworks for state social work in Aotearoa-New Zealand has been accompanied by a renewed focus on parental responsibility for child well-being in a society riven by systemic social inequality? (Hyslop, 2017). Clearly children have a right to love and care and parents are normally the primary source of nurturing and security. But is it that simple?
No, it isn’t. Social workers realise that needs and responsibilities are met within a wider setting that reaches beyond individual choice and moral character. The capacity of caregivers is affected by the cards they have been dealt: by income levels, access to adequate and affordable housing, community supports, health, education and social services. In an economic context of relative deprivation and disadvantage, what does it mean to say we are ‘here for the child’? Children are more than an abstract bundle of rights that can be separated from the wider social context of family circumstances. So while some argue that we should be more ‘child centred’, the way to actually change things for the child (as well as their parents) is really to be more ‘context centred’ – alert to the ways that the context of family relationships, material and social resources, and community factors affect childhood experiences. These are the targets for change. Often tragic child death cases are used as evidence that professionals had ‘lost sight of the child’. The more common factor is not that the child was not focussed on, but that there were crucial pieces of information not known to the child protection service. These are not the same thing.
Of course we are motivated to deal effectively with abuse and neglect but we need to recognise the struggle that goes with parenting in poverty if we are to create sustainable change. And as social workers we need to unpack the hidden dogma of individuated neoliberal choice and self-responsibility that lurks behind the simple mantra of child-centred practice. We need to recognise that parental capacity is impacted by the social and economic policy choices which we make collectively: as a society. Slogans that serve to conceal such complex realities may help us to sleep at night, but for how long?
Hibbs, S. (2005). The determination of ‘problem’. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 17 (2) 32-37.
Hyslop, I. (2017). Child Protection in New Zealand: A History of the Future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800 – 1817.
Garrett, P. (2009). Questioning Habermasian Social Work: A Note on Some Alternative Theoretical Resources. British Journal of Social Work, 39, 867-883.
Pease, B. (2009). From evidence-based practice to critical knowledge in post-positivist social work. In J. Allen, L. Briskman, & Pease, B. (Eds.), Critical social work: theories and practices for a socially just world (pp. 45-69). NSW, Australia: Allen &Unwin.
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.