In a recently published article in the Guardian newspaper a U.K social worker ‘called out’ the platitude (often found in the umbrella pronouncements of social work organisations and in the rhetoric of social work academics) that social work is ‘about’ social justice. The following excerpt from the article makes the central point.
The role of the child protection social worker in today’s world is not to strive to redress the imbalance of our society. And if the reality of what social workers do differs so radically from the ideology, then surely it’s time to look again at what we mean by social work and what the government and society expects of social workers?
This timely critique is likely to resonate with the experience of many contemporary practitioners in Aotearoa – New Zealand. It is refreshing to hear this glaring disjunction so clearly named. Child protection practice has always balanced a care and control mandate and detection and rescue is once again at the forefront of policy development. As suggested by Cree (2013), current practice across the wider spectrum of social work has also increasingly become more about the ‘management’ of social dis-advantage – surveillance, gatekeeping and control. This is unsurprising given that the practice context is increasingly defined and regulated within a neoliberal political rubric.
So, in the interests of intellectual honesty, professional ethics and street-credibility, would it not be better for those involved in professional leadership and education to openly acknowledge this reality. Should we shed this professional illusion? What is the point of pretending that the emperor has any clothes? The answer can be both yes and no. First we have to consider the likely consequences. To begin with, wheels are already moving. In good neoliberal style social work is seeking to become a more desirable commodity. There is a market for social hygiene and we are accumulating evidence of our efficiency and effectiveness in disciplining the disadvantaged. However, the bigger question is what would we like our practice future to be? I for one am reluctant to abandon a very well built ship just because the wind and tide are against us.
Fortunately there is another option. Yes, by all means let us recognise that contemporary social work is seldom able to give more than a nod to the concept of social justice: the belief that goods, services and resources must be equitably distributed if we are to live in a fair society. Most social work is patently not about social justice but it could be and it should be. Social work organizations, professional leaders and academics should be exploring how we can bring this about. This involves getting a little dirtier than normal – coming to grips with the difficulties and contradictions of practice in a divided society.
If we are to get our social work sorted, we need to start by getting the politics of practice out on the table. We need to get some balance back into our understandings of cause and effect. Let’s consider the example of social work in child protection practice. We need to take account of poverty in the lives of the families and children that we engage with. Deprivation is an economic and political problem. It is not a ‘cultural’ problem caused by the behaviour of inadequate people. It is increasingly difficult to escape poverty but this is a function of the neoliberal society which we have shaped. This economic model has provided the foundation for a deliberate process of political and social development. It is not a fixed reality – what has been socially made can be socially unmade (Bourdieu, 1999). We have a choice – the academic and professional social work voice can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.
The challenge of social work and child abuse is an emotive example of the messy politics of social work. On the ground and in policy circles we need to acknowledge the complexity of child protection practice. We need to lose the dogma and the slogans. We need to use the insight that our profession affords us. It is a natural source of resistance to neoliberal over-simplifications. The detection of abuse and future risk is only a part of the practice equation. Yes some situations are very dangerous but most can be resolved with effort, patience and good-will. The provision of material resources can make a real difference. Careful holistic assessment is useful but real help for people living in multiply stressed situations is often much more useful. We need to learn (or re-learn) to listen with respect to the lived realities of the people who become our clients: communicate, understand, assist, empower and, yes, protect. Trust is not built on assessment. You won’t find strengths and possibilities with people you don’t respect.
We need some dialogue. Let’s have some comments on this post. I would like to know what others think and feel. You don’t need to agree with me but I’d like to know what you want / what you believe is possible? Time and tide are moving. ‘Where to’ social work?
Bourdieu, P. (2005). The social structure of the economy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Cree, V. (2013). New Practices of Empowerment. In M. Gray & S.A. Webb (Eds.), The New Politics of Social Work. (pp. 145-158). Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave MacMillan.
Nicolas, J. (2015). Why pretend social work is about social justice? It’s not. The Guardian (on line) . October 20, 2015. Accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2015/oct/20/why-pretend-social-work-is-about-social-justice-its-not
Image Credit | James Clarke