In their analysis of the contemporary linkages between sociology and biological science – and the practical realisation of this project in recent social policy and service design – Gillies, Edwards & Horsley (2016) pose some critical questions for social work. The epigenetic argument is that care and love generate a healthy brain, a well-adjusted child, and a successful adult (see also Beddoe, 2017). It follows that parenting – the provision of stability, love and care – is the key to social development. Accordingly, targeted resources should be directed to ensuring that parents who are not doing this job adequately are enabled (or forced) to do so. Further, it is appropriate to terminate the rights of parents if they are incapable of delivering on this responsibility. Such parents are, of course, found amongst the urban poor in western capitalist societies. The way out of poverty is, it seems, ‘love’. And we have the data-base capacity to detect love-less children, and those parents who are unable or unwilling to provide it.
So far, so seductive. However, there is more than a hint of slippery slope in all of this. Much – probably most – statutory and NGO child welfare and family practice is focused on women – mothers parenting in poverty. Gillies, Edwards & Horsley question whether it is fair or realistic to expect impoverished parents to raise their children to become successful in the hyper-competitive neoliberal capitalist societies that we have created – to parent their children out of poverty. After all, this kind of social mobility is becoming increasingly rare. Inequality is part of the ‘natural’ neoliberal order of things. The fences are higher than they were when I was a child. Lack of money, power and privilege – social capital, inadequate educational resources, racism and impoverished neighbourhoods are all part of an integrated web of disadvantage (Bywaters et.al, 2017). Contrary to the opinion recently expressed by Judith Collins, M.P., the causes of poverty are structural rather than simply related to parental love and the resulting clarity of a child’s brain. Inequalities of opportunity and outcome are socially and economically reproduced.
Gillies, Edwards & Horsley also raise a deeper issue. Do we in fact want our children to be effective players in a relentlessly competitive society; flexible entrepreneurs of a commodified self? (Sugarman, 2015). Is this how they might best live and die? The architects of neoliberalism would have us believe that this is the only social world that is desirable and, in fact, possible (Monbiot, 2017). These issues are central to the future of social work because we are the self-professed engineers of the social. The real key here is how, by whom, and in whose interests the boundaries of ‘the social’ are defined.
Despite our social justice aspirations, child and family social work is being increasingly confined within a narrow political brief. Within this domain, family (parents / mothers) are constructed as the (only / isolated) social bridge responsible for ensuring trauma-free transitions from childhood to the independent rational adults envisaged in economic theory. Social work exists to facilitate this process amongst the poor – encouraging, cajoling and, if need be, coercing. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not writing off family support social work practice. It is vitally important, demanding and highly skilled work. However, social work must also assert, demand, re-claim, reimagine its role in advocating for the wider reform of unjust social and economic systems, such as the one we get up to every morning in the green land of Aoteraoa-New Zealand. Are there ways and means apart from finding and fixing broken children? Yes, there are.
Beddoe, L. (2017, January 4). Brains, biology and test for future ‘burdenhood’: Misguided blind faith in science? [Blog post]. Retrieved from Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/01/brains-biology-and-tests-for-future-burdenhood-misguided-blind-faith-in-science/
Bywaters et.al. (2017). Inequalities in English child protection and austerity: A universal challenge. Child & Family Social Work, 1-9.
Gillies, V., Edwards, R. and Horsley, N. (2016). Brave new brains, families and the politics of knowledge. Sociological Review 64 (2), 219-237. doi /10.1111/1467-954X.12374
Monbiot, G. (2017, July 19). A despot in disguise: one man’s mission to rip off democracy. Guardian Newspaper, U.K. 19 July.
Sugarman, J. (2015). Neoliberalism and psychological Ethics. Journal of theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Advance online publication, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038960