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
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.