As many others will be doing at this uncertain time, I am hunkering down and wondering about the state of the play in the world as I know it. On a global scale the hypocrisy and ultimate futility of the US project in Afghanistan is gobsmacking. On a bigger scale still, the growing evidence of a planet pushed to breaking point by the extractive profit driven commodification of all things is chilling. Closer to home we have a virus to surround and conquer. It does seem that our politicians and public health specialists are close to being on the same page and we can have some confidence that this outbreak will be isolated and extinguished. We also have winds of change blowing through the bureaucracy of our state child protection system in Aotearoa. In this blog post I want to touch on the indirect connections – the conjuncture – between some of these things.
There is a troubled relationship between social work and science. Although western social work is not separate from the historical development of Enlightenment science and what has come to be understood as the project of modernity, it has always sat uncomfortably within this schema of knowledge. Since the time of Descartes (1596-1650) science has advanced a claim to objective truth – that the tool of scientific reason is a mechanism for naming, understanding, and controlling the world (Hyslop, 2012). There are more than a few problems with this belief system.
When we kicked off this blog site we envisaged a creative space that challenged complacent doxa – that rattled a few cages and imagined a different social work in a world made both more equal and more free. We have chipped away at this all the way along – exploring the boundaries of what might be done. Recently we have experimented with podcast interviews – changing up from the usual run of opinion and commentary pieces. Today I though I’d provide another angle: woke up this morning with a prose poem in my head and needed to let it go …
Events in the recent past – perhaps over the last ten years – have left me with questions about the future of social work practice and social work education. Events in the more distant past provide some clues about progressive ways forward, or at least some pointers about approaches which are best avoided. As I have argued in this blog space for some time, the origins of child and family social work are linked to late nineteenth century responses to problems inherent to the capitalist mode of development (Ferguson, 2004).
We are still at the cross-roads with child welfare and the wider movement for social justice but the momentum for radical change is building. I have seen bits and pieces from the Kempe Center Virtual International Conference: A Call to Action to Change Child Welfare. It is challenging and refreshing to see workers from other countries wrestling with the burning need for child protection reform. Child abuse is a social problem that is entwined with wider issues. The current risk-saturated, procedure-driven, surveillance-orientated child protection paradigm delivers unequal outcomes, in Aotearoa and everywhere else where this system is administered. Why wouldn’t it? *And what is to be done?
We have talked about the big picture : small picture stuff on this blog for some time. This is because it is THE question for social work – the key issue that we wrestle with in theory and practice. As suggested, these disturbing times are bringing out the best and worst of the human condition. The mounting social disruption and economic fall-out from the pandemic is severely troubling a world already severely troubled by the cumulative fall-out from global warming. The future as we have understood it in the main-stream Western narrative of progressive development no longer makes sustained sense – unless, perhaps, to the hyper-wealthy.
This blog site has been up and running for a little over five years now. Time passes rapidly. The object of our collective has been to provide viewpoints on a broad range of issues relevant to social work in contemporary society and to provide a platform for information and analysis that troubles the status quo. In some ways it seems that social workers are more reluctant to publicly critique the practice and policy frameworks which surround them than ever. Politics and management are often all about controlling the narrative: mandating what can be said and by whom. Increasingly social workers have taken on the message that they can only be active citizens within strict ideological parameters.
A guest post by David Kenkel
One of the strange ironies of our profession is that the social and economic conditions that create the need for our existence are also what we all seek to change. Reading between the lines of budget 2020, it seems likely there will be more jobs for social workers and better resourced social services. The tragic part though is that little will happen to change the economic circumstances of those we work with. It is admirable that this government recognises the need for expanded social services at this time. It is not admirable that they seem unwilling to truly address the underlying structural issues which create this need.
Words matter. Maybe social workers know this better than most. They are often the tools of our trade after all. How we describe the world – how we communicate our analysis of ‘the social’ – helps to construct our belief systems in subtle and important ways. Language use is influenced by changing political, economic and social systems, although much of this is only obvious looking backwards.
It is hard to know where to begin – with the burdens carried by social workers in the present – or with the possibilities facing the planet in the longer run. There are numerous uncertainties surrounding the time of Covid-19 in Aoteraoa-New Zealand and across the globe. Social suffering is the stock-in-trade of social work and as suggested in previous posts such crises impact unevenly in structurally unequal societies such as ours. What might this mean now and into the future?