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?
This one is about the politics of dispossession, poverty and incarceration in neoliberal New Zealand. It is no secret that Māori, Pasifika and working-class families generally carry a disproportionate burden of social suffering in our society. Look around you if you don’t believe me. We need to dismantle the structures that perpetuate social inequality.
A guest post from David Kenkel :
Alongside the story of social work as a force for social good is a more terrible history of social work as a force for controlling populations in service to the interests of political regimes and dominant cultural groups. For instance, the 20th century saw social work actively complicit in the social control function of right-wing and fascist governments. It is perhaps past time for us to be open about these histories if we do not wish to repeat them.
Kia ora koutou katoa
The following reflections from each and all of us at the RSW Collective are offered at the turn of a challenging and energising year for social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. We don’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but we do encourage critical imagination and action – together we can help shape a progressive future.
The social profession seeks to do more than bandage the victims of an unequal society; it needs to be a voice for social change. Critical social workers need to have a powerful voice in practice development, policy analysis and in wider politics. We have something to say about the genesis of social suffering and this involves more than administering evidence-based treatment to the poor.
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.
The correlation between child maltreatment and poverty is no longer a state secret (Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone, & McCartan, 2017; Pelton, 2015), not that it was ever hidden from social workers in the field. However a rich vein of irony lies just below the surface of this statement because the nature of the relationship remains obscured, in policy and practice. As Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley (2017) so powerfully illustrate, blaming inadequate parenting for the reproduction of disadvantage and dysfunction is a time-honoured tradition in capitalist societies.
Child protection and family support social workers really need to have it all: a strong political analysis, an understanding of organisations and a decent handle on relevant micro theories. In service of the latter, a rather obscure recent announcement was made about attachment theory. This is of interest to the child protection and family support communities due to the dominance of the theory in education and practise, and its usefulness in understanding some aspects of adult-child relationships.