There doesn’t seem to be much getting away from the fact that social work is a vaguely paternalistic profession. I touched on this previously and its something that I’ve been dwelling on for a while. Even if the systems and functions have changed today, its roots were in any case. Charity from the state – the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor which was made in the Victorian era.
This is a profession that grew from industrialised society and the move to the cities and was very much based on the ideal of philanthropy. ‘Helping poor people’. A very female profession with its roots in the church – the middle classes raining beneficence on the deserving working classes.
So social work is a construct that is very much built within the modern era and by modern, read industrial.
And it seems like it has been trying to grow up for a good few decades.
When I was studying, I developed a weakness for the post-modern approach as it made and continues to make the most sense to me as a way forward.
Some of the ‘helping hand’ constructs need to be broken down to reduce some of the power issues that are always present but also built very much into the system. Using strengths-based models and user/carer led narratives to push away from the idea of the professional as expert and towards, at least from the social perspective, each person being their own expert. Where this is possible. There are situations that throw themselves up, like the role as ASW, that battle against these models – where do they fit in?
Of course, the overriding arch is ‘best interest’ . We are working in the ‘best interest’ of person x, y or z and therefore the means can justify the ends? That has to be the case to a certain extent. I’d say above all, and possibly something that doesn’t come across in the manner of my writing, I’m a pragmatic worker. I like to ‘do things’ probably more than I like to ‘talk about doing things’.
I’d say its why I’m a social worker rather than a counsellor.
As adult social care moves into a new era of personalised budgets and services being provided not by professionals making decisions about what is best, but by users and carers deciding what needs they are prioritising themselves and choosing the services themselves it can seem that the basis of care management in social work, at any rate, might be on a precipice.
I wonder sometimes if the personalisation agenda is the summation of a ‘post-modern’ approach to social work – coming only a good few decades behind the equivalent movement in the arts, literature, architectural world – but innovation in social policy is such a complicated matter and rarely edgy.
I have some doubts about personalisation – if it is to be a zero-cost ‘solution’ to the problems created by care-management, a lot more questions need to be answered than have been to date. I want it to work and am absolutely in favour of the axis of expertise being moved away from the professional or the state but I am not entirely convinced that that is the agenda of those who are pushing down this path. Until I see the proposals to make the service accessible to those who have primarily been excluded from direct payments, I will remain sceptical.
So no wonder documents and discussions are needed about the ‘role of the social worker’. A radical shift is needed. Is it happening though? And what are the reasons for the push?
I don’t have any answers but a consideration of the question is something that, I feel, can strengthen the profession if the questions are asked at a grass-roots level and not focused on the ‘management’ or ‘director’ level. People who are answering these questions on our behalf – the academics who might have last practiced on the ‘cliff-face’ decades ago.
One of the links I added to the side bar was the Barefoot Social Worker site. It’s a site I’ve been vaguely aware of for a while but I was reading through it more thoroughly last week and I’ve found it relatively inspiring – from my background of qualifying and practising in the 2000s and onwards.
It presents a Marxist/Radical perspective of social work as far as I can tell, that I learnt about and studied when I was initially training. It was presented as one of the views of social work practice theoretically but had been presented to me as an approach based a few decades ago which no longer remained relevant. I have to say the writing inspired me somewhat.
Searing writes that
Social work has always been ambivalent about its class position and its role in maintaining the social system as it is. State social workers are expected to use their professional relationship to keep people in line and this is often justified by wrapping everything up in the language of social inclusion which is often meaningless. Social workers cannot avoid the contradictory nature of their role but sometimes they need to take a stand and show which side they are on. In particular, they should be alert to increasing pressures on social workers to act more on behalf of the state than for the individual and strive to resist these pressures.
There are many ways this resonates. I do feel often like a pawn of the State and that my role is very much to act on behalf of the local authority, particularly in distributing resources.
We work from the inside to change and to effect change. For me, initially, I believed social work was very much concerned with social justice. It was the aspect of the job that appealed to me. I still believe it, but my perceptions have been changed by years of care management and being subjected to pen-pushing frustrations and seeing first hand some of the inequities of the system. I know I do some pieces of work differently to how my managers would like them to be done – particularly I might allot my time differently. But ultimately, although I answer to my management, I answer more immediately to my conscience.
Why does that choice have to be made?
Would my role be more effective from without the statutory sector?
What role does class have on the work I do?
My perception is that Social Work is possibly an aspirant middle class profession in that a lot of its roots are in the middle classes but it has a good proportion of practitioners who have a variety of personal backgrounds and experiences.
Social Work should not try to be Law or Accountancy. It has a different role to play in society.
I don’t know, I still don’t know.
And reflection. Reflection helps. In my own little way, I hope that the awareness of these issues and my reflection on them helps to temper some of the excesses that they might create. But it can’t eradicate them all as I have been reminded.
Saying that though, if it wasn’t me it would be someone else. Is that my own attempt to justify the role that I am playing? Possibly. I still have a way to go to reconcile these thoughts to a more coherent response.