Modern to Postmodern Social Work

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.

6 thoughts on “Modern to Postmodern Social Work

  1. CB, you’re so eloquent and thoughtful. More so than I am…I just go out and do my job.

    I think the main problem I have with social workers (myself included) is the judgments we tend to make of the people with whom we work. All of those “bad decisions” they make! The nerve! I think it’s the middle class perspective that drives these somewhat moralistic stances and thus decisions we as professionals make–certainly not an original thought. But you’re right that we are pawns for the entity that pays us too, be it state or otherwise. We have to answer to an ultimate authority if we want to keep the lights on and food on the table. Sometimes that authority has different ideas than we do.

  2. Thanks, Reas. And I think you are underestimating your writing style enormously for what it’s worth. Bernard Shaw made reference to ‘middle class morality’ in Pygmalion and I think there is an element of that. I think it’s an interesting dichotomy and there’s no comfortable answer.

  3. my best friend and I often think about this. Especially in terms of what’s “right” for a client. Are their bad decisions really bad?

    A basic part of social work seems to be caring for the less fortunate (by our standards) whether they want to be cared for or not.

  4. Your observation that professional social work and the industrial era were born together is telling, I think. I’ve often thought of social work as sort of the equal and opposite reaction to industry, particularly industry of the capitalistic form known in the U.S. and the U.K. I’ve thought that when we as a society decided to promote cutthroat commercial competition, we also began to have a guilty feeling about all those people who ended up getting their throats cut. So we, the empowered class, came up with or began to accept social work as a means to catch all the loose ends. I’ve often observed wealthy citizens of western nations be totally (and in my opinion, unreasonably) appalled when they are exposed to poverty. I wonder if a piece of that is guilt, too, especially after observing certain so-called impoverished people appearing quite happy in every day life. These are disjointed thoughts, but I agree that much of social work appears to be some sort of middle class push to assimilate, and I believe it is tied to the western world’s preoccupation with wealth.

    I too have concerns about some of the personalization, though. Aren’t there some basic objective standards of health and safety? Don’t there have to be universalized standards of social justice if we hope to make progress in this area? If these collective standards exist, which to some degree I believe they must, the question that remains is how we interpret and apply them. And of course, that’s the rub that you described so thoughtfully in your post.

  5. It is really interesting reading this blog. I have often felt a little at odds with Social Workers in my job, they usually seem more concerned with allocating resources in line with management directives than actually addressing the needs of the individal they serve; but I accept that the circumstances in which I come into contact with SWs may well slant my view. I would also agree that SW seems very rooted in middle class values and morality.
    As an individual with MH issues my experiences of SWs have been very polarized – an ASW seeming to jump to the commands of medicine without even looking at me… and my SW who seems to operate in spite of management and has, and I do not overdramatise, kept me alive on more than one occasion and acts as my advocate when I am at my lowest ebb.
    I hope I do not sound overcritical of SWs – from what I read here I am impressed.

  6. SD – Very true – I know that sometimes I honestly wouldn’t want to be judged the way that I judge others – and that’s quite a hard thing to come to terms with. Bad decisions are ok, bad decisions that involve excessive risk – another thing entirely. Here there’s a feeling almost of damned if you do and damned if you don’t but there is a strong propensity to veer towards the path of least resistance.

    Blue jeans – Thanks for that. I think we are singing from the same hymn-sheet, so to speak. It isn’t necessarily a position I feel comfortable with, but it has to be married to the job. As for personalisation agendas – I have a lot of draft posts about it. I have some reservations..

    Silva – thank you so much. There is a general middle class value that is actually quite uncomfortable a lot of the time. And you can be as critical as you like of social workers here – actually, a lot of what you write helps me enormously in the work I do and understanding more of the impact that my work and actions have on the people with whom I am working – indeed, it is one of the most valuable things I have gained in this blogging environment.

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