Power, Status and Professionalism

power. to protect.



I was ruminating over the post I wrote yesterday about the interplay and interaction between being a social worker and being a foster carer and the one aspect that played on my mind was the differential in ‘status’.

I used to think status and professional status was very important to me as a social worker. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very proud to be a social worker but I think when I was first qualified, I was also proud to be doing ‘something proper’ and recognised.

I had, at this point, in my defence, worked for years in the care sector as a support worker and a care worker. I had had friends and family asking me when I was going to get a ‘proper’ job and tell me that my academic qualifications were ‘underused’ in a minimum wage care job.

And I listened. I began to believe. The process towards my professionalisation was one I was proud of. Sometimes if you do a ‘low status’ job or have no job, society makes assumptions about your general intelligence level so being able to prove that I could make it through a postgraduate course was also an element of pride for me. I liked the idea of ‘having a profession’.

But I wonder if I was too taken by status and if the divides and gaping holes that exist between policy makers and practitioners is because ‘status’ is a bar.

For example, yesterday I had an extensive conversation with the Personal Budgets Implementation Manager about a case I was working on. We made good progress on hopefully working on a more creative option for a service user I’m working with currently.

My colleagues were surprised that a) I had approached this ‘manager’ directly and b) that she  had listened.

I thought about this and my role in perpetuating the divides between policy and practice and how status remains such a predominant factor in blocking conversations from the ‘front line’ to ‘management’.

We are institutionalised both by our employers who determine that ‘conversation’ flows in one direction and by our society where we, as a species seem to be keen to label everything, put labels on everything and want to by our nature, know our place in the societal pyramids of power.

So back now to the foster carer and the social worker. Is the foster carer really on a ‘lower’ rung of the ladder of professionalism than the social worker that they can be ‘looked down on’ by so-called professionals? It can honestly feel that way and taking a step back to look at the way I am ‘dealt’ with when I have my ‘social worker’ hat on as opposed to when I introduce and describe myself as a ‘foster care’ is a glimpse into the different statuses that it is accorded.

Status is afforded because power is present and this is something that overrides the social work profession in whatever capacity it is undertaken. Whether it is in adult care management where it can feel as a practitioner that you are pretty reined in in terms of what care can be provided on financial levels, in the eyes of the service user you are the ‘gatekeeper’ to the mythical goal of ‘provision of care services’.

In Mental Health work there are some obvious legal powers under the Mental Health Act but even in day to day care co-ordination, you become the conduit between the multidisciplinary team and the service user. You decide what is important to feed back, what constitutes a concern or a worry and how situations may be resolved or, if necessary escalated.

And we go into people’s homes. We make appointments. We decide on timings to fit into our busy diaries. Sometimes we even cancel appointments. These are all displays of power. Power isn’t about flexing of muscles, it can be as much about sending a letter or making a phone call suggesting a time to visit. Of course, it has to exist but the important thing is never to forget the power differentials and the way that they change the dynamics between user and provider.

With my last social work student, we spoke a lot about power and I alluded that she should reflect on the power relationship between us as well as the power relationship with service users. I smile and I joke with her but there is an enormous power differential between us that cannot go unacknowledged.

And as a foster carer, I accept that social workers will turn up at any point to see the child I have in placement or to just see the home or to check up on us. That’s fine, it’s understandable and I have no problem whatsoever with that, I know it’s a part of the process and I would feel angry if foster carers were not subject to checks but there is a power differential there and it has to be acknowledged  – even if it is not openly acknowledged.

We can never have an truly equitable ‘status’ because social workers can come and check on me and are responsible for my approval as a foster carer but I can’t wander into their home or even office at will (trust me, I wouldn’t want to!).  I think without acknowledging this power differential or by pretending there is any kind of ‘equal’ status we do both parties a disservice.

Once acknowleged, issues of power can be addressed and considered but if it remains unspoken, they can be levered and used for less positive outcomes and ends.

As for ‘professionalism’ in social work, I think we could go round in circles with this one. Respect is helpful but that is a truism that can pretty much be applied to any sphere of life. Is the respect based on professionalism? Only if the professional is respectful and competent.   An incompetent professional can do far more damage than good and the converse is true for a good professional.

Thinking back to the stories of abuse at Winterbourne View,  we see much more obvious displays of power. The power was held by the care workers and exercised on the patients at Winterbourne. There is something within the care sector where so  much work is done with some who for many reasons may have little power that it can attract people who want to exercise power for the wrong reasons – to augment feelings of self-worth or to bolster failings in other areas of their lives. It is important that the power dynamic is acknowledged and guarded against at all levels and that it never ever becomes something that is taken for granted or played on to make others feel threatened or denigrated.

The status, the qualification, the experience and the practice alone don’t make a ‘good professional’ – it is a mixture of all of them and the way that power is used, acknowledged (internally) and processed that create good practice and good practitioners.

We can often talk about qualities that are important for good social workers and social care workers. I wonder if I’ve mentioned it but for the reasons above, I would put the quality of humility very high. We need to listen and be aware of the inherent power we have. We need to ensure the voices we hear are echoed upwards in our chains of ‘command’. We need to listen to experts of their own situation and the people close to them. Sometimes we have to impose and sometimes we have to say no, but we acting with humility is a rich and exceptional quality and one that makes a good social worker.

8 thoughts on “Power, Status and Professionalism

  1. I cannot believe how arrogant newly or recently qualified social workers are with families, I work as an advocate (and independent social worker)and their social skills are in the main lacking, perhaps as a coverup for their inexperience. I qualified in 1982 at a time when power issues were examined in training. I have no idea whether poverty or oppression is covered now but I am not impressed.

    • Much though it pains me, I have experienced that as well. I don’t think it’s all to be fair, but that was my point that just having a qualification doesn’t instill any kind of superiority. That’s what I meant about the importance of humility but some ppl seem to think having some letters after their names makes them suddenly ‘better’ people.

  2. I completely agree that power is inherent in social work. I think that the emphasis on positive social work values such as empowerment and choice as the ONLY form of social work practice is misleading. Obviously we all strive to implement these values but it is misguided and limited of us to deny that power and control are also undeniably inherent in social work practice.

    • That’s a very good point and I think sometimes people get the wrong impression of social work and what social work is about – or they try too hard to get people to ‘like’ them or try to avoid conflict at all costs.

  3. A good post. Power comes with the territory, and well-meaning use of power can so easily lead to oppression when group-think starts to operate, assumptions aren’t questioned, and no-one puts their head above the parapet to challenge the received wisdom in a situation. I now understand totally why the Bournewood case – “HL versus the United Kingdom” occurred. Or very recently, Neary versus Hillingdon. I’m sure that all the professionals involved were well-meaning people who sincerely thought that they were doing their best for HL and for Neary. But they were wrong. Deeply wrong. We never think of ourselves as “the United Kingdom”. How huge that sounds. We think we are just people running around dealing with our individual clients. But in fact, we are representatives of state power, and we should never forget it. HL’s lawyers had to take his case all the way to Europe, so convinced were the professionals that they were right that they didn’t give up, or acknowledge that there might be another point of view. So the small-fry practitioners slowly morphed into “the United Kingdom”. It took a judge to tell the United Kingdom that what they were doing wasn’t right, and wasn’t acceptable. Neary should have been protected by DoLs procedures, the very procedures which were introduced because of Bournewood. In fact, the opposite happened, as the judge recently had to point out. HIllingdon apologised, but why did things get so far? Why did none of the practitioners speak out? I suspect group-think was at work. Conflict isn’t nice, and it isn’t comfortable. It isn’t nice to challenge colleagues, or disagree with psychiatrists, or tell them that what they are doing is oppressive and wrong. After all, this might just be one case, and we have to go on working with these guys afterwards… But sometimes it is absolutely necessary, and sometimes we need to be tough. Or become involved in oppression ourselves. Which is not what we are supposed to be about…

  4. Looking at the Neary judgement there were 3 Best Interests Assessments and the second one did raise concerns with the process. I take what you mean though and think it is why we reflection is so important in the job.

  5. Weirdly enough, I have just done a conference presentation and am also writing an article on the power issue inherent in social work. I was working with some social work students recently doing a role play about assessing someone under the Mental Health Act. They really struggled with being formal or in any way authoritarian. They wanted to be “friendly” and be “likeable” to the service user.

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