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The three pillars of social work

The three pillars of social work



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Published by Malcolm Payne
An unpublished paper given to a social work conference in Beijing during the late 1990s discussing how the three views of social work taken from Malcolm Payne 'What is Professional Social Work?' may be used to udenrstand the different roles of social work.
An unpublished paper given to a social work conference in Beijing during the late 1990s discussing how the three views of social work taken from Malcolm Payne 'What is Professional Social Work?' may be used to udenrstand the different roles of social work.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Malcolm Payne on Apr 03, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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 Malcolm Payne
 Professor of Applied Community Studies, The Manchester Metropolitan University,799 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, MANCHESTER M20 2RR.
Telephone: UK+(0)161-247 2097, FAX: UK+(0)1204 853499, E-Mail: M.Payne@MMU.AC.UK 
Recently, the British Association of Social Workers was asked by the new Britishgovernment to provide in one page a description of social work which would help toinform the many new members of Parliament who have been elected for the first time thisMay. It is significant that even in a country which has had social work services for morethan 100 years it is still necessary to explain what it is all about to members of thelegislature. The government was concerned that people in Britain were not accepting thevalue of social work services. No country that is considering how it should implementsocial work within its own services should be anxious if it is a hard task to explain thevalue of social work to its people and its administrators and politicians, when such a long-established social work profession faces this degree of uncertainty about its purpose andmission. Even more significant, many people in social work regarded describing it in onepage as an impossible task, and various people struggled for quite a while to achieve sucha brief explanation in a form and in language which ordinary people could understand.I made a contribution to this work, based on my recent book,
What is Professional SocialWork?
(Payne, 1996) and that is where I want to start in discussing the nature of socialwork on this occasion. But it is only my starting point, because I then want to go on toargue that the nature of social work is adapted according to the political system and socialand cultural context of any country in which it is practised. However, I argue that it ispossible to define the nature of social work as it is relevant to any particular country byexamining how much each of three specific analyses of social work influences practice inthat country. I call these analyses, and this lecture, ‘The three pillars of social work’. Bylooking at these three analyses of social work we can understand more clearly thedifferent aspects and balance of ideas in social work. Also, by presenting these differentviews, I can describe some of the continuing academic and professional debates which goon within social work.Every social work activity contains three elements, the three pillars of social work. Everysocial agency, every social service and every system of social services also contains thosethree elements. In every case, the balance of those three elements in a social work activity,in a social agency and in a system of social service varies. By understanding these threeelements, we can analyse our activity as a social worker, we can analyse our agency andwe can analyse the social service system in a particular country or administrative area. Wedon’t have to say that social work is one thing, or that it is always the same. We say
PAYNE: The Three Pillars of Social Work - 2
instead that it has these basic characteristics which are implemented in a particular way inour activity, in our agency or in our country or administrative area.The three pillars of social work are views or analyses of four aspects of it: its purpose, theproblems focused in the work, the type of activity which is undertaken and the area of social provision which the work concentrates on. The next three sections look at eachanalysis in turn.
The reflexive-therapeutic analysis
The starting point of many accounts of social work focuses on the
pillar, andthis is the kind of work you find in many introductory textbooks, particularly Americantextbooks.The
of social work, according to this analysis, is therapeutic, that is the socialworker tries to ‘cure’ the problems that individual people or families have in their lives,rather as a doctor diagnoses and cures an illness. If the approach is extended to workingwith communities or groups, it follows the same purpose, that of curing problems in thegroup or community.The
that this analysis focuses on are mainly emotional or relationship problems,and many other problems are reduced down to such problems. For example, if peoplehave financial problems, therapeutic social work often finds that relationships in thefamily or personal stress has led to disorganisation and bad management which has led tofinancial difficulties or inability to work properly. The argument is that if you resolve theemotional or relationships problems, the financial difficulties will sort themselves out.The
type of activity
that social workers undertake, according to this analysis, is to build uprelationships with people with problems, who are called clients, so that the socialworker’s personality in discussions about the problems will help the client gain the skills,emotional strength and support from round about, in their family and community forexample, to resolve their difficulties. The focus is on clients’ personal growth fulfillingtheir ability and capacity to manage their own affairs more successfully. I call thisapproach reflexive because the work is done by interpersonal interaction. Thus, theworker sees the client’s behaviour and hears what the client says, which influences theworker’s assessment or judgement about what is going on in the client’s mind and in theclient’s social experiences. This judgement then influences how the worker reacts to theclient and this in turn influences how the client behaves, thus influencing the social work.This process continues, each influences the other, a reflexive process in which the client’sworld is changed by the constant process of interaction. Practice theory and study of thisapproach concentrates on understanding and influencing people’s behaviour, particularlytheir emotions and perceptions.The
areas of social provision
where this kind of approach concentrates on are social work in hospitals and health-related settings, with people with marriage or family difficulties, inwork with young people with emotional and behavioural disorders, who are delinquent or
PAYNE: The Three Pillars of Social Work - 3
who need care because they have no parents or other family or because their familyneglects their care or ill-treats them, and with people with mental illnesses.An example of reflexive-therapeutic social work is the following case, dealt with by ahospital social worker. A mother in her late 20s with two children was diagnosed with acerebral tumour, which would shortly lead to her death. Her husband needed to take timeoff work to care for her, and both she, her husband and the children had to deal with theemotional consequences of her impending loss of life: this required much discussion withthe worker. Arrangements were made for financial support of the family while thehusband was unable to work. Both sets of grandparents, the husband’s and the wife’sparents offered to care for the children and there was a family dispute about who shouldhave the children. The social worker negotiated an arrangement whereby the husbandcontinued as the main carer of the children, but both sets of grandparents were involved,to enable him to return to work when his wife died. She was able to die supported by herhusband, knowing that suitable arrangements had been made for the children after herdeath. In this case, much of the work was concerned with grieving for loss and indisentangling family conflicts and relationships.Although it has had a long history and a great deal of influence in elite social work agencies, this reflexive-therapeutic analysis of social work has been subjected to twotypes of criticism. The first critical view says that many of the problems that people faceare broadly practical in nature, and it is the job of social services to deliver supportiveservices to its clients, rather than to be too concerned with their emotional and personallives. Therefore, the worker should not be deviated from the main task of the socialservices into more complex interpersonal material which never leads anywhere. Thesecond critical view argues that many of the personal and practical problems that peopleface arise from inadequacies in the social and economic system - this criticism is derivedfrom Marxist radical theory. Therefore, the worker should seek change in the socialsystem which creates them, rather than just dealing with personal and individualproblems. The reflexive-therapeutic response will be inadequate in dealing with theindividual’s problems. Problems may well recur, because the basic social causes have notbeen dealt with. Also, more general social change would prevent problems from occurringfor other people in similar positions.These two positions which criticise reflexive-therapeutic social work do so from theirown analysis of social work: they constitute the two other pillars of social work.
The individualist-reformist analysis
The second analysis of social work comes from the first critique: the
of individualist-reformist work is to deliver effective social services to theindividual as part of broad welfare services in society. If the services are ineffective,improvements in their organisation and policy should be made.

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