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Professor of Applied Community Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University, 799, Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, Manchester, UK, M20 2RR. Telephone: 0161-247 2098; fax 0161-247 6844; Email: email@example.com
Making claims about social work
What is the role of social work? Do we want to ask: § what it is? § what we might imagine it could be? or § what we might realistically hope it might be? Sticking with ‘what is’ may seem complacent and lacking in ambition, although over the last century and a half social work has achieved a lot in establishing its position in many societies. Seeking a realistic and foreseeable role might fail to meet our ideals for future progress. Promoting the extent of the possibilities might seem conceited and pretentious. Identifying these alternatives suggests that talking about the role of social work involves what sociologists call ‘claims-making’; that is, saying what something is, so that our view of it gains acceptance, in preference to someone else’s claim. It has the image of homesteaders in the American West or gold-diggers putting up fences round their property. Staking a claim is not final: whether people accept it depends on the claims that others might make about the same field. That this is so emphasises that trying to define the role of social work sets out on a political process in which we engage with other stakeholders in the hope of coming to an accepted agreement. Therefore, I propose in this paper that simply trying to define one role of one social work is unlikely to be effective; what will be needed is a constantly redefined strategy for making and pursuing claims about it that represent the best understanding of social workers. However, within that complexity, a relatively small number of principles can describe important aspects of social work’s approach, in its contribution to the network of professions working in welfare systems. The reason why we want to make claims, or assert a clear role, is to gain legitimacy. There is a problem with doing so in the twenty-first century. Castells (1997) discusses this in relation to social identities. In the past, dominant organisations and interests in society had the most influence in establishing and ‘legitimising’ identities and roles. They did this as part of the process of maintaining authority and control in an organised society. The structure of society, traditionally, had a strong influence on our social roles and our identity. Identities were given because of the social roles occupied. For example, a woman who married became a wife and later usually a mother, and there were common assumptions about how they should behave.
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In recent years, social relations have changed and identities are no longer so strongly controlled, but they are patterned by how we understand the whole set of relationships in which people participate. So, to continue with the same example, a woman has a much wider range of choices of gender behaviours than the traditional wife and mother models. Even if she takes these on, she has opportunities to live through a range of different kinds of wife and mother roles. She works these out for herself, participating in debates within society about these roles and social interactions with people around her. She continuously modifies her identity as she experiences her life, other people’s reactions to her way of living, and the debates and discussion that she hears about. This freedom is constrained by the social and personal need to have identities in the first place, because this helps people to deal with a complex world. Applying this to social work, in the past social work only had to persuade powerful decision-makers to ascribe roles to it, perhaps through legislation or by establishing respected and powerful agencies to work in. This helped to establish and maintain through professional organisation a clear and certain role in society. Now, a range of possible roles exists in a complex mixture of related professions and organisations, all of which have less status, all of whose positions is less secure and open to question. In recent years, important identities have been established as part of a process of resistance to legitimisation through powerful groups. So women have struggled against patriarchy, ethnic groups have tried to establish their cultures in countries where they have migrated, especially where they are in a minority, disabled people have tried to establish their own culture and power, gay and lesbian people come out; there are many examples. Creating a strong identity as part of a resistance can only take a group so far. It can become exclusionary, make a ghetto of the ‘different’ or ‘difficult’. Therefore, many excluded groups try to create new identities to interrogate and criticise uses of power by dominant groups. Applying this to social work, the groups that social workers helped in roles defined by the powerful are being redefined as consumers and service users with interests, rights and their own identity to establish. Therefore, social work finds its role squeezed between the interests of the powerful, whose role definitions are treated with less deference than in the past but may still be strongly asserted by politicians or the media, and the powerless seeking greater influence over their own identity. There is a limit to its capacity to define its own role. Social workers can only establish their role in interaction with the interests of service users, groups with political and social influence in the definition of professional roles and other related professional groups. This becomes clear when we examine the idea of ‘role’.
What is a ‘role’?
When we talk about a ‘role’, many people think about acting; that is, a person assuming a character or position and presenting it convincingly as part of a fiction. It carries implications of performing, following a script and being directed. Some phenomenological sociological theories, such as Goffman’s (1968a) ‘dramaturgical’ role theory, start from the assumption that people vary how they behave according to the situation they are in and their purposes. Goffman writes, for example, about how stigmatised people try to pass as normal (1968b), or how controlling institutions such as mental hospitals create particular forms of behaviour (1961). Roles might sometimes be false impressions, given to achieve a social purpose. However, another way of looking at it is that we vary the way we behave, depending on our social situation. Psychological theories like transactional analysis use similar analogies:
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behaviour is analysed according to ‘scripts’ and common reactions to situations that are played out in ‘games’ (Berne, 1961). One implication of the dramatic analogy for considering ‘the role of social work’ is the risk that people may see defining a role as merely presentational, a cover for some reality that we want to disguise. For example, we might claim altruistic motives for social work, while others commonly say that this is a disguise for oppressive and controlling elements of it. It may be important, therefore, not to make partial or self-interested claims, but to acknowledge all the implications of what we say. Otherwise, it will be hard to get people to accept our claims. Another implication of the dramatic analogy is the importance of the situation we are in: the script, the other actors, the director, the scenery. This emphasises that a role cannot be created by actors alone, they are part of a social environment that controls, constrains and directs what role they must play. We have to examine the role of social work, therefore, within the pattern of services, professions, knowledge and social behaviour that exists, We cannot define social work with a free hand. In other forms of sociology, ‘role’ is an outgrowth of structural-functional theory, and it carries some hidden assumptions. Talking about the ‘role’ of a social institution or of an individual implies a ‘social order’ perspective, that § there is a structure of institutions that we can identify and be clear about; § the structure is relatively stable and ordered; § the position of institutions or individuals within the structure can be understood and agreed upon; § the kind of acts and behaviour associated with those positions can be described and agreed upon. So, talking about the role of social work implies that we can describe what social work is and how it fits with other institutions, that its position is clear, continuous and understandable and that we can say what the social work profession and social workers should do. There are two problems with this approach to considering social work: practical and theoretical. The practical problem is that there are many uncertainties, and things change and develop all the time, so we can never be sure about maintaining a continuous definition of social institutions and activities and we end up having apparently irreconcilable disagreements. The theoretical problem points to these uncertainties and says that assuming stability and order is clearly an inaccurate representation of our world. There are two kinds of answer to this theoretical problem. Critical theories propose that we should focus on change and conflict; that social behaviour and social institutions emerge from conflict, debate and exchange, rather than from stability and order. Phenomenological and post-modern theories try to include uncertainties and changes into explanations of how social institutions work. They look at historical and social factors that create uncertainty and change. Critical and post-modern theories are, at least potentially, more creative than social order perspectives, because they include change, development and the opportunities for creativity that come out of uncertainty and change. However, social order theories propose that the world is actually more or less ordered, that people would like it to be more rather than less ordered and that disorder leads to social problems such as oppression and poverty. They complain that focusing on change and uncertainty leads to instability and to taking a relativistic view of social values and behaviour, which makes it impossible for people to organise their way of life.
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Talking about the role of social work, therefore, can be rather conservative. We are saying that we want to stop change, stop uncertainty and try to create some clarity and stability. Is this desirable? It might be desirable if it could help people gain confidence and security in knowing what they are doing or aiming for. It might be undesirable, because change and uncertainty provide opportunities for development and sticking with one view of the social work role would miss chances to develop it. Is it realistic? It might be realistic because clearer definitions of social work would help create stability and certainty. It might be unrealistic because there are uncertainties and changes that we cannot avoid, and so we are seeking a false security, which in the end may make us uncomfortable with our position and unable to defend our view.
Defining a social work role
The changes and uncertainties are obvious because different countries and cultures have different ways of organising social work services and different interpretations of what social work is. Over time, the main ideas about social work have changed. This suggests that there is not one thing called social work, because it changes depending on social, cultural and historical context. Therefore, defining a role for social work needs to include social, cultural and historical differences. Since international organisations developed in social work during the 1920s, there has been an ‘internationalist view’ of it, which argues that there are different forms of social work, but they are all related and can be seen as fundamentally the same thing (Payne, 2003). During the 1980s, a critique developed that this was a colonialist position, that it imposed one cultural interpretation of social work on other equally relevant and justifiable ones (Nagpaul, 1972; Midgley, 1981). Particularly, it imposed a view from Western, rich country perspectives on Eastern, poor countries. During the 1990s, this critique has developed to identify a range of alternative perspectives on social work, and to claim that there are justifiable differences, which can and should be accepted. One example is the claim that there is an ‘Eastern’ model of social work, which emphasises social interdependence on families and communities throughout life, rather than the Western convention of individualism, and a greater acceptance of responsibility for directive practice, rather than Western policies of self-determination. The internationalist view is modernist, that is, it proposes that social work mainly develops and progresses and can be understood by rational argument and scientific research. The critique of modernism suggests that there have been countries where social work has not progressed, that at times, for example in 1930s Germany (Lorenz, 1974) or in colonialist countries, it has been oppressive, discriminatory and socially regressive. The critique also proposes that since New Right or economic rationalist attacks on public services and welfare states in the 1980s, social work has been in retreat and is being redefined in a restricted way (Jordan, 2000). The 1990s have seen a debate between social construction or post-modern views of knowledge (which emphasise experiential forms of understanding) and more rationalist and positivist views of understanding (which emphasise the accumulation of evidence through structured and rational forms of investigation). If we accept such variation, it becomes much harder to accept that we should try to identify just one role for just one form of social work. However, the argument for having a clear mission and set of values is that it might help to defeat regression and oppression. In a famous early paper on social work, Lee (1929) argued that as social work became a more established part of the society, it moved from being a
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‘cause’, with ideals for change and a focus on wide social objectives, to being a more routinised social ‘function’. It loses its mission for change, but may perhaps be able to achieve results through its steady action within societies. This view argues that different aspects of social work might reinforce each other: the mission provides ideals to give inspiration and direction to effective social provision, while performing the function interprets the mission in ways that are appropriate to the times and circumstances. Taking these points together, social work seems to have a range of possible roles, which gain influence according to current social expectations and circumstances. The roles are expressed in wide social objectives and values, which are interpreted through different practices relevant to social, cultural and political environments. The roles interact with the roles associated with cognate professions. Social workers face a paradox. On one hand, taking all this into account makes it difficult to establish a clearly-defined role. On the other hand, ignoring these complexities makes any role that social work claims seem over-simplified, excessive and hard to justify to other stakeholders. However, fortunately it is possible to recognise the complexities while establishing some clear goals for action that start from some basic aims and principles. I also argue in the remainder of the paper that many of the complexities are resolvable to a connected series of analyses.
A starting point: the welfare regime and system
Social work, as with any other social profession, operates within the welfare regimes in different countries. How social work is implemented within any particular country is affected by its welfare regime, that is the approach taken to the state’s responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. The last years of the twentieth century have seen considerable debate about the character of different forms of welfare regime. Titmuss (1968) distinguished between residual and institutional welfare states. Residual welfare states gave priority to the family and the market, accepting responsibility only when these failed. Institutional welfare states embody a ‘commitment to welfare’, which involves providing more or less universal social provision. Esping-Anderson (1990) makes this analysis more complex. He identifies three clusters of welfare regimes. Liberal states, focusing on individual responsibility through a work ethic and freedom, have modest universal transfers and social insurance. Corporatist states, partly influenced by churches, focus on using welfare to maintain social stability through reinforcing status differentials and the role of family and work. Social democratic states seek social equality through pursuing high standards of universal welfare. Leibfried (1993) distinguishes in Europe between four groups of states. Scandinavian-style universal welfare states make the state the main provider and guarantor of welfare. The Bismarck countries (Germany and Austria) rely on substantial social insurance provision for workers. Anglo-Saxon countries use welfare to reinforce the work-ethic, but social insurance is available as a last resort. ‘Latin rim’ states have rudimentary welfare systems, relying on family and church, but are moving towards more universal provision. Social work itself occupies a marginal position in all of these systems, since the political focus is on the major social welfare systems of social security or social protection, health, education and to some extent housing and employment. Social development and regeneration and criminal justice are also important social welfare provisions in many countries. The attitude to social work may arise from indirectly
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from general attitudes to welfare within these regimes, rather than from views of social work itself. Moreover, a distinction must be made between social work and social care, social protection or social services. Social work is often allied to significant service provision, which is often not defined specifically as social work. This includes in some countries social security or social protection services, or health and social care provision such as domiciliary, day and residential care. In such instances, social work itself may be a relatively small part of a major service effort, which then colours the impression of social work. On the other hand, social work may be the dominant professional group in such services, and its ideology and the regard in which it is held affects the pattern of provision. Social work may be a secondary profession in a setting dominated by another profession. Social workers in courts, schools, hospitals and health care services, or housing services are likely to be defined at least in part by the purposes and political position of the major service, and their model of practice is likely to be coloured by medical, educational or criminal justice models. Discussing the role of social work, therefore, involves: § identifying its role within general welfare provision; § identifying its connection with related service provision; § distinguishing its role in multiprofessional settings. This is difficult to do on an international basis. Many different systems of welfare provision exist, each of which has developed an organisation for welfare professions and these are often associated with different interpretations of the nature and role of social work. A useful approach is to see social welfare as a field, in which different welfare systems select and develop different elements of the possibilities of social work. The field thus becomes a set of networks, which cover a similar area of human welfare activity, with a different pattern of provision and professional organisation in each case.
Patterns of social work provision
Rather than see social work as defined by an essence, therefore, it is helpful to see social work range of networks forming different patterns in different national systems. Six networks have an impact on how we pattern social work in any welfare regime (Payne, 2003): § Demographic factors affecting its clientele. Social work changes, as its clientele alters. Clearly, we focus more on children when the number of children rise, on elders when the proportion of elderly people in the population rises, on disability when medicine preserves life better, but in impaired bodies or when new conditions such as HIV-AIDS emerge. § Policy and law. In many countries where government is an important player in social provision, service development and social work’s roles change and progress, as policy and legal changes are made. § Education, training, knowledge and research. Social work’s character changes as education and training for it develop and as views of the organisation of knowledge and research change. For example, more competence-based qualifications using evidence-based practice imply a more technical and less discretionary form of practice.
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§ Professional organisation. How the occupational group is organised affects its identity. For example, the character of a group with organised trade unionism would be different from that of a group where trade union and professional functions are divided. § Values and political aims. The values represented in a profession have important consequences for its. For example, individualistic values would produce a different form of practice from social justice values. § Organisational structure and strategy. The structure of agencies, large and comprehensive or small and specialised for example, have consequences for the service. Obviously, all these different networks interact with each other, but an analysis of these factors in relation to a particular situation helpfully identifies the major factors affecting a profession at present.
Interpretations of social work
Within patterns of welfare provision, social work is interpreted differently as part of a network of professions interacting with each other. Each of these professions overlaps and connects with the others. Health care professionals, for example, are often involved in health education of patients, have a planning and strategic role in public health and a social order role in mental health and with problems such as drug misuse. The police, to give another example, have many welfare roles, are involved in crime prevention and education, and work using interpersonal skills in rape interview centres. Different systems place the divisions between professional welfare roles in different places. Interpretations of social work often have connections with other professions. The professions within the welfare networks usually contain elements of: § a therapeutic model, based on medical assumptions that people have illnesses (which, in social work, we often call problems) that may be understood and cured (problems are resolved or at least ‘worked on’); § an educational model, perhaps most evident in social pedagogy, and, in Britain, youth and community work, which focuses on enhancing people’s capacities to deal with the world; § a spiritual model, related to priestly roles, which is concerned with enhancing people’s personal psychological and social growth, their relationships and understanding and appreciation of themselves and their worlds; § a social order model, related to policing, which sees welfare as being concerned with helping people to regulate and organise their lives and playing a part in dealing with problems that disrupt society, such as elders, mentally ill or physically and learning disabled people who cannot care for themselves, or parents who abuse children, people who abuse drugs; § a social change model, related to planning and development, concerned with achieving social progress and development; § a social provision model, related to public service roles, where social work often has what Pietroni (1994) has called the
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‘quartermaster’ role, in which the task is to provide services and organise the provision of resources in situations of social difficulty. Social work at times incorporates all of these interpretations. Every act of social work contains some of these interpretations; every system of social work prefers some rather than others of these interpretations; every agency picks up some but not others of these interpretations. What particular systems pick up depends on the discourse that goes on within the welfare system and more widely in society about the role of social work, and that discourse interacts with internal discourses within social work about its nature and role.
Social work’s discourse
A discourse is a set of interactions, activities and debates that form views of something, in this case social work. Rather than try to see social work as one thing, it is more reasonably represented, as in Figure 1, as constantly reconstructing itself by rebalancing three aims that are contained within all social work: § An social order element - maintaining social order and providing services within the welfare state; § A therapeutic empowering element - helping people attain personal fulfilment and power over their lives; and § A transformational or emancipatory element stimulating social change to promote service users’ freedom from oppression (Payne, 1996; 2000). Focusing on each of these objectives brings a different form of social work. All social work contains these purposes to some extent. Services lean towards one or the other: local government social services give priority to providing and improving services, while offering a certain amount of empowerment and personal growth to clients, and with an eye to supporting changes in provision in the long-term. A women’s counselling service, might mainly aim for empowering developments in clients’ control of their lives. A community work organisation might mainly aim to change housing policy. However, in carrying out their function, they inevitably include elements of the others. These different balances of aim operate at different levels. For example, at the national or regional level, services may focus on one rather than another objective; particular agencies within a national system may have a particular priority, and within an agency, every social work act, while containing elements of all three, will lean towards a particular priority. For example, if a hospital social worker works with a mentally ill woman to help her re-establish her life in the community, her main professional purpose may be empowering and strengthening the woman’s capacities for independent living. In different arenas, her agency may primarily see this as delivering a service and government policy may be that, delivered widely, this service may change social perceptions about people who are recovering from mental illness. Elements of these other purposes will be present in how the worker acts as a social worker, even though they are not at the forefront of her mind.
Arenas for discourse
Social work is, thus, formed in discourses within professional and social networks, balancing different perspectives on its purposes. Discourses take place in different arenas. The arenas interact with one another, so that what goes on in one arena influences what goes on elsewhere. Figure 2 describes three arenas: § A political-social-ideological arena;
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§ An agency-professional arena; and § A client-worker-agency arena. However, the arenas in which discourse takes place are potentially infinite and complex. These three propose cycles of debate where stakeholders are likely to be in a constant interaction influencing each other and are likely to be concerned with social work or at least welfare issues, so they may be arenas that are particularly relevant to social work roles. They are arenas, because they represent centres of action and debate, rather than mutually exclusive cycles. They overlap: for example, the agency provides the context for and directs clients’ and workers’ interactions, but agencies are also crucial in professional and academic debate. The form a larger cycle of mutual influence, which may work in different directions. Services may change because clients make demands and respond in new ways, because professionals or agencies decide on new forms of practice or organisation, or because public opinion or political impetus creates changes. For example, the disability movement has campaigned successfully in Britain for a legal change giving disabled people control of the individual budgets for their personal help (political-social arena). This forces a change on agencies and professionals. The disability movement has also influenced how professionals think about disability, giving greater importance to a social model (professional–agency arena). It has also caused disabled people to demand to be treated differently by social workers (client-worker arena). The impact of each of these participations in the discourse has influenced the others. The legal change works better where professionals are committed and where clients demand the service to be delivered in this particular way.
Aims and principles
We can bring all these issues together to examine the role of social work by identifying particular perspectives of social work that implement the main purposes of social work but suggest how we may interpret the special roles of social work in contrast to the networks of other professions involved in the welfare system. In Table 1 the left-hand column starts with the three aims that I suggested above are balanced within all social work, all social work agencies and all acts of social work. In the second column, I have set out five perspectives on practice that inform all social work. These move from activities that emphasise maintaining social order through effective service delivery, through those that emphasise empowerment and personal fulfilment to those that emphasise transformation; none of these activities exclude any those purposes - it is a question of emphasis. The third column indicates something of the social work approach, which would follow from taking up this perspective. The fourth column indicates some examples of the kind of service that social work would seek to provide as a result. How can we see these perspectives as forming the identity of social work? They constitute claims about the fundamental and distinctive nature of what social workers do. The social protection or social assistance perspective emphasises that social work sees welfare benefits and services as a right, as an essential part of a civilised society, and sees it as a professional responsibility to pursue those rights on behalf of clients. Making provision for this is integral to social work services, rather than a desirable extra, and services are planned to include this element of seeking people’s rights. Most other personal services, such as counselling, medicine, nursing or psychology focus on the practitioner’s own treatment or related services. If they want to have a general check on whether someone is receiving all the benefits that they
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should be getting, they will usually refer them to a social worker. Thus, the welfare rights role is a recognised and valued service. It is also important for social work, because it is the basis of much else that social work does. For one thing, as a practical provision that concentrates on rights rather than an indistinct form of personal help, it encourages people to make contact with social work, when they might otherwise be cautious about doing so. It means that, in a fragmented and isolating society, people can keep their distance if they want to, but still engage in valid social work. National systems that integrate social security payments into social welfare provision and provide social work alongside it implement this perspective directly. Once people gain confidence in the social worker, they may be prepared to call for more complex personal services. Second, the social assistance perspective that social work takes is crucial. At a time when political movements favour liberal individualism, and suggest that people should look after themselves, insure themselves for risks, take responsibility for their families and communities, social work emphasises that this does not work for many. People with inherited medical conditions or experiencing serious social deprivation cannot insure themselves, and do not have the resources to care for themselves. Social work’s emphasis on welfare rights is an integral aspect of our approach to social issues. People’s rights to a reasonable standard of welfare are not an option, as many right-wing politicians would like to suggest they are an essential to any civilised society. Third, therefore, providing social assistance and protection efficiently is a fundamental service in any civilised country and it is part of the social work contribution to society. An example that demonstrates this is disaster aid, or in very poor underdeveloped countries, the acknowledgement that dealing with basic poverty, starvation and helplessness is an essential first step in social development. This is easy to forget in European countries with a well-established infrastructure, where social security and relief of poverty or homelessness is very much a residual part of the state’s services, since most people are provided for by employment in an active economy. It may be residual most of the time, but it is nevertheless basic and remains so. For example, Britain experienced a great deal of flooding last winter, and from time to time some disaster occurs such as an aeroplane crash. People in Western societies expect that the services can turn out and manage the personal consequences of these events for their citizens. Such times make clear that this role is basic to civilisation, even though it is fortunately rare to have to bring it into play in advanced economies. The user participation perspective forms part of the identity of social work because its actions are holistic, when we compare them with other professions. Other professions still primarily focus on their expert role, providing information or expert interventions. As people have become less deferential to professionals over the last few decades, they have become more open and democratic. This perspective speaks directly to the sort of identity issues discussed in this paper. People in societies where they are isolated, excluded and part of fragmented social relations need to be integrated as stakeholders within the practice of help that is offered to them. Identity processes in present-day society do not allow social workers to prescribe their clients’ actions and objectives. However, this is a participation approach because social worker must also be drawn into action with their clients if they are to be effective. Distancing themselves from clients, being neutral about their objectives will lead to the failure of social work.
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The social model of explanation distinctively signifies social work. Even if they know about and respond to the social origins of the problems that they deal with, other professions focus on individual explanations and operate on a ‘cure’, therapeutic or educational model of what they are doing. Social work typically goes out of its way to invest in social networks and listen to explanations of the problems that we deal with which go beyond the scientific into the interpersonal and social realms of explanation. This is a crucial contribution that social work makes to reintegrating fragmented social relations. A definition of the client’s problem that says: ‘You are an offender,’ or ‘You are impaired,’ takes the person as a damaged individual. To say: ‘We are dealing with offending behaviour to help your social integration…’ and ‘We are overcoming social factors that prevent you from leading a satisfactory life…’ is a response to excluding and fragmenting social relations. The family and community involvement perspective is integral to social work in a way that is not true of related professions. Most professions, such as medicine, nursing or psychology, focus on a selected patient or client and see their primary work as being for and about that patient. They take into account the impact of family or community limitations on their work and they may keep relatives informed, but they do not see it as their primary purpose to integrate individuals with their family and community networks. Other professions have a particular function, such as education or accountancy. In every case, other professionals would turn to social work to have an assessment done to inform their work about family and community matters relevant to their focus. They would also turn to social workers to intervene in family and community situations that affected their patients or pupils. The nearest similar role is priests and other religion and spiritual professionals. To go further, social work calls on links with other professionals as an essential part of its work. Again, by taking this perspective, social work seeks to extend and build links within social networks against the fragmenting tendencies of present-day societies. Finally, social justice is integral to social work. One outcome of this focus is the strong leadership that social work has provided for focusing on anti-discriminatory practice. This links back to the concern with social models of explanation, family and community as well as individual outcomes, and the welfare rights perspective. Social work, with these perspectives integral to its work, inevitably responds to marked injustices of this kind with general social responses as well as individualised help and service provision. To be concerned about justice is to be concerned with the impact of clients and services on others, and not to focus on the needs of our clients and our service alone. Thus, a social work service for people with severe behaviour disorders deals with the consequences for the victims of their violence, or for their families of their destructive behaviour. Other services focus mainly on the patient or their own skills and responsibilities.
The analysis in Table 1 shows how our discourse about the aims of social work can lead us to concrete principles that establish social work’s role within the network of professions. It does not deny the complexity of social work, but proposes that the complexity lies, as this paper suggests, in the complex ways in which role and identity must now be understood in present-day society. While social work must have its ideals and mission, defining its everyday activities, what Lee (1929) called its ‘function’, in the welfare system, is complex. However, by relating social work’s mission or aims to the everyday role through a small number of principles, we can
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accept the complexity of its formation while expressing clearly in a relatively small number of connected principles what its contribution to welfare systems is.
Substantial parts of this paper are excerpted from ‘Social work’s changing identities’, a paper first given at a conference of the Danish Association of Social Workers, Nyborg, September 2001, and first published as ‘Det sociale arbejdes identiteter under forandring’ in Tidsskrift for social forskning 2(3): 4-18 (2001). This paper was also presented as a Research Seminar, Department of Applied Community Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University, February 2002. I am grateful for comments from both audiences. Excerpts from the paper were included in an article published in English as ‘Balancing the equation’ in Professional Social Work, January 2002, 12-13. Some of the analysis relies on the author’s What is Professional Social Work? (Birmingham, Venture, 1996).
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