Friday, August 12, 2011

Social Workers - Defenders of Justice or Patch Up Providers?

Social Workers - Defenders of Justice or Patch Up Providers?

Lyndal Greenslade
Brisbane, Australia

Social work has long embraced a number of core values and as a profession we point with pride to these, as though we are caped crusaders of social justice and human dignity and guardians of the fair go. But do we really deliver on these in any meaningful way? Do we really know what they mean, beyond reciting them as the reason why we chose the profession?

And then what about ‘maximising human potential’? Social workers are meant to do that too. What are we talking about here? Humans as a whole? Because if that’s the case then we might need to make some tough decisions about individual humans who might get in the way of our grand plan for humanity’s maximisation. And what grand plan is that? Or are we talking only about maximising an individual’s potential, maybe the one right in front of us at work? How can we do that? What is the maximum of an individual’s potential? Nobody knows the answer to that. Social workers have some ideas about communities of empowered folk joining together to adjust well to their world. But is it healthy to be well adjusted to this world? Maybe maximising potential is less about walking alongside people to assist them to fit into society and more about finding methods and means of waking people up from the slumber of modern life? Take your medication, join a book club and do a parenting class or two. Feeling better? Feeling ‘maximised’?

And if we think maximising potential is just a good idea anyway, then why are we stopping only at humans? Surely this is not sound, admitting that we are concerned only with our own species. Surely we should be concerned with the potential of all species? How about the environment? For that matter, we don’t maximise potential when we buy coffee that isn’t fair trade, or clothing that we are uncertain of the conditions it was made in, or food that involved unspeakable levels of suffering just because we like to eat it.

This line of thinking led me to take a look at the other words our profession is based on. Around the globe, social work has a few values that most of us agree should serve as the foundation of the profession.  The two big ones are Human Dignity and Worth and Social Justice. These were my calling to the profession and the reason that I believed doing this work mattered. When I first started studying, they were mighty welcoming words. They told me that I was not alone, that there were others who also believed. But I don’t think I had really explored what it would mean to deliver on these values.  I thought I wanted to and I suppose I even thought I could. When I’ve asked other social workers, they also speak about the way the values of the profession called them. Certainly, as a group, we enjoy the nobility of pointing to these core values as evidence that we are somehow different. But today’s world doesn’t want you to mess with the system. Start talking about social justice and affording everyone some dignity and then start trying to do something about it and see what happens to your career. Or your place in society for that matter. If you can forget about the fact that we’re probably not even sure what these values mean, beyond a sense of rightness about them, how can we know what we’re supposed to do about it as social workers? Learning about evidence based practice and crisis intervention and filling out pscyho-social assessments will earn you a living, but shouldn’t we be teaching our social work students how to break the system? If it truly is social justice we’re after and if we want to afford dignity, then by anyone’s account, the society we live in runs pretty counter to giving anything other than a tick box approach to those lofty plans. No more so than in some of our big ‘welfare’ agencies. So how fair is it to put pretty words in a code of ethics and charge each other with a modern day quest of delivering but provide little practical advice on how to do this? Downfall anyone? Why are we surprised when we struggle to do this, when the system that we live in does not want us to and furthermore, we’re not really sure how to do it anyway.

If the profession of social work wants to continue to use these values as some kind of banner, then it needs to get a whole lot more critical of the world we live in. If we are to avoid being nothing more than band-aids for the wounded, patching them up and sending them on their way, providing a useful service to the system in re-habilitating folk that don’t seem to fit in, we better face the reality that our society is not about to turn around now and decide that we really all should be nice to each other. It’s not going to roll over. It’s going to take a fight to change things. It’s going to take more than words of encouragement. It’s going to take outrage and action and possibly destruction.

This isn’t to suggest that social work shouldn’t continue to embrace these values. I just think we need to be honest about what it means to try and implement them in practice. When I talk of social work, I talk of critically examining the world, our place in it as humans, the way our society functions, the potential for evolution for ALL systems and most importantly, what we intend to do about it. Alongside each other, gaining strength from our resistance and sustaining a movement that tugs and pulls at a world gone mad. That’s social work in the 21st Century.


  1. I have a non-social work colleague with whom I have done research, and he has known and been involved with other social workers. I referenced something about values that guided my practice once and I will never forget his response: "You social workers trot out your values when it is convenient, and ignore them when it is not." I have often found that to be the case over the course of my career. Most of us do not put ourselves on the line to create these changes, because of all the reasons you mention. It can be dangerous to be radical, as history tells us.

  2. I agree...and wonder too how we can work inside institutions, ethically hold both the boundaries of the institution (which is our role inside whatever agency we work) AND hold our professional responsibility to challenging social justice while practicing from an anti-oppressive framework. I think its important to really see our work as what it is, and not tell ourselves it is something different from its truth. If I'm holding the institutional boundary, I likely have power-over someone rather than my primary role being the co-creating of healing...Its something I wrestle with quite a bit.