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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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Relationship-based social work

People’s stories, or biographies, often influence their relationships throughout their lives. Being able to build, sustain and reflect on relationships is a core social work skill. You have started to reflect on your own biography and looked at a case study in history. The following reading sets out a theoretical approach to ‘relationship-based social work’, which is one approach to social work.

Take time to go through the reading in the next activity. You might wish to read it twice using the questions below to help guide you through it. Some of the ideas in the reading are slightly complex but rewarding!

Activity 4 Relationship-based practice

Timing: Allow 1 hour to complete

Read the following extract: Relationship based practice-some fundamental principles [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’, which is from Social Work: An Introduction to Contemporary Practice (Wilson et al., 2011, p. 809).

As you read note down answers to the following questions.

  1. What do the authors suggest are the core characteristics of relationship-based practice?
  2. How do they explain the ‘use of self’ in social work?
  3. What do they suggest is one of the biggest challenges you will encounter in professional relationship-based social work practice?
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Relationship-based social work, the authors suggest, is essentially about making relationships with service users and with colleagues, and understanding how they work.

The reading suggests the following:

  • Each social work encounter is unique.
  • Human behaviour is complex and has emotional and unconscious dimensions as well as rational and conscious ones.
  • All individuals have ‘internal worlds’ through which they make sense of the world as well as ‘external worlds’.
  • The relationship between the social worker and the service user is integral to the intervention in social work.

In other words, the authors argue that social work is not just carried out by a series of ‘technicians’ but that the quality of the relationship between the social worker and the service user can have an impact on the outcome.

They suggest that thinking about ‘use of self’ is particularly important in relationship-based social work. This acknowledges that professionals, as well as service users, have rational and emotional dimensions to their behaviour.

One of the challenges in using relationship-based social work, the authors suggest, is for social workers to notice not only what is happening for service users at a given moment but also to keep in mind their own thoughts, feelings and responses to professional encounters.

Key points

  • Sensitivity to biography and life story is both a way of understanding individual lives and a first step to becoming a reflective practitioner.
  • Biography can be applied to individual lives and can also be a way of exploring history.
  • Biography and life story can be particularly valuable as a basis for understanding and validating the lives of marginalised and disadvantaged people in our society.