An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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An introduction to social work

2.1 Biography

Your life story

To begin our exploration of biography we will be considering a very specific kind of knowledge; the kind of knowledge that for most of us remains private and is individual to each of us: our personal history and biography.

Now, we invite you to think about the person whose life story you know best: yourself!

Activity 3 Your life story

Timing: Allow 20 minutes

Listen to the interviews with various individuals regarding how they came into social work, and what life events or turning points may have influenced their choice of occupation. The accounts are those of an established social worker, a care assistant and two recently qualified social workers.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Life story
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Transcript: Life story

Julie Walker
I came into social work quite late in life, I was probably forty-two/forty-one when I first thought that I might like to do something on these lines. Up to then really I'd been a housewife, a mother, a working mother, so I just felt well what was I going to do with my life. So I started off really by working with elderly people in a residential home, and, I quite enjoyed that. I remember the very first day I went because I was very frightened because I didn't know what to expect, and I wasn't sure what my role was meant to be, and I remember coming from there, and feeling that it had been quite rewarding, because in some ways I'd lost my father quite recently to that, and it was almost like caring for my father, and my father had been er a very positive person. You could not make decisions for him, he was a very independent person. So I felt that I could take that with me, and enable other people remain independent if you like.
From there, I then moved to work for a county council home, doing the same work, and the officer in charge at the time asked me if I'd ever thought of perhaps doing her job, and I said “no, no I haven't really”, and she said, “well if you try and go through the system”, she said “it could take you years because you'd have to work for the authority and do a CSS, er but they are doing a diploma now” she said. Well I didn't have any academic abilities. I'd been quite poor at school actually, I'd left school at sixteen with absolutely nothing, and so I didn't have a lot of confidence in my ability to do any academic work. But I eventually got to Bangor, and had an interview, and they suggested that I did an access course and I did that and I enjoyed that. I then got on to the diploma in social work, so that was my introduction really.
Gwenda Hughes
I'd been caring for my mother who is partially blind and I thought, if I could look after my mother, surely I could help with, coming to here to work to look after generally the elderly, because I enjoyed looking after my mother, and I still do, she's still independent living on her own still, she's eighty-eight now and erm, I got such a satisfaction looking after her, that I thought, oh I could make use of my life by looking after the elderly in general.
Stephen Rashid
Is it very different?
Gwenda Hughes
Yes, with my mother I was more involved it was a challenge with the elderly because I didn't know them before, and I’d like to get to know them and different personalities. Well I thought, I could you know make them happy in their old age.
Jo Ferguson
I would struggle to find any, any one sort of factor in my life that’s contributed towards you know my sort of identifying social work as a career that I wanted to follow. I’ve always sort of been very keen to, to sort of see that people are able to exercise their, their rights. I’d been interested in the sort of political forum, you know, internationally really. I suppose when I was younger I was interested in doing things for Amnesty International.
But I can’t say that, that through my sort of family background there were, there were factors there that perhaps helped to sort of form that as a path for me particularly. And, you know I feel in my work now that um you know that that’s still very apparent you know promoting people’s rights. It’s very much an important part of social work I think and that interest has sort of always been something significant to me. But you know I see that as being the case in, in a lot of, of different careers you know. In teaching you know the whole sort of educational sector.
And I think that although you know social work can seem quite utilitarian almost. You have to argue cases from…for funding and weigh up you know one person’s needs as being greater than another person’s needs. It is really about the exercising of people’s rights and, you know promoting that.
Andy Stephenson
My brother’s an electrician and my dad was a welder and when I left school I got an apprenticeship as a dental technician.
Stephen Rashid
Andy Stephenson
And that was because my family pushed me towards doing something technical. Get a career, get, get um some kind of apprenticeship, and social work’s kind of the antithesis of everything else my family does.
Stephen Rashid
So what was their reaction when you announced that this was the way you were going?
Andy Stephenson
Well I mean I did, I did an English degree and my dad kind of despaired at that point. So by the time er I left university and was doing support work you know, er they were just bemused … social work. They were, I suppose, er negative about the two year course kind of, oh another course you know what was your degree for? Um, and so on. But as I’ve gotten older and, and once I’d qualified and you know the starting salary’s not bad and now, now my, my dad in particular can see that there was some point to it.
End transcript: Life story
Life story
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As you listen, jot down the different life experiences of the speakers, and how they came into social work.

Make some notes on your own life and about what attracts you to learning about social work. What life events, or turning points, do you think might have influenced your interest?

Now compare your experiences with those described above. How do think your life experiences might shape your relationships with service users?


This is a very personal, but nonetheless valuable activity. People go into social work for all sorts of reasons: to do good; to help others; to change the world; because of their own family background or experiences of loss, illness or disability; to confront their own problems, or simply by chance.

A 2011 survey of students undertaking social work training found that people were influenced by both personal and career factors in choosing to study social work. Motives included those associated with the following elements:

  • Altruism – a desire to make a difference, help others and fight injustice.
  • The personal qualities and experience of the student – an ability to get on with people, work in a team and, for some, a suitable career choice because of their own life experiences.
  • Career factors – such as a well-paid job with career prospects and flexibility.
  • The day-to-day nature of the work – variety, high job satisfaction and having individual responsibility.

(Based on Stevens et al., 2012)

Making the link between personal experience and what social workers bring to their practice is therefore clearly an important early step towards their becoming a reflective practitioner.

Biography as history

Earlier, you thought about your own life and some of your main influences. This process of self-reflection, if developed, could provide the basis of your life story. If you decided to ‘tell your story’, how would you structure it? You might well provide a chronological account of your life, from childhood to adulthood. The chances are that you would do this against the backdrop of the social and political events of the time, and you would illustrate it with historical details. You would probably develop a ‘storyline’ too, which made sense of your experiences through a linking commentary. This would then be your life story as told by you, or your autobiography, but it would also be a slice of lived history: an account of a historical era and set of events, as experienced first-hand by you.

The idea of the life story, or biography, can be applied to social work itself and can be used as a way to explore its history. In the next section, you will read the biography of a disabled child who experienced social work many years ago, to catch a glimpse of attitudes of the time and how they affected her.

Children with disabilities

A widely used approach in child care, historically, was the ‘curative’ policy (Midwinter, 1994). This sought to treat those children and adults deemed deficient in some way in specially set up locations. These institutions were often forbidding places, offering a harsh ‘cure’ to those unfortunate enough to be admitted. This was the fate of many disabled children in the course of the twentieth century. Of particular relevance is Out of Sight: The Experience of Disability 1900–1950 (Humphries and Gordon, 1992), which portrays the lives of ‘ordinary’ people with disabilities in Britain through their own eyes and in their own words, from childhood to adulthood.

Mary Baker, for example, recalls how, in 1935 when she was 12 years old, she was sent to Halliwick Hall for Crippled Girls, a Church of England institution for girls with physical and mental disabilities. Mary’s particular disability was a dislocated hip, which meant that she walked with a limp. Until 1933 she had lived at home with her parents and three brothers. Their mother died that year, and the authorities decided that their father, who had been wounded in the First World War, would not be able to care for them. Consequently the children were sent to the workhouse at Wimborne Minster. From there Mary was separated from her brothers and sent to Halliwick Hall. This is her story.

Mary Baker

When I first arrived at Halliwick the nurse took me off to the bathroom and she stripped me off completely. She cut my hair short right above the ears. And then I was deloused with powder of some description. Then they put me in a bath and scrubbed me down with carbolic soap. It was very degrading to me. And I felt as though the end of the world had come and so I cried, I sat in the bath and cried my eyes out. At any rate they told me it was no good crying and dried me down. They used such rough towels it felt like they were sandpapering me. Then I was dressed in the Halliwick uniform, navy blue socks, stockings and a gym slip and a serge jumper, and I was taken into the dormitory, a big, huge room it seemed, with about ten beds in it. I went in there and lay down on my new bed. I felt awful and I thought that nobody cared for me. Anyway, I don’t think that I slept that night, I felt so lonely. I didn’t know what to do, had no idea what I was going to do. But it was huge and it was lonely, the place. And I felt really lost and I thought, what am I going to do with no one to love me?

I had entered a different life. My father was far back home and I thought that everyone had forsaken me. I think I cried most of the night. So this was my start. The next morning you were given a number and you had to remember it. My number was 29 and when I got up and went to wash, my towel and flannel had my number on them. Twenty-nine was engraved on all my hairbrushes and things with a big hot poker-like thing. Everything I owned had a marking of 29 on, so I can never forget that number. Our lockers in the playroom had the same number, and our clothes were marked with our numbers, so we knew what we had. We were hardly ever called by our first names, only by the other girls. And if Matron wanted you she called you by 29 or whatever number you had. We never had names, we were just numbers there. It was all very disciplined. I couldn’t make it out at first, why we should all have numbers and not names. I felt a bit low about it. I couldn’t really put my feelings into an expression, only that I felt very lonely about it.

(Quoted in Humphries and Gordon, 1992, pp. 68–70)

Mary’s story illustrates the worst features of loss of home and family and admission to an institution. Here we see the ‘clean break’ from home and the loss of everyone and everything that mattered. She remembers her sense of total devastation, how she felt ‘forsaken’ and that ‘nobody cared’ about her. Her initiation commenced at once with the stripping and cleansing process, with the removal of her clothes and cutting of her hair, and the compulsory bath. She was no longer a person with a name, she had become simply ‘number 29’.

This too is autobiography as history. We can see and feel, through Mary’s first-hand experiences, the childcare practices of the time. Through her story we can also gain some insight into earlier attitudes to poor families and to children with disabilities and catch a glimpse of the awful dehumanising effects of institutionalisation.

Figure 3  Halliwick Hall

Placing biography in context

It’s important to be cautious about generalising on the basis of a single biographical account, such as that of Mary Baker. Not all children’s homes were this brutal. But removing such young children from their families and taking them to settle in new homes would have been distressing experiences. (Humpries and Gordon (1992), pp71 -2).

Thus, the biography (or autobiography) of an individual has to be placed in context and evaluated carefully. But when it is used sensitively, the life story can contribute to our understanding of individual experience as well as history. Thus it is central to social work.

Viewing policies in context

Although it is easy to condemn practices such as the institutionalisation of children with disabilities today, it is important to remember that social work policies and practices are still influenced by the social, economic and political priorities of the times. Policy responses in 2012 to the needs of children separated from their families and travelling alone to the UK as refugees or asylum seekers is one example of this. There is an inherent tension between the laws and policies relating to immigration and our expectations of policy and practices created to protect children.

The Coram Children’s Legal Centre in 2012, exploring the experiences of child asylum seekers, noted:

At present, the lower-quality care received by those children is in part due to ‘the government’s limited funding for refugee children and negative attitudes to these children within some departments’ and also the widespread misconception that immigration issues ‘trump’ welfare concerns. Despite calls for them to be treated as children first and migrants second, the opposite approach is often seen in practice.

(Coram Children’s Legal Centre, 2012, p. 6)
(The Guardian, 2010)
Figure 4 ‘There are more than 4,200 unaccompanied child asylum seekers in Britain, with most being supported in local authority social services homes’

Find out more

If you wish to find out more about child refugees you can listen to several children’s stories on the Refugee Council [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] website, or go to the Welsh Refugee Council website to find out about support for child refugees in Wales.

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. 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

Read the extract below ‘Relationship based practice-some fundamental principles’, from Social Work: An Introduction to Contemporary Practice (Wilson et al. (2011) p. 809).

As you read note down answers to the following questions.

  • What do the authors suggest are the core characteristics of relationship-based practice?
  • How do they explain the ‘use of self’ in social work?
  • What do they suggest is one of the biggest challenges you will encounter in professional relationship-based social work practice?


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.

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