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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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2 The problem of defining social work

This is a photograph showing two women holding clipboards and wearing lanyards suggesting they are in their workplace.
Figure 1

At the heart of social work exists the tension between, on the one hand, working with individuals to promote empowerment, independence, and at times protection; while on the other hand, working within a wider organisational and societal context where there are strong and often conflicting ideological, institutional and political forces. These forces can on occasions constrain and oppress individuals, groups and communities. As a consequence, social work is often involved in negotiating the space between whether individuals should be helped to adapt to society, or whether society itself should be held up for scrutiny and be judged as needing adjustment and repair. In this mix, in the UK at least, social work practice is almost always located in elite professional hierarchies, usually all with their own ‘professional territorialism’ (Hudson, 2017, p. 1960).

An individual worker may find it hard although not impossible to be both a practitioner working primarily with individuals and with families, while at the same time be a campaigning social reformer. However, by definition, professional social work embodies a reforming commitment to the development of social justice and anti-oppressive practice, and this is especially relevant because social work often engages with service users who are already in many ways likely to be vulnerable. However, social work exists in real-world three-dimensional social spaces, and while being passionate about social justice is highly desirable and indeed is a professional requirement, it may, as Wilson (2017, p. 1310) suggests, be ‘impossible to act in the world without ever causing harm’. Therefore, perhaps social work is always work-in-progress, in which social workers are participants and active contributors in a much larger, longer-running and value-driven social drama.

Social work in the UK exists in a society that while in parts is highly diverse, remains as a Western European social democracy with a general assumption at law of the primacy of the individual. Internationally, other societies do not necessarily have such baselines, as noted by Reisch (2016, p. 39), who observed that ‘many Islamic and Asian societies emphasize family and community well-being over individual rights, personal freedom and political democracy’; additionally, citing Japanese societies that tend to base the norms of distribution on principles of social obligation and solidarity.

Donovan et al. (2017, p. 2291) comment that ‘Social work is a discipline innately engaged in and influenced by the political and social context in which it is practised’. It is important therefore when considering the definitions and the delivery systems of social work, in the UK and beyond, to always take fully into account the cultural context and the models of individual, family and social obligations that are valued and promoted in each context. All societies tend to have their own unique worldviews, and often these will be very different to UK or Western European perspectives. In their practice, therefore, social workers must anticipate these potential differences and work positively to address human needs and rights, even though their practice base will reflect the cultural and legal norms of where they work, and be influenced strongly by the agencies in which they are employed.

Holland and Scourfield (2015, p. 9) report that most countries where social work exists have moved towards the professionalisation of social work, incorporating expectations of educational achievement for social workers and the regulation of professional boundaries. They observe, however, that while in many respects this is likely to be desirable, there is also the risk that professionalisation can promote a kind of ‘occupational closure’, marginalising and possibly devaluing other forms of social support and intervention. Holland and Scourfield nevertheless acknowledge that social work has a historic and continuing role in public health and protection, in counselling and community psychology, and in community development.

Social work has well-established principles based on human rights and social justice, but it is shaped by and takes place in a constantly changing social and political context.