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Are we Praxisioners? – Social Work Praxis – Opinion piece by: Nick Berbiers


Praxis, lest you be unaware, is the Klingon moon, utilised as a key energy production facility, which is foolishly destroyed due to over-mining by those furrow-browed permagrumpies in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. This tells me three things. One, writer/director Nick Meyer is a fan of Shakespeare. Two, bad karma will be visited upon those who are forever petulant and ecologically unsound. And three, social work must not make the equal but opposite mistake of the Klingons. We must not make the grievous error of under-mining our praxis.

So just what is it, this wonderful word that conjures up images of spiral spokes and spinning hubs? It is infinitely interpretable, but for our social work purposes I would offer that it is the relationship between theory, evidence, and action, combining in both the practice moment and over time as theory and knowledge and skills improve and evolve; all in perpetual motion both within individuals and within the profession as a whole. Praxis is a wheel that is supposed to never stop turning.

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning,
On an ever spinning wheel
As the images unwind
Like the circle that you find
In the windmills of your mind

(Alan and Marilyn Bergman)

                 For windmills, read praxis.

There are as many debates to be had about the nature of the social work praxis imprimis, as there are definitions of the generic concept. Perhaps one day, Chief Social Work Officers in every country – or on an even later day the President of World Social Work – will be able to give a State of the Praxis address. But not today. In 2012, your country’s social work praxis may look a little or a lot different to another’s. And within each country’s praxis there will be variations – and similarities – dependent on specialism and sector. And in each individual social worker, dependent upon their knowledge, skills, and experience, there will be an individual, unique praxis. There are infinite variations, but all sharing the universality that is the practice of social work.

If one were to be so bold as to venture a 2012 State of the Praxis summary (for the UK at least), one would first have to know something of our social work history. You can do no better in that regard than break off for a moment and read this superb article by Claudia Megele, which gives you both some historical background and an excellent analysis of praxis issues. I will wait a moment whilst you do that by clicking here.

Are you back?

As I fully concur with everything Claudia says in her piece, I will not unnecessarily restate the same arguments. The thread I will pick up is her thesis that ‘if social work is truly to enhance its professional identity, image and status it must overcome the anti-intellectualism in its practice and reconcile the divide between theory and professional day-to-day practice’. I could not agree more. And I do not think it would be unfair or unreasonable to offer the State of the Praxis summary as ‘not there yet’

So how do we get there? How do we achieve this melded synergy of theory, evidence, and action, so that what we call practice is at every given moment the sum total of all these component parts? Well how long have you got? PhD theses have been written on that by people a whole lot smarter than me. But if I have to say something in brief, it would be that in my view it really comes down to how all the pieces of the social work jigsaw fit together, interrelate, complement and enhance each other. That would be practitioners, service users, managers, academia, policy makers, and representational groups (which is by no means the whole list) working together to enhance and evolve what needs to be, for want of a better term, good praxis. It all needs to becomes rather more seamless than it is now; but trying to detail one’s thoughts on the action plan for that would take rather longer than time allows for here. Suffice to say, I do believe it is already far more evolved and progressive than it was five years ago, and that very many stakeholders are already engaged in the good praxis development programme. None the less, there is much work still to do. Just to pick one constituent element, I would argue (as I have elsewhere in print and to various governments who now run off and hide when they see me coming) that we still have a long way to go on user-led social care outcome measures. Without those, for example, I contend that you cannot fully achieve good praxis.

Is it possible, this fusion we seek? Oh yes, I do not doubt that for a second. It will take much work and commitment, but good social work praxis we can and will have. One day soon, as we journey into the undiscovered country of the future, we will all be able to call ourselves social work praxisioners.

Nick Berbiers (@NickBerbiers) is a Social Care Interim Manager and Consultant at Neist Point Limited.

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