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The problem with political rhetoric in social work – An opinion piece by Prof. Jonathan J. Scourfield

I can’t join this week’s #SWSCmedia debate on social work and politics, but would like to make a contribution, so have written this rather polemical piece. Let’s hope it helps to spark some debate.

As a social work academic, I often mark assignments where practitioners try to make connections between social work theory and practice. Fairly often I come across written work which claims to be linking routine statutory social work to ‘anti-oppressive practice’ and I have to say it rarely works. There is usually a profound mis-match between the lofty theory and the mundane reality of what state social workers actually do. And you know what? I blame the theory, not the practice. Of course we should be anti-oppressive, but this is just good practice, as in any professional field. Let’s not make such a song and dance about changing society through our practice.

I wonder if the radical rhetoric in social work textbooks only succeeds in making social workers feel bad about themselves because they don’t manage to apply it in their practice. Would it not make more sense for us to accept that social workers should channel any political views they have via involvement in political parties or movements in their spare time, instead of kidding ourselves that they can change structural inequalities via their jobs as social workers? It is simply that the vast majority of social workers are employed more or less to work with individuals. Now of course you can’t separate the individual from their social context in social work and of course that social context is shaped by political decisions. But the same is true for anyone who encounters deprivation and disadvantage in their work – a teacher or a nurse perhaps. In teaching and nursing, though, there is not the same idea lurking around that the professional is somehow selling out their principles if they do their job well but fail to change the world.

I honestly think the best that social workers can do – and this is especially true in the statutory sector – is to help service users to improve their quality of life, even if this only in a small way, via some kind of social intervention. This may have some socio-political implications – e.g. you can think of helping an abused woman to leave a violent man in terms of wider issues of gender relations – but it is not in itself political change. And that’s fine. It’s probably the best you can do given the conditions of your employment. You might be able to go a bit further and make the case for more refuges or better policing or a new intervention for perpetrators, or you might even help set some of these changes in motion, but that is as much change as you are likely to achieve.

If the textbooks were less guilt-tripping, social workers might feel more content to work within the limitations of real-world employment. They might even have more energy for political campaigning in their spare time. Any outside political involvement will of course be deeply informed by the intimate exposure to how inequality works which social workers encounter in their daily practice.

If instead of radical rhetoric the textbooks were more focused on what works in social work – more on knowledge and skills and less on values if you like – then more individuals and families might actually experience an improvement in their quality of life. The larger structures of inequality may remain unchanged, but, let’s face it, the larger structures will anyway not be affected by how radical social workers are. If you want to change the structures, you have to change the government. To do that, you need political parties, unions and social movements. We are kidding ourselves if we think that social work practice can do it.

Prof. Jonathan J. Scourfield (@profjscourfield) is a professor of social work at Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University and a member of @SWSCmedia Expert Panel.

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4 thoughts on “The problem with political rhetoric in social work – An opinion piece by Prof. Jonathan J. Scourfield

  1. I have to agree with you (although I am a student and haven’t been in the field very long)! It is only recently in supervision that I was able to let go of theory and realize the place it holds in client sessions. Theory is helpful as guidelines but can be overwhelming. Great post!

    Posted by Social Work Confessions | March 5, 2012, 8:12 pm
  2. Its good to hear an academic offering this pragmatic approach. More years in practice than I am prepared to admit in print means I can only (with some regret) agree with you . But I would also say that my experience is that it is good for practitioners to have students steeped in theory and ideals about social change and empowerment of the powerless to remind us of why we went into the profession in the first place, so would be loathe indeed to see SW training become TOO pragmatic!

    Posted by Ros Gowers | March 5, 2012, 10:18 pm
  3. A really good and provacative piece Jonathan that in true academic form raises some key issues and gets us to think.

    There is a discussion on twitter about a Probation Officer with 63 high risk cases and this is just bad practice, unacceptable and not safe. I cannot divorce my political position from the reality of my work conditions, as much as we are constrained by them. This in my view needs to be challenged and involves the politcal dimensions in every domain. We have to challenge an unfair culture of managerialism that places unfair work conditions on Probaton Officers and social workers. If that is radical social work then so be it.

    Posted by Gary Manders | March 7, 2012, 2:20 pm


  1. Pingback: Social work with men: Great potential, but much work to be done – Opinion piece by: Prof. Jonathan Scourfield – #SWSCmedia #SWweek Series #GASWSC #WSWDay #UNSWDay « Social Work/Social Care & Media - March 19, 2012

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