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Social work without politics – and for my next trick, farming without land – Opinion Piece by Allan Norman

Social work without politics? Is this a joke? Does anyone think you can do social work without political opinions? Here are three reasons why I can’t: my opinions are political; social work is political; and persuading people is part of my social work toolkit.

My opinions are political

When I was a social work student in the 1980’s, we did an exercise which was a kind of “balloon debate”. We were asked to place in order of value people in different roles in society – say, a footballer, a homeless person, someone with learning difficulties, a professor, a scientist, a new-born baby, an elderly person nearing death, a city banker, a politician and an asylum seeker.

Our group declined the exercise – we thought. We refuse to put these people in order, everyone has equal value – we said. Gotcha! “What makes you think”, we were asked, “that you have opted out of the exercise? What makes you think that placing everyone equal first isn’t a statement about their comparative value at least as comprehensive, contentious and political as if you had placed them in order?”

In retrospect, it seems obvious. At the time, it was a startling insight. We had made a deeply political statement while thinking we were holding ourselves above the fray of what would be a controversial political discussion.

And that, I think, is the problem I have with the question posed in this debate. What could I possibly say that isn’t a political statement?

Social work is political

Let me take you to two places to make the point. The first is the international definition of social work. It is worth reading the full definition and commentary, this is just an extract:

“social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work…social workers are change agents in society and in the lives of the individuals, families and communities they serve… its values are based on respect for the equality, worth, and dignity of all people… In solidarity with those who are disadvantaged, the profession strives to alleviate poverty and to liberate vulnerable and oppressed people in order to promote social inclusion.”

Does anyone suggest social work can be politically neutral, if that is social work?

Second, an article published in the Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics in 2010. It is worth reading the whole article, which dissects the interface of social work and politics very readably. But the article begins with this conclusion following a research analysis of a wide range of professional Codes of Ethics:

“…the profession of social work is unique in taking the stance that social and political action are in the realm of professional responsibility…”

Our profession then, more than any other…

Persuading people is part of my social work tool-kit

Now, given that I seek to bring about change in society, how am I going to do it?

I might possibly act as an automaton. Give me a rule book, and I’ll implement it without thinking about it. Give me coercive powers, so I can force service users into the required mould.

It won’t surprise you if I question whether that is value-free, de-politicised practice. But more to the point, whatever it is, it isn’t social work. Surely, it is an essential part of our social work role that we seek to persuade people? And surely the act of persuasion has built into it some kind of dialogue, imbued with values? How will I persuade you if I haven’t persuaded myself?

Welcome to a political profession. If you don’t like it – try farming without land instead.

Allan Norman (@CelticKnotTweet) is a registered social worker and a solicitor at Celtic Knot – Solicitors and Social Workers.

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