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Social work with men: Great potential, but much work to be done – Opinion piece by: Prof. Jonathan Scourfield – #SWSCmedia #SWweek Series #GASWSC #WSWDay #UNSWDay


I’m going to address World Social Work Day not so much with outright celebration of the current state of social work, although we all need a bit of that, but rather by raising an area of social need where social work has much potential to make a contribution. That area is working with men.

Historically, so much social work has concentrated on women. There are very understandable reasons for this. It tends to be women who take responsibility for caring and it is women are most involved in community action. However, when social work takes a more controlling function, for example in relation to the protection of vulnerable children or adults, then it is women within families who are typically made responsible for tackling problems and turning round difficult situations, even if a man is the main cause of the problem.

Social work, having as it does a unique focus on the individual in their social context, has a powerful contribution to make to engaging men in personal and social change. We need to be cautious about how much we claim about social change – I have written elsewhere for @SWSCmedia about how too much radical political rhetoric can only end up making social workers feel bad about themselves when inevitable their practice does not match the aspirations of the theory. But working with men is an area where personal change is unavoidably tied up with social change. Even though in Western countries social workers are likely to be working with individual men rather than working at a community level, work with individual men does unavoidably involve negotiating social norms of masculinity. There is not just one way to be a man in any given social context, so there is no one single ‘male role’, but social structures and cultural discourses absolutely do shape the way men see themselves as men and what behaviour is or is not acceptable.

Working with men is a very contested field, with very different positions being taken by feminism (in its many different varieties) and by those who prioritise men’s rights We need to get beyond polarised positions of men as either 100% victims or 100% perpetrators. Sometimes individual men should quite rightly be addressed primarily as perpetrators of abuse, but that is not the end of the story. Men also have vulnerabilities and of course some men’s behaviour can be very pro-social and protective.

In working with men we need to get beyond purist critiques and use pragmatic effective approaches. So, for example, some feminist commentators have criticised the use of sport in social interventions for men and boys because it is based on competition and the idealisation of certain kinds of body, which can be exclusionary. I would have to disagree. If you can reduce the involvement of boys and men in crime or violence through sport, then that has to be a good thing. If you can improve the literacy of working class boys via books with conventionally masculinised themes then there is a social gain, even if the intervention is not ideologically correct in every respect.

Brid Featherstone, Mark Rivett and I have argued in our book on working with men that too much political correctness is not helpful in work with men. Certainly practitioners need to own the ideological orientations of their practices, but this does not mean being terrified to act in case you are ‘letting men off the hook’ or ‘giving men a hard time’ to quote some of the respondents to a survey of programmes for violent mendid a few years ago. What practitioners need to know is what works with men specifically. This may be an eclectic mixture of things. Interventions I’ve recommended on the basis of evidence have included the diverse approaches of pro-feminist education for violent men and family group conferences. I think a wide range of approaches could be used as long as practitioners are clear about what these are for and what the implications are likely to be for family dynamics.

Practitioners need very practical skills for engaging with men effectively in routine practice and opening the door to change. (Actual behaviour change will often require more intensive help). Motivational interviewing, for example and cognitive-behavioural methods are generally found in research studies to work well, but even though most practitioners will know something about these approaches, they are, in my experience, typically not trained in actually using them. I think they should be.

Working with men is arguably rather too broad a theme for World Social Work Day as it refers to half of the population. But in reality it is a marginal issue because most social work takes place between women workers and women as service users. It doesn’t have to be this way. Social workers are ideally situated to work with individual men and groups of men in such a way as to take seriously the gendered social and cultural context which shapes their lives.

Join us on World Social Work Day (Tuesday, 20-March-2012) at 8:00 PM GMT / 4:00 PM EDT to discuss and explore the “Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development” in a rich and lively Twitter Debate @SWSCmedia.

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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