Social work and social justice: A relationship at a cross-roads?

In a recently published article in the Guardian newspaper a U.K social worker ‘called out’ the platitude (often found in the umbrella pronouncements of social work organisations and in the rhetoric of social work academics) that social work is ‘about’ social justice.  The following excerpt from the article makes the central point.

The role of the child protection social worker in today’s world is not to strive to redress the imbalance of our society. And if the reality of what social workers do differs so radically from the ideology, then surely it’s time to look again at what we mean by social work and what the government and society expects of social workers?

This timely critique is likely to resonate with the experience of many contemporary practitioners in Aotearoa – New Zealand.  It is refreshing to hear this glaring disjunction so clearly named. Child protection practice has always balanced a care and control mandate and detection and rescue is once again at the forefront of policy development. As suggested by Cree (2013), current practice across the wider spectrum of social work has also increasingly become more about the ‘management’ of social dis-advantage – surveillance, gatekeeping and control.  This is unsurprising given that the practice context is increasingly defined and regulated within a neoliberal political rubric.

So, in the interests of intellectual honesty, professional ethics and street-credibility, would it not be better for those involved in professional leadership and education to openly acknowledge this reality. Should we shed this professional illusion? What is the point of pretending that the emperor has any clothes? The answer can be both yes and no. First we have to consider the likely consequences.  To begin with, wheels are already moving. In good neoliberal style social work is seeking to become a more desirable commodity. There is a market for social hygiene and we are accumulating evidence of our efficiency and effectiveness in disciplining the disadvantaged. However, the bigger question is what would we like our practice future to be? I for one am reluctant to abandon a very well built ship just because the wind and tide are against us.

Fortunately there is another option. Yes, by all means let us recognise that contemporary social work is seldom able to give more than a nod to the concept of social justice: the belief that goods, services and resources must be equitably distributed if we are to live in a fair society.  Most social work is patently not about social justice but it could be and it should be. Social work organizations, professional leaders and academics should be exploring how we can bring this about. This involves getting a little dirtier than normal – coming to grips with the difficulties and contradictions of practice in a divided society.

If we are to get our social work sorted, we need to start by getting the politics of practice out on the table. We need to get some balance back into our understandings of cause and effect.  Let’s consider the example of social work in child protection practice.  We need to take account of poverty in the lives of the families and children that we engage with. Deprivation is an economic and political problem. It is not a ‘cultural’ problem caused by the behaviour of inadequate people. It is increasingly difficult to escape poverty but this is a function of the neoliberal society which we have shaped.  This economic model has provided the foundation for a deliberate process of political and social development. It is not a fixed reality – what has been socially made can be socially unmade (Bourdieu, 1999). We have a choice – the academic and professional social work voice can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.

The challenge of social work and child abuse is an emotive example of the messy politics of social work. On the ground and in policy circles we need to acknowledge the complexity of child protection practice. We need to lose the dogma and the slogans. We need to use the insight that our profession affords us. It is a natural source of resistance to neoliberal over-simplifications.  The detection of abuse and future risk is only a part of the practice equation. Yes some situations are very dangerous but most can be resolved with effort, patience and good-will. The provision of material resources can make a real difference. Careful holistic assessment is useful but real help for people living in multiply stressed situations is often much more useful. We need to learn (or re-learn) to listen with respect to the lived realities of the people who become our clients: communicate, understand, assist, empower and, yes, protect.  Trust is not built on assessment. You won’t find strengths and possibilities with people you don’t respect.

We need some dialogue. Let’s have some comments on this post. I would like to know what others think and feel. You don’t need to agree with me but I’d like to know what you want / what you believe is possible? Time and tide are moving. ‘Where to’ social work?

Ian Hyslop


Bourdieu, P. (2005). The social structure of the economy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cree, V. (2013). New Practices of Empowerment. In M. Gray & S.A. Webb (Eds.), The New Politics of Social Work. (pp. 145-158). Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave MacMillan.

Nicolas, J. (2015). Why pretend social work is about social justice? It’s not. The Guardian (on line) . October 20, 2015. Accessed at

[fac_icon icon=”camera-retro”] Image Credit | James Clarke

22 replies on “Social work and social justice: A relationship at a cross-roads?”

Hi Liz

Thanks for sharing this article.

I am currently studying social work at waikato uni and this resonates with an issue that has been bugging me about a future career in social work. That question being “am I going to be able to be to get social justice for people or am I just going to be continuing the established system that I don’t really agree is correct?”

My personal view is that we as social workers must always strive for social justice and fight at every opportunity. However, acheiving social justice is not an overnight fix. This doesn’t not mean we should abandon our objective just because it’s difficult.

I may be wrong, I’m only early on in my studies, but that is what keeps me coming back for more!



Hi Reese – Good to see your interest. Our commitment is only ‘real’ if we make it that way – and we can!


Hi Ian,
I always read your posts but never comment. I am also a student (in Auckland) and these issues are at the forefront of my mind a lot at the moment. I feel like the political situation here is so hopeless – we are now all struggling financially (except for the very rich), but I feel like those on the lowest end of the financial scale are being completely crushed. This is partly why I chose to retrain as a social worker, but also equally why I feel that I may spend the second half of my life pushing s*** uphill. Can you ‘do’ anything as a social worker to change these realities? I know we can help people on a humane level, using what facilities and experience we have, but when the real problem is our society and political system, will there ever be significant change?

Hi Rachel,
Good question to Ian ….. for me… no, there won’t ever be significant change, so we do what we can as social workers at a micro level, support our profession to encourage our academics and policy makers to influence governments to foster a more equal society ….. (with little apparent success thus far)…. so we keep doing what we do and keep having these conversations and acknowledge folk like you who decide to retrain in social work to assist the profession to act as the ‘people’s social conscience’ ….. good luck with the studies and until the revolution or economic meltdown, model holding onto hope.
With respect,

Hi Rachael,

This is an important question to ask and it is difficult to give a pat answer without drowning in cliches but I like to think the short answer is ‘yes’. Social work always operates in a political context and it always deals in relations of power so in this way it is always a political activity. Developing critical awareness of this in theory and practice is part of the learning process in social work education.

It is about developing some analysis and also not letting your analysis disable you – there is a lot that can be done to promote the social justice aims of social work – sometimes challenging times lead to a renaissance of hope and advocacy. However social work also deals in the messy tensions and contradictions of the social world and has to contend with powerful forces that are quite content with the status quo so it is not always easy to make progress. Dialogue and solidarity with others and not accepting that how it is is the way it must be is important – and if you can’t explore this path when you are a student, when can you?

Ian Hyslop

Hi Ian,

I am also a first year Social Work student, but consider myself a born and raised social worker because everything I study is pretty much how I already think and do things. I really enjoyed this article and am currently working on some assignments. I just wondered, is it possible to have an open forum/conference/event with ANZASW and student social workers across New Zealand because I think we would all enjoy the opportunity to meet experts like yourself. Secretly I think it would be good to come together and make a plan for this ‘revolution’ to take place instead of accepting the status quo while people in our communities suffer due to the unfairness and equality within Aotearoa/New Zealand society.

Kind Regards,

Hi HineAo

Nice to hear from you – good to know people still reading some of the older stuff on the RSW blog and it is great to have comments made – exciting time to be studying social work I reckon!

I do think we are at a bit of a cross roads. The question about whether social work (and social workers) can find ways of contributing to the fight against structural injustice in our society – or whether the best we can do is support oppressed people to manage the struggle – is not a new one. At the moment it is a question that is more important than ever.

A lot (not all) of social workers in practice would tell you that the practice reality at the present time is that social work is confined to a narrow role for a lot of practical reasons – and that there is a gap between this reality and the sort of things that someone like me who has an academic job might like to be true.

Now, you can call me old fashioned if you like but I think that struggle and change goes on all the time and that if you have a heart for social justice you can be an advocate for this – in your work with people and together with others who share your hopes and dreams for a fairer society. A conference about a progressive future for social work in challenging times would be great.

Enjoy your studies and hang on to your unselfish imagination – nobody is allowed to take that from you.


If we think social work has become about trying to manage the financial imbalances across society it may be time to change careers.
My training was clearly around protection and safety of children and definately around how we are to empower the parents/carers or guardians to do this. We all have a budget inwhich we have to live with, some of this is misused by the parents. There are opportunities for the parents/carers to upskill whether there are enough resources for everyone is another issues. The free 20 hrs of child care is a bonus and a resource created for those with children to go back to learning or seek employment. I believe it is too easy to find the financial constraints one has to be the underpinning reason for poor or inadequate parenting. It is agreed a few more pennies in the purse will lessen the worry of where the next meal is coming from and buying them glasses or clothes when they need them. Perhaps we can get rid of the school fees, why are there fees? when I understood education should be free for children between 5-16 years. But getting back to deprivation, lets be clear money or lack of it is not the reason why many of our children are abused emotionally, physically, sexually or neglected by the people who should be protecting them.

Hi June

Thanks for the valuable contibution to the debate! The important thing is to have the discussion.

The ‘answers’ to child abuse aren’t simple and it depends, of course, on how the problem is framed – and who it is framed by.

You are right that it is over-simple to say the poverty is the only cause of child abuse but I also think that it is too easy to say that “poverty is no excuse for abuse” when it is clear that most families / whanau where abuse and neglect is found are people suffering from multiple stresses. So we need to develop policy and practice that takes account of this. Equal societies are safer for children and adults.

In the last thirty years years we have seen a redistribution of wealth – upwards to the rich and powerful – as has been the case around the world. ‘Failure’ in market based societies is often seen as the fault of bad and undeserving individuals. Traditionally social work has resisted this ideology.The theory and lived experience of social work tells us that the big picture and the small picture are related to each other.

We are going to see the outcome of the CYF Review any day now – the direction seems to be all about identifying and fixing high risk families / whanau in a more authoritarian way – including earlier long term care outside of family / whanau if necessary (rolling back the vision of Puao te Ata Tu). It is argued that this is needed to keep children safe and break cycles of abuse. In this analysis abuse is seen as a product of bad or failing or dangerous families / whanau. This is our new ‘common sense’. It either ignores structural inequality or says it is not relevant to child protection social work (in fact it takes the social work perspective out of child protection in may ways).

Don’t get me wrong – I know it isn’t easy work and that sometimes children are unsafe and drastic measures are needed but I also know that well resourced, well trained and well supported statutory social workers can work carefully, constructively and respectfully with families to create safety and change. Social work is based on the value of respect without being naive about risk. This needs to be carefully balanced and it is challenging but it can be successfuly carried out in partnership with other services – including whanau, hapu and iwi. This is my take on ‘common sense’ in child protection.

The risk of the current shift in ‘common sense’ is that we develop a practice culture of blame and scape-goating which is hidden behind the cloak of child – centred practice. We treat disadvantaged citizens differently – for their own good – and we assume that society will be safe when these people are washed away. This is why I think we need to clear our heads a little – stand back and think about where this new brand of ‘commmon sense’ might be taking us.


( Reply to comment by June)- HI, yes I have to agree however, I have issues with some of the detail about the way services are delivered and the reality about the ways parents as a social group in are treated when it comes to public rhetoric;
It is the people who have the everyday care of children, in whatever form they take, which may be better identified as ‘caregivers’ and the way these resources are distributed, and used that we need to focus on.
It is the ‘nonsense’ rhetoric around child abuse has a propensity to ignore the full picture , and, identify “parents” as the sole assumed ‘care giving ‘ social group and use this as a focus of what is often vitriolic critique.
This type of rhetoric has mostly focused on ‘the poor’, which is a social group who very often are vulnerable to ‘funding entitlement envy’ and who are less likely to have the ‘privilege’ of autonomous control over day to day parenting for their children.
Statements about entitlements to ‘welfare’ funded goods and services often focus of the parents as recipients when the reality is that the actual beneficiaries are mostly third parties with vested interests, (schools, medical professionals, child care services, foster families, relatives etc). Often parents are blamed when these services fall short in their provision.
It is my experience that many times these ‘entitlements’ are granted to parents as a means to only partially fund the service provision, ie a parent given 20 hours early childhood education when their employment commitments either exceed this or do not match the hours granted by the services or grants may be given in such a way that the parents cannot afford the co payments, or that the service is at a location or is granted in ways which present hidden costs such as for transportation (taxi or access to a lift) or need the parent to take time off work to use. The service providers often complain to parents about late payments or under-funding when pressuring for them for higher contributions- eg; demand higher school fees, or sometimes underprovide.
Often the huge betrayal by people or (especially) service providers who have been entrusted with the care of children, or service provision, and who have gone on to maim or mistreat, or more likely mismanage the care the children receive go unnoticed in this equation.
Immediate blame is focused first on parents who are deemed responsible for engaging the service providers. Incompetence or even negligence within service provision has to fail consistently and spectacularly before being held to account.

This important and perennial debate always reminds me of a Brecht poem:


I hear that in New York
At the corner of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by.

It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.

Don`t put down the book on reading this, man.

A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

– Bertold Brecht

My view, for what it’s worth, is that social work, in and of itself, “will not shorten the age of exploitation”. But equally social workers cannot stand by and watch the damage done to families and whānau by the exploiters. Good social workers fight for social justice at the micro and macro level, they highlight inequalities, they stand alongside the oppressed. Pointing to economic inequality won’t change it overnight, refusing to scapegoat the poor for their predicament will not end poverty tomorrow, but it won’t make matters worse. This is a long game, a lifelong game. So many social welfare advances have been rolled back, just to get back to where we once were, with a decent system of social insurance and support for families, will be a struggle.

Achieving more than that, creating system wide change, preventing economic and ecological disaster will take even bolder moves. Will I see it in my lifetime? I doubt it. Will I help to keep the vision alive for those who follow? Absolutely. Is change possible? Of course it is. The neoliberal imaginary has persuaded so many that we live in a post-ideological world order. That the market is the only way forward, that we are all capitalists now. That is poisonous, mind numbing, nonsense. Other worlds are possible, but only if we believe in them. In the words of Mandela “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

Namaste Ian,

Great reflections and also very timely. It is quite clear that we need to bring back the ‘social’ to social work. To me, addressing social justice issues means being political. Unfortunately, social workers are forced to address only symptoms and signs, not the causes. Sadly for some, it is the most comfortable option rather than digging deep and addressing the causes. I totally agree with you that we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Most of the organisational systems where social workers work are unfair and oppressive. Being an advocate for social justice often involve fighting with the system we are actually part of. If we don’t change the system and rules, the system and rules will change us and we become the oppressors.

If we think that social work is all about child protection and managing individuals with risk who are a trouble for the society, I rest my case. In my social justice view, social work is also about addressing the risk nature of the society and the organisations in it. Our practice should be about enlarging people’s choices and their freedoms in life so that they can participate in society with their mana.
When we limit social work as an activity of working with individuals, we are essentially denying the aspects of ‘social’ in social work. We always talk about human rights, but how can you exercise them if you are living in an island with no one around you?


Namaste Albert,

Your input appreciated thank you. Yes I believe social work should be the social profession that does not see people as islands but understands that we live in relationship to one another in a social context. It is important to recognise the challenge of applying a social justice lens in much of the current organisational context of day to day practice with children and family / whanau but it is not impossible. The social justice focus is often divorced from what it is to be”professional” and a lot of harm has been done historically in Western societies under the guise of professionalism – to working class people and all “people of difference”.

So I agree that advocacy is part of professional social work – not just a function for community based work or direct political activity. We can take some guidance from our notions of ethics as suggested in the Featherstone, White & Morris book that our RSW collective has derived its name from – and we need to find and grow solidarity.

It is all too easy to lose sight of this in our organisational labyrinths driven by productivity. This is particularly true in statutory child protection where the idea of “only” being there for the child is an easy ethical escape route. We do need to see wider social suffering rooted in inequality and work with the stress, distress and difficulty facing family/ whanau. As I keep saying this does not ignore or discount the voice or needs of the child – wider understanding can empower good practice rather than disable it. But we need system design that understands and supports this kind of engaged and thoughtful – and ultimately much “safer” brand of social work.

I am hoping this conversation will grow. Social workers are the great accommodaters/ the great go-betweens / the great negotiators – compromisers. Perhaps in our professional insecurity, the demands of our clients and our sometimes contradictory missions, our sacrificial ethics … we have accommodated for too long?!! As Bob Marley said ” …. We been trodding on your wine press … tooo loooong …

Interesting times Albert – take care


First of all well done Albert for this great comment.

I absolutely I agree with you Albert on your view of social justice, and that is how I have viewed social work as a vessel or a tool used in addressing the Nature of risks in the society and the organisations within that society. Also personally, I think social work should be about enlarging people’s choices as well as acknowledging their freedoms in life so that the society can participate in the mana that is expected of them.
similarly, we should not look at Social work as a work that involves working wth people but a work that incorporated the social aspect of our life and works . The social part always starts when we make the first contact with the clients and their families. however this part is often forgotten yet is the foundation of your working with relationship with the client.

Hi Ian,

My question is how is one supposed to fight fro justice for others when she or she is also experiencing injustice?
(Social work students at Unitec)

An excellent post, thank you Ian.
As I began reading, I started shaking my head – in my view, social work is always about social justice. Yes, there are immediate concerns and yes, there are systemic constraints on how we work. The challenge for us is finding ways to ‘cheat’ the system; to think outside the boxes in which our work has been put.

Regarding June’s post, I believe that unfortunately, some parents cannot/ will not ever be able to adequately care for their children. I say this without blame; these people themselves have experienced life in a particular way, which has robbed them of the ability to be able to see and/ or act to make change. I feel it is too easy to fall into the trap of tarring all with the same brush, however, and in order to address the impacts that inequality, deprivation and personal choice (just to name 3 factors) have on abuse and neglect, I would love to see a scientific-type study, in which resources are applied to the entire population to bring everyone up to the same material standards of living, to have the same level of parenting knowledge and confidence, the same level of access to resources. If all these are equal, and people still abuse their children, perhaps the responsibility is theirs (completely disregarding historical influences, of course).

That’s why I love social work – many questions, but no easy answers!



Hi Sean – I suspect your right that social work is about social justice. – or at least it always gives you a daily look at social injustice – which means that it sets itself against forces that deny that the playing field is tilted at a hell of an angle in the brave new Aoteraroa. Your experiment sounds interesting – might have to wait for the revolution to try it but! Thanks for your contribution – keep the optimism and creativity alive and kicking!!


Hi all,
I’m a first year student of social work in Unitec.
I particularly thank for Ian who post the article. It’s an interesting article.
Also thanks for sharing and comments. It gives an overview of how social workers role and dealing with challenges. I question myself “How am I gonna deal with these situations ?

I cant see why we are commenting on such an issue about social justice now . i think lets get deeper in out studies and then figure out whats right and whats wrong. Iam sorry iam just a first year student at unitec but i promise once well get to higher level we will be able to make out where is the problem-and how we can fix it.

I must say that while it is ideal to deal and address social justice while doing social work it is impossible. New ideas or new thinking and methods need to be found to try and address the situation or we would have to accept the realisation that it is unworkable.
Working with vulnerable children on its own takes up too much time to include family as Joanna Nicholas found and even when the parents themselves have been maltreated as a child (Nicolas, 2015). While the ideal situation is to address both the parents and the child, there is just not enough time. We have to choose where to expend our time in situations like this. However we should not give up the idea of social justice as this I believe would ease and address a lot of the problems.
I agree with Albert that social justice is political and it does seem way out of reach but like Ian says we must try and be part of the solution no matter however little. While it seems insurmountable we can at least try. Will social justice be better addressed by aggressively facing government, but is this even possible or do we just talk about it and let it lie


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