Putting the social back in social work


In their analysis of the contemporary linkages between sociology and biological science – and the practical realisation of this project in recent social policy and service design – Gillies, Edwards & Horsley (2016) pose some critical questions for social work. The epigenetic argument is that care and love generate a healthy brain, a well-adjusted child, and a successful adult (see also Beddoe, 2017). It follows that parenting – the provision of stability, love and care – is the key to social development. Accordingly, targeted resources should be directed to ensuring that parents who are not doing this job adequately are enabled (or forced) to do so. Further, it is appropriate to terminate the rights of parents if they are incapable of delivering on this responsibility. Such parents are, of course, found amongst the urban poor in western capitalist societies. The way out of poverty is, it seems, ‘love’. And we have the data-base capacity to detect love-less children, and those parents who are unable or unwilling to provide it.

So far, so seductive. However, there is more than a hint of slippery slope in all of this. Much – probably most – statutory and NGO child welfare and family practice is focused on women – mothers parenting in poverty. Gillies, Edwards & Horsley question whether it is fair or realistic to expect impoverished parents to raise their children to become successful in the hyper-competitive neoliberal capitalist societies that we have created – to parent their children out of poverty. After all, this kind of social mobility is becoming increasingly rare. Inequality is part of the ‘natural’ neoliberal order of things. The fences are higher than they were when I was a child. Lack of money, power and privilege – social capital, inadequate educational resources, racism and impoverished neighbourhoods are all part of an integrated web of disadvantage (Bywaters, 2017). Contrary to the opinion recently expressed by Judith Collins, M.P., the causes of poverty are structural rather than simply related to parental love and the resulting clarity of a child’s brain. Inequalities of opportunity and outcome are socially and economically reproduced.

Gillies, Edwards & Horsley also raise a deeper issue. Do we in fact want our children to be effective players in a relentlessly competitive society; flexible entrepreneurs of a commodified self? (Sugarman, 2015). Is this how they might best live and die? The architects of neoliberalism would have us believe that this is the only social world that is desirable and, in fact, possible (Monbiot, 2017). These issues are central to the future of social work because we are the self-professed engineers of the social. The real key here is how, by whom, and in whose interests the boundaries of ‘the social’ are defined.
Despite our social justice aspirations, child and family social work is being increasingly confined within a narrow political brief. Within this domain, family (parents / mothers) are constructed as the (only / isolated) social bridge responsible for ensuring trauma-free transitions from childhood to the independent rational adults envisaged in economic theory. Social work exists to facilitate this process amongst the poor – encouraging, cajoling and, if need be, coercing. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not writing off family support  social work practice. It is vitally important, demanding and highly skilled work. However, social work must also assert, demand, re-claim, reimagine its role in advocating for the wider reform of unjust social and economic systems, such as the one we get up to every morning in the green land of Aoteraoa-New Zealand. Are there ways and means apart from finding and fixing broken children? Yes, there are.


Beddoe, L. (2017, January 4). Brains, biology and test for future ‘burdenhood’: Misguided blind faith in science? [Blog post]. Retrieved from Blog post]. Retrieved from

Bywaters (2017). Inequalities in English child protection and austerity: A universal challenge. Child & Family Social Work, 1-9.

Gillies, V., Edwards, R. and Horsley, N. (2016). Brave new brains, families and the politics of knowledge. Sociological Review 64 (2), 219-237. doi /10.1111/1467-954X.12374

Monbiot, G. (2017, July 19). A despot in disguise: one man’s mission to rip off democracy. Guardian Newspaper, U.K. 19 July.
Sugarman, J. (2015). Neoliberalism and psychological Ethics. Journal of theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Advance online publication,

4 replies on “Putting the social back in social work”

Cheers Peter – Not so much my ideas as borrowed from reading that has come my way – and the aim is to share some analysis that lies outside of the dominant story.

It is always enlightening to consider the parts of the picture that are left out of view when the definitions of social problems and solutions are colored by an ideology which conceals the class based and exploitative nature of our society.

When the credibility of science and the power of technology are added to the formula we have a very persuasive case for punishing the poor – in the name of love. So it is important to cut through some of the camouflage – and beyond that to engage in the promotion of more humane social services and a politics of social development that aims for the equitable redistribution of wealth and opportunity.

Can’t be done? Unrealistic? We have a new fixed hyper-capitalist reality which we must accept or be regarded as out of our heads?? Somehow I suspect that is what we are supposed to think.



Excellent piece Ian and I think you put your finger on one of the central conundrums facing contemporary social work. That is – the matter of ‘adjusting’ people to a social and economic system that is not just inequitable but also increasingly apparent as unfit to steward the environment or care for its own citizens.

There are also some important tensions that your piece names and a distinction worth teasing out. The distinction perhaps being between the kinds of loving care that encourages narcissistic self-interest allowing a good fit with a competitive market and the kinds of loving care undertaken by broader communities supporting a strong ethos of care for the other.

Sadly for the neoliberal project a strong ethos of care for other makes for lousy self-interested neo-liberal entrepreneurs. So I think that the governmental insistence on a social work policing of parental love is really only interested in the kinds of love that create traits leading to adult market success. And – lets face it – these are not terribly nice traits.

So I think social work may find itself back in its familiar position of supporting contradictory social forces: On the one hand enforcing love at the individual level – and – on the other hand suppressing or ignoring broader social ‘love’ initiatives such as welfare systems that work for everyone, living wages for all and social mores that hold us to each be our brothers and sisters keepers.

An unreasonable demand in my opinion and one that social work as a profession needs to keep being critical about.

Thanks again for the piece Ian – good stuff!

Thanks David – it is the old story -we are social animals rather than economic units and we need to create, care and think to be human. Our oppressive social structures and preoccupation with consumption are destructive of this identity – we have a lonely society in late capitalism. Social work can and should have an active practical role in resisting this – call me old fashioned but the aim is a better society. And the world view and voice of social work has something to offer.

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