Social work and social change: thinking a way forward

Away from the daily grind of social work practice, in the lofty land of international definitions and professional bodies, social work is nominally aligned with the struggle against oppression and the pursuit of social justice. This identity claim is contradictory on at least two fronts. First, it is ideologically fudged in the sense that the nature of social justice and the conditions for establishing it are politically contested. Unsurprisingly, such umbrella definitions reflect a compromise position. International social work organisations have not – and they are not about to – condemn the injustices inherent to globalised capitalism (Gray & Webb, 2013).

Any attempt to explain the role and function of social work must of necessity seek to answer, or at the very least to address, one basic question: what is social work? (Asquith, Clark, & Waterhouse, 2005, p.10)

Perhaps more importantly, this commitment to social justice also sits in tension with the contemporary experience of practice in a tightly targeted and controlled neoliberal environment – within the context of late capitalism. Nevertheless, it can be argued that such global definitions are useful because they provide a normative, aspirational identity – a reference point for what social work ought to be. The contrast between what social work could be and how it is experienced in the real world of practice can be understood as productive. In Marxist dialectical analysis such contradiction is the engine which drives social change.

There is a radical tradition within our profession but it is also important to recognise that social work is a broad church which carries repressive histories (Featherstone, White, and Morris, 2014).  In his recent ANZSW journal article Duarte (2017) asserts that social work is a socialist enterprise ontologically – in terms of its in-built identity. As much as I might like this to be true, I am not convinced that social work has a clear essence that is connected with the goal of liberation from oppression. In reality social work has a conflicted history involving both care and control. However, I do believe that social work is potentially subversive. The every-day practice of social work is confronted with the human consequences of economic inequality which are, in turn, the inevitable product of a capitalist system of ownership and production (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2005). Inherent systemic inequality is hidden and one potential function of social work is to continually expose this reality.

Although the idea that social work should rediscover its radical soul is potentially inspiring, it can also be disabling in the current political context. I think the problem goes something like this. The idea that social work has a subversive nature begs the question of why the profession has not consistently adopted a more radical mission. The answer that is generally arrived at is of the “yes, but …” variety. Our common sense – our ideologically constructed horizon of possibility – tells us that the realities of power, influence, interest and social structure will not support radical practice. This voice instructs us to be sensible – to accept that there are boundaries around what is real and possible – our power is limited, compromise is unavoidable.

Such an analysis can be deeply disempowering. In order to move forward we need to abandon the idea of a fixed reality. The notion of dialectical change – that contested movement is the essence of identity – leads to a much greater sense of agency and empowerment. It is more useful to understand the role and function of social work as something which is actively produced – actively struggled over. We need to put ourselves – our beliefs, skills and intensions – into the picture. Social work does not have a fixed identity that will necessarily lead anywhere, but social work theory and practice can be connected with challenging systemic oppression if we are prepared to make it happen.

We need to promote practice that challenges the fundamental distributive inequalities that underpin Aotearoa New Zealand’s social deficit. The thing about being human is that we have an individual and collective capacity to shape the world. As Marx himself suggested, the social and economic circumstances are not always conducive but we create our own history. The object of understanding how a socially unjust society is perpetuated is to change this state of affairs. Social workers can help to do this – don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Image credit: Sean P. Anderson


Asquith, S., Clark, C., & Waterhouse, L. (2005). Scottish Executive: The Role of the Social Worker in the 21st Century – A literature Review. Retrieved from

Duarte, F. (2017). Reshaping political ideology in social work: A critical perspective. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29 (2), 34-44.

Featherstone, B., White, S., & Morris, K. (2014). Re-Imagining Child Protection – Towards humane social work with families. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

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

5 replies on “Social work and social change: thinking a way forward”

Reading this post drew my attention to a comment which describes a fundamental change in economic social dynamics which has happened almost unperceptively – “….(In)the transition between the age of the ‘society of producers’ to that of the ‘society of consumers” …. It is one thing to be poor in a society of producers and universal employment; it is quite a different thing to be poor in a society of consumers, in which life projects are built around consumer choices rather than on work, professional skills or jobs. Where ‘being poor’ was once linked to being unemployed, today it draws its meaning primarily from the plight of a flawed consumer.

Yes Jane – this is an argument / understanding that Zygmunt Bauman and others have developed – that in the hyper-modern world the Western economies are driven by the consumption of products and services. This is necessary in order to maintain the system of global capitalism. The manufacture of consumer goods has been outsourced to places like East Asia where factory labour is cheap. This process has had dire consequences for working people and the endless consumption of pointless products has dire consequences for human culture and for the planet. It also makes some people obscenely wealthy. Bizarrely too we have seen the working class disaffection that has gone with this channeled into the election of Donald Trump!

Bauman argues that our worst fear is becoming sidelined in the endless consumerist race – all things including ourselves are regarded as commodities for sale and purchase. Those who are (inevitably) poor and excluded in this system are seen as faulty units / problems to be fixed – and they are also held up as scarecrows to keep us docile. The argument is that we are too busy running and worrying (and equipping our kids to be effective market players) to think too much about why on earth we live in this way and ‘who benefits?’

Re- “Those who are (inevitably) poor and excluded in this system are seen as faulty units / problems to be fixed – and they are also held up as scarecrows to keep us docile.” Yes exactly. Far from being a new concept this method of power politics is age old. Governments may no longer feel the need to display the heads ( and other body parts) of the powerless at the city gates but this age still uses “scarecrows” to keep us from retaliating. The influence of mainstream charities are assuming many ‘corporate’ attributes and increasingly welfare is distributed on ‘corporate’ terms rather than those of ‘need’. Disturbingly, these entities are gaining an increasing strangle hold on the formation of Government and political policy creation with liberal use of expertly constructed poverty narrative, poverty porn.

Hi Ian, good post.

Some thoughts:

I agree that the ideologies that inhabit what we are encouraged to understand as commonsense determine the limits of what we can imagine and hence do. And – as Gramsci’s work makes so abundantly clear what society see as common sense generally works in the interests of those in society who are most rewarded by the maintenance of the status quo.

I wonder if there is a particular kind of limiting common-sense that haunts social work such that we are well able to see the systemic injustices that surround us – and yet – are endlessly called by the nature of our paid employment to respond not to those injustices; but instead to their consequences in the lives of individuals.

So something of a Gordian knot emerges. One that is hard for even the staunchest of social workers to undo. Our daily work involves the imbalance of a large capacity to perceive social injustice and a small capacity to tackle it a systemic level. I find myself very frequently engaged in conversations about this particular agonising conundrum that ethical social workers face.

I think this conundrum is both ideological in nature and thoroughly practical. It is ideological in terms of social work training, supervision, and institutions primarily focusing on ‘what is to be done’ at an individual and small group level. Social workers are given big eyes to see injustice with but very small tools with which to imagine what they can do about it.

The conundrum is also practical in nature – as MP Alfred Ngaro so ably recently reminded us it is dangerous to bite the hand that feeds you. Very few agencies are resourced to undertake critique or critical action. If an agency is so resourced – it is not usually seen as the job of social workers to undertake critique or action.

What the above suggests me is that two quiet revolutions need to take place.

Firstly our social work institutions of education and support need to accept that training in the tools of activism and political struggle are as equally needed as the development of an eye for injustice.

The second revolution that perhaps needs to take place is how social work determines where its platform for action is.

Instead of our tendency to complain and feel helpless; social work may need to accept that the engine of our outrage developed in our encounters with societies unfairness may not be able to expressed within our 9-to-5 jobs.

Instead the outrage may be best expressed in a whole wide range of social and political forums that lie outside the chilling and immobilizing effect of our paid employment.

Social work education and supervision has a great deal to say about what social workers should do at work. Perhaps there is just as much needing to be said about what we do after 5 o’clock and on weekends?

I would be very interested in people’s thoughts on how social workers might organise and act outside of our paid job descriptions?

Thanks for your thoughts David. Yeah I think social workers need to be active on two fronts. We do need to be more politically involved / active and focussed but we can resist and subvert policy that has classist and racist outcomes in our places of work – working with people rather than at or on them. Many articulate young social workers are good at this and are looking to support each other. We need to keep talking / sharing ideas / developing vision and action – we are in interesting and perhaps encouraging times! Some may say it easier to dream than do – it would be good to hear what others think

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