Heroes or villains, or is social work more complicated?

Over the past few months there have been a few debates on Twitter (where I talk to many people in many countries about all sorts of social work and politics stuff) about our profession and the nature of our public perception. This often-debated issue is inextricably tied up with our representation in ‘the media’. There is a long-standing theme in the literature going back to the 70s that the profession is given a tough time in the media. Like used-car sales people and estate agents we’re rarely in the news for doing good. Which is utterly aggravating (and underlining the contradictions) when we often suffer the disparaging epithet ‘do-gooder’.

Public perceptions are more difficult to pin down as there is some ambiguity in what we can say about the public view. If we based our understanding on the comments on websites that bring together people who feel mistreated by social work, or those posted on news stories about social work failures, we might give up on any aspirations to be admired and respected. But, several studies in different countries have painted a different picture (Cordoba, 2017; McCulloch, Webb, & Clarke, 2017; Staniforth, Dean, & Beddoe, 2016; Staniforth, Fouche, & Beddoe, 2014). A recent story ‘Distorted Image” in the UK Professional Social Work magazine (McNicol, np, November 2017) reports that in a large study of 2500 people in the UK half were positive about social work and only a quarter held a negative view. Professor Stephen Webb who led the study is quoted as saying “the results challenge some deeply entrenched narratives about, and within, the profession”. Webb goes on to say:

 I think there’s a misunderstanding around media’s influence. The press courts controversy and uproar. And controversy as an event is impactful but only in the moment. It has a short-term emotive impact, then people readjust.

Social work may thus be over-sensitive.  But we have always had a problem of identity. We feel we are a profession on the margins. Bourdieu famously depicted social workers as ‘agents of the state’ who are ‘shot through with the contradictions of the state’ (Bourdieu in Bourdieu et al., 2002, p. 184). Many social workers who don’t work in child protection often feel sheer frustration about the conflation of the profession with child protection – especially when that practice is seen as authoritarian (Beddoe, Staniforth, & Fouché, 2017). But a great deal of the reason for that is that social work is often the only visible profession doing child protection, at least in the public view. It is irritating that the police, lawyers, judges, psychologists, counsellors, probation officers and others who are professionally involved in child protection remain conveniently invisible in the media and thus the public gaze.

Stephen Webb is right to be concerned about the impact of all this negativity. Barbara Staniforth, Christa Fouche and I recently published an article called ‘Proud of what I do but often … I would be happier to say I drive trucks’: Ambiguity in social workers’ self-perception’. The title came from a social worker who, like others in the same study, was ambivalent about identifying their profession to strangers.

So, what is the way forward? Public relations campaigns have been run in various countries but I’m always left wondering who reads the press releases and success stories? Are we talking ourselves up to the mirror?

Sometimes students and practitioners say why don’t we change our name? Social worker is seen as such a negative label. But discussions of alternatives rarely go anywhere. And like it or not we are part of an international profession with social workers in 180 countries, which has the potential to contribute to the large social movement that is building in response to the failed ideology of neoliberalism that has seen millions around the world in poverty and subjected to the cruellest regime of welfare sanctions. And whatever we are called we are inextricably tangled up with positive and negative readings of welfare.  The term navigator has been suggested but in my view, this denotes a role, not a whole profession. Nurses wouldn’t want to be called ‘IV drip managers’ or ‘wound dressers’. And we don’t want to be called ‘bed-emptiers’ or ‘psycho-social assessors’.

To add something new to the problematics of being social work there’s a current discussion about whether it’s ok to refer to ourselves as heroes or super-heroes. I understand the motivation. It’s another attempt to talk us up and raise pride. But let’s unpack the hero label. The Merriam-Webster on line dictionary provides this definition for hero which has been around since 1522.

Definition of hero, plural heroes

1a :  a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability :  an illustrious warrior :  a person admired for achievements and noble qualities :  one who shows great courage :  the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work

the central figure in an event, period or movement.:  an object of extreme admiration and devotion:  idol

Super-heroes of course need special powers. And these usually involve extra-terrestrial super-strengths employed to rescue individuals or even whole planets from the evil enemies.

Now all of that is problematic. While social workers do often show courage and leadership they mostly want to work alongside people. In an excellent recent blog’ Why the hero narrative in the human professions is damaging: A Freire perspective’  @nickinoxford (a U.K. Based social worker) wrote this:

A hero narrative fuels the ‘done to’ approach to supporting people. They are ‘done to’ and in turn, they become ‘better’. This is a necessary process to fulfil the hero narrative. The person who comes in to save the day, without whom, the other would be doomed.

Freire had us think about this in the form of charity. A person doing for someone else. ‘Doing to’, as a concept, furthers oppression, by providing something that is just enough to keep people in their place. It maintains the social order, or the status quo. Through this lens, the person doing the saving is the oppressor and liberation becomes an impossibility. It pushes the dominant, oppressor view of the world on other people — Assuming their version of ‘better’ is a common held view.

So I’m also for rejecting the hero label. We are courageous – especially when we speak truth to power, challenge orthodoxy, face critique and even belittling when we stand up for people who are struggling. But our aim is for solidarity as Nick says:

A position of solidarity, however, requires an alignment. It is a radical position. It means fighting side by side, not fighting for people. Freire talks about objective reality alot and the conditioning of people into conformity, to fear liberation. It requires people to be alongside others, with the fight focused on changing the perception of the objective reality. This does not entail acts of charity, or acts of kindness, or indeed acts of saving. It demands love and respect. It requires genuine connection, humility. It does not require sacrifice, as the hero narrative suggests.

This is much closer to Alastair Russell’s notion of ‘competent solidarity’ in his recently published article in our local journal (Russell, 2017).

So, while I will still be interested in every discussion or piece of research about media and public perceptions, my interest is largely sociological because I’m interested in professions and professionalisation generally.

What we should do is not worry about why a website carries a meme “social workers are like prawns, no guts, spineless and full of shit”, which made me laugh out loud. What we should do is listen to the criticism, engage in respectful debate with our critics and try to do better. Silent, grumpy negativity is not going to help us. Attacking colleagues who are doing their bit to challenge neoliberalism and put up alternatives is not helpful. Saying, “I’m muzzled by my employer so I can’t do anything” isn’t helpful.

We’re not heroes most of the time, and nor are doctors, nurses or engineers, and we’re definitely not super-heroes but, apart from the odd rogue, which every profession has, we mainly do the best we can with the training, resources and support we can muster. The next few years will be challenging as we face the much-needed public inquiry into abuse in state care in Aotearoa and the inevitable change and challenge that the Labour-led coalition government will bring. Let’s be honest, brave and ask good questions.

Image credit: J D Hancock


Beddoe, L., Staniforth, B. L., & Fouché, C. B. (2017). ‘Proud of what I do but often … I would be happier to say I drive trucks’: Ambiguity in social workers’ self-perception. Qualitative Social Work, 0(0), doi:10.1177/1473325017725801. Abstract. 

Bourdieu, P. (1999). An impossible mission. In A. A. Pierre Bourdieu, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (Ed.), The weight of the world: Social suffering in contemporary society (pp. 189-202). Palo Alto CA: Stanford University Press.

Cordoba, P. S. (2017). Representations of social work in the Australian news media. Australian Social Work, 1-12. doi:10.1080/0312407X.2017.1324886 Abstract.

McCulloch, T., Webb, S., & Clarke, D. (2017). What the public think about Scottish social services and why. Glasgow: Social Work Scotland. Report can be downloaded here.

McNicol, A. (2017). Distorted image. Professional Social Work. Birmingham UK: BASW.

Russell, A. (2017). Competent solidarity: the alternative for professional social work. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29(2), 137-143. doi:10.11157/anzswj-vol29iss2id406

Staniforth, B., & Beddoe, E. (2017). Five years in the news: A media analysis of Child, Youth and Family in two daily newspapers (2008–2012). Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29(4), 5-18. doi:10.11157/anzswj-vol29iss4id382

Staniforth, B., Deane, K. L., & Beddoe, L. (2016). Comparing public perceptions of social work and social workers’ expectations of the public view. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28(1), 13-24. doi:10.11157/anzswj-vol28iss1id112

Staniforth, B., Fouche, C. B., & Beddoe, L. (2014). Public perception of social work and social workers in New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 26(2/3), 48-60.

4 replies on “Heroes or villains, or is social work more complicated?”

Re- ” The next few years will be challenging as we face the much-needed public inquiry into abuse in state care in Aotearoa ”
I sense that we need to form and express an approach to this issue which will divert the almost inevitable cavalcade of blame-seeking which often threatens meaningful progress with which we, as a community can learn and move to understanding.
We have to focus on the fact that NZ was only one country in a commonwealth network hijacked by the tsunami of “heroic” concept which still captures populist persuasion and social consciousness which drives oppressiveness pathways for social control of healthcare, and wealth and essential resource distribution throughout the Western world. The power of “heroic” conception seduces co-operation and circumvents the process of creating solidarity.
Our current health, welfare, and governance system is only just emerging from this reality.
Thankyou for bringing this issue up.

A somewhat dissenting opinion, but I promote the ‘superhero’ idea to my children (5 and 3), along with the point that they can behave like superheroes: from a young child’s perspective, an accurate description of a superhero is ‘someone who is kind to others, who helps them’, and by using this as the framework, I encourage my children to be superheroes.
This originally came up in conversation with them about what I do as a social worker. I described my role as helping people, and my daughter asked if I was a superhero.

A counter-narrative to the ‘rescuer’/ ‘done to’ mentality in my view is as simple as recognising that power structures, historic and current systems, entrenched bigotry, political whims etc, effectively act as Kryptonite to our clients, reducing or removing their ability to solve a particular problem on their own.
We could fly off to the houses of power and use our abilities to deal with the Kryptonite at the source, which would still leave our client in the same position, or we could take action to help this one person at this one time, and in so doing add one more voice to the chorus of those crying out for the mass-production of Kryptonite to stop. And then fly off to battle.

For my mind, using the power I have as a straight, white, male, educated, middle-class male to assist someone in surmounting an obstacle is not ‘doing to’, but ‘treating others as I would like to be treated’. We all have knowledge, skills and abilities which others do not, or possess to a lesser degree. ‘Doing for’ is not always a bad thing (as anyone who has seen me attempt to wire up a car stereo can attest to).

Re- “A counter-narrative to the ‘rescuer’/ ‘done to’ mentality…” Thankyou for the lovely narrative.! There are too few creating positive counter-narratives to counter what has become a “social work monster” . I put this down to individuals who often take on this role possibly for the “wrong” reasons – not the”system” as a whole. This happens with the best of intentions – and we have all heard that narrative. Our job is to cut through this web of ill informed narrative and seek better pathways through creating new narratives.
As a “client” living in difficult circumstances, and subsequently, on occasion, being asked by others to be a support person, because of my experiences; I encountered quite a few people who had taken on the role, of “social worker” (legitimately and otherwise) as a “duty” not as a “privilege”. BUT in contrast to this I was also fortunate to meet some truly awesome people working in the SW profession, whose help and insight contributed to our ultimate wellbeing,through their patience, skill and timely actions. This happened not due to any ‘extra” training but to their diligence and insight, and respectful humble approach to their role. They had the ability to truly enjoy the role they were given, rather than seeing it as a “duty”, which is where the true talent for social work lies.

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