Social Workers – What and who are we here for?

As we know, social work is a broad church with many different fields of practice. As a teacher in a social work programme I often tell students that this depth and variety is one of the beauties of the profession. In this sense, unifying definitions are always something of a challenge. For example, some earlier blog posts have questioned the supposed professional commitment to social justice when social workers generally help people to adapt to our exploitative social and economic system, rather than working to radically change it.

More disturbingly, social workers can potentially entrench social injustice by working in systems that discriminate against certain sections of the population in structurally unequal societies. Social work can therefore be understood as a complex and contradictory undertaking. However, in this short post I would like to keep things simple. I think it is important to cut to the chase a little and get one or two things straight.

Social workers engage with people who are positioned near the bottom of the social and economic heap. Our job is to support and advocate for the interests of this group of people. This is the central reality for social work in my view. I sometimes wonder what part of this others don’t understand. It is how we interpret this reality – what we do in response to it – that is important. There are exceptions to this generalisation of course and there are also patterns and intersections. Some groups of people are over-represented amongst those who are pushed to the margins. Accordingly, it is important to strive for a more tolerant and inclusive society. Nevertheless, it is also important to be clear that social and economic arrangements that systematically reproduce social disadvantage and exorbitant wealth will not be fundamentally changed by altering people’s attitudes to those who are different from themselves. Neoliberal tolerance of diversity doesn’t address problems embedded in the structure of capitalist social and economic relations.

This is not to say that the efforts of those who work for a more tolerant and socially liberal society are futile. Developing meaningful constitutional recognition of Maori rights as tangata whenua, reforming prisons, or creating a child welfare system that recognises the pressures of poverty, are all vital progressive activities for example. Currently there is struggle and opportunity for movement on all these fronts. However, I would like to emphasize here that the reproduction of social inequality is a fundamental systemic function of liberal capitalism. Sorry about that. Accordingly, we also need to envisage and build a social world that is not based on protecting private property and exploiting the labour of others.  Am I being utopian? I hope so. Can we work for both reform and revolution? I think so – but there I go again … drifting into the realm of the complicated. Let’s just focus on the main point here: we best serve the exploited when we eradicate exploitation.

Image credit: The unnamed

12 replies on “Social Workers – What and who are we here for?”

“reproduction of social inequality is a fundamental systemic function of liberal capitalism” is a very perceptive statement. This is maybe because “Capitalism” exists as a component of governance systems. Capitalism is a economic system which exists outside of the constraints of any one governance system- whether its an outright dictatorship, one party political system, an outright or constitutional monarchy or a liberal democracy. (?)

Yes Jane, the requirements of capitalism are essentially at odds with real freedom and equality because the system rests on the commodification of nature and the accumulation of private profit facilitated by exclusive ownership rights and the exploitation of labour.

All of this happens in increasingly sophisticated ways and when there is conflict between the interests of capital and the ideals of social democracy, the former generally wins. So my argument is that we need to fight for expanded social rights and democracy but that if we really want to live as we might in a social world that is sustainable then we need to think outside of the constraints of capitalism.

We need to expand our imaginations beyond the narrow assumption that freedom for all will be advanced by removing prejudice and allowing everyone to participate in the ‘free’ market.

And Tom – nice to hear from you / hope all is well. Now is a good time for the growth of progressive social work in Aotearoa. We need to get on the front foot and stay there! Between you and me, I don’t expect a social revolution to transform capitalism tomorrow – but I do think this needs to be our social horizon, because capitalist ideology is an illusion that leaves us all without a future.

What can we do? The reality of our work means we need to work with the current reality and create positive opportunities in an unequal society, how can we also, simultaneity work to address social injustices in a wider level, its the million dollar – I guess

Cheers Ian, thanks for keeping it real. We have a responsibility to remain focused on the the best interest of the people we serve and to use integrity to challenge structures that prevent their increased quality of life.

Thanks Tupou – yep not an easy question!

There nothing wrong with working to support people in their struggles – that is what so much social work is about – and we need help ourselves to maintain the energy and aroha that this work demands. There are ways – big and small – of joining in with others to reform systems – even change the way that the economy and society is organized. Changes need to happen – and they will, in time. Social work – and social workers – need a voice at the table.

And hi Meryl – good to hear from you – hope Aus still treating you well and I know you will be fighting the good fight.


Really enjoyed reading this Ian….sharp and succinct – and I couldn’t agree with you more!

Kia Ora Tiaria – ! – It is always great to get comments on the blog from busy practitioners like yourself!

Yeah social workers see the realities / engage with the barriers people face and we need to wrangle with both the big and the small picture to generate change – complicated and challenging (and maybe even rewarding!) in all sorts of ways …. in part because the system is not designed to represent the interests of the people we work with – but I guess that what we sign up for eh? Best wishes – Ian

Interesting article. Coming from a communist/socialist background, I would like to add that inequality is not just a by product of (monopoly) capitalism but seems to exist alongside any isms and pre-dates capitalism. I would like to throw into the discussion that it has something to do with human nature and greed, outside of all isms. The strength it takes to change one’s situation, starts within people themselves. As a Social Worker I see my role in tickling out people’s internal strength/resilience to not be bound by any “ism”.

Good to have your viewpoint Petra- thanks – the question of human nature is important – some would say it doesn’t exist and simply arises from relations of power. Others argue that history shows that our nature is greedy and self interested. I like to believe we are social animals who are at least potentially cooperative and empathetic. We work with people’s capacity for agency but we need to understand the barriers that our economic system creates – there is nothing natural about this kind of structural inequality – at least that what I think – good to have this dialogue!

Great comments,Australian Social Work is so focused on the individual, I believe it is the systems and structures that govern that will bring the change.Currently we are employed and therefore bound to perpetuate the systems. I am looking for a job where I can challenge and creatively rethink how we do what we do to bring about change and freedom,not too many about!

Hi Steph

Nice to hear from across the Tasman – yep not too many of those job descriptions – ! – but I guess pretty much all social work involves an appreciation of the subtle ways in which power relations (including our own professional status and privilege) can serve to disenfranchise / silence / marginalize people – and to change this where we can.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.