Social work and social justice: Rage against the machine

We have been talking, in varying ways, about social work and social justice on this blog for a long while now. Is this relationship possible, sustainable, realistic? We do need to keep talking about this and, more importantly, we need to start doing something about it or you can probably forget about it in ten years – the project will have been eradicated! I would like to know what others think – can social work be a force for progressive social change?

I often tell students that good social workers need to spend a fair bit of time swimming against the tide and that this process involves some courage and integrity. Or, at least we need to aspire to some courage and integrity, bearing in mind that we are no more or less human, no braver or better than the people we seek to support, or the managers and politicians who frustrate our intentions. In fact, citizen service users who have survived social, economic and state oppression often leave us for dead in the courage department.

However, to work for fair outcomes in tough conditions we do need a bit of guts and stamina. When something isn’t fair the temptation is to his hide in our bureaucracies – blame procedural constraints, lack of resources, or the poor work of others; the way that it is. Or maybe pick some people we can go the extra mile for? Now, don’t get me wrong I have met some damn good social workers in my time: people who front up to the impossible every day. And I have had the privilege to try to teach a few. But the model of the heroic practitioner charging off to set the world to rights is, truth be told, not a sustainable one. Unless we can change a few things around that is.

Our social work agencies – state and NGO alike – are mostly about maintaining the status quo in a fundamentally unequal society – putting derailed individuals back on the tracks as cost-effectively as possible. This is how the system is designed and funded. And there are no medals for bucking the system. Of course, helping people in need is useful but it does not create fundamental shifts in our social and economic order – it does not generate the sea change that is needed.  Think of the kind of job description that might be required to liberate the colonised indigenous people of the world. Yellow Bird and Gray (2008, p.59) suggest the following:

Social Workers to Assist Indigenous Peoples 

Indigenous Peoples are seeking highly motivated workers to serve their communities’ drive for self-determination, empowerment and complete return of their lands and other resources illegally stolen by colonial societies. The social worker will be required to develop aggressive programmes of decolonization that can be used to enlighten and reform members of mainstream society.

That sounds fit for purpose but not many jobs are shaped up that way. We now have a centre left coalition government. It might have stopped raining stones but, believe me, it is not about to stop raining altogether. We are not going to see any radical redistribution of wealth and opportunity because the exploitative foundations of our economy are accepted as normal, natural and necessary.

So, should social workers who aspire to redistributive social justice and changes to the relations of power that enforce this oppressive normality find another calling? I don’t think so, but we do need to be a bit smarter. Perhaps our strength has been our weakness – have we been focused on compromise and conciliation for too long?  Social work in the welfare state was given a joint care and control mandate. Social change was in the job description. The time has long past to understand that this is no longer the case, and this realisation can be liberating. What we can (and must) do is re-imagine how practices of radical social work can be developed and applied in the here and now.

There are strategies available to us to become better informed, organised and politically active. We need to embrace the potential of trade unions as reflected in the work of the Social Workers Action Network within the PSA. Issues-based advocacy, including on-line work in the ‘third space’, is important. We can build alliances with other groups, workers and organisations, including making political connections. Educators need to champion the social work voice – we are not about to be given a state mandate to advocate for social justice, but we work with the human consequences of structural injustice every day. We have an opportunity to expose the myths – not to do so is a failure of nerve.

Image credit | John Darroch


Gray, M., Coates, J. & Yellow Bird, M. (Eds.). Indigenous social work around the world: Towards culturally relevant education and practice (Yellow Bird & Gray, pp.107-116). Burlington VT: Ashgate.

4 replies on “Social work and social justice: Rage against the machine”

Kia ora Ian. This korero is so important. But can I ask a question? When we have such articulate and passionate people like yourself teaching a new generation of social workers, and drilling into us the utmost importance of social justice and activism within the social work calling (of which I 100% support), why does our social work programme fail to equip us with such skills? Why don’t we have a paper on advocacy and activism which teaches us how to lobby, how to organise protests, run effective campaigns, etc? Why don’t we have SWAN and PSA coming in to talk to us about their mahi and demonstrating ways in which social workers can participate? I love that the UoA SW department is fostering a new sense of radicalism within emerging SWs, however it does not feel like it is a true priority when I reflect on the current papers and courses that are offered within the Masters Professional programme. I apologise for being so blunt in my musings; they come sincerely from an emerging *radical* social worker foolish enough to believe that she can change the world 🙂

Hi Bex – great comment. I think that social work education has faced the same pressures from neoliberal managerialism and greater control on curriculum. When I started teaching in the 90s we had much more freedom to decide our curriculum. With the advent of registration there has been much more interference and control over what we teach and who teaches it. Many educators feel we are in an intensifying battle to retain generic social science-based social work education, in the face of attempts to make us teach a narrow individualised psychology dominated approach. It’s a struggle to keep structural and social justice perspectives at the centre of what we do. And yes we should be teaching more skills of advocacy, lobbying etc. But on the plus side we are leading in supporting students to develop a strong voice in social media.

Thanks Liz. That helps me to understand from your perspective, the immense barriers to including such “radicalism” within the current curriculum. I really enjoy your korero around the use of social media, blogs, etc. Its certainly a great outlet for me, but one that I am now more wary of as I find myself within a statutory placement!

Kia ora Bex – great comment – it is a good challenge and not one I have a quick and full answer to … but food for thought and a timely reminder that education is also a contested space that requires effort from academic workers who are committed to preparing students to face current challenges. Thanks!

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