Disrupting the narrative

We live in a social system that is configured by relations of class and privilege which are economically produced and reproduced. We need to understand the relationship between this reality and the past, present (and possible future of social work). This involves recognising the context of our practice and engaging with the contest of interests and ideas which surround us: questioning the dominant psychologised discourse and bringing critical social and political voices back into theory and practice.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the ANZSWWER symposium in Adelaide on the topic Disrupting the Narrative – Creating a Progressive Future for Social Work. I argued that social workers have historically worked with oppressed people in ways that are either caring or controlling and which often involve elements of both.

Neoliberal capitalism and instrumental science are a powerful combination but they are not the only games in town. The challenge for social work in the face of contemporary systemic inequality is to work alongside those who are constructed as our clients – with people rather than on them. Service users are not products to be developed or projects to be built. The following slides explore and develop this historical imperative and consider progressive strategies relevant to the here and now.

[slideshare id=117212996&doc=adelaideanzswwerdt-180929032503]

The Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (SAANZ) Conference – ‘the future is in the past’ – is being held at the Victoria University of Wellington this year: 4-7 December 2018. The following link takes you to a call for papers. Following the very successful incorporation of a Social Work Stream at the 2017 SAANZ Conference in Dunedin, the 2018 Conference will include a social work stream under the broad theme of Disrupting the Narrative. We hope to see you there.

Image credit: Global Justice Now

4 replies on “Disrupting the narrative”

Re- “Neoliberal capitalism and instrumental science are a powerful combination but they are not the only games in town.”
Many administrative routines around NZ (and other “Anglophile” cultures use narratives to inform social policy and practice. Many “reforms” use the theme of “equality” but are very different in practice.
In NZ right now too many people allow themselves to be seduced by “comforting” narratives. Worse still, people whose job/responsibility is to adhere to the practices and views conveyed in the prescribed narratives which have been associated with their training do not “do” surprise well! They often react to their cognitive dissonance by acting in hostile ways towards people affected by that narrative (eg “believing that parents dealing with poverty and stress are “dirty” and “feckless”, and will abuse their children”or “people who have to apply for “jobseeker” benefits are “lazy” and “don’t want to join the workforce”) so are apt to view them through this lens. They will then seek to make this narrative fit their work practices.
The more “logical” the narrative the harder it is to dislodge in the face of inexperience. Social workers are people first and at risk of generic prejudice and (willfull) misunderstanding. This is one of the “other” “games in town”.

That all war is a conflict of narratives is a premise worth considering. Each side claims to be more powerful or morally better than the other, and military action is both an extension of politics by
other means and an extension of “propaganda of the deed.”[1] Narratives around a conflict solidify when the winners get to write history.[2] Further, when a war is not won outright, both narratives
survive. Sometimes, the losing side’s narrative dies off. Other times, it persists or regenerates to spark a new conflict.[3]
Foundations include belief in the necessity of conflict to defend oneself, others, foundational values, or interests…..Therefore, war must focus on destroying an enemy’s intent or will to threaten…..The narrative of each side links that side with the lives and values supporting the will…..Breaking the will requires discrediting a narrative, whatever that narrative may be. One narrative foundation for a will to war is that one group is superior or unworthy, as seen in Naziism, genocide,or ethnic cleansing.
The Weaponized Narrative, Sun Tzu, and the Essence of War

I find the incessant focus on “social work identity” unhelpful. I remember having the same conversation in and throughout the 1990’s. We have moved on from our period of adolescence. Accept we our now maturing and adults, and as such we have a VOICE!. The challenge I find is HOW WILLING AM I TO GIVE MY VOICE?

I find the sentence “…the social work voice is both more threatened by and threatening to the state” intriguing. As someone who prefers radical social work education, my aim is to be teaching intentionally and specifically with “our threatening voice of reason”. I want to be teaching the knowledge and skills around dissent, resistance, and civil disobedience (all of which would make for an interesting assessment).

As well as teaching to – I need to be actively advocating to our students an intentional anti neo-liberal narrative. If this means teaching against the some of the current practices, approaches, and policies of oppressive systems (statutory and non-statutory) – then we should not shy away from this…

Look forward to the conference at the end of the year!

Nga mihi nui
Jimi McKay

Kia Ora – thanks very much for your thoughts.

I have been going on about this for a while – that we need to develop, teach and practice understandings of the structural drivers of inequality – and that this awareness needs to shape the future of social work – that poverty, for example, is both a social justice issue and a practice issue. This doesn’t mean that we set students up to fail by ignoring other realities like Agency constraints or the challenges to more radical practice posed by the location of social work within the liberal state – but it can mean a growing critical understanding of current practice developments: who’s interests are served, what progressive change can be achieved, what research agendas are important and how we may best bring all of this this about? I like to think change is in the air again Jimi, but no room for complacency either e hoa ….


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