Dissenting Social Work – a conversation with Paul Michael Garrett

In this podcast episode, Ian Hyslop interviews Paul Garrett of NUI (National University of Ireland, Galway) for the RSW Collective. Paul is a much read and respected theorist and writer in relation to the political context of social work and its implications for education and practice futures. Dr Garrett discusses his recent response to the provocative ‘end of social work’ critique offered by Chris Maylea.

While acknowledging the difficulties associated with critical practice he suggests that social work does not sit outside of the tensions facing the liberal capitalist system globally. Referring to Gramsci’s notion of ‘conjunctures’ he points to climate change, uneven social suffering, the geopolitical unrest which is fuelling a refugee and migrant crisis, and the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Add to this the political resurgence of the populist right (and unprecedented potential for state surveillance) and we indeed are living at a challenging cross roads. Garrett argues that we can not choose to live apart from these structuring realities – but that where there is power and reaction there is resistance and solidarity. As workers and social citizens there is, as there always has been, a different world to be won. Dissent is a necessity.



2 replies on “Dissenting Social Work – a conversation with Paul Michael Garrett”

Moving Beyond Dissent…
Many thanks for the podcast – really interesting. I agree that social work needs to engage with dissent as the expression of strong disagreement; but ultimately don’t see dissent as an end in itself. I was left with a question – ‘and then what? what might lie beyond our dissent?’
The literature shows us that we have been acknowledging, articulating, and strongly disagreeing (or dissenting) with the uglier practices of social work for decades? I would suspect that many social workers, social work educators, and social work students would not be unfamiliar with intrinsic problems of our historical and current social work practices.
I wonder if the question that needs to be asked is; ‘what might lie beyond our social work dissent?’ And I wondered if ‘active resistance’ is a place to start?
Here ‘active resistance’ could be positioned as the ‘enacting of dissent’. A moving beyond ‘voicing disagreement’ of policy and practices – towards a position of ‘actively & collectively resisting policy and practice’. Hold on…. hold on Jimi…. I hear you say…. this sounds a bit left of left… and I don’t want to lose my job….
If dissent (or disagreeing) is a legitimate form of social work action and connects with the core of our practice that is social justice – then its not a huge leap to argue that ‘active resistance’ is the enacting of dissent, and a therefore a legitimate part of social justice social work activity. Does this mean it’s somewhat contentious, and scary? Yes, it does – but in our current social work context contention (and scary) is an inherent part of enacting social justice and social work practices.
It could be argued that social justice activities are a legally mandated requirement with our registrations intrinsic and formalised acknowledgement and adherence to national and international codes of ethics which include social justice social work practices. In spite of organisational policy and position – it could be argued that the idea of active resistance (as a practice of social justice) is in fact a legitimate (and legal) requirement of social work activity?
The next question for me then is; what is active resistance? What might it entail? How do we as social work practitioners engage with addressing organisational and socio-political change? The premise of active resistance might provide a starting point for consideration.
Nga mihi nui

Kia ora Jimi

It might at that!

It can be argued that a lot of the time social work practice doesn’t have much to do with social justice but that social workers do often work with people who are affected by injustice – and that social workers need to do this in ways that don’t take any more mana away.

That doesn’t mean that anger and hurt and violence doesn’t exist in families because social workers deal with plenty of that too.

For me, I think it is important to think about the historical intersection between colonisation and capitalism – destroying culture and exploiting labour – or maybe destroying culture in order to exploit labour. The big picture is important but so is the wisdom and agency of people.

There is a whakapapa to contemporary social suffering. The political and economic world – and a whole range of prejudices, privileges and power relations – bleed into the micro structures of daily life. This kind of awareness should energise us rather than disable us, right?

Societies with wide inequalities are seriously problematic so we need to get away from a model of development that creates inequality and division. Liberal capitalism isn’t the best of all possible worlds – that is just an idea that our institutions constantly whisper in our shell-like ears.

Social workers who hope for a progressive future should be able to be part of this ongoing struggle – to win a different word – in various ways but this not the sort of thing you can achieve in isolation and it isn’t in job descriptions … so we need strategy.

Garrett talks about structures within structures, dissent and resistance – how do we make these things active and real? I for sure don’t pretend to have all the answers but I know this conversation is important …

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