Looking forward: Can social work be a progressive force?

Criticism of social work as a controlling professional regime concerned with the management of the threatening classes is not new (Maylea, 2021). At best, social work has proven to be an ambiguous occupation:

For example, it is common to state the intentions of social work as helping people to accommodate to the status quo and as challenging the status quo by trying to bring about social change. This dissonance is intrinsic to social work, to its essence. (Epstein, 1999, p.9)

Social workers ‘see’ the consequences of systemic inequality and this experience has the potential to radicalize and fuel dissent.

Mainstream child and family practice is a response to the inherent failings of capitalism: the unequal social suffering that is produced and reproduced through structural exploitation. However, it is a ‘professional’ response from the capitalist state as opposed to a response driven by communities of resistance. Accordingly, social workers are caught in a bind – in the tensions and challenges produced by this existential dilemma.

I don’t think the story ends here – that we are faced with either accepting that social work functions to preserve unequal relations of power or abolishing the field altogether. However, I do think that (into the future) social work needs to become something else in the same way that wider capitalist society needs to become ‘something else’. These progressive change processes are related, one to the other.

Historically, much of the methodology of social work has been influenced by the remedial soft-policing role assigned to it. Over forty years ago Philp (1979) argued that social work functions, within set limits, to re-include those on the margins of society through a narrative process – re-framing and ‘re-presenting’ excluded subjects as worthy of citizenship: “This individual or family is safe – they are alright now”.

This individualized ‘truth to power’ advocacy has the potential to influence the way in which the circumstances and behaviours of ‘clients’ are understood by systems of authority and control: the way that they are heard by those who administer the mechanisms through which entitlement is determined (Dominelli, 2004). It is, to hazard a guess, a process familiar to most practicing social workers.

Parton (2014) suggests that this template served the humanistic / humanising function assigned to social work in the context of the Anglo welfare states from the mid-twentieth century. In this sense it can be argued that the traditional ‘case-work’ intent and function of social work was, at least potentially, an inclusive freedom-enhancing project: freedom as permission to re-enter the liberal capitalist race if you like.

This was (and is) not the only possible form of social work – it is simply the one endorsed by the state. Scattered efforts, over time, to push the boundaries of practice to encompass community engagement and empowerment are evidence of a less central, yet resilient, thread in the weave of social work identity.

Critical commentary has, understandably, mourned the demise of social work within the new liberal political context that has been dominant for four decades now (Rogowski, 2010). It is argued that social workers have come to perform increasingly instrumental functions aimed at disciplining problem populations. It is this sort of disillusioned analysis that prompted Maylea (2021) to suggest that it is time for the failed and decrepit profession of social work to be ‘pushed into the sea’.

Maylea’s arguments are not without colour of truth. The process of ‘speaking for’ those who are constructed as the clients of social work has occurred in a variety of ways over time, and in hindsight much of this has been a controlling and disenfranchising process. There are fine lines between care, benign authoritarianism and coercive control.

This is evidenced graphically in the distorted officially authored life histories of children in care revealed in the current historic abuse in care inquiry. Social work and social workers were donkey deep in this destructive process in Aotearoa. We need to interrogate and understand our professional illusions in the light of this reality.  As the cliché goes, the same activity will generate the same results.

When we hear the direct voices of whānau on the receiving end of state social work intervention (albeit fleetingly and in times of crisis), as we did in the post-Hastings OT inquiries, there is often a much different counter-narrative of fear and loathing.  As Garrett (2021) has recognized, state social work in the Welfare State era was not a golden age of kindness and compassion. Power to liberate is power nonetheless and can easily be used to dominate and punish. I have often thought that those who enjoy the exercise of authority should never be given any.

I believe we need to digest this critique without being disabled by it. The integrity of social work is always vulnerable because it is too close to the capitalist state. However social workers can be involved in progressive social change. They are positioned close to those on the bottom of the social and economic heap and there is potential, despite the odds, to work in solidarity with those who are subject to structural disadvantage – to work with and for rather than on.

This endeavor involves politically informed advocacy and organisation and it is seldom an easy road. Medals for dissent are issued infrequently. Politically informed, progressive practice is not written into job-descriptions – but it could be, at least in part.

The social and economic world as we know it is likely to shift on its axis over the next thirty years in response to the accelerating climate crisis. All bets are off and there is a great deal at stake – we cannot afford to be disengaged. Yes, inequality of power and outcomes are reproduced but they are also challenged and changed – you/we don’t win every day, but we win some of the time and I like to think every win is cumulative.

Image credit: ian carolino


Dominelli, L. (2004). Social work: Theory and practice for a changing profession. Cambride, Polity Press.

Epstein, L. (1999). The culture of social work. In A. Chambon, A.Irving, & L. Epstein (Eds.), Reading Foucault for social work (pp. 3-26). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Garrett, P.M (2021). ‘A World to Win’: In Defence of (Dissenting) Social Work – A Response to Chris Maylea. British Journal of Social Work, 51 (4). 1131-1149.

Maylea, C. (2021). The end of social work. British Journal of Social Work, 51(2), 772-789.

Parton, N. (2014). Child Protection and Politics: Some Critical and Constructive Reflections. British Journal of Social Work, 44(7), 2042-2056.

Philp. M. (1979). Notes on a form of knowledge for social work. Sociological Review, 27 (1), 83 – 111.

Rogowski, S. (2010) The Rise and Fall of a Profession? Bristol: Policy Press.

One reply on “Looking forward: Can social work be a progressive force?”

Thank you Ian for sharing. One comment ‘individualisation’ and ‘whanau’ should not exist in the same space

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.