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Is History Repeating Itself? Reinventing Social Work's Role in Ensuring Social Solidarity Under Conditions of Globalization

Walter Lorenz

This chapter examines the relationship between social work methods and social policy frameworks from an historical perspective. The dramatic changes that have affected all social policy systems in Europe in recent decades amount to a fundamental reversal of principles that shaped the 'welfare consensus' in the decades after World War II in as much as welfare measures and costs are now portrayed as an obstacle to economic growth and social integration rather than as their promoter. This calls into question the political basis on which 'modern' social work methods were able to flourish and social services to become established and re-introduces demands on social work which were prevalent during the period of its first emergence in the immediate aftermath of the industrial revolution. Much of the current debate on social work methods is influenced by the desire to adapt to the changed social policy conditions by reducing the social work mandate to a person-oriented focus. This calls for a critical examination of the relationship between prevailing social work methods and policy trends in the light of the history of this profession.

The social work methods discourse today is under enormous pressure to justify itself in terms of its efficiency and effectiveness. While up to some decades ago all over Europe the differentiation of methodological 'schools' prevailed with each of them advocating an allegiance to particular theoretical frameworks (Payne 1997), this structure has given way to a fascination, if not obsession, with the pragmatism of an 'evidence based approach', i.e. the claim that methods of intervention have to bring about changes in specific contexts of problematic situations irrespective of their theoretical underpinnings (Nothdurfter and Lorenz 2010).

The concern for effectiveness is indicative of modern approaches to interventions, be that in the medical, in the psycho-therapeutic or indeed in the engineering field. Modern science is the product of a process of emancipation, promoted by the enlightenment movement that sought independence from dogma and 'perceived wisdom' enshrined in practice conventions. It relies on the positivist tool of experiments aimed at establishing laws of nature or at least regularities in experimental outcomes that allow for deductive theory formation. The primary seat of this scientific enterprise was the university which served as the launch pad for modern professions that applied the theoretical insights of scientific enquiries with convincing efficiency, particularly in the fields of engineering, of medicine and other therapeutic fields like psychology. The 'value neutrality' on which their claim to objectivity was based meant that their theorizing should be detached not only from cultural values but also from political considerations and be purely dedicated to the seeking after truth in an absolute sense. We know with hindsight that this detachment was hypothetical and that the enmeshment with ideological positions and with politics proceeded all the more vigorously under this cloak of neutrality. For instance, progress in the field of engineering was strongly influenced by war interests, medical research linked with commercial interests and with politics, as in the case of the 'eugenic movement', and behind the fundamental insights in modern particle physics lay the drive for nuclear supremacy (Adorno and Horkheimer 2003).

Social work as an academic discipline cannot compare itself with those paragons of modern science, regardless of the strongly felt aspirations of social work academics in all countries to earn academic acclaim and scientific credentials. Nevertheless, this ambition to become an academic discipline in its own right was and remains an important force in the development of this profession, and the quest for detachment from political influence and for an autonomous value basis is highly legitimate. It has to be examined, however, because pursuing this project uncritically might lead to the very dependency on political and ideological influence it is seeking to avoid. It will be argued in the following that, in the light of the fundamental transformations of the welfare state in European societies, the role and identity of social work has been the subject of a profound crisis which causes the profession to seek for new securities and reference points for its role in society. This situation shares many features with the circumstances in which social work came about as a profession in the first place and it is therefore vital to look at this historical context in order to gain relevant reference points for current orientation.

Fortunately, and thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of researchers in all parts of Europe, to which Mirja Satka (e.g. 2003) centrally contributed, the historical dimension of social work is currently being elaborated. The links between the pioneering work of particular exponents of early social work, their reference to theory and efforts at rendering their interventions more systematic, and the cultural and political context of the time are becoming clearer (Skehill 2007). However, the application of these insights to current praxis challenges and developments at the level of contemporary social work theory formation receives scant attention. For instance, the preoccupation with the effectiveness of interventions (e.g. Drisko and Grady 2012) obscures this interest and thereby denies the chance of seeing social work as an historical discipline with all the practical advantages this interpretation brings (Webb 2001).

The aim of this historical perspective is to show that the particular pathway that led to the establishment of social work as an academic discipline – far from being
a disadvantage and a deficit to be overcome as which it is frequently presented – bears an under-utilized potential at both the theoretical and at the level of its strategic competence. In contrast to those 'established' academic disciplines like medicine and psychology, social work originated as a 'lifeworld phenomenon' in the sense that the early precursors of the profession were not based on scientific positions which were, after sufficient testing, then put into practice. The early methodological considerations arose from an agenda that was set not by scientists and experts but by fundamental social transformation processes which threatened the cohesion of society and which different actors at civil society level tried to contain and cope with principally at a lifeworld level, long before public and systemic measures came to be devoted to that task (Lorenz 2007). By analyzing those processes from the perspective of the creative tension between lifeworld movements and analytical reflections at the academic level contemporary social work methodology may gain new impulses for a crucial and critical engagement with social policy trends.

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