Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Social Change and Social Work

Scientific Neutrality and the Silencing of Identity Questions

The public support for the growth of social services, whether under a liberal welfare regime that favoured non-state organizational patterns, or under socialdemocratic public forms of welfare services, reflected the above discussed principles, particularly under the impact of the Great Recession in the 1930s. The implicit and explicit agenda behind the development of social services was their role in the reduction of social conflict through rational governance and the scientifically based steering of social relations (Wagner 1994). Particularly in the US the promise of avoiding social conflict through rational, scientifically based professional social services helped to establish the social work profession, which in turn favoured the casework approach as the standard model. This approach came to flourish in Western Europe in the early decades after WW II which saw
the more systematic establishment of welfare states. These measures achieved a considerable reduction in class conflict and promoted a consensual understanding of social solidarity both as the response to the suffering and injustice unleashed by Fascism and war and to the 'competition' of state socialism enacted on the other side of the Iron Curtain and hence to communism's claim of having eliminated social divisions and social problems on principle.

Fordism peaked in the model of 'bureau-professional' social services (Harris 1998) inwhichacademicallytrainedsocialworkersplayedanincreasinglyimportant role with their scientific case work method. This accounted for the phenomenal spread of the 'Anglo-Saxon' training model of social work to practically all Western European countries in a combination of push and pull factors. The push was provided by the international political agenda, spearheaded by the United States, which saw in social work an important tool for promoting democratization both in post-fascist countries of Europe and in the new democracies of former colonies which gained their independence during the same post-war period (Lorenz 2006). This explains why the United Nations forged close (and lasting) contacts with the representative organizations of the social work profession and conducted regular international surveys on social work education (1950 and 1955, authored by Katherine Kendall 1958 by Eileen Younghusband, see Healy 2008), an initiative which today is all but forgotten.

The pull was provided by countries not just eager to install a social policy structure that promoted social citizenship but also in need of trained personnel which would professionally operate and fine-tune these social provisions at the client level. Fulbright scholarships to professional social work courses in the US and other casework training opportunities were therefore keenly taken up in Europe and contributed significantly to the supply of qualified lecturers in the nascent European social work training programmes and to the spread of US social work literature in national language translations. The underlying message of this model, which ensured its increasingly important place in the establishment of 'Western democracies', was that social problems could be brought under the control of scientific methods. 'Adjustment' and later 'integration' were its key reference points. The psychological underpinning of social work methods took away the judgemental moralism in relation to people's failing to adjust and replaced it with a perspective of pathology (Wootton 1959). This in turn ensured a politically 'neutral' appearance of a social service structure which ultimately supported a functionalist, self-correcting model of society.

Only under the impact of the 'rediscovery of poverty' on the evidence of surveys in the 1960s and 1970s which demonstrated that the welfare state had not managed to eliminate poverty (e.g. Atkinson 1969) and, in echoing the message of the poverty surveys by Booth and Rowntree in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, that poverty was not the result of personal adjustment difficulties but a structural issue (Glennerster et al. 2004), did the claim to political neutrality of the casework model come under severe criticism. While the appearance of the model of 'radical social work' was largely confined to the English-speaking world
(e.g. Corrigan and Leonard 1978), other countries in Europe began to rekindle an interest in community work and community action. The Fordist approach to labour relations and to welfare matters had contributed to the silencing of this radical and explicitly political strand of social work methods which had been practised by parts of the labour, but also of the women's and the civil rights movements, albeit by mostly avoiding any reference to social work. In the 1970s and 1980s these movements re-emerged and social work methods discourses attempted to forge links with them under headings like 'feminist social work' (e.g. Hanmer and Statham 1988) or 'black social work' (e.g. Ahmad 1990) which challenged the paternalist and discriminatory effects of a 'value-neutral' approach to social work practice (Featherstone 2001).

The social policy context in which those latter developments took place was already characterized by notions of a 'crisis of the welfare state' and the realization that the basic conflict between labour and capital in capitalism ultimately did not allow a welfare system to emerge which would eliminate inequality, and hence that the welfare state was unable, culturally as well as financially, to fulfil one of its central claims. During this period, the social work paradigm began to lose its dominant position and its universal claim to scientific neutrality, thereby precipitating a considerable crisis of identity and confidence among social workers.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics