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Decline of the Nation State and its Impact on Social Work Methods


The impact of globalization on the welfare state and on social services has been widely discussed. Whether this brought with it a turn towards a post-Fordist approach to welfare models (Burrows and Loader 1994) or is seen as heralding the eventual dismantling of all public welfare provisions, the effects of the post-1989 political and economic changes amount to attempts to uncouple the link between stable social provisions and productive economic development and hence to replace the principle of rational welfare planning with self-regulatory market principles.

Where practically all models of the welfare state that developed in the early decades after World War II epitomized a conviction that adequate welfare provisions were the key to economic productivity and political stability, such provisions are now being portrayed as impediments to global economic competitiveness. This downgrading of the political and economic role of social policies contributes to the erosion of the role of the nation state model which had already been weakened by the growth of supra-national organizations such as the European Union and other state alliances and of powerful international trade organizations such as the WTO and the IMF which promote a free trade policy and seek to curtail the political influence of individual states. Welfare provisions and social security are not only being reduced, social services, in line with other formerly public services, are being increasingly privatized or 'contracted out' thereby reducing the 'steering capacity' of the state in welfare matters which becomes concerned more with measures of control and regulation instead of support and enhancement (Pierson 1994).

These developments mark a completely changed set of social policy conditions to which social work methods discourses have begun to adjust either by deliberately seeking to re-cast the premises for its professionalism or by diminishing the frictions that its methodology might cause politically by withdrawing even further from political engagement than was the case in the Fordist era. The former approach, that of 'engagement with the system', is characterized by the emergence of a set of approaches to practice which emphasize management skills in combination with social service delivery, such as case or care management (Clarke, Gewirtz and McLaughlin 2000). It echoes the elementary principle of self-determination in social work but in the form of promoting the client as a consumer of services. It thereby allows considerations of resource efficiency and other 'reality constraints', mainly determined by economics, to set the decisive parameters within which such participation can take place expressed in 'consumer choices'.

The latter approach of withdrawal appears to divide into two directions. On the one hand the criticism over social work's 'failings' is being taken up by resorting to the principle of 'evidence based practice' (EBP) (Thyer and Kazi 2004). Failings were pointed out in terms of the non-delivery of promises implied in the Fordist model of professional service delivery: first, at the individual level, and here particularly in failures to protect children effectively from harm and abuse by
carers, and, second, at the general level in that the service should have prevented rising rates of delinquency, family disruption and other forms of social disruption. The principle of EBP, promoted originally in the field of medicine in an uncanny parallel to the former adoption of the 'diagnosis' concept in early social work, spells the end of inductive theory formation as the basis for practice models that remain committed to 'schools of thought', such as psychoanalysis, behaviourism, system theory or phenomenology. It promotes instead a 'what works pragmatism' (Otto et al. 2009) based ideally on randomized scientific test results of various specific intervention methods.

EBP has given an enormous boost to research in the field of social work and consequently also to the prestige of its academic discipline, thereby however linking the claim to professionalism to a positivist scientific route (Nothdurfter and Lorenz 2010; Lorenz 2012) which avoids engagement with normative discourses. The approach matches the new social policy landscapes which are characterized by single issue campaigns, often responding to 'moral panics' like child abuse, delinquency of immigration, and enhance also the effects and efficiency of social control and conditional access to public support.

On the other hand approaches make their appearance that promote the exact opposite to the instrumental positivism implied in EBP and evoke humanist or communitarian ideals. In this field two movements are emerging, one elaborates the nature of personal relationships as a comprehensive set of processes that must not be broken up into single functions (e.g. Payne 2010). The other takes up the ecological concern for sustainability (e.g. Dominelli 2012), often incorporating also a critique of capitalist market principles by promoting those of a social economy.

Both agendas fail to consider the fact that the social policies of the majority of European nation states, with the exception perhaps of the Nordic states, have largely abandoned the commitment to providing adequate public social services as a contribution to an agenda of fairness and equality and are in the process of withdrawing to a position of the 'minimal state'. This means that the social service agenda gets directed at enhancing the efforts of the individual to resolve his or her difficulties without relying on public support, which in turn assumes more and more the function of control if not of punishment for aberrant behaviour (Kessl 2009). The methods which correspond to these tendencies at both the individual and the collective level are characterized by a tendency to render social concerns and engagements over solutions largely private in nature. Social work seems to arrange itself in the spaces allocated in the re-ordering of welfare which thereby are being further deprived of their public social orientation.

This amounts to a gradual abandonment of social work's social mandate which consisted in offering more than 'private' assistance as is the nature of therapy and counselling. The ongoing dismantling of the welfare state models and the progressive privatization of services disconnects social work from the project of establishing social citizenship. Critical reflections from a cross-national and indeed an historical perspective on the effects of this disengagement on the development
of social work methods discourses are urgently required not only to give those a new impetus, but above all to bring social work's professional experience to bear on the future development of social policies. This is not an optional extra for social work but an absolute necessity if it is to maintain its unique mandate as the guardian of 'the social' in societies whose social cohesion has become ever more precarious in recent times.

The complexity of societal interactions and the interdependence of a globalized world do not allow a fall-back to the laissez-faire conditions of early industrializations which caused immense suffering, disruption of social bonds and necessitated a century of struggles for the development of social citizenship. An awareness of this history is the special responsibility of social workers and needs to be fostered in social work research as a direct contribution to contemporary practice improvements.

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