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Social Work at Odds with Politics, Values and Science

Edgar Marthinsen

This chapter reflects on the challenges of professional social work as they are experienced through research as well as practice and considers recent discourses on social work under neoliberal conditions in the context of the changing welfare state. Half a century ago, Europe was under reconstruction, torn by two competing dominant worldviews branded as capitalism and socialism. The Nordic countries (which to some may also include North-Western Europe), and parts of the Anglo-Saxon world had chosen a path where social policies embedded social work in its social policy programmes as part of its institutionalization of society along with public schools, health care and other activities. The legitimation of public spending and responsibility were partly based on professionalization of mentioned systems and parallel development of education and research. Social work has to be related to politics as well as to the development of science and knowledge and how it is implemented. The question of values may be seen as embedded in both of those since politics as well as knowledge involve ontological positions and truth claims related to different epistemologies.

My own work as a social worker and a researcher is mostly based on local and domestic empirical work in Norway. In this text I theorize the context of a changing society with competing worldviews and how these changes may affect social work. The main theme is the knowledge question. The secondary theme is the link between social work and values. This is a recurring theme that is often related to the need for time and resources to do good social work, but it also concerns social structures. To some extent, my understanding of the current situation may transcend the field of social work and the choices we are faced with. However, I hope that the arguments also resound in a Nordic context.

I regard social work and social workers from a perspective of agency as well as in relation to structures. Social work has traditionally been related to a value base that today may be referred to as it is formulated by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), with a strong focus on respect for the individual and human rights and for promoting solidarity. Social work has always been in need of legitimacy from dominant politics as well as acknowledgement within the social sciences. Politics and knowledge production are processes of change that social work has to deal with. History may seem to repeat itself although the context may be different. Some of the discourses that were prevalent in the
early years of social work are returning: sentimental compassion or respectable, non-sentimental social work?

There is the heritage of Jane Addams's social engagement with an unjust society versus the heritage of Mary Richmond's regard for social work as more based on individual diagnosis. But there are other roots, too. The Nordic countries, for example, have a long history of care and philanthropy. This chapter makes a brief historical positioning of social work in order to illustrate the forces to be faced in politics as well as in current social work. The discussion also calls for some recollection of liberalism in its latest form: contemporary neoliberalism. First, I look at social work, part of its history and the relation to other disciplines. I then move to one of the main reasons for the loss of scientific legitimacy among professionals: the implosion of modernity. The last theme in this chapter is social work and neoliberalism, discussed along with the findings of my own and my colleagues' research from Norway.

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