The Implosion of Modernity
Another factor influencing social work seems to be the general mistrust of professionals as altruistic actors devoted to the general good of society, a doubt that may have been a legitimate force during the early years of the profession (Bourdieu 1999). The failure of professionals to deliver solutions to health and social problems and the uncovering of abuse and maltreatment in many institutions, including healthcare as well as social work and child protection, contributed to a need to control the professional execution of power. The critique of practices evolved under an epistemological shift during the 1970s and 1980s, during the implosion of modernity into postmodernism, and they focused on interest and power within the profession and within society as a hierarchy where power was related to imperialist myths of positivist universal science. The political and administrative perspective moved from trust in professionals to listening to users who are their main constituency. The legitimating force of science receded along with the critique of practices and critical ideas that accompanied the rise of postmodernism. In particular, the knowledge base was criticized, not least for its lack of possibilities for significant predictions, especially at the individual level (Flyvbjerg 2007).
Part of the protest against the social technocracy (Ronnby 1981) was related to the patriarchal universalistic perspective underpinning imperialism in culture as well as human development in general. A truly postmodern position has evolved under the multicultural flag where one has to accept differences and thus also inequality. One of the central themes of our time is how to deal with rights and the distribution of resources under such conditions. The question of respect in a world of inequality has been given a thorough discussion by Sennett (2003), and Honneth (1995) has further developed the notion of respect and recognition, a central theme of social work discourse.
Drawing from his childhood experiences in the Cabrini district in Chicago, Sennett takes a closer look at sentimental and non-sentimental ways of social work. Mother Cabrini, who gave her name to the housing area, considered social workers serving the poor as a way of serving God. Compassionate, sentimental ways of looking at the poor regarded them as a result of bad faith where the underpriviledged were in need of assistance. Sennett viewed this perspective as humiliating and prejudiced.
Sennett considers this stance in opposition to Jane Addams, who was well aware of the porous membrane between care and control. She regarded religiously based social work as patriarchal Catholic compassion. Addams, along with Hannah Arendt, regarded Christian ethics as opposing necessary social change because the compassion for the poor became just another possibility for expressing the love of Jesus. Sennett illustrates how the reason for welfare, according to Arendt, should be related to the benefit of the receiver, not the giver. In other words, care without compassion expressed as solidarity among strangers. This corresponds to Rawls's (1999) idea of justice that has permeated recent discourse on social work. The idea
is based on the ignorant position, which means that the ways of helping should be regarded as just no matter what your point of departure is in this world.
Is the gift of welfare an expression of solidarity and justice or is it a way of manipulating souls? The limits of science uncovered and acknowledged, professionals had to learn to deal with uncertainty, which today seems to be one of the main challenges (Taylor and White 2006; Flyvbjerg 2007). The rhetorical inflation seen in the use of the word respect in all dealings with the welfare state, as is the case in Norway, can be a good illustration of this shift of focus. The increasing demand for evidence-based practices may be interpreted as a response to bridge the knowledge gap between the uncertainty of knowledge and the need for quality assurance of services in order to enhance users' trust. These practices come in handy in a setting where welfare has to be restrained and is regarded as a commodity to be left to the markets. There is a growing scepticism towards such solutions:
Much has been made of the uncertainties and contingencies of practice, and of the need for social workers to make more explicit use of formal knowledge in order to reduce this uncertainty. However, we argue that this focus on making certainty out of uncertainty glosses over the ways in which both knowledge and practice often propel practitioners towards early and certain judgements when a position of 'respectful uncertainty' might be more appropriate. (Taylor and White 2006, 937)
The idea of treatment did not fare very well in establishing professionally based social work in local communities, and in Norway it was not until the late 1990s that more developed and specialized municipal social work took place in social services as well as within child protection (Schjelderup, Omre and Marthinsen 2005; Marthinsen and Skjefstad 2007). The claims for a more scientifically based practice and higher skills seem to be strongest within the field of child protection, but all welfare departments have this pressure to deliver robust services today (Melding til Stortinget 13, 2011–2012, Utdanning for velferd – Samspill i praksis). Current social work seems to have developed a view in which the knowledge of practice as well as the knowledge of users and research can evolve in a synthesis. The postmodern critique of modernity has established an epistemological ontology based on phenomenology and hermeneutics of interest (Habermas, Foucault and Bourdieu) and tradition (Gadamer, Ricoeur). Revealing history and its hidden struggles became a way of creating knowledge for the development of a sustainable social work. The role of research has entered the space Habermas (1968) opened: when knowledge comes up short, ideology and morals overtake the scene. The idea today seems to be to enhance the knowledge base to include the way knowledge itself develops, reaching for a more reflective and critical position of a humble and respectable practice, for a society where values of respect and recognition may enhance the chances of a decent life (Marthinsen and Skjefstad 2011). The transition from modernity to late modernity or liquid modernity may
also represent the possibility of a new enlightenment (Bauman 2006). It seems, however, that this development has not occurred on a social or political scale. Since it is now possible to trace the results of the struggle to reform modernity, there may be as much room for myths, positivist fundamentalism and deception. Neoliberalism has created renaissance for the ontology and philanthropic ideas of the early Enlightenment: notions of individual responsibility and bristling social character seem to have entered the discourse of the social (Villadsen 2004). In the everyday life of social work there is the need to relate to the quest for evidence and effi , often inspired through management focused on legal and economic issues where the use of detailed procedural practices challenge the time spent on social relationships needed to work with change in close contact with people and environments.
Rich countries like Norway could easily afford to secure a decent income for all adults and families with children. Rather than redistribution of the aggregated wealth, one sticks to the general rights-based system with increasing control of the will to work or pressure to change unaccepted ways of life. The idea of the broken social character seems to be returning and perhaps with it the patriarchal, compassionate helping position, lacking God maybe, but well within the dominant political agenda.