The legacy of ‘radical social work’

How contemporary social work theory nurtured the new authoritarianism.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

The ‘radical social work’ movement of the 1970s highlighted the class struggle in British society at the time, and the way in which social work acted in the interests of the ruling class (1). In the 1980s, mirroring the fragmentation of the political left, the radical social work movement lost its class focus and embraced other factors such as sexuality, race and gender as areas where oppression occurred, either in association with, or irrespective of social class (2).

This overt politicisation of social work was hugely influential within the profession. The feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ was used to show how many social problems – such as poverty, ill health and the inferior social position of women and black people – were not due to genetic or biological predisposition or individual moral weakness, but rather had their roots in an inegalitarian social order. And this was either principally or exclusively due to capitalist development, patriarchy or white racism, depending on your political viewpoint.

It only takes a cursory look back through the social work literature to get a flavour of what the campaigners were railing against. For example, a 1971 article in the British Journal of Social Work, arguably the profession’s most prestigious publication, details three case studies where aversion therapy was used on homosexual men in order to ‘cure’ them of their ‘deviancy’. According to the author, her most successful outcome was with a man who one year after his therapy was reported to be happily married (3). Other examples include findings showing that black people were more likely than white people to have their children taken into care (4), and to be detained under the Mental Health Act (5).

Under increasing pressure from activists and left-wing councils, social work’s governing body at the time adopted a commitment to anti-racist and anti-sexist practice, which later became anti-oppressive practice (AOP) to avoid the creation of a ‘hierarchy of oppressions’. The principles of anti-racist/anti-oppressive practice are meant to guide today’s social worker through training and into the workplace.

At first glance it is hard to argue with such sentiments. Who, after all, wishes to endorse ‘racist practice’, or goes into social work with the desire to oppress people? AOP, however, met with hostility from the right, and those who practised it were accused of pursuing a moralising, trivial and authoritarian left-wing agenda (for example, in the imposition of ‘correct’ ways of speaking and acting). While containing much truth, as I have argued elsewhere on spiked, these critics failed to see how such an agenda was becoming institutionalised within British political debate and social policy (see PC or not PC?by Ken McLaughlin).

In similar vein, AOP has recently attracted criticism from within the social work profession. Some have said it consists of nothing more than rhetoric, and is a cloak to hide behind while implementing state policy. For example, social work plays a key role in the internal regulation of immigration policy, being obliged to inform the Home Office if a failed asylum seeker, or anyone else they consider to be in the country unlawfully, tries to claim community care services. And there is evidence that local authorities are interpreting in the narrowest possible way the ‘eligibility criteria’ for services that immigrants must satisfy: one Court of Appeal judge recently lambasted Leicester City Council and said its policies amounted to starving ‘immigrants out of the country by withholding last resort assistance’ (5).

Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 allows the suspension of family benefits to failed asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country, prompting all too real fears that such families will subsequently see their children taken into care as they are deemed unable to provide for them.

According to Beth Humphries, reader in social work at the University of Lancaster, in a damning critique of social work’s role in immigration control, the profession needs ‘to stop pretending that what it calls “anti-oppressive practice” is anything but a gloss to help it feel better about what it is required to do, a gloss that is reinforced by a raft of books and articles that are superficial and void of a political context for practice’ (6). In the topsy-turvy world of social work, this could lead to the social worker demonstrating their ‘anti-racist’ credentials by admonishing the asylum seeker for using inappropriate language, while at the same time refusing them services because they are not considered ‘one of us’.

Others are also concerned about areas of current practice that do not fit well with its egalitarian principles. In Social Work and Social Justice: A Manifesto for a New Engaged Practice, written by leading social work academics, the authors note the increasing managerialism within the social work role, and the way in which the ‘worker-client’ relationship is increasingly characterised by control and supervision rather than care. ‘Technical’ fixes such as the new social work degree or the setting up of General Social Care Councils are viewed as insufficient to address the current situation.

The authors argue that a more radical solution to the problems facing social workers and their clients is necessary: namely that social workers ought to engage with the ‘resources of hope available in the new collective movements for an alternative, and better, world’, one based around core ‘anti-capitalist’ values, such as solidarity and liberty (7). Concerned that social work should not be defined by its function for the state but by its value base, the professsion is exhorted to ‘coalesce and organise around a shared vision of what a genuinely anti-oppressive social work might be like’ (8). This is, in effect, a contemporary version of the early radical social work movement’s call to work both ‘In and Against the State’.

However, such a call ignores the fact that many radicals are partly to blame for the current situation. If there is an increase in state regulation, coercion and surveillance today, then radical social work and its offshoots have helped pave the way for the acceptance of such measures. The imposition of speech and behaviour codes, backed up by institutional powers of enforcement and regulation, gained currency within left-wing, anti-racist and feminist movements. Rather than being imposed from above, many associated with these movements demanded state implementation of this new authoritarianism.

As one astute observer has noted, a movement that once ‘regarded working-class people as the agency of revolutionary transformation of society now assumed that the same people required professional training to eradicate their prejudices’ (8). This ‘training’, however, carried with it the threat of censure for those who did not conform to the new moral consensus. And while Humphries is rightly critical of today’s authoritarian stance, she herself was co-author of a 1993 social work education document that decried such issues as academic independence and freedom of speech as being Western values which helped maintain racism and other oppressions (9).

In addition, the blurring of the public and private – or simply the failure to acknowledge any such distinction – and the concomitant rise of concepts of abuse and mistrust have also been influenced by radical social work. These ideas have played a part in allowing increased encroachment by state authorities into the minutiae of interpersonal relations.

For those concerned with social problems today, who wish to create the conditions for social change, a key task is certainly the need to foster a climate where commonalities can be forged and relationships developed. In this sense, the new social work manifesto is correct. However, social work is not the site for such political ambitions – on the contrary, contemporary social work theory and practice have contributed to the present situation and as such are part of the problem. Their hostility to universalism and role in the exaggeration of abuse, individual vulnerability and the need for third-party professional intervention is not only representative of a diminished view of the human subject, but also perpetuates the problem. The task for radical social work today is to challenge the legacy of the radical social work of the past.

It is also necessary to challenge many of today’s dominant beliefs, in particular that we cannot trust one another, or that we are unable to change anything other than our shoelaces without professional help. Where people do need social services, for whatever reason, then provision can be made. For most of us, for most of the time, the politicisation of social work does little but help foster a climate in which we are viewed with suspicion and encouraged to view our family, friends and colleagues likewise. This makes it less likely for any form of collectivity, far less the global one hoped for by today’s radical social workers.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University.

(1) ‘Radical Social Work’, Bailey, R and Brake, M (eds), Edward Arnold, 1975

(2) Radical Social Work Today, Langan, M and Lee, P (eds), Unwin Hyman, 1989

(3) ‘Some Aspects of the relationship of Social Work to Behaviour Therapy’, PJ Graham, British Journal of Social Work, vol 1, 1971, p197-208

(4) ‘The Background of Children who enter Residential Care’, A Bebbington and J Miles, British Journal of Social Work, vol 19, no 5, 1989

(5) See ‘An Unacceptable Role for Social Work: Implementing Immigration Policy’, Beth Humphries, British Journal of Social Work, vol 34, 2004, p93-107

(6) ‘An Unacceptable Role for Social Work: Implementing Immigration Policy’, Beth Humphries, British Journal of Social Work, vol 34, 2004, p93-107

(7) ‘Social work and social justice: a manifesto for a new engaged practice, Jones, C, Ferguson, I, Lavalette, M and Penketh, L, 2004, p3

(8) ‘The Legacy of Radical Social Work’, Langan, M, in Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, Adams, R, Dominelli, L and Payne, M (eds), Palgrave, 2002, p214

(9) See ‘Anti-racist Social Work Education: (7) Improving Practice Teaching and Learning: A Training Pack’, B Humphries et al, CCETSW, 1993

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Topics Politics


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