Social worker Steve Rogowski reviews a new book that takes a critical look at the impact of market-driven philosophies on social work, and looks for radical alternatives.
Paul Michael Garrett has provided trenchant critiques of the changes forced onto social work since the onset of neoliberalism – a political philosophy that promotes, among other things, privatisation and free trade – in the late 1970s. His call has always been for a more critical and creative response to what has happened to social work and the people it serves.
A key change Garrett has examined is the managerialism imposed on social workers since the 1990s. This ‘modernisation’ has led to a dominant culture of form-filling, bureaucracy and rationing resources. Less time is now spent on dealing with the real needs of service users.
His latest book examines a very important area, namely the relationship of social theory to social work. Contrary to what many politicians would have us believe, social work is far more than ‘common sense’. Practice involves ideas, values and assumptions about people and the society they inhabit; in short, at the core of social work is social theory.
This book highlights the work of some of the main social theorists and is divided into two parts – debating modernity and theorists. Chapters on theory are followed by sections including useful reflection and boxes relating the theory to practice issues.
Marx is a presence throughout the text, but more specifically the work of thinkers such as Gramsci, Bourdieu, Habermas and Nancy Fraser are also covered. A notable omission, as Garrett notes, is Foucault who, unfortunately, and for reasons not fully explained, did not make the final cut.
It soon becomes clear that the book comes down on the side of Marx and his subsequent heirs. Marx and his relevance to social work are dealt with in a fascinating chapter dealing with modernity and capitalism which includes his references to ‘time’, ‘toil’ and ‘technology’.
Two key points struck me when reading this chapter. First, the new information and communication technology (the ‘e-turn’ as Garrett calls it) has much to answer for in terms of what has happened to social work. Second, and more broadly, anyone wanting to know why so many people feel stressed and anxious about what is happening to their lives in neoliberal society could do worse than read this.
Most of the theorists referred to are, to some extent at least, Marxian/neo-Marxian, with some discussed more favourably than others.
For instance, Habermas’ focus on ‘communicative action’ – the power of unrestrained dialogue – and its possible relevance to social work via family group conferences, is critiqued because it fails to acknowledge power differentials. The work of Gramsci and Bourdieu, the latter being far more attentive to the impact of neoliberalism, is used to highlight this point.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on ‘new directions’ and the focus on Boltanski and Chiapello, Negri and Badiou, all of whom can be described as Marxists. Their work highlights that although Marx might have been marginalised in recent decades, particularly after the demise of the Soviet Union, the current crisis of neoliberalism is leading to a revival of interest in his work.
In brief then, this book is essential reading for those wanting a more radical/critical social work.
Going further, all under- and postgraduate social work students, as well as more experienced practitioners, should read and digest its contents, simply because the current situation does no favours to social workers or service users alike. It goes without saying, however, that many policymakers will find it an uncomfortable read.
Social work and social theory: making connections by Paul Michael Garrett is published by The Policy Press.
Steve Rogowski is a children and families social worker