Social work’s most influential thinkers

Who are the people whose ideas have done the most to shape the nature of social work? Community Care profiles some of the profession's most influential brain boxes

Who are the people whose ideas have done the most to shape the nature of social work? Community Care profiles some of the profession’s most influential brain boxes

Richard Titmuss

One of the UK’s leading thinkers on social justice and the welfare state, Titmuss helped establish social policy as an academic discipline. From 1950 until his death in 1973 he was the professor of social administration at the London School of Economics. His key book is The Gift Relationship, which looked at altruism and the giving of blood but had far wider implications on the role the state should play in supporting the most vulnerable. He showed that when there were shortages of human blood the price blood banks were willing to pay rose. However, the quality of blood from those attracted by money rather than altruism was found to be poorer.

Eric Berne

A Canadian-born psychiatrist whose ideas of transactional analysis are widely used in therapy to help families understand how they interact with each other. He labelled three common individuals – parent, adult and child – that are involved in all relationships across work and family and described their interactions as transactions and games. His most famous work is 1964’s Games People Play, which sold more than five million copies and provided everyday examples of typical “games” where one member of a relationship attempts to win at the other’s expense. He found that the “games” adults use are often taught in childhood.

Virginia Axline

Synonymous with play therapy, Axline’s 1964 book Dibs continues to influence social workers and play therapists. It focuses on the true story of the boy Dibs, who would not play, talk or interact, and how he learned to live again with other children through play therapy. She theorised that successful play can develop a warm and friendly relationship between carer/parent and the child, and allows the child to better understand who they are. She argues that children can express their feelings through play, which gives practitioners a greater insight into a child’s emotions. Another of her core principles is that the child leads play and the therapist or carer follows.

Ann Oakley

Social workers have found this sociologist and feminist’s research into housework invaluable to understanding the pressure women face at home. Her 1974 book Housewife showed how the role of a housewife is often one of low prestige, dissatisfaction and drudgery that involves long hours and little recognition from family, children or wider society. She concluded that housewives have “more in common with assembly line workers than with factory workers engaged in more skilled and less repetitive work”. Oakley, the daughter of Richard Titmuss, is also a fiction writer and founder-director of the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Ulrich Beck

Few social thinkers have so expertly laid bare the pressure on society of modernity as German sociologist Ulrich Beck. His 1986 book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity looked at the changing nature of society in relation to industrial change and the increasingly globalised economy. While pre-industrial society’s risks were largely natural such as flooding or famine, he explores how modern society fuels further risks such as crime and pollution. Modern family life is full of risk, he concludes, and typified by new fears and a constant search for security. Many professionals, including social workers, have used Beck’s work to develop risk management techniques.

Arlie Hochschild

Much of the University of California sociology professor’s research is on the emotional impact of work among those in caring professions. Her concept of emotional labour – outlined in her 1983 book The Managed Heart – helped social workers understand how the pressures of the job affect them even despite its focus on flight attendants. Flight attendants, she argued, often had to exhibit fake emotions, which suppress their true self and can be emotionally exhausting, and the greater the pressure the greater the chance of burnout.

Amartya Sen

Although primarily an economist, the Nobel Prize-winning Harvard professor Amartya Sen is seen by many social work academics as one of the discipline’s most influential social theorists. A focus of his social theory is that governments need to be measured on the capabilities of their citizens and the barriers they face. For example while people may have a right to vote, this is an empty right without “functionings” such as education or even good access to a polling station. His work on measuring the capabilities and barriers that citizens face helped create the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures areas such as access to health and education. His 2009 work The Idea of Justice argues that social justice cannot be easily defined.

Carol Gilligan

A professor at New York University and visiting professor at Cambridge University, Gilligan pioneered the theory of ethics of care, which focuses on compassion and empathy rather than more traditional western and masculine ideals around morality, autonomy and independence. She argued against traditional measurement of human development because it had too much of a masculine perspective. In her book In a Different Voice she argued that women are more likely to consider moral issues in terms of care and responsibility rather the more masculine approach of adhering to strict rights and rules. Her work has become an important guide for social workers in understanding children’s ethical development.

Mike Oliver

A leading supporter of the social model of disability, which seeks to redefine the notion of being disabled. The model considers physical, mental or sensory differences as variations that can limit an individual’s ability to function but not disable them. Such variations only become a disability if society allows it through exclusion and negative attitudes. For example, if a person in a wheelchair is prevented from entering a shop, is it because they are in a wheelchair or because the shop does not have a ramp? In 1990 Oliver published his best known work The Politics of Disablement. Although the social model of disability first gained recognition in the 1960s, it was Oliver who arguably brought it to a wider audience.

Erving Goffman

This Canada-born sociologist’s theories were instrumental in addressing the scandal of housing people with learning difficulties in long-stay hospitals. Goffman, who died in 1982, argued that such long-term care leads to institutionalisation and hinders residents’ chances of independence and an improved quality of life. His 1961 book Asylums charts how a long stay in a psychiatric hospital socialises a patient to become someone who is “dull, harmless and inconspicuous”. These hospitals were gradually phased out in the UK between 2001 and 2007. Goffman’s other important texts include 1961’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which looks at face-to-face interaction and how people attempt to control the impression others have of them.

Mary Ainsworth

While the psychologist John Bowlby is credited with being the first to describe attachment theory, which looks at how emotional bonds between people shape their lives, it was Ainsworth who arguably developed it for practical use in social work. Her research during the 1970s took an in-depth look at the importance of the bond between child and parent and the effect of separation. Her 1978 study Strange Situation looked at the response of babies when briefly left alone and then reunited with their mothers. Behaviour she observed in the babies included separation anxiety, reunion behaviour and stranger anxiety. Among the types of attachment the late psychologist observed was “anxious-avoidant insecure attachment”, where the child will avoid or ignore the caregiver and show little emotion when they leave or return. This is prevalent among children with mental health problems.

Bob Holman

The College of Social Work regards Holman as one of the UK’s greatest living social work thinkers. Driven by his Christian faith, this former social worker and academic is still a tireless campaigner on poverty and social justice. Holman’s sacrifice for social justice is part of his appeal, having quit his job as a university professor in the 1970s to live among and support families living in deprived communities in Bath and Glasgow. He also helped form the charity FARE – Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse. His 1988 work Putting Families First looked at the importance of prevention and early intervention in childcare and the role the public and voluntary sectors can play in supporting families before problems turn into crises.

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