Is your social work ‘dead’ or ‘alive’? The gap between inspiring and defensive practice

Harry Ferguson draws a distinction between 'dead' and 'alive' social workers in his opening speech at JSWEC

Social work practice can be broadly divided into two categories. The first is ‘dead’ social work – automated, defensive practice where staff, sometimes having been ‘ground down by the system’, avoid facing up to problems and don’t spend time building relationships with service users. The second is ‘alive’ social work – practice that is relational, playful, tactile and, above all, engaged.

That was the message from Harry Ferguson, a professor of social work at the University of Nottingham, in his keynote speech on the first day of the 2014 Joint Social Work Education Conference (JSWEC). Ferguson was discussing his observations from shadowing social workers to observe all parts of their practice. He found the majority of social workers he observed fitted the “alive” bracket of practice but a minority were defensive. Yet, Ferguson says, the dominant narrative surrounding the profession draws on on ‘dead’ social work examples.

Ferguson presented two case studies to delegates. In the first, an ‘alive’ social worker successfully related to children on her caseload. On the day Ferguson accompanied her, she engaged with the children she was visiting, praised them, held them and made sure she was shown their bedrooms, raising concerns about the state they were in.




In the second scenario, the social worker was automatic in her actions. She asked leading questions in order to get the positive answers she wanted to hear and therefore ensure she was able to “get out” sooner. The social worker described did not speak to the five-year-old boy whose mother she was visiting, and failed to question the other adult present- a man who was not a guardian to the children.

Ferguson questions why some practicing social workers will carry out their visits in this latter, “automated” way. He is keen to stress, however, that many social workers he encountered through his research were “inspirational.”

“We need to come back to life,” said Ferguson. “Inspirational social workers are made by people in this room.”

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