by Mark Doel
One of the challenges for social work is that many people don’t have a picture of what it is. Everyone has experienced teachers, nurses, doctors and a host of other professionals, but social workers are not particularly known. Even our soap opera presence is relatively limited.
How, then, to paint a picture of social work that reflects its diversity and make it more available to a wider public?
I’m trying to tell the story of social work in 40 objects.
If you could think of an object that evokes social work, what would it be? This exercise, to turn an abstract notion like ‘social work’ into a tangible substantial thing like an object, gets us thinking at a quite different level about what social work means.
Your object might be one that speaks to your personal relationship with social work; one that can stand for social work in a metaphorical sense; one that tells a part of social work’s history and its wider connection to society – all of these, or none of them.
Here are some that have been submitted so far:
An A-Z street finder
A french horn
‘Mind the gap’
I was torn between something personal that I’ve used in my own social work practice (a ball of wool, which has featured in much of my group work); or something that spoke to the historical development of social work (like the Seebohm Report, which was put into effect just as I started my social work and I think was the best shot we had at holistic, community-based practice).
I went for something conceptual: Mind the Gap, the mantra on the London Underground.
I think the idea of a gap is a powerful metaphor for social work and society: the gaps in expectations between ideal and organisational practice, between public expectations and available resources; and social workers as so often the people trying to bridge gaps between different groups in society.
Relationship to social work
Judging by the objects so far, this process really brings out the personal aspects of people’s relationship to social work.
Sheila Slesser’s child’s model of Postman Pat, that has sat on her work desks since her early days of practice, is a reminder of the need to create a reasonable life/work balance in a profession where we are focused on the interests of others.
Simon Cauvain’s mouthpiece of a french horn is a tremendously uplifting account of his own life experience and its relationship to social work.
Objects are being proposed from around the world. A student in South Africa proposes a Fluffy cushion and a director of a Family Guidance Centre in New York proposes a Chandelier. There are objects from Malaysia (Kembang) and Senegal (Esculape) and some wonderfully ordinary objects like a baby monitor and an A-Z street finder. No object is too exotic or too every day.
Just recently the first object from a social work service user – a real life library.
Please consider proposing your own object for the collection. Each object that is proposed is a gift to social work.
Mark Doel is Emeritus Professor of Social Work at Sheffield Hallam University
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