by Anjum Shah
“Forget everything you’ve learned at university, you won’t need any of that theory nonsense here.”
This was amongst the first things I heard on my final social work placement.
Anti-intellectualism was rife, and widely advocated by my practice educator and some peers during my hospital social work placement. The common attitude I witnessed was one that brushed off theoretical thinking as university snobbery which was replaced with the fallacy of a common-sense approach to social work.
While exceptions existed, the majority of my peers belligerently maintained this attitude.
For those that have been through the process will know that in order to qualify, students have to show evidence of how they have “built links between theory and practice.” If ever there was a dreaded phrase in practice it was certainly this.
In supervision meetings where theory-practice links were supposed to be drawn, what actually appeared was a tokenistic plastering of clichés including “person centred” and “anti-oppressive working” across reports and university documents.
Students are forced in to prescriptive ways of reflective writing to create evidence. Common examples of reflections I had to write were not good enough until I spelled out my use of theory.
“I used strengths perspective when I worked with service user X by…” was a common and applauded thread which I’m sure can be seen in the portfolios of many social work students.
‘Unwelcome and misunderstood’
Conceptual and analytical writing was more than often unwelcome and misunderstood; but highly descriptive writing using theoretical buzzwords seemed to be welcomed.
Paranoia of making sure the boxes were ticked dominated my social work training experience. I couldn’t help but feel this was a transference of the fear of legal backlash social workers constantly consider.
A very narrow view of what theory is exists in social work circles, which includes practice methods like strengths perspective, crisis intervention and systems theory being seen as de-facto theory.
While these are somewhat shaped by strands of underpinning theories like Liberalism, Capitalism, Marxism or Existentialism, these topics are rarely discussed in practice and are only name dropped at university without serious consideration.
To make matters worse, the constraints of working in a local authority means political discussion is a highly sensitive no-go area, which workers are formally asked to not discuss.
How then is a social worker supposed to situate his or her practice within the broader political and social structures of the world and understand the issues of their service users? Or are we not supposed to do this? It seems impossible when training does not cater for deep social and political thinking and practice environments are hostile to genuine political and social exchange.
Frankly, nobody cared or was interested in developing theoretical ideas on placement.
The pressures of managing caseloads as well as supervising students was a burden most practice educators didn’t really want. Hence the problem was three-fold: a practice educator with an inadequate grounding in social, political and philosophical literature, which fed off broader anti-intellectual attitudes and resource limitations restricting the need to give adequate support to students attempting to piece together university and practice.
What results is two different bodies co-existing and not interacting, university education and practice placement with neither helping or considering the other.
Ironically, university placement guidelines were spelled out anti-intellectualism as a student crime that comes with the threat of fatal consequences. They fail to recognise the extent of the attitudes in practice and seem satisfied with densely produced tokenistic pseudo-intellectualism.
Finally, if universities and placement providers are serious about the success and longevity of the social services, more serious development of practice educator guidelines and training need to be introduced. The practice educator role should not be an addition to maintaining the regular responsibilities of a practitioner.
Social work as an academic discipline need to pay greater attention to philosophy, politics and sociology to secure the multidisciplinary and perceived brittle roots of social work thought.
Only through tightening the reigns and increasing academic standards can the discipline hope to maintain and produce holistic practitioners who can contribute to broader discussions about social work and social change.