We need to broaden the philosophical landscape of social work

Anjum Shah discusses how social work needs to broaden its use of philosophers

Students studying
Photo: zinkevych/fotolia

by Anjum Shah

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief” (Fanon, 2008)

Black Skin White Masks is one of Frantz Fanon’s two famous books that focuses on racism for black people under French colonial rule. Two threads of thought reoccur throughout this work: the first is that racists fail to recognise their prejudice, ignore and subdue its existence and fabricate reasons to mask it. The second is that some victims of racism internalise racist beliefs about their ethnic group and aim to distance from these through a process of whitewashing.

As a reader, Fanon’s discussion on internalisation is striking, witty and potent. Fanonian thought on racism tells us that cognitive dissonance exists within the racist and the victim as well.

For social work, Frantz Fanon is situated as a black psychiatrist, a revolutionary but not philosopher or a man of ideas. When compared, this is a stark contrast to the likes of Emanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill, both European white males and the adopted fathers of social work philosophy.

A figure limited to the postcolonial struggle and studied only by fringe social work academics, very little attention has been paid to Fanon’s philosophical work, unlike that of Kant or Mill. Social work philosophy is staunchly Eurocentric with an assumption made that this is sufficient to uphold principles of diversity. Fanonian scholars would call this “epistemic colonialism” (Gordon, 2015).

While much has been said about Fanon in psychology, which isn’t surprising since he was a practicing psychiatrist, little has been written about him in social work. He has generally been used to give credibility to research showing causes of higher rates of mental health problems in BME service users.

The explanation tends to follow the idea that alienation, an identity crisis and a subsequent mental health crisis are likely in a racially hostile society. While this is true, the limited scope of his work is a part of the problem on how we view Fanon; he’s only known in conversations about race and less in ethics.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Fanon was a key figure in inspiring radical movements like the early Black Panthers, which contrary to common belief sought social change for blacks. In this realm, Fanon inspired free breakfast clubs within poverty stricken American neighbourhoods and free education programmes for the poor. Black Skin White Masks became a text that was discussed at every level of the organisation and to hear Fanon quoted at the grassroots was normal occurrence (Zeilig, 2012).

Fanon and his ideas have since departed from the grassroots and are now commonly seen in postcolonial studies departments. Unfortunately, he has been appropriated to a discipline that was crystallised in the ivory towers of academia after his death and has been boxed as a black leftist revolutionary.

The man of ideas has been reduced to his biography of revolution.

Although some marginal work has been done to develop Fanon the philosopher, much is yet to be done. His ethics and call to revaluate our conception of humanity make him an authentic figure to deal with the themes of social work.

Fanon was a philosopher, activist and humanist who wrote while deeply immersed in human suffering. A victim of racism, a WW2 veteran and active psychiatrist during the Algerian War of Independence, his work grapples with modernist thought, race, class and oppression, all dominant themes in traditional social work discourse.

Until now however, in social work knowledge, it is white thinkers that provide theory and black thinkers that provide experience for the former to explain.

More needs to be said to broaden the philosophical landscape of social work where research tends to focus on the utility of practice methods instead of theory. In an age of austerity the focus has shifted to “evidence-based practice” and not enough time is being given to understanding what evidence is or the politics that underpin it.

Proposals to explore theory for the sake of theory would generally be unwelcome because it would fail to have an immediate visible effect.

Fanon, a contemporary of Jean Paul Satre, has been overlooked in ethics unlike the latter whose work has been the basis of the influential Existentialism and Social Work (Thompson, 1992).

Though Fanon’s short life produced less written work than Satre, within it is the basis for a rich humanist philosophy perfect for the principles of traditional social work that is inclusive. As soon as it is acknowledged that the gap remains, and Fanon stands as a means of critique to the cognitive dissonance at the knowledge base of social work, there remains hope.

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13 Responses to We need to broaden the philosophical landscape of social work

  1. Dave January 30, 2018 at 10:44 am #

    As a contemporary of Sartre, some of his work is by now in the public domain and can be found at:-

  2. Robert Strachan January 30, 2018 at 6:17 pm #

    Anjum draws together some very interesting threads here -philosophy, psychiatry, social work and potentially also psychology. The argument for denial, conscious and subconscious, on behalf of both the racist and victim is pontentially very useful- with particular regard to research and social work education. A refreshing and very thought provoking

  3. David January 30, 2018 at 8:40 pm #

    Great article. We can focus on EBP, outcomes, research, and so on, but with so much focus on practice, we may focus on our outcomes (organisational) rather than the people we work with. The practical aspect, devoid of theoretical under pinning plus an open philosophical base risks action in absence of understanding what it is we are doing.

    And yes. Never heard of Fanon. That my own base is white European is a problem.

    Thanks for this. Very thoughtful article

  4. londonboy January 31, 2018 at 8:20 am #

    There is so much to think about in this article. I was on the troubled families programme in a mixed ethnicity community and much of this has resonance. The TF programme was delivered by people of various ethnicities and indeed it was an American programme developed in the ‘rust belt cities’ of the US and community activism was encouraged.( someone may have attempted to quietly subvert the troubled families programme?) It was a very good programme BUT here is the rub, there was no choice really about whether you went on it or not so coercion was implicit in the process.

    Therefore I think I would move beyond ethnicity and culture and look at things like power imbalances and stigma. Stigma is incredibly powerful and an incredibly destructive force. I think stigma/shame are cultural as in society tells you what you ought to be ashamed of. The worst stigma is the one you internalise. I’m all for personal responsibility but …

    Anyway just ramblings. Thank you Anjun. I do think this is very relevant as someone who has need of services and who refuses to fit inside a box other people have made for me.

  5. londonboy January 31, 2018 at 9:06 am #

    one final thought – I’d go so far as to say I fear that internalised stigma is eating white working class communities from the inside out in the UK at the moment, with all the social problems that ensues so Fanon’s work sounds highly relevant if I’m correct.

  6. J January 31, 2018 at 9:30 am #

    As both a philosophy graduate and a social work manager, I want NQSW’s who can do the actual job, not spout philosophy at me.

    • Jim Greer January 31, 2018 at 2:05 pm #

      Presumably there is some rationale behind the type of service you are offering via the social work service you provide J? I cannot believe that your service is free of values or ideas or that your previous studies haven’t informed your personal outlook or your approach to social work. Fanon’s work, especially the language he uses to describe the experience of racism is invaluable to anyone wanting to get an understanding of the lived experience of people from ethnic minorities and the effects of colonialism. Try reading him.

    • David January 31, 2018 at 9:37 pm #

      Doing the jobs involves critical analysis. You need an appreciation of the things this article is talking about to be able to critically analyse.

    • pab February 1, 2018 at 9:49 pm #

      Little attention is paid today to Fanon even in the Caribbean where he was from. He was better known in the 1960s & 70s. Certainly we have ignored him in social work. My students always reacted strangely when I included ref to him and to Marcus Garvey, although they can both contribute greatly to our understanding of the self.

      J – it’s not about “spouting philosophy” but about drawing on the best resources to understand the realities one confronts. But perhaps you would prefer someone who will not challenge your definition of the “job” you want them to “get done”.

  7. Naz January 31, 2018 at 1:23 pm #

    It seems you’ve read another article or just missed the point completely. Your comment represents everything that’s wrong with social work but what’s more worrying is that you’re a manager who allegedly studied philosophy.

  8. londonboy January 31, 2018 at 1:47 pm #

    I guess that could be called your philosophy too J?
    I’d be interested to know ‘why you do the job’ and what you think ‘the job’ is or whether thinking skills are/are not an advantage..

  9. Vivienne Williams January 31, 2018 at 4:08 pm #

    Great article! Thank you Anjum.

    As a trainer I often witness the tension and schisms that people experience as they are encouraged to give priority to outcomes, and adopt a more positivist approach to their practice. Less time is given to the less tangible, but just as important, interactions, power dynamics of relationships and the differentials in play.

    Thanks again

  10. Anne February 9, 2018 at 8:22 am #

    Whilst all of this is important, what really matters is that we remain ‘humanist’ whilst recognizing the diversity of families what all humans really want is the same thing, a roof over their head, food in their belly, to love and be loved and to be safe from harm. We all hypothesise, we all analyse, as do people who use our service, or have it forced on them in safeguarding. People out there are not bothered about philosophy or theory, political correctness or racism. The people we deal with know their own problems, they want practical and emotional help to change and to keep their family together, but with successive governments having disbanded the very practical early help support for all service user groups the people we deal with are always in crisis with nowhere to turn until we force our way in.