The relationship between the defined purpose of social work and the theoretical, legal, and political scaffolding that supports the profession presents a series of tensions and dilemmas. The International Federation of Social Work provides the following definition for contemporary social work:
The concepts and practice of ‘social change’ and ‘problem solving in human relationships’, when placed under the conceptual lenses of empowerment, liberation, principles of human rights, and social justice, should distinguish social work from other professional disciplines. However, social work utilizes ‘theories of human behaviour’, for example, theories of psychology that clash with the imperative to promote the empowerment and liberation of people, and to adhere to principles of human rights and social justice. Taking up the notion of social work as an agent that ‘intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments’, and placing this with the history and origins of social work as a profession, raises a number of challenging questions, not least because these origins continue to have a strong influence on the constitution and function of contemporary social work. The heart of the issue is that it is precisely at, and in, the points where people interact with their environments that social injustice can be located. Thus, questions about the mode and purpose of social work interventions are pivotal if social work aims to be concerned with social justice. This chapter provides a critical analysis of the instruments used by social work, such as the theory and models of psychology (Ingleby 2006), and offers an alternative range of theoretical lenses, such as Black feminist theory, in response to the following questions:
The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.
(International Federation of Social Work 2012)
The profession of social work originated in the nineteenth century, in the Poor Law. It is to be noted that parts of the 1601 Poor Law Act were not finally repealed until 1967, and fundamental principles of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 continue to prevail (Charlesworth 2011); for example, the belief that the poor are responsible for their poverty, and the belief that in order to deter fecklessness, the state should provide below-subsistence living conditions. The parallels between the rationale, conditions, and practices of splitting up families inside the workhouse, and the rationale, conditions, and practices of splitting up families through social work interventions of safeguarding, warrant critical analysis. The roots of social work are bound up with the historical development of the idea of charity and charitable institutions. Tracing the roots of social work through the etymology of the word ‘charity’ is revealing because it brings us to the idea of benevolence for the poor, good will, and kindness to those less fortunate. This apparently benign disposition (which continues to permeate contemporary social work) must be scrutinized in terms of power dynamics, colonization, and mechanisms of regulation. An example of this is the way in which social work is located in the relationship between the vulnerable, the poor, the mad, the deviant, and society with a primary function of keeping social order (Doel 2012: 4–13). In this light, social work intervenes in, and at, the points where people’s interactions with their environments are seen to be a menace. Thus, it is no coincidence that these social work interventions rest on a theoretical platform that supports the edict of social order. It could be argued that the dynamic between social work and psychology functions to quell any potential threat to social order posed by the ‘vulnerable’ and, as such, social work is implicated in the psy-complex (Fox et al. 2009; Hook et al. 2004; Parker 1999; Parker and Revelli 2008; Rose 1998). Furthermore, it could be argued that social work’s alliances with, and allegiance to, theoretical and practice models designed to sustain social order by suppressing threats to that order leaves little room for social work to be the threatening menace it needs to be as a champion of social justice.
… what is the degree of autonomy of our profession? What kind of a power does it exercise? What alliances does it entertain? Where does the knowledge that we develop truly come from and what aims does it accomplish? What kind of a world is sustained by the professional activities of social workers? Do we not automatically adopt a number of ways that function to control, to contain, to render us subservient to the logic of power relations established elsewhere, outside the discipline? What margin exists for developing knowledge and action of a different kind?
(Chambon et al. 1999: 266)