Welfare words, neoliberalism and critical social work

Authored by: Paul Michael Garrett

The Routledge Handbook of Critical Social Work

Print publication date:  January  2019
Online publication date:  January  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138578432
eBook ISBN: 9781351264402
Adobe ISBN:


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During a period of neoliberalism, there is an intense, yet often stealthy, endeavour to adjust or recalibrate the ‘semantic order of things’ (Brown, 2015: 27). As the late Doreen Massey (2015: 24) stated, this development impacts on the everydayness of life and mundane social interactions given that on ‘trains and buses, and sometimes in hospitals and universities too’, we have become customers, not passengers, patients or students. Here, a ‘specific activity and relationship is erased by a general relationship of buying and selling that is given precedence over it’ (Massey, 2015: 24). This observation also helps to illuminate the significance of the use of words within social and health care and the differing practices that particular words seek to trigger, promote and embed. Moreover, what I term welfare words fit within the wider economic and cultural patterning riven with gross social inequalities and complex forms of social marginality. Thinking more deeply, critically and politically about the incessant deployment of particular words within prevailing discourses and daily social work encounters may also lead to questioning what such words ‘assume about a social totality or infrastructure, or the presumed characteristics of social actors’ (Barrett, 1992: 202). Far from being an exercise in ‘political correctness’, the aspiration to delve deeper into how power relations operate through the language and culture of neoliberal capitalism should form a major component of critical and radical social work (Garrett, 2017a).

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