Commodification and Compartmentalization of Social Work

The second factor is concerned with the ways that social work practice and education arguably have become commodified and compartmentalized. Something becomes commodified, according to Marxist/critical traditions, when services, ideas, or people become commodities or goods for exchange (Kaufman, 2003). The neoliberal economic system that values privatized market-based services has made its appearance in universities and social welfare agencies through their demands for cost efficiencies. Such demands for efficiencies can be seen in the movement to outcomes-oriented, competency-based social work education (Kelly & Horder, 2001). In this regard, Barter (2012) has argued that “competence” is a weak founding principle for a values-driven profession. Predetermined tasks and routine mechanical problem-solving approaches miss the point that addressing complex social realities cannot be artificially fragmented into distinct elements, is not always measurable, and is not homogeneous (Barter, 2012): “Rather, social work is a practical-moral activity with emphasis placed on the theory/practice relationship, reflection, critical thinking, advocacy, intuition and learning through human interaction” (p. 233). Given the “McDonaldization” of society (Ritzer, 2011), we must ask ourselves whether we want to perpetuate a “McDonaldization” of social work practice and education. As Einstein said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Relatedly, the current social welfare services structure compartmentalizes and fragments social problems into discrete categories such as mental health, family violence, substance abuse, housing, and unemployment rather than viewing the intersectionality of such issues. Together, this structure leads to more barriers to supports and resources for vulnerable populations (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; Pyles, 2014). In social work practice, clients may come to be viewed as a “fee for service” rather than a biopsychosocial-spiritual human being. Social services can quickly become transactional, emphasizing outcomes over relationships, processes, and complexity. Such approaches to services make it difficult to view individuals, families, organizations, and communities holistically and support them in ways that transform.

Students require opportunities to reflect on this commodification and compartmentalization—in the substance and in the structure of their education. Holistic, transformative education, informed by the contemplative practices in higher education movement (Barbezat & Bush, 2014), in conjunction with the popular education activities and critical praxis of grassroots social movements (Adams, 1971; Freire, 1970; Pyles, 2014), offers students opportunities to be at the center of their learning process. Moving beyond the banking approach to education upends the traditional power structure of the classroom that preserves the present circumstances; such an approach becomes a means to promote personal agency (Barbezat & Bush, 2014). Contemplative pedagogy promotes this personal agency by using “forms of introspection and reflection that allow students to focus internally and find more of themselves in their courses” (Barbezat & Bush, 2014, p. 9). Whether it is improvisational theater, deep listening, or service learning, students are encouraged to strengthen their awareness of feelings, thoughts, and body sensations, as well as data from fellow students and the environment around them. These techniques offer students powerful tools that can help strengthen their knowledge of our society's personal and collective struggles and open up spaces for transformation. The educational process can then become what bell hooks (1994) referred to as “the practice of freedom” (p. 13).

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