Case-Work and the Rise of Fordism

While the models of political responses to the need to secure social solidarity under the conditions of modernity corresponded broadly to the party–political differentiation of the liberal, the social-democratic and the conservative positions in Europe, social work methods and discourses developed a correspondence to these principles at an action level. As already mentioned the moralistic pre-cursor of casework with its emphasis on individual adjustments and efforts picked up on the political ideology of liberalism and enforced the message of the work ethic.

Represented most clearly by the workers of the Charity Organization Society (COS) which spread its methods to industrializing societies in the English-speaking world (Peel 2011), casework relied on the careful collection of information concerning the conduct of assistance applicants. The archives of the COS contain indeed copious case notes which document that the method actually consisted of 'fact gathering' with the intention of tracing a trajectory of the client which either
pointed in the direction of 'moral reform' and hence 'deservingness' or in that of an 'intransigent character'. Although these case notes appear to be cast in traditional moral terms they nevertheless reveal a highly modern concern with rationality and indeed rationing in as much as they seek to combine the saving of resources available for assistance with a methodical objective of forcing recipients into this framework of making 'rational choices' (Yeo 1973). This explains the COS' insistence that its way of operating and distributing material aid contrasted sharply with traditional charity work which gave 'alms' out of pity or sympathy (Harris 2008). The COS' aim was to extend modern, rational principles of behaviour to those failing to adjust to modern working and living conditions (Woodroofe 1962). The project failed because of its inadequate scientific grounding. It did not account either for the complexity of the circumstances which caused people to fail in their efforts to cope with modern life's demands nor for the actual workings of human behaviour in which rationality plays but a minor part. As far as the former deficit is concerned, the first documented 'scientific' approach to case work tried to account for complexity by exploiting the medical paradigm of diagnosis. Mary Richmond's (1917) textbook 'Social Diagnosis', based on her experience as a 'friendly visitor' with the COS in Baltimore and New York, represents the attempt to leave the moralistic framework behind and establish the crucial link between the attention to individual coping capacities and material resources necessary for their realization. Here the systematic gathering of information lost its coercive 'policing' character to assume the function of a kind of research project to establish a shared platform of insights which allowed for a 'realistic' identification of tasks to be shared between assistant and assisted in the resolution of problems. The appeal of this scientific way of grounding case work was taken up for instance by Alice Salomon (1926) in Germany. It served not just to render interventions more effective but also to justify scientifically based training programmes within the ambit of academic institutions as the underpinning for claims to professionalism

by social work.

The latter consideration of shedding a scientific rather than a moralistic light on irrational human behaviour was taken up very explicitly by the mental health and child guidance movements which were the earliest public organizations in Britain and the US with a social mandate to adopt psychoanalytical principles. While they operated in a psychiatric context, they became increasingly multiprofessional centres taking the message of psychoanalysis to social workers, teachers and indeed parents themselves (Danto 2005). The attraction of Freud's model of human behaviour to all operators in the social field confronted with the problem of 'non-compliance' by clients in relation to the experts' perfectly rational proposals of solutions was that it rendered that behaviour scientifically accessible and hence 'treatable'. The theory of ego-defences provided the basis for the new and crucial element in case work, the importance attributed to the forming of a (professional) relationship with clients, which under the heading of charity had been one of total asymmetry and therefore principally inauthentic; it was possible to understand the engagement of the client in resolving their own problems as a
gain in ego-strength. Ego-psychology gave the scientific model of social work as case work the decisive boost for its professional respectability, and this not just in the mental health field but in all areas covered by the 'psychosocial approach' which came to be the standard model of social work taught at the emergent US schools of social work teaching the diagnostic and functional models (Reisch 1998). Gordon Hamilton's pioneering textbook on Social Case Work (Hamilton 1940) was directly inspired by Mary Richmond's Social Diagnosis but endorsed the scientific claim with clear reference to psychoanalysis.

The political context that favoured and corresponded to the growth of casework model in social work intervention was the Fordist approach to welfare which established itself in varying phases and manifestations in many Western societies after the First World War. Fordism meant the application of 'modern science' not just to the technological, largely engineering side of industrial production, but also to the production process itself (Gilbert, Burrows and Pollert 1992). But the rationalization of the production process in distinct, interlacing and coordinated steps which ensured a smooth worker–product interface symbolized by the conveyer belt, meant also a corresponding transformation and rationalization of social relations surrounding the production process.

Where the early labour relations had been characterized by the opposition between labour and capital and had evolved as a constant series of conflicts, Fordism sought to incorporate the interests of labour, including to some extent the welfare interests, into the production process by emphasizing the role of workers as consumers. Since consumers have an interest in obtaining affordable products, they become interested in 'lean production' processes which they, in the role of workers, have to apply. Hence they internalize the conflict between capital and labour in the form of rational self-discipline. Trade Union opposition to exploitation gets re-cast as a shared interest in the improvement of living standards and job satisfaction under management principles which steer the process according to 'neutral' scientific management principles.

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