Handbook structure and content

The Handbook is divided into six parts each focusing on a broad thematic area of investigation relating to critical social work. It is designed to provide the first complete survey and analysis of the vibrant field of critical social work.

Part 1 explores the historical, social, and political influences that have impacted on critical social work. Part II maps the rich theoretical and conceptual terrain. Part III focuses on methods of engagement and modes of analysis which critical social work draws upon. Part IV takes up various critical contexts for practice and policy. This part is divided into two sections organised to deal with (i) issues, geographies, and politics; and (ii) justice, empowerment and service users. Part V of the Handbook explores the role of professional education and socialisation. In Part VI future challenges, directions and transformations are explored. The book structure seeks to strike a balance between thematic coherence and a sense of chronology with critical social work. The next section provides details with a user-friendly guide to the content of various parts with the overall range and scope of the Handbook.

Part I of the Handbook rigorously maps the historical, social and political influences that have successively shaped critical social work. It demonstrates the way critical social work distinguishes itself from mainstream perspectives. Critical social work scholars have challenged the theoretical and normative assumptions of mainstream social work scholarship and have analysed social work in a variety of transnational sites. Baines (2007: 4) uses the term ‘mainstream social work’ to describe these perspectives and says:

Although often claiming the opposite, mainstream social work tends to view social problems in a depoliticized way that emphasizes individual shortcomings, pathology and inadequacy. Interventions are aimed largely at the individual with little or no analysis of or intent to challenge power, structures, social relations, culture or economic forces.

Mainstream social work is always regarded as ideological because it is implicated in semi-stable hierarchies of value that authorize particular ways of seeing and speaking as a practitioner. These practices are routinised and organised as institutional boundaries are forged between different ways of knowing the very same thing, spawning the social configurations we call profession, craft, and discipline. Critical social work and mainstream social work are infonned by some fundamentally different assumptions, especially ontological, epistemological and political assumptions. Critical social work has created an intellectual space in which research on diverse theoretical and empirical aspects of social work has flourished. The debates over the conceptualisation of critical social work — as discourse, field of professionals, socially just practice or value base — have been supplemented by important methodological questions. This part of the book proposes fresh understandings of social work by developing new frameworks for analysis by critical social work scholars.

We have seen that one central ambition of critical social work is to concretely determine means of productive counter-practices. It does this by focusing on normative issues and interventions in social work and further afield, such as immigration policy and inequalities in employment opportunities. Social work is essentially situated in political life, both in front-line practice and in the policy and research field. Its interventions and functions take place in fields of contestation and domination. Social work is a practice of and with power relations; social work exercises power and is inscribed by power relations. For example, risk assessments have been a practice of statecraft through creating populations as a category for intervention upon which social workers are expected to act.

In Part II of the Handbook contributors map the theoretical and conceptual terrain which forms the critical social work perspective. The aim of this part is to translate the central characteristics of critical social work concepts into methods, values and key ideas. Theory is the starting point where the epistemological, ontological and normative questions and perspectives are established. The stakes for critical social work remain at the theoretical level. From this vantage point scholars show how critical social work can inform front-line practice and policy. Moreover, the construction of conceptual histories can have the emancipatory effect of opening up the normative or unidimensional discourse in whose terms our political conversations have for too long been conducted (Ball, 1989: 4).

Critical social work takes a distinctive approach to power and power relations. It does not only localise power in specific classes of actors but also in connections and translation processes between groups and networks. As such, power is never held within one individual but rather is conceptualised as relational, held collectively — but never symmetrically with the network. The term ‘network’ indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places — the entanglements, knots and nodes — which perform inequalities and abuses of power.

Social work interventions do not come from nowhere. Critical social work does not simply unpack the methods and interventions at work in social work processes but involves detailed analytics of issues and controversies in which these interventions are ‘enacted’ and performed.

Thus, contributors ask what are the political dynamics, strategic imperatives and institutional facilitators which allow interventions to be mobilised? How do key concepts enable critical social work to make political sense of these and change them?

Part III outlines a critical stance to methods and analysis in social work. It is a platform for developing methods and methodological frameworks in critical social work by proposing a performative and experimental approach to methods. For example, there is a growing interest in ethnographic and anthropological interests for critical social work. The intensified calls for visual methods and the outspoken use of network analysis runs parallel with innovative methodological interest in critical social work. A research interest in new materialist methods is gaining momentum in critical social work. This part will show that methods are not simply tools to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Rather, to practise methods critically means engaging in a more free and experimental interplay between theory, methods and practice. This recognises that the social work practices we research are often methods in their own right, as forms of evaluation, surveillance, data mining, visualisation, and so on, and that our own research methods are themselves practices that intervene and interfere in those sites of practice.

Against the familiar methodological language of rigour, detachment and procedural consistency, this approach reclaims the idea of method as experiment. The chapters offer a series of methodological experimentations that assemble concepts, theory and empirical cases into new frameworks for critical social work research. They show how critical engagement and methodological innovation can be practised as interventions into diverse instances of practice and policy.

In Part IV the Handbook material focuses on critical contexts for practice and policy. It is divided into two sections. The first section concentrates on issues, geographies, and politics. The chapters show how a democratic politics for social work should be more attuned to issue formation within specified geographies. It suggests that the articulation of a social service involves contestation of institutional issue definitions, in controversies that are likely to transcend procedural settings. Issue formation is increasingly appreciated as a crucial dimension of democratic politics and resistance. People’s involvement in politics is likely to be mediated by problems that affect them. As discussed below such an approach provides an alternative to discursivist analysis of the role of ‘issue framing’ in the involvement of publics in politics. By approaching issues as particular entanglements of actors’ attachments, it becomes possible to credit these entanglements as sources and resources for enacting matters of concern to critical social work.

A further concept developed in recent sociological thought is the term ‘attachment’ to denote a relation between human and non-human entities that is characterized by both ‘active commitment’ and ‘dependency’. The concept can be used to describe the relations of drug users to their drugs and of music lovers to music, but it may be equally useful to characterize the networks that are at stake in public controversies, such as the Calais Jungle, the asylum seeker camp. The politics of attachment may be understood in relation to issues, geographies and local ecologies. This can help with a better understanding of activism, protest and controversy mobilisation in critical social work. A particular combination of ‘dependency on’ and ‘commitment to’ such associations characterises actors’ involvement in issues: the ‘endangerment’ of associations brings dependency into relief and may be productive of commitment.

The second section in Part IV builds out of this engagement with politics as issues, entanglements, and localities to focus on aspects of justice, empowerment, and service users as they relate to critical social work. For critical social workers, we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. Social workers claim social justice as a defining value of the profession and as a goal for practice, research, and education. As a broad concept, social justice is represented by fair treatment, freedom from discrimination, the elimination of institutionalized domination and oppression, and the redressing of inequality for historically oppressed groups through the creation of equal opportunity and condition. Practice interventions often associated with social justice include advocacy; empowerment of service users through consciousness-raising, skill-building, and resource development; community education and organising; legislative and media activism; social movement participation.

Advocacy and activism provide an avenue for all social workers to connect their practice with the profession’s aim of social justice. According to the NASW Code of Ethics social workers also apply social-justice principles to structural problems in the social service agencies in which they work. Armed with the long-term goal of empowering their clients, they use knowledge of existing legal principles and organizational structure to suggest changes to protect their clients, who are often powerless and underserved. The Canadian Association of Social Workers (2005) further explicates the link between advocacy and social justice:

Social workers advocate for fair and equitable access to public services and benefits. Social workers advocate for equal treatment and protection under the law and challenge injustices, especially injustices that affect the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

(CASW, 2005: 5)

Each contribution in this section questions the realities of oppressive situations as seen through the lens of a more global perspective, thus assisting in cultivating a critical perspective on power and domination. Chapters in this section also focus on an ethic of care in acknowledging our interdependence belongs in all aspects of lived experience including the family, companion species, community, society and global dimensions.

In Part V the focus of the chapter contributions is on important aspects of professional education and socialisation as they impinge on critical social work considerations. From a critical social work perspective, it is maintained that the impact of neoliberalism on higher education reduces the social work curriculum to competency-based skills acquisition rather than critically reflective, transformative learning. The ‘hidden curriculum’ in social work education reflects market pressures that privilege task-oriented goals while ‘mainstreaming’ social justice rhetoric. Skills to confront oppression with transformative change are regarded as abstract goals and thus less useful than technical practice. This encourages the promotion of nonnative social work approaches aimed at accepting the status quo, rather than critical forms of social work that critique the dominant social structures and power relations which divide society. The continued marginalisation of critical approaches reshapes social work towards conservative, market-led demands, yet an explicitly critical social work curriculum is pivotal to the claim of social work as an emancipatory project.

Critical reflection has become a central and defining concept for critical social work. It bears a close resemblance to an old Aristotelian idea of ‘skohlé’ a word that gives most European languages a meaning of among other things, a time of freedom, a moment of reflection that is an important part of the rhythm of professional life. It is the space within which to reflect upon progress achieved, to re-examine core purposes and values, and to experiment with trying out alternatives. Skohlé is the site in and through which both action and theory' are developed through critical dialogue. It is a time in which the different focuses of knowledge held by practitioners and organisations are released from habitual associations and mundane tasks. In approaching critical reflection as primary foundation the chapters in this part examine claims that social work education prepares students to enter a value-driven, applied profession in a vast array of settings and with diverse areas of specialty. Although educational mandates and necessary practice competencies are set forth, there is little empirical evidence related to how the overarching value of social justice is made manifest in professional education programmes.

Many challenges to professional social work cultures can be seen as stemming from the perhaps more traditional ‘therapeutic’ traditions ot some professions, which is contrasted with the more ‘educational’ orientation of critical reflection.

A further dimension is explored in this part ot the Handbook. As Ledwith (2001) and Rossiter (1996) argue, the political nature of education situates social work academics as either agents of the state who perpetuate the status quo, or as agents ot transformation who create contexts to question dominant practices. In the current climate of privatisation, fast-track programmes such as Frontline in the UK and of social services austerity, students are increasingly forced to justify their existence in narrow performance indicator terms about value for money, case management workload or performance efficiencies.

Part VI ot the Handbook invites readers to think about future directions and innovations for critical social work. This final part succinctly presents the various methodological, conceptual and practice contexts for the emergence of new ideas and issues. It addresses increasing global relevance of several critical themes and issues such as human rights and good governance, participation, peace, gender, environment, social protection and partnership. It appreciates the sheer scale of political opposition, but calls to look beyond them to visualise future directions in social work. The part demonstrates how a values-driven perspective needs to focus on knowledge creation, dissemination and training, draw on multidisciplinary knowledge and professionals, create less unequal societies and engage in innovation that brings social justice to people.

This part of the Handbook raises a series of fundamental issues at stake. Can the proliferation of critical social work formats facilitate meaningful engagement with social service affairs and policy, or does it threaten to impoverish or even undermine political democracy? How do the core concerns of critical social work become newly relevant to social and political life: preoccupations with the authority of experts and the mobilisation of protest, activism and controversy; the rhetorical power of demonstrations and their capacity to elicit engagement, consent, and ‘lock-in’; or the role of critical social workers in recasting the relationship between political, economic and social domains.

Chapters in the final part of the Handbook also reflect on the proliferation of experimental formats in social movements, economic organization, and public life as they impact on a critical social work trajectory. The chapters outline several strands of scholarship that, through the study of experiment and innovation, have developed a materialist, situational and performative understanding of the making of social work, and its relation to service users, carers, policy makers and politicians. At the heart of this scholarship lies a series of innovative strands: the fact that critical social work as participation operates as both an object of inquiry and a device that actors including practitioners, students, researchers and service users themselves can deploy for the creation of new collectives and forms of resistance.

 
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