Developing a critical voice

Table of Contents:

There are many ways for social work educators to encourage students to find and use their critical voice. One approach 1 have taken in my teaching is a three-pronged focus: firstly, to provide a critical deconstruction of the way mainstream media promulgates stigmatising discourses about service users and people in poverty. This element involves analysing articles, and the images and headlines that accompany them. Developing media awareness involves an examination of media framing. In class we explore the links between social problems, service users’ realities and media framing. Entman (1993: 53) defines framing as the selection of “some aspects of a perceived reality [to] make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”.

Words or phrases may trigger ideological and emotional responses as well as rhetorical devices such as metaphors, catch phrases and imagery; news-handlers use reasoning devices that draw on causal attributions. These powerful (but typically unnoticed) mechanisms affect viewers’ judgments of responsibility and causality. In the New Zealand context, 1 have shared examples of the way poverty stigma is racialised in both mainstream and social media (Beddoe, 2014). The examples are unpacked to demonstrate the ideologies that underpin phrases such as ‘feral’ and ‘troubled’ families. Another persuasive example of such framing is found in the framing of discourse about asylum seekers in Australasia. An analysis of politicians’ language and public discourse noted the powerful ways in which asylum seekers are othered and reviled as ‘invading hordes’ (Bogen and Marlowe, 2015).

The second focus contains an examination of social media and the potential for social workers to use social networks for a more politically engaged practice (Stanfield and Beddoe, 2013, 2016). Social media are increasingly recognised as providing an excellent platform for social workers to participate in political discussion and activism. The option for anonymity provides a counter to the concerns about potential or current employer scrutiny and the threat of consequences of failing to preserve political neutrality. A risk averse professional approach tends to dominate contemporary social work discussion about social media. There are of course valid concerns and 1 do not mean to minimise these; however, we do risk missing out on important opportunities for social activism if that is where the discussion of social media stalls. Shifting the focus away from such a risk-averse positioning involves presenting blogs and independent news websites as legitimate sources of information and activism. Blogs with relevant social work and social policy content form part of recommended course reading whereby the lecturer demonstrates professional use of social media. This is of course a departure from the rigid academic stance that the internet is not a valid source of quality material for academic work. Rather students are encouraged to be engaged, discerning and critical users of social media.

Finally, 1 have supported students to write blog posts on social work and political problems as a graded course requirement. If we are to avoid students and (social workers) from staying with that notion that politics is a ‘spectator sport’ we need to work with what we have. Social media offers an opportunity for safe expression. I created a blog “713 Students 2017: The social work issues blog”1 which 1 host on my Wordl’ress site. In the most recent delivery of the course year there were two assignments: the first to write a post on some of the big social work issues of the moment, including: new policies in child protection and youth services, mental health resource and service issues, social investment, mis(use) and use of‘big data’, and the major public issue of calls for an inquiry into abuse in state care. The students’ brief for the second post was to write a short blog post on aspects of professional practice in Aotearoa New Zealand social work. 1 was delighted to publish blog posts on a variety of topics which incorporate some great links to resources. All comments were moderated. Many bloggers chose to be anonymous and used a pseudonym.

In the main part students enjoyed the opportunity to write freely as themselves about issues that incited their passion and enthusiasm. Excerpts from the students’ blog include the following examples:

Accordingly, irrespective of the field ot social work you are currently practicing in, as risks are generally higher for already vulnerable and disadvantaged people, we will be increasingly exposed to adverse effects of climate change. Therefore, I urge you to take on board an understanding and openness to incorporate the natural environment into your practice now, as our skills and knowledge in this field will be of necessity rather than choice in the very near future. The more we can do now, the better prepared we will be for these eventualities. (Pseudonym: Vicky Michaels)

From “Musing on calls for an inquiry in abuse in state care”, another blog post addresses social work’s muted response:

1 could not find much online where social workers have voiced their opinion on the matter and there seems to be an almost uncanny silence. The underpinning principle of social work is social justice and one cannot deny that the issue of abuse of children in state care is one which cries out for social justice. But where do social workers stand on this issue? Is social work, which is supposed to work with principles of social justice values, reduced to what Lester Salamon (1994: 118) calls “the myth of pure virtue” where workplace surveillance and managerialism have turned social work value systems parallel to that of neoliberal value systems, preoccupied with turning workers into self-reliant, utility-maximising individuals who do not require cooperation from others and have no interest in mobilising society for collective action for social change? (Pseudonym: Atticus Finch)

From “Social work: Putting out fires for those who ‘deserve’ it”.

Practice has become “child-centred”, which itself is not a bad thing, but in doing so, the child is isolated from their whánau context, and the poverty they experience is separated from that of their adults. The distinction between child and adult poverty, the deserving and undeserving poor, is a momentous misnomer. You simply cannot lift children out of poverty without also bringing their adults. That’s like putting out a fire in just the child’s room when the whole house is alight. (Lauren Bartley)


If we are to challenge doxa within social worker education we must allow for some time to untether our teaching and assessment practice from mainstream curriculum and engage students in deconstruction of current discourses. This chapter has suggested that a focus on political discourse, analysis of the influence of mainstream media and a positive engagement with social media helps students develop their critical voice in a safe way. It is one of many such strategies but for this educator has been satisfying and encouraging. Readers are encouraged to read a selection of student posts on a major New Zealand controversy to see how they have engaged critically with a range of media and sources with creativity beyond the confines of an essay.2


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