The New Approach group, Hungary

On Friday 4th November 2011 Hungarian social worker Norbert Ferencz was sentenced to three years’ probation for charges of ‘incitement against the public peace and a call for general dissent’. His ‘crime’ was to participate in a demonstration of social workers aimed specifically against a Budapest municipal ordinance that classified taking food from rubbish bins (‘dumpster diving’) as a misdemeanour. Ferencz’s defence was that he was simply following the Hungarian Social Work Code of Ethics, which stipulates that social workers have a responsibility, right and a duty to call to attention of decision makers and general public the emergence of poverty and any obstruction of the alleviation thereof. The judge did consider this as a mitigating circumstance in the case (Hungarian Social Vocational Federation, 2011).

What emerged during the campaign was that Ferencz was also a member of a social work group called New Approach. According to the group’s online manifesto:

The New Approach to community work and radical social work is based on the idea of combining workshops and action groups, and also the renewal of social work codes of ethics. This dual function is located in a long-term goal:

Workshops: we want to provide space for discussing issues concerning the social sphere, development of action strategies;

As an action group we are committed to the profession and the public’s attention is drawn to the situation of those excluded. We seek to be a professional community that is not afraid to stand up for those in need.

(New Approach, 2011)

A European-wide campaign involving amongst others the Hungarian Social Vocational Federation, the European Federation of Social Workers and the Social Work Action Network in defence of Norbert succeeded in averting a custodial sentence and also led to links being established between New Approach and radical social work organizations elsewhere in Europe.

The Orange Tide, Spain

Well known, in part because of the active support it has received from IFSW General Secretary Rory Truell, and the fact also that its leaders have won international awards, the Orange Tide is a movement in Spain combining social workers and people who use services. Across Spain they regularly gather in orange T-shirts on the streets with music and dance to the message of ‘No Cuts to Social Services’. Spanish newspapers and television have widely reported these social actions and the Orange Tide has become a part of mainstream media. While the Spanish government clearly has a programme of cutting social services at a time when they are needed, arguably the cuts are not as drastic as they would otherwise have been because of the visibility of the Orange Tide (Truell, 2014).

Boston Health Liberation Group

The United States has a long, if often neglected, history of social work radicalism, which suffered during the Reagan—Thatcher years in the same way as did radical social work elsewhere (Reisch and Andrews, 2002). In response to the inequality and scapegoating of the poor which have characterized the neoliberal era, however, and shaped by a range of social movements from the post-Seattle anti-capitalist movement to Occupy Wall Street, the past few years have seen a revival of radical social work theory and practice in the USA. One of the best examples of this is the Boston Liberation Health Group. In addition to campaigning activity, the Group has developed a model of practice and documented its use across a range of social work settings (Martinez and Fleck-Henderson, 2014). Its guiding principles are summarized by founder-member Dawn Belkin Martinez as being:

  • • Holistic: situating individuals in their full matrix of personal structural, ideological and institutional determinants;
  • • Critical: refusing to accept neo-liberalism and refusing to accept the notion that social work ought to subordinate itself to its social agenda;
  • • Empowering: seeking to liberate clients and social workers from the confusing belief that current conditions are inevitable and beyond our power to change; seeking to support their becoming active allies of individuals and movements working for social change;
  • • Hopeful: rescuing memory of and valuing ‘the collective human capacity to create change’ (Reisch, 2013: 68).
  • (cited in Martinez and Fleck-Henderson, 2014: 4)

The Social Work Action Network (SWAN)

Founded at a 300-strong conference at Liverpool University in 2006 on the basis of an online manifesto for a New Engaged Practice, the Social Work Action Network’s activities in the UK have taken four main forms.

Firstly, SWAN annual conferences, held each year in different universities across the UK, have provided an important forum for discussing and debating national policy responses to issues affecting social work such as austerity, privatization and racism. As social work historian Terry Bamford has noted:

The critique set out in the manifesto has resonated with many social workers. SWAN has held some very successful annual conferences, attracting numbers far beyond the reach of British Association of Social Workers or the College of Social Work.

(Bamford, 2015: 104)

Secondly, SWAN has been involved in a number of campaigns at national level. These have ranged from organizing solidarity trips of social workers and social work students to refugee camps in northern France to publishing a well-received pamphlet with contributions from leading social work academics critiquing ‘reforms’ of social work education in England proposed by the (then) Education Secretary Michael Gove (SWAN, 2014).

Locally, SWAN groups have also engaged in a range of campaigns including the defence of asylum seekers, opposition to the privatization of children’s’ services and challenging cuts to mental health services.

Thirdly, 2013 saw the launch of Critical and Radical Social Work: An International Journal, published by an academic publisher. Although not formally linked to SWAN, the fact that the two co-editors were also founder-members of SWAN and that many members of the Editorial Board are leading SWAN activists means that in practice the links are close. The journal has now established a wide international readership and is providing a forum for the development of new thinking in critical and radical social work.

Finally, one of the most exciting developments since 2006 has been the creation of SWAN groups in several countries other than the UK. There are now active SWAN (or SWAN-affiliated) groups in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Greece, Japan, Canada and most recently Denmark.

The Progressive Welfare Network, Hong Kong

Last, but far from least, is a group of frontline workers in Hong Kong, linked to the Progressive Social Work Network, who have been particularly active in social movements in recent years and who have played an important role in developing more radical forms of practice. These workers played an important role both in the Occupy Hong Kong movement in 2011 and an even more central role in the Umbrella democracy movement of 2014—15. In 2010 they organized a well-attended Progressive Social Welfare Conference, which was addressed by SWAN activists, and in 2014 the first-ever South East Asian Progressive Social Work Conference with delegates from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China and Japan (Leung, 2014).

The new social work radicalism: themes and prospects

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. To these examples, we could have added Social Work for Social Action in Sweden, the Radical and Critical Social Work Group in Germany (Griessmeier, 2017), the Green Social Work network in Australia, the Rebel Social Work group in New Zealand/ Aotearoa and several more, all examples of the types of radical social work initiatives that have developed over the past decade. What then are the common features of this new radical social work?

Firstly, it involves a rejection of the neoliberal transformation of social work pioneered by British Conservative governments in the late 1980s and adopted thereafter by governments, Conservative and New Labour (or Third Way) throughout the world. Harris has identified the three key pillars of that neoliberal social work as being privatization, managerialization and consumerization (Harris, 2014). In sharp opposition to that model, which has typically reduced a rich repertoire of individual, groupwork and community work methods to a narrow care management function and re-constructed social work as essentially a technical activity devoid of values, the new radicalism re-asserts both the social justice value base of the profession and also its capacity to respond creatively to current social problems, drawing on a wide range of methods, including collective approaches.

Secondly, the groups listed above share a common view that social work can play, and should be playing, a much greater role in responding to the poverty, inequality and racism which have increased exponentially since the global economic crash of 2008 and that we need to fashion new forms of social work theory’ and practice which genuinely address people’s social, material and emotional needs. The emergence of radical work in several countries in theearly 1970s stemmed from a growing recognition that the casework methods then dominant within the profession were not only failing to meet clients’ needs but were in fact adding to their oppression by locating the source of their problems not in poverty or discrimination but within individuals and families. Similarly, today, we need to develop new theoretical and practice paradigms capable of making sense of, and responding to, the public issues of our own time. Such paradigms will emerge both out of theoretical discussion and debate (Gray and Webb, 2013; Ferguson, Lavalette and loakimidis, 2018) and also out of the daily practice and lived experience of practitioners and sendee users. While, as 1 have argued in this chapter, we need to learn the lessons of our own history, new times demand new responses and there is much to be learned, for example, from the recent experience of social work colleagues in Greece working with refugees and asylum seekers or those around the world seeking to fashion new forms of green social work. In addition, as Lavalette and loakimidis have argued, professional social work can learn much from, and be enriched by, forms of ‘popular social work’, movements and activities that often emerge as a way of responding to crises and disasters, whether natural or man-made (Lavalette and loakimidis, 2011).

Finally, radical movements in social work have often developed out of, or been a response to, social movements in the wider society. The radical social work of the 1970s, for example, was inspired and shaped by the black civil rights movement, the gay liberation movement, the women’s movement and so on. In our own time, social workers have been involved in a host of movements including the anti-capitalist or global justice movement which grew out of the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999, the movement against the Iraq War, Occupy Wall Street, the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, the Indignados movement in Spain, movements against racism such as Black Lives Matter and Stand Up to Racism, as well as anti-austerity movements such as Disabled People against Cuts in the UK. The movements against austerity in particular (including, for example, challenging cuts to mental health services) have provided opportunities for social workers to work and campaign alongside service users, something which needs to be a central feature of any new radical practice.


What is perhaps most striking about the new examples of radical social work discussed in this chapter is that they have emerged at a time when the level of popular resistance to neoliberalism globally has generally been very low (the Arab Spring being an obvious exception to this statement, albeit one which has suffered a tragic defeat that one can only hope will be temporary). On the one hand, that is testimony to the persistence within the social work profession of a radical flame which continues to burn despite the retreats, defeats and hardships of recent decades, a stubborn insistence on the part of many practitioners, students, academics and service users that social work has a much greater role to play in challenging poverty, racism and oppression than it plays at present. On the other hand, it suggests that when the tide finally does turn against an ideology and a system which reduces everything to the status of a commodity — and as I suggested in the introduction to this chapter, there are clear signs that such a shift is underway — the ideas of the radical social work tradition can connect with much wider layers of practitioners than they do at present. In the meantime a crucial task for those who share that radical vision of what social work could be, and the role that it could play in the fight for social justice, is to nurture and nourish these pockets of resistance and to strengthen the links between groups of social workers as far apart as Boston and Hong Kong who believe that ‘another social work’ and ‘another world’ are possible.


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