A-to-Z is handy but stops at why

The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Social Work
November 2, 2001

It may not quite go from A to Z, but The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Social Work offers a broad overview of the social work field, from abuse in residential care and autism to writing skills and young carers. Different perspectives on social work are well represented, with casework, empathy and unconditional positive regard finding their place alongside entries on cognitive behavioural approaches, community work and solution-focused therapy.

The encyclopedia starts with a useful lexicon, grouping together entries within a number of key subject areas. It is therefore quite easy to find your way to the range of contributions on a given subject without being distracted on the way - although, arguably, one of the attractions of a compilation such as this is what you find through serendipity. The lexicon is clear and well organised and gives due attention to the range of service-user groups as well as the social and political context within which social work operates.

Other aspects of the organisation, though, are less helpful. The material is arranged in three tiers: major, glossary and short items. Selection criteria are clearly necessary, but the rationale for the allocation of topics to one or other of these levels is not always clear; for example, it is hard to see why "anti-discriminatory practice" is identified as a major item, while "anti-oppressive practice" warrants only a (somewhat reduced) glossary entry.

One difficulty with a collection of this sort will always be the time lag between compilation and publication. Given the speed with which some entries can date, perhaps an electronic version would be more amenable to regular updating.

This would allow for inclusion of major recent developments, such as the national Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families published by the Department of Health in April 2000. This is having a significant impact on policy and practice with children and families, but is not mentioned in the entry on "Assessment in child care" - which now looks like quite a significant omission.

The editor has cast his net wide in terms of potential readers and suggests that the encyclopedia will appeal to teachers, students, practitioners and also "readers outside the field of social work ... (who want) a broad perspective on this often controversial sphere of professional activity". With more than 400 entries, provided by some 250 contributors, the variety of topics and perspectives is impressive, and the encyclopedia provides a handy introduction to a number of key subjects.

Many of the reading suggestions are helpful and will provide a jumping-off point for deeper exploration of the topics. My guess is that the appeal to students, in particular, is a safe bet, and that this text together with its partner volume, The Blackwell Companion to Social Work , will feature on many introductory reading lists for a diploma in social work. But perhaps the attempt to attract a more extensive readership accounts for an occasional tension between breadth and depth. Some of the shorter items offer too general an account to be of much use to readers already involved in social care or social policy - and unfortunately I do not share the editor's optimism that many people outside the field will want to find out how social work works.

Danielle Turney is lecturer in social work, Open University.

The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Social Work

Editor - Martin Davies
ISBN - 0 631 21450 X and 21451 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £65.00 and £16.99
Pages - 412

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