Hearing problems, seeing solutions

Social Work and Social Problems - Understanding Social Work - Constructive Social Work
November 9, 2001

Social work has been the subject of sustained policy debate for at least ten years and is widely thought to be at a crossroads. These three texts provide visions of directions it might take.

Two of them advocate distinctive perspectives - systems and ecological theory (Gerald Smale et al ) and social constructivism (Nigel Parton and Patrick O'Byrne) - while Neil Thompson's book concentrates on achieving good practice through a more eclectic approach rooted in knowledge, values and skills.

Despite the constraints of increasing surveillance and proceduralisation, the authors of all three books hold on to the possibility of social work acting positively in the interests of service users. They argue against "off-the-peg" solutions of competence/technical approaches. Instead, all advocate practice characterised by service-user partnership and participation.

Thompson's book provides the reader with an overall picture of what social work is, how it is carried out, and the skills, knowledge and values needed. As such, it is an ideal starting point for study, debate and analysis in examining some of the discipline's complexities. Readers are advised against ready-tailored solutions and encouraged to adopt a questioning and critical approach to their practice.

Having explored the differences and commonalities that exist between the "caring professions", an overview of the legal, organisational and policy contexts is given. Further chapters outline knowledge and theory, the skills needed to apply them and the ethical principles and values that underpin the practice. The steps required to develop high standards of practice are highlighted and the challenges and dilemmas practitioners face daily are addressed.

Thompson's text will appeal to people considering or embarking on a career in social work. Its content is likely to be seen as too general and repetitive by the more seasoned practitioner. Nevertheless, it is an engaging and accessible book with useful summaries, exercises and further reading, making it ideally suited for use by teachers and tutors.

In contrast to this all-round perspective, Smale, Graham Tuson and Daphne Statham highlight prevention, development and crisis intervention as the key dimensions of social work. In keeping with their focus on social inclusion, they emphasise the importance of community, teamwork and partnership in a holistic approach to practice that draws on systems and ecological theories. Five case studies act as continuous threads of discussion throughout the text, illustrating the use of these perspectives.

The book starts by defining social problems and locates the discipline in its social contexts before offering an intervention and assessment framework for practitioners that goes beyond the rigidity of eligibility criteria.

Following this is a definition of the fundamental purposes of social work in relation to user empowerment, social control, conflicts of interest and mediation. Having distinguished the different dimensions of the social-work task, the authors consider the centrality of social control. Innovations in problem-solving are introduced next, as well as a consideration of the use of systems theory in assessment and intervention. The problems and possibilities of bringing about change and the skills needed to be an effective practitioner are also identified.

Students and educators would find the techniques and models described useful for stimulating discussion on the use of systems theory in social work practice. There is also much material that would be useful to experienced practitioners undertaking post-qualifying and advanced awards.

In their book, Parton and O'Byrne argue that social work in the United Kingdom has lost its way. They think it has become defensive, over-proceduralised and narrowly concerned with assessing, managing and insuring against risk. They believe it has failed to develop theoretical perspectives that are directly useful to practitioners.

They are advocates of social constructivism, a theoretical perspective that can be used not only to analyse social work but also to make a direct and positive contribution to its development. Constructive social work is, they argue, affirmative, reflexive and focuses on the importance of dialogue. It draws heavily on narrative theory and stresses the importance of language.

They begin by defining and examining the central elements of constructive social work. They look at the nature and purpose of social work, highlighting "indeterminacy, uncertainty and ambiguity" as lying at the core of practice.

Next comes an examination of the theoretical orientations and principles of constructive social work. The authors look at the art of listening and identifying the solution (not the problem) as the significant issue. Ways in which constructive social work can be put into practice are demonstrated, drawing on particular models, techniques and case studies. Assessment follows, as does an evaluation of the contribution of the constructive social work perspective.

This is a specialised text that combines intellectual rigour with accessibility. It deserves to be read widely and is a useful complement to Smale, Tuson and Statham. Whereas they reach back into social work theory's heritage to enrich and revitalise systems theory in ways consistent with contemporary social inclusion agendas, Parton and O'Byrne address those same agendas from a perspective that derives from more recent theoretical developments within the compass of postmodernism.

Vicky White is lecturer in social work, University of Warwick.   

Social Work and Social Problems

Author - Gerald Smale, Graham Tuson and Daphne Statham
ISBN - 0 333 62564 1
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £14.99
Pages - 253

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