The shock troops' front line

Critical Practice in Social Work
June 6, 2003

Even after a century, social work students have little access to textbooks that reflect a broadly given position. Much of the theory and some of the practice in social work continue to be vigorously disputed - with the proponents of a service model in one corner and the advocates of radical criticism in the other.

In the hands of critical theorists, social workers are represented as the shock troops of radical reform. But for the reader who knows the reality of social work on the front line - a service profession fighting for legitimacy in the face of scepticism and hostility from other professionals and service users, having to settle for little victories and achievable goals within a time-limited and resource-rationed context - the daily task is more focused on agency policies (democratically determined as they are) than on the pursuit of the ideological aspirations of political activists.

The special characteristics of Critical Practice in Social Work are spelt out by the editors, and readers are left in no doubt about the kind of territory they will be visiting between these covers. They will be expected to emphasise the importance of collective action with a view to achieving social change; they will be invited to transform the way people experience society and to counteract economic or social deprivation; and they will find that the transformation will be focused particularly in the spheres of class, gender, disability, sexuality and ethnic origin.

The book is targeted principally at undergraduates on professional social work courses, and is a modest extension of these same editors' well-established and not wholly dissimilar textbook Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates .

The position adopted is inherently controversial, and - as is generally the case across the subject - it tends to lack convincing empirical support.

Instead, the writing reflects a politically motivated belief system, and that, of course, appeals to social work students. It would, though, be a good but challenging exercise to invite the reader to compare the messages contained in this book with the very different critiques of organised practice presented in the report of Lord Laming's inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie.

The book is in three parts. First, there is an excellent section on the relationship between values and social work, with Chris Clark's elegant chapter on rights, justice and citizenship being especially well argued.

The second part takes us into familiar social-work territory: 12 chapters cover practice fields such as mental health or child protection, and do so within a critical perspectives framework. Part three pays more than lip service to the organisational context and implicitly, if sometimes grudgingly, acknowledges the bureaucratic power base that characterises any state-owned welfare system.

The editors aim "to make it easier for (the reader) to put criticality onto every agenda in (their) social work. This means developing a confident approach to questioning everything." Sadly for the social work student, service users (and politicians) also expect answers.

Martin Davies is emeritus professor of social work, University of East Anglia.

Critical Practice in Social Work

Editor - Robert Adams, Lena Dominelli and Malcolm Payne
ISBN - 0 333 92553 X
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Price - £17.99
Pages - 358

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