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The Role of the Social Worker in the 21st Century - A Literature Review



In this section, we consider the nature and function of social work in anticipation of the discussion on the role of the social worker.

Defining Social Work

3.1. Any attempt to explore the role and function of the social worker must of necessity seek to answer or at the very least address one basic question - what is social work? Our concern here is not to indulge in semantics though there is a serious issue about the language within which social work is framed and to which we will return later. Rather, our purpose is to identify the main definitions of social work as a social movement.

3.2. The logic for this is very simple. Without some agreed notion of what it is that constitutes social work, it is well nigh impossible to determine what the role of the social worker might be; what skills and expertise social workers should have; what training and education is appropriate for social workers; and what it is that distinguishes social work from other professions.

3.3. Differences in what is taken to be social work can also account in part for the gap between what social workers say they want to achieve and accomplish and what they are able to achieve within the constraints of the institutional settings within which they operate. It may also partly account for the gap in expectations of those who seek to enter the profession of social work and what they experience when they are in a work situations. It may also account for the fact that materials and documentation relating to the training courses offered by training institutions rarely (though with some exceptions) offer intending students any definition of what social work is.

3.4. Cree (Cree, 2003, p.3) states that 'It is almost impossible to find a simple definition of social work with which everyone is likely to agree'. Thompson (Thompson, 2000, p.13) suggests 'Social work is what social workers do'. For Cree (Cree, 2003, p.4), though the Thomson position is not seen by her to be very helpful, goes on to state that:

We should not expect to find unanimity in books about social work, or even in accounts of social workers. Social work is always subject to competing claims of definition and practice, and cannot be separated from the society in which it is located. Rather social work has to be seen as a collection of competing and contradictory discourses that come together at a particular moment in time to frame the task of social work.

Social Work as a Contested Concept

3.5. From this perspective, social work is what social work is seen to legitimately be. This of course presents no statement as to the actual nature and function of social work. It does though emphasise the importance that what social work is, is subject to a process of what Askeland and Payne (Askeland and Payne, 2001) call 'validation'. That is, a process of legitimation validates what is seen to be the nature of social work from a variety of conflicting definitions and assumptions. Social work is a truly contested concept and at any point in time there are competing definitions. What is clear is that what social work is taken to be has as much been about whose definition is seen as legitimate rather than which definition.

Social work has always been subject to competing claims of definition and practice, as social workers, politicians, service users and policy makers have struggled to lay claims on what social work is, and what it might be.


To understand social work, therefore, we must understand how knowledge is validated within the profession (Askeland and Payne, 2001, p.14).

3.6. What this inevitably implies is that there is no universal body of knowledge for social workers. What is seen to be valid knowledge or indeed the function of social work is defined by many others outwith the profession including academics, educators, professionals, administrators, politicians, users, carers and the media. There can be no doubt that within these different constituencies, there are very different views and assumptions about social work and its function, fuelled by vested interests and media representation, especially of problematic cases and scenarios.

3.7. This of course makes it very difficult to identify what are the appropriate skills and expertise needed for social work. It also accounts for the fact that social work as a movement has since its earliest days been associated with continual change and critical reflection on what it is; how best and where best it can be exercised. It also makes it very difficult to establish a clear professional identity for social work when the concept itself is subject to the views and assumptions of competing constituencies. Similarly, accepted or validated notions of social work which are embedded in the organisational structures of public social services may be entirely unacceptable to those with a more radical bent (Searing, 2004). For some, the resolution of this near chaos in competing statements about the nature and function of social work resides in the importance of social workers themselves determining what their specific professional identity is in order to ward off conflicting, indeed detrimental, notions about social work and its role.

Defining Social Work: The International Federation of Social Work

3.8. However, one particular statement of the nature of social work has been agreed in the international community and has been accepted by the many constituencies within the UK and the international community (though Cree and others do not see it as in itself an acceptable statement). In 2001, the International Association of Schools of Social Work and the International Federation of Social Work agreed the following definition:

The social work profession promotes social change, problem-solving in human relationships, and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work ( IASSW (International Association of Schools of Social Work), 2001).

3.9. Though of a very general nature, what the IFSW statement does at least present is a set of agreed commitments for social work. In particular, it promotes change, and also locates the social work task at the interface between the individual and the social; the individual and his/her environment. Similarly, it also identifies the importance of social justice and rights and working with disempowered members of our communities. It underlines the affinity between social work, the human rights conventions and the more recent legislation that strengthens the enforcement of human rights.

3.10. And again, though of a general nature it does accord with statements made by others as to what constitutes the primary function of social work:

  • Social work is committed to rights and justice (Clark, 2002).
  • [social workers'] concern is for the individual and helping them achieve change, a certain quality of life and/or protection from harm or harming others ( ADSW (Association of Directors of Social Work), 2004).

3.11. Davies put the notion of helping the vulnerable more forcibly when he asserted that:

the essence of social work is maintenance: maintaining a stable, though not a static society, and maintaining the rights of and opportunities for those who in an unplanned uncontrolled community would go to the wall (Davies, 1981, p.209 cited in; Bamford, 1990 p.33).

3.12. Social work from this perspective then is about assisting, supporting and enabling certain sections of the community. For that reason, one constancy in the history of social work has been its concern with those who suffer from the negative effects of social inequalities. For many this concern with inequality and poverty has become increasingly important because of what is seen to be the growing gap in modern societies between the rich and the poor or disadvantaged. For many (Jordan and Parkinson, 2001; Jones et al., 2004) ( Community Care, 17 June 2004) there has never been a more important time for social work to establish itself as a credible profession working to ensure that the interests of less advantaged sections of the community are promoted and protected.

In a society where the gaps between the haves and have nots have widened and continue to widen, the social policy role of social work is going to be of major significance (Bamford, 1990, p.168).

and social work might be

... really concerned with freeing the poor and the marginal underclass from subordination and exclusion (Ferraro, 2003).

Social Work and Social Control

3.13. What is also clear is that whatever the legitimate or validated notion of social work is seen to be, from other perspectives, social work can be seen to be an agent of social control. Far from addressing the inequalities with which we live, it may well play an important role in sustaining or perpetuating the very social and economic system which promotes such inequalities. Rather than liberating, it can be viewed as oppressive and for that reason not true to the core values on which it claims to be based (Jordan and Parkinson, 2001; Jordan, 2004).

Social Work as an Integrating Force

3.14. Munday (2003) and others also suggest European systems of social work also have a social integration function. On this view social work has as a key function the integration or reintegration of sections of the community with mainstream society. What would be lost from this perspective if social work did not exist would be the necessary support and assistance offered to the most vulnerable sections of society and the abdication of any responsibility to ensure their social inclusion. If social work did not fulfil that task it is difficult to envisage what agency or body would. In the connection it may be added that other agencies are only likely ever to take on parts of the role of social work in a piecemeal and selective way; the integrated view that characterises social work would be lost.

A Radical Social Work?

3.15. The demand for a radical social work which truly addresses the situation of those in need has been another constancy in the development of social work since the 1960s (Jones et al., 2004). Many of the current critiques of social work as a profession have embedded within them comments which do echo the concerns of those more inclined to a radical perspective on the role of social work. The argument has been made that the current structures through which social work is realised may not best serve those who are in need, and social work may do little more than perpetuate the very system which creates their vulnerability. A number of commentators (for example Bailey and Brake, 1975; Jordan and Jordan, 2000) have expressed their concern that by working with those who are most disadvantaged by the inequalities imposed by the economic system, social work may well contribute to the perpetuation of that very system. It is such a situation that Jordan (Jordan and Jordan, 2000) and others seek to address by proposing 'constructive social work'.

Social Work and Policy Failure

3.16. A related position is that the function of social work may well be to deal with the failure of other policy areas such as crime, health or education. Social work is then seen to be charged with not simply dealing with those in need but rather with addressing the shortcomings of key policy areas in the public services.

3.17. From these kinds of arguments then, whatever it is that social workers are expected to do or want to do at a face to face or micro level, at the macro level, social work may well have other functions. What the literature then suggests is that

  • There are competing definitions of social work
  • Social work has a number of wider social functions
  • The function of social work is highly contested
  • Social work plays an important function in social integration
  • Social work may fulfil a social control function
  • Social work is expected to address the failure of social policies

3.18. The tension for social work has of course always been bridging the tension between the personal and the political (Halmos, 1965); between supporting clients and controlling them or subjecting them to forms of surveillance; between meeting the needs of clients or addressing the social and political situation in which they find themselves.

3.19. Though the IFSW statement on the nature of social work does note the importance of social justice, it could be criticised for saying little about the importance of seeing the service user/client/citizen in the context of his/her local community. In fact, it may well understate the value of community social work. One of the threads that has been woven through the history of social work and the organisational structures through which social work is to be realised, is the importance of seeing the client/service user as a member of a local community.

3.20. The Kilbrandon report (Kilbrandon, 1964), the Seebohm report (Seebohm, 1968), the Barclay report (Barclay, 1982) and the Griffiths report (Griffiths, 1988) all evidence this. They all reflect the recurring emphasis on the importance of working not just with individuals but with individuals as members of communities. These reports highlight that community social work could play a significant role in supporting community members to address the circumstances in which they find themselves (see also Ferraro, 2003). The paradox is that although this is seen to be the clear value of a community social work approach, organisational and structural changes in the way social work services are provided are seen to have inhibited its growth and development.

3.21. The argument made against the value of community social work, especially from the radical perspective is of course also that such an approach does not address the causal factors which propel many social work clients/service users into disadvantage and poverty. The model for a future social work offered by Jordan, drawing on the Australasian experience in offering what he calls a 'constructive social work', provides solutions to this dilemma and emphasises the importance of the local and the community. As we discuss later the 'constructive' approach takes a user centred approach to social work and recognises the importance of addressing family, local and national issues.

The Nature and Function of Social Work: Summary

3.22. In summary, several implications can be drawn from the contested nature of social work and the fact that it is seen to have a number of wider functions. In particular, the absence of a clear definition of social work - or at least a definition agreed by all - means that it will continue to be difficult to identify just what the skills, knowledge and expertise are required by social workers.

3.23. Establishing just what legitimate role social workers can play will also be somewhat problematic in the absence of an agreed basis for the development of the 'profession' of social work. The fact that there are competing notions of social work maintained by different constituencies, including practitioners, users, politicians, policy makers, and the public does suggest that there is a need to establish clearly an agreed and accepted statement on the nature and function of social work. Central to this is of course a statement of core values and principles - discussed in the following section.