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



8.1. We conclude this report by drawing together some of the key issues identified by the material we have considered.


8.2. Whether in crisis or not, there are clearly a number of serious issues confronting the profession of social work which are not simply to do with shortage of numbers and resource distribution. Rather, the 'crisis' has more to do with loss of professional identity which impacts on recruitment, retention, and service profession.

Social work

8.3. There can be little doubt that social work and social workers are very much needed in order to fulfil the function and role of supporting those who are in need, largely because of poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion. Without the role played by social work, large sections of the population would have little protection from the negative impact of the growing social and economic inequalities which will continue to characterise life for many individuals, families and communities in the 21st century.

Social Work Identity

8.4. There is an urgent need for social work to clarify its professional identity in order to establish clear roles for individual social workers. What is distinctive about social work as compared with other professions, at least as based on its core principles and values, is that social work is more concerned with a person centred approach and locating the person in the context of his/her life experiences generally. As we have seen from the discussion earlier, what a person centred approach means has changed over time to the point where it is no longer sufficient to consider the person in his life situation generally but that the client or service user becomes an active participant in the process. The identity of social work and the role to be played by the social worker has to be viewed in reference to the changing nature of the relationship between worker and user/client.

Professional Identity of Social Work

8.5. The professional identity of social work need not be inextricably linked to specific organisational structures. Rather, professional identity should be based more on core values and principles in order to distinguish the nature of the social worker's contribution from that of individuals working within other agencies and to protect against the threat of boundary erosion as the result of development in other professions. Issues of recruitment and retention to social work are inextricably linked to the issue of professional identity.

Organisational Context

8.6. The evidence suggests that there is no logical need for a single structure social work department. What limited research evidence is available does suggest that social workers can and do work well and effectively in a variety of multi-disciplinary contexts and organisational settings. To repeat the point made above, the identity of professional social work and the role to be played by social workers may be determined more by core professional values and commitments than organisational place. It may be less important then that social work is carried out in alternative structures and new arrangements - for example, with education, health or criminal justice settings - than that social work clarifies and consolidates an agreed view on just what its role is to be in meeting the demands of the 21st century.

Back to the Future

8.7. Social work will continue to experience crisis and identity issues unless social workers can fulfil a role which is based on the values and principles which have continuously underpinned social work but which may have to be re-read in the light of contemporary contexts. Social work has increasingly moved away from its commitments to direct work with individuals, families and communities and from a preventive role. For that reason, social workers, especially in local authority social work departments, may be put in a position of 'professional bad faith'. That is, they may required to fulfil a role that conflicts with professional values and principles and indeed with those reasons which provided them with the motivation to enter social work in the first place. Direct work and preventive work have been less a feature of social work in recent years and there may be a need to revisit first principles in relation to preventive work and the Kilbrandon philosophy. It does appear that social workers may be less disillusioned about social work as a profession than with social work in local authority settings.

Baby and the bath water

8.8. In this brief review, we considered alternative views of social work from other countries and also an alternative view of social work for the UK based on experience in other countries. Though there does appear to be a crisis in social work, we would argue that care does need to be taken in the degree of change that is necessary to resolve the issues faced by social work. In particular, models of social work espoused in other countries may well not readily migrate easily into a UK context. We have argued against the dangers of what might be called 'legal or social transplants' (Asquith, 2003) and social work is no exception. It may well be that what occurs in other countries can inform future developments in Scotland but care has to be taken not to throw out the baby with the bath water. To do so, irrespective of whether social work is in crisis or not, would be to ignore the positive aspects of social work since Kilbrandon and the White Paper. There is clearly a need for change but that change has to be tempered by a recognition of achievements to date.

Social Work and Language

8.9. The language of social work is confusing and contributes to the lack of clarity about just what it is that social workers do. The lack of clarity between social work, social care, social services, social work activity both reflects and perpetuates the critical situation in which social work finds itself.

Still relevant?

8.10. We take no particular line on the future of social work and have merely presented material for consideration. Nevertheless, there is clearly considerable concern that social work may in its present state not be suited to addressing the needs of the community in the 21st century. The further danger is that not only may social work not be relevant to the needs of the 21st century but may fail those who most need its support because it lacks clear statements of its role. Though one may take issue with the Jordan's (Jordan and Parkinson, 2001, p.220) actual words, we share his sentiment that:

Social work must remain a human activity and creative activity, that uses imagination, empathy and commitment as well as reason and evidence and engages with people's emotions and vulnerabilities as well as their rights and obligations. In a culture of rapid change and uncertainty, what social work would have to be ashamed of is if it came to represent rigidity, resistance and stagnation, or stigma, blame and exclusion.