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Contemporary Social Work Theory and Issues Essay

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To what extent can social work be adequately conceptually understood in terms of a position at the interface between social exclusion and social inclusion?

To what extent can social work be adequately conceptually understood in terms of a position at the interface between social exclusion and social inclusion?

According to the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) the social work profession ‘promotes the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments’ (IFSW, 2000). However the social work role is questioned, in both its operational approach, and in terms of where it is positioned at the interface of individuals that are excluded and included within today’s society. This essay will aim, using relevant theories and concepts, to provide the opinion of the author, regarding their notion of how the social work role is delivered, and moreover, grasp an understanding of where this role is located, either working with the socially excluded or leaning towards the concept of inclusion.

The term social exclusion was coined in France by Rene Lenoir in 1974, (Gore, 1995, Silver, 1995, Haan, 1998, cited in Islam, 2005: 4) and, in his opinion, referred to people who were omitted from employment-based social security systems. His reference to the excluded consisted of the ‘mentally and physically handicapped, suicidal people, aged individuals, abused children, drug addicts, delinquents, single parents, multi-problem households, marginal asocial persons and other social misfits’ (Silver, 1994-95: 532). Social exclusion did not replace poverty as a concept but referred to the ‘broader process of social disintegration – an increasing rupture of the bond between the individual and society’ (Islam, 2005: 4). As Lenoir suggests, social exclusion transpires in many forms; race, poverty and deprivation, employment, and class, and retains varied definitions.

According to Sheppard (2006), the best definition that provides an understanding of all the dimensions of social exclusion was submitted by the Child Poverty Action Group (Walker and Walker, 1997, cited in Sheppard, 2006) ‘social exclusion refers to the dynamic process of being shut out, fully or partially, from any of the social, economic, political and cultural systems which determine the social integration of society’. However, the model of ‘social exclusion’ has only been in use in the UK for a relatively short time, and its extensive practice could indicate that it ‘describes a phenomenon that already existed, but lacked a suitable name’ (Page 2000: 4). Marx, for example, refers to the ‘underclasses in contemporary capitalist society. According to Marx members of the proletariat are compelled to sell their labour power to the bourgeoisie in order to ‘attain for themselves the means to their own subsistence’ (Ashley and Orenstein, 1998).

Marx was aware of the growth of the middle classes, situated at the interface of proletariat on the one side and the bourgeoisie on the other, thus increasing the security and power of the upper class. Subsequently this produced a different division of the working class, Marx’s ‘lumpenproletariat’, for example; the migrant population, the indigents, the unemployed and those in poverty and deprivation, individuals that today would be the termed ‘socially excluded’. According to Marx, class structures are primary in determining the main social classes, the focal forms of struggle within societies, and the life experiences of people in these classes. However, secondary forms of inequality and oppression occur within each class, and these may take the form of racial and ethnic inequalities, or gender inequalities. Marxist feminists argue that, ‘within any class, women are less advantaged than men in their access to material goods, power, status, and possibilities for self-actualisation and the causes of this inequality lie in the organisation of capitalism itself’ (Ritzier, 1992: 468-9).

, However, as Marxist theory distillates on class division, and is concentrated on the macro level only, this view of Social Work’s position at the interface of exclusion and inclusion is not conclusive. The Social Worker would be seen as working more in line with the ‘lumpenproletariat’ and not providing services to the ‘proletariat’ and certainly not the ‘bourgeoisie’, therefore places social work at the heart of the excluded and not the included. Moreover as social work from the Marxist perspective, is placed firmly within the macro level, the individualism and person centred approach that the social worker aims to provide the client cannot be fulfilled, as to do so would mean to be working at the micro level which the Marxist view discounts. The Functionalist stance referencing the concept of social exclusion is to describe a group, or groups, of people who are excluded from the normal activities of their society in multiple ways, thus deviating from their societies ‘norms’ of behaviour (Sheppard, 2006).

A functionalist perspective of social exclusion is, therefore, focussed upon the excluded persons being deviant and non- conforming to social norms. However, unlike the Marxist perspective, the Functionalist would concentrate on the social worker operational on the macro and the micro level, working with the individual, and also taking the clients wider social systems in to account, for example; family, friends, school and working environment. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), and later Talcott Parsons (1951), suggests that societies were social ‘systems’, made up of interrelated social elements, and that these systems were ‘moral’ entities. Durkheim and Parsons argue that all human associations give rise to expectations in patterns of conduct, therefore producing restrictions on how a person should or shouldn’t behave. Hence emerges ‘collective consciousness’ which, in turn, constrains an individual and obliges them to act in particular ways (Cuff, Sharrock and Francis, 1992).

One way is that norms ‘effectively discipline individuals above all through their moral authority, relatively independent of any instrumentally significant consequences of conformity with them’ (Parsons 1951, p. 37). The other is that there is a tendency for individuals to ‘develop and maintain attachment to the same integrated system of norms and to find solidarity in the pursuit of shared goals’ (Parsons 1934: 295, Peacock 1976: 265). The Functionalist, therefore, would suggest that social work is very much concerned with the deviants in society, the individuals that do not conform to society’s norms. However this notion too could be contested, as, if the social work profession concerns itself with the deviants of society, the client could be at risk from labelling and of being further excluded by the social worker themselves.

Sheppard (2006), asserts that social work is, in fact, exclusionary and that social workers ‘cannot engage in integration and inclusion because its innate functions involve labelling and marginalising people’ ( Sheppard, 2006). Functionalism also neglects the negative functions of an event, such as divorce, and does not encourage people to take an active role in changing their social environment, even when such change may benefit them. Conflict Theory also sees society as a social system, but unlike Functionalism who perceives society held together by social consensus or cohesion, Conflict Theory interprets society as held together through conflict and coercion. From this perspective, society is made up by competing interest groups, some more powerful than others (Andersen and Taylor, 2008). When Conflict Theorists look at society, they see the social domination of subordinate groups through the power, authority, and coercion of dominant groups. Randall Collins (1941) suggests that power and status are fundamental relational dimensions at the micro level of social interaction and perhaps at the macro level as well.

Collins concludes that coercion and the ability to force others to behave a certain way are the primary basis of conflict in society (Turner, 2000). Therefore in the conflict view, the elite members of the dominant groups create the rules for success and opportunity in society, often denying subordinate groups such success and opportunities, thus generating social division, and creating social exclusion, at the macro and the micro levels of society. In contrast to the conflict perspective, the strengths approach concentrates on building clients strong points in order for them to become empowered and initiate social change. Cowger and Snively (2001) favour the empowerment perspective as ‘central to social work practice, and see client strengths as providing the fuel and energy for that empowerment’ (Miley et al, 2004:91).

Empowerment can be defined as ‘a construct that links individual strengths and competencies, natural helping systems, and proactive behaviours to social policy and social change’ (Rappaport, 1981, cited in Zimmerman, 1995: 569). However if the social worker is operational more within the context of empowering the socially excluded, rather than the included, what of the power and authority that a social worker holds over the client as an agent of social control? Moreover, if a social workers role involves empowering the client to take control of their own lives, how does the power transfer from the authoritative figure of the social worker, to the deprived, socially excluded client? Indeed, would the client want to be empowered, or be able to hold rational thought, capacity, to be open to empowerment? Rojek (1989) argues that empowering clients to focus on capacity building and not in making changes directly to the oppressive social structures affecting the client, places responsibility on the client to change whilst still facing social obstacles.

Therefore, for the social worker to effectively practice empowerment, the client is presumed to have adequate rational capacity, and have only one risk factor influencing their lives. This is difficult, as, from researching this essay, it has become apparent, that the socially excluded individuals that social work operates with, has more than one disadvantage, problem, or need that they require support to cope with. Perhaps the term enablement would be more fitting than the harsh, power/powerless concept of empowerment and subsequently, that the social workers role should concentrate on maintaining the client According to Davies (1994: 58) ‘the social worker is contributing to the maintenance of society, by exercising control over deviant members, whilst allocating resources according to policies laid down by the state, on an individual basis’. This consensus approach ‘analyses structural inequalities in society and the role of social work in relation to such inequalities’ (Lishman, 2005: 70).

Davies idea of maintenance of the individual, and, therefore society, is simplistic, and, by using the term ‘maintain’ rather than ‘change’, dominates a proper conception of social work’ (Sheppard, 2006). However the radical social worker would discount Davies notion of maintenance as they perceive the state as serving particular dominant interests and therefore cannot play a neutral, humanitarian role in respect to vulnerable, disadvantaged, socially excluded people. They would argue that social workers using the maintenance role, with respect to state policies, will perpetrate inequality and its associated oppressions, disadvantages and stigma. Radicalists distinguish that social workers need to understand the nature of state power, and the role of social work as an element of state control and oppression (Lishman, 2005).

If this is the case, and the social worker is operational in the form of an agent of social control, whilst holding the power and control over the client, may actually be alienating them further from society. Additionally, as the radical perspective, alongside Marxism, focusses on the class differences in society, it fails to take into account the multiple and varying oppression and disadvantage which operate in British Contemporary Society. According to Langham and Lee (1989: 9) radical social work texts and practice led to the failure to ‘recognise the systematic denial of power to women and black people and failed to recognise inequality arising from sexuality, disability or age’.

There is much debate and confusion in reference to the definition of social work, and even more deliberation concerning the role of the social worker and of its operational position in today’s society. Taking into account, views from the Marxist, Radical and Functionalist perspectives, it has been the focus of this essay to decide upon the position of social work at the interface of social exclusion and social inclusion. It is of the author’s opinion, that social work should perform a maintenance role, working with socially excluded individuals. The notion of being an agent of social control is not very appealing, as it makes the social worker an authority figure, which clients would find oppressive. It doesn’t matter if the client is deviant or a conformist, the social worker should remain non-judgemental and focus on enabling and maintaining them to gain independence and improve their lives.

Andersen, M. Taylor, H. (2008), Sociology, Understanding a Diverse Society, 4th edn. USA: Thomson Higher Education. Ashley, D. Orenstein, D. (1998), Sociological Theory, Classical Statements. 4th edn. USA: Allyn and Bacon. Cuff, E. Sharrock, W. Francis, D. (1992), Perspectives in Sociology, 4th edn. London: Routledge. Davies, M. (1994), the Essential Social Worker, 3rd edn. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. International Federation of Social Workers, 2000, Definition of Social Work, [Online] Available at http://www.ifsw.org/f38000138.html (Accessed on 19/12/2011). Islam, A, (2005), ‘Sociology of Poverty: Quest for a New Horizon’, Bangladesh e-Journal of Sociology. 2, pp. 1. Lisman, J. (2005), Handbook of theory for
practice teachers in social work, 10th edn. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Miley, K. DuBois, B. (2004), Social work: an empowering profession, 5th edn. Boston: Pearson Publishers. Page, D. (2000), Communities in Balance, the reality of social exclusion on housing estates, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Parsons, T. (1934), ‘the Place of Ultimate Values in Sociological Theory’, International Journal of Ethics, 45(3), pp. 282-316. Parsons, T. (1951), the Social System, New York: Free Press. Ritzier, G, (1992), Sociological Theory, 3rd edn. New York: McGraw-Hill. Rojek, C. Peacock, G. Collins, S. (1989) Social Work and Received Ideas, London: Routledge. Sheppard, M. (2006), Social Work and Social Exclusion, the Idea of Practice, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. Silver, H. (1994-95), ‘Social Exclusion and Social Solidarity: Three Paradigms’, International Labour Review, (133), pp. 531-578. Turner, J. (2000), Handbook of Sociological Theory, USA: Springer Press. Zimmerman, M. Perkins, D. (1995), ‘Empowerment Theory Research and Application’, American Journal of Community Psychology, 23(5), pp. 569– 579.

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