As the head of a University department that has ‘social work’ in its name, I am regularly called on to represent a social work position on a given issue, or to speak for – or to – the profession. I have learned, as a result, to be proactive in confessing that I am not actually a social worker. I am a sociologist, one that could be described as an ‘applied sociologist’. Given that most of my teaching has been located in an undergraduate social work programme, I think the best description of my position was coined some years ago by a close colleague: an ‘embedded sociologist.’ So, as an embedded sociologist working daily with social workers and social work academics, I have taken the opportunity to engage in some informal participant observation research. My conclusion is this: I love working with social workers. Here, in no particular order, are five reasons why.
They have a commitment to collective responsibility. As most readers will know, the IFSW Global Definition of Social Work includes this sentence: ‘Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.’ This privileging of collective responsibility does not mean that individuals shirk or resist responsibility for their own commitments: rather, it means that when confronted with problems or situations that must be addressed (such as covering the teaching responsibilities for an unwell colleague, or managing resources on a constrained budget), social workers tend not to waste time and relational capital on trying to find fault and assign blame. Instead, they tend to share together in the responsibility to find solutions. They reach together for responses that involve collaboration and cooperation. They provide a tangible illustration to the whakatauki: ‘He waka eke noa’ – this canoe is one we are all in, with no exception.
They are not afraid to name things. Perhaps because of the professional value of collective responsibility, my social work colleagues are freer than most other people I know to identify and foreground negative or unhelpful attitudes or relational dynamics that might otherwise make interactions difficult or counter-productive. For example, I have been in meetings where undercurrents seemed to be at odds with the meeting’s purpose, making progress impossible. Rather than giving in to the unspoken and abandoning productive efforts, a social work colleague would interrupt and say something like, ‘can we just acknowledge the dynamic in the room, and address what is going with people that is making it so difficult to achieve our aim?’ Having been raised in a culture where such dynamics were never named, I initially found this practice to be really confronting: after years of working with social workers, however, I have come to appreciate and rely on this positive commitment to naming counter-productive relational dynamics.
They are discursive. Whether in meetings or in the staff kitchen, my social work colleagues tend to be highly active participants in discussions. Decisions, ideas, issues are all subject to discussion; and in those discussions they tend to be committed to ensuring that everyone gets heard! Again, the commitment to collective responsibility results in the assumption that everyone has a contribution to make, and an idea to share. This tends to increase the number of meetings we have, and indeed to increase the time those meetings require; however, I like to think that the quality of our decision-making is better, and there is strong evidence to suggest that organisational culture is improved when colleagues believe they have a stake in making the decisions that impact on their work.
They incorporate social work values into their work in the academy. Their decision-making and action reflect social work commitments to social justice; inclusion and self-determination; access to the existing resources, services and opportunities. This fosters a critical and often subversive engagement with the encroaching managerialist imperatives of the neo-liberal university, where policies (especially with regard to students) tend to limit the ability for academics to exercise discretion and professional judgement. Embracing these values helps us to creatively resist and subvert the neo-liberal imperative, and to continue to imagine and work towards a different way of being in the university.
They are optimists. I have come to appreciate that one does not pursue a career in social work without persisting in the belief that one can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, and that things can get better. Professor Graeme Aitken, the (retiring) Dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Work, often quotes the philosopher Karl Popper: “Optimism is a duty. We all have a duty, instead of predicting something bad, to support things that may lead to a better future.” The Dean applies this sentiment to the teaching profession, though it can apply just as readily – and perhaps even more so – to social workers. They persevere, as a matter of principle, and sometimes as a stance of faith, in the hope and expectation of better days to come. I am honoured to be associated with such a group of professionals.
Allen Bartley is the Head of the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland.This article is adapted from the ‘welcome mihi ’to the ANZSSWER Symposium, September 2017.