Postmodernism and social work

Martin Leveridge and Jackie Gilchrist
University of Teeside
Middlesbrough, United Kingdom

This paper developed in a rather unusual way. We would often talk about the subject of postmodernism and social work when walking to and from lectures, over coffee, and sometimes when we should have been doing other things. This was not only because we find the subject interesting and we feel that it needs exploring further but also because we also feel it has a practical outcome in helping us make sense of the picture social work presents today.

Martin's reasoned, ordered and knowledgeable approach to social work and its history and Jackie's vague philosophical ramblings did not at first seem like good bedfellows but we have come to the following agreement: while statutory social work agencies in the UK are, perhaps through necessity, stuck in the age of modernity and reason, their practitioners are operating effectively in a post-modern UK where Third Way politics are standing accused of the fragmentation of the welfare state.

As Martin was unable to attend the IUC conference to deliver the present paper it was necessary to impose some identifiable structure on what we had planned to be a dialogue though Jackie worked from the headings Martin had helpfully provided. Martin subsequently reviewed the delivered paper and added some helpful material.

The first issue we agreed had to be tackled is:

In order to examine the relationship between post-modernism and social work we need to start by setting out what we think post-modernism consists of, and then to examine the origins and history of social work - in particular, its relationship with modernism.

Our understanding of modernism is that it is considered to have emerged at the time of the Enlightenment (Carter & Jackson 1993; Howe 1994). The scientific-rational approach to the natural order (and by extension the social order) was that it was possible for mankind to understand it, to fathom the laws which governed it, and thence to change it to better suit the needs of mankind. This pursuit of progress through understanding remains the rationale for scientific and technical advance. It also forms the basis for bureaucracy, which we will return to later in this paper.

We need to examine the idea that there is 'an answer', a truth, if only we can discover it. In an effort to make sense of the world in which we live we have attempted to apply this sort of reasoning to practically all bodies of knowledge including ethics and aesthetics. Hence we construct bodies of knowledge; knowledge becomes formulaic, and if one can remember the formula one can apply it. As social workers we construct a way of talking about our work, a discourse, and in this Foucauldian sense our knowledge becomes power, i.e. we are the vehicles of power (Foucault 1980, 98). However, personal ethics and values are not easily described and analysed using a scientific-rational approach, since as they play a major part in the practice of social work perhaps this sort of reasoning is not the best to use when trying to make sense of social work as a whole.

Martin claims that the high point of modernism in social work in the UK may be regarded as the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. The late 1960s saw a time of optimism based on scientific progress, a (transient) economic prosperity and a population bulge coming into adulthood. In social work there was a feeling that at last we had the psychological and social knowledge and skills to eliminate deprivation and distress. The Children and Young Persons Act 1968 was written as though offending behaviour was treatable (though this was never fully accepted and large sections of the Act were subsequently abandoned). Howe (1994) described the 1970s modernist drive in social work as when writers and thinkers attempted to find a common base and integrated methods for generic social work in order to unite the practice and theory of social work both theoretically and practically. Hence, there are generically trained practitioners, national associations and larger generic social work departments in the UK.

So, if modern social work has been the child of this drive to explain, manage and cure the social, we think it is time to warn that the child has gone feral! Martin contends that Martinez-Brawley & Zorita (1998, 199) point out that the pursuit by social work of the 'holy grail of scientific knowledge has led to disappointment'. They continue to state that '[u]niversal truths about the human condition have not helped to solve individual problems but have often become the "metanarratives of coercion" (Howe 1994), a situation which is contrary to the essence of social work'. So the hopes of the late 1960s/early 1970s were dashed, just as the economic bubble burst leading to a right-wing backlash. Further, Martinez-Brawley & Zorita (1998, 204) add:

those concerned with empirical validation in the scientific style . often develop knowledge of what might not be worth knowing, because a basic humanistic dimension that enhances understanding has been missed. This dimension recognises the existential in human life and brings an awareness of 'indeterminacy' and inconclusiveness.

When Martin asked what Jackie meant when she talked about postmodernism in relation to social work, her response was that she saw it as a way of analysing the provision and activity of social work in order to understand it better. In doing so, it is necessary to follow the advice of critical thinkers in that one must acknowledge that the way in which we make an analysis of a subject is determined not only by what we find out but also by what we already know. Just as we need to be aware of our personal values when dealing in a professional manner with the people we work with so do we also need to be aware of our own perspectives when we analyse social conditions.

To give the analysis some structure we have looked at other writers who agree that it is impossible to capture the full diversity of what postmodernism is (Cahoone 1996; Fawcett & Featherstone, 1998), and for the present have accepted the following three categories which Cahoone and Fawcett and Featherstone use:

  1. Historical postmodernism, which suggests that the social and/or political and/or cultural organisation of modernity has changed fundamentally and therefore our world today is very different from that we have experienced in the past.
  2. Methodological postmodernism is deconstructive rather than prescriptive.
  3. Positive postmodernism is about applying general postmodernist themes to particular subject matter and thereby offering alternative visions or understandings. Methodological postmodernism in the form of discourse analysis is a very tempting avenue to explore but today we are interested in positive postmodernism because it allows us to start from where we are at present.

We then agreed we should move on to talking about social work as an essentially postmodernism activity. It is this element of 'indeterminacy' and inconclusiveness' in human situations which leads us to contend that social workers have always naturally subscribed to a postmodernist view of practice in refusing to tie themselves to one theory or method of intervention. Social workers have been described as eclectic in their use of theory: at best muddled, at worst due to their refusal to choose one theoretical stance and stick to it. A given social worker may use theories drawn from Freud to talk about a situation within a family as well as theories of social psychology or cognitive behavioural theories, applying them to the same case. This is often cited as evidence of social workers' inability to grasp the differences between theoretical stances. However, it could be argued that this illustrates the ultimate practicality of the social worker in using the right tool for the job. In our opinion, a postmodernist approach finds specific theoretical tools to analyse the data available and come up with an answer specific to the situation. This much-derided eclecticism of the social work profession is in fact a rejection of the metanarrative. Instead, social workers recognise that theoretical models are only a poor reflection of a complex reality in which people are individual and unique. People may share characteristics of condition, i.e. we share the condition of making choices but the choices we make are individual to us in being a product of both structural and personal factors.

The 'problem' of social workers not being able to cite chapter and verse the theories they use to underpin their practice has long been recognised by writers in this field and indeed by Jackie in her attempts to train social workers to teach practice to students on placement. Some writers attribute this to the 'dumbing down' of social work courses and in many cases the removal of the various centres of study out of university social policy departments and into schools of health and social care in the UK, thereby breaking the direct cross fertilisation between sociologists and social workers (Jones 1996). Some theorists talk about formalised and unformalised knowledge (Osmond & O'Connor 2004, 677-692) and the fact that there are relatively few practitioners engaged in publishing their theories of social work practice. Those who do are mostly engaged in the process of 'evidence-based practice' of the quantitative and less frequently of the qualitative kind rather than of the philosophical/practitioner opinion kind. Does this mean that social work practitioners are not thinkers? Of course it does not. In Jackie's experience of teaching qualified practitioners she has found that given a discussion group of six practitioners there will be at least seven points of view, each one well thought out and usually contradictory.

Foucault found no difficulty in using different subjects as a focus for his analysis of society.1 Social workers find no difficulty in using the case study as their focus on exploring theory and how it applies to practice. One of our colleagues describes the case study as 'the social worker's microscope'. (Mary Rayner, personal discussion February 2007) It does not seem to matter that what social workers see under the microscope is different every time because they synthesise the knowledge gained in different formations depending on what practice they have in mind when they examine the material. Also, like Foucault, social workers seem to find no problems in the contradictions inherent in their work and mostly do not seem to see the need to reconcile them (Mills 2003, 3). They seem content to accept that one synthesis of theory/knowledge and experience works in one case and another synthesis in another case. Generally, they do not feel it is possible to discover 'the truth' about a person or situation, as people and situations in social work are both contested and dynamic. They make their own 'truth' based on experience and supported by professional ethics. This is borne out by their resistance to pigeonhole or label the people they work with, to the point that nobody even knows what to call the people they work with any more: clients? service users/people who use services and their carers? This is not a frivolous debate or one about 'politically correctness' but symptomatic of an honest struggle not to label.

The last example of social work as a postmodern activity is the social worker's role in the self-policing of society. For Foucault, 'discipline is a set of strategies and procedures and ways of behaviour which are associated with certain institutional contexts and which then permeate ways of thinking and behaving in general' (Mills 2003, 44).

Social workers have long acknowledged the control side of their care and control role in society and usually manage the contradiction well. It is particularly in this role that we can find the meeting of the modernist structure of social work and the postmodernist practice of social work.

Martin would quote her from Howe (Howe 1994, 520-521)

modernity's promise to deliver order, certainty and security has remained unfulfilled . modernity's search for an underlying unity is replaced by postmodernity's dispersal of truth across time and place. . [I]n postmodernism there is a willingness to live with uncertainty and contingency. There is no univalence, no single theoretical discourse. There is no meaning out there in the world; meaning is embedded in language and language changes over time and across cultures. (Howe 1994, 520-521)

To look at the meeting of the modernist structure and postmodernist practice we have to move on to what Martin calls modernism and its final fling in the use of 'The Form', etc. Delivery of statutory social services in the UK emanates from Weberian bureaucratic hierarchical structures. Recent changes appear to be pushing the organisation of the delivery of services into an almost Fordist mould, with workers graduating as generic social workers and specialising thereafter in their particular area of work. The hierarchy has been enforced by the Thatcherist dislike of 'minor professionals' and their discretion in decision making. Hence nursing, teaching and social work professions all felt the winds of change when they became more and more regulated throughout the 1980s. As Parton (2000) argues: 'in recent years . social work has become legalised and proceduralised and there have been increasing efforts to scientize and rationalize practice and emphasize empiricism, outcomes and the "evidence-based" approach' (p. 450), and 'in many respects scandals and public inquiries . proved crucial in introducing a more legalised, proceduralized form of practice, and hence losing many of the key elements of social work in terms of its moral-practical and humanist traditions' (p. 458).

1This is self evident just by looking at the range of subjects on which Foucault has written. In order not to make the explanations too dense and impede the flow of the argument, also for readers new to Foucault, we have used an accessible introduction to critical themes which will lead on to more in-depth reference and reading. See Mills 2003 (reprinted 2006).

The most telling manifestation of modernism in statutory provision is what Martin calls 'The Form'. Student social workers have been known to say they could not complete assessments of a voluntary organisation because there was no form to complete. A survey form not only provides a structure for the collection and presentation of information, it also constructs the situation in terms of what information is to be collected, sometimes how it is to be collected, and which are priority areas. It also classifies situations by categories, and indicates eligibility for service, via tick-boxes which indicate the severity of problems in a consistent and ' ' way. As an assessment vehicle such forms are predominantly problem-focussed. Moreover, given that in many ways process dictates content, if someone is asked a question about their lives and only allowed a 1.5 cm space in which to answer the question then the answer will not be very meaningful.

'The Form', and the process of which it is a manifestation, is therefore assertively modernist. The underlying assumption is that, given a rigorous and standardised assessment, and the availability of an appropriate range of services, it would be possible to meet any need. Social workers, on the other hand - seeing each encounter as a unique event, treating each person's experience of reality as 'real' and valuing diversity rather than standardisation - operate within a postmodern paradigm. Reed (1993) points out, in reference to Silverman's Theory of Organisation, that there can be no meeting-point between these two paradigms - that there is 'paradigm incommensurability'. Discussing what he describes as a shift from focussing on understanding and treating the person towards a focus on the act, Howe (1994) states: 'the new certainty is established on procedure and not psychological expertise. In this perspective, clients and their behaviour need not puzzle social workers; the latter do not need to think in terms of diagnoses and therapeutic relationships. Clients and their behaviour are defined in legal and, increasingly, in economic, service and consumer terms' (p. 528), and 'procedure manuals and lists of competences define more and more what social workers should do and how they must do it. Professional discretion disappears under a growing mountain of departmentally generated policy and formulae' (p. 529).

Statutory agencies are part of the way in which the state constructs a range of relationships which tend to position people in ways which make the political system work. So, in order to carry out government policies, agencies construct bureaucratic tools which position social workers in ways which make the policies work, i.e. 'tick the boxes'. However, in their attempts to 'help people' social workers reposition themselves and hence there becomes a dysfunction between intentionality and effect. The local authority agencies which employ social workers are not 'an agent' with the same unanimity of intentions as an individual (Burchell et al., 1991; Mills 2003, 49). Most individuals within agencies think of entirely other things than how to implement the latest government policy. Most of the individuals within an organisation are not able to see the whole picture of the organisation and so just assume that there is a cohesive structure, when in fact this may not be the case.

It seems there is a certain bifurcation occurring within social work in that there are differences in approach between social workers. Where the independent and voluntary sector seems to have grasped the nettle of small solutions to individual problems, the statutory sector seems to be unable to do so due to the bureaucracy of the management system. It may not be the intention of statutory agencies to manage social workers in the way that they do but maybe they cannot fulfil their function otherwise. Managing social workers has been variously described as like herding cats or carving in jelly. So the agency intends certain policies to be carried out and social workers in those agencies, whilst ostensibly carrying out the intentions of the agency by filling in the 'the form', reposition themselves, hence resisting and subverting the process to fulfil their need to help people.


There is a practical outcome to the analysis and philosophy discussed in this paper. Looking at the relationship between the individual and the state helps us to know that the social worker is not powerless within the bureaucracy but develops forms of resistance and subversion to the bureaucratic edicts under which they are supposed to operate. They do this on behalf of their 'users of the service'. In turn, the 'users of the service' develop their resistance and subversion in relation to the social workers in order to gain their ends. Hence, although an individual social worker may not change the world or even influence their agency they are able to help people to make changes to their lives by such repositioning of themselves. They may only make small changes but if those changes help individuals to realise more of their potential then they are significant changes. If these concepts can be conveyed to social workers it may help them to appreciate the impact of their work.

Another result is that analysis provides a theoretical framework with which to examine and understand the 'truth' of the 'users of the service' and incorporate this into the 'truth' of the planners of the service making changes to how we see the provision of services. In other words, unless we can conceptualise how we think social work is delivered we cannot begin to think what changes will make services more accessible to those who need them. If we do not incorporate other 'truths' than our own into the education of social workers and the planning and delivery of services then social work will cease to have both care and control elements and become simply a control mechanism.


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Mills, S. (2003) Michel Foucault. Abingdon: Routledge.

Osmond, J. & O'Connor, I. (2004) Formalizing the unformalized: Practitioners' communication of knowledge in practice. British Journal of Social Work 34, 677-692.

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Reed, M. (1993) Organisations and modernity: Continuity and discontinuity in organisation theory. In Hassard, J. & Parker, M. Postmodernism and Organisations. London: Sage.



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