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What is the future of social work?:

In conversation with Michael Reisch

[Transcript of this podcast is found in the Reference tab below]

These are tough times. Several decades of neoliberal ideologies in politics and social policy has affected social work. Austerity measures are delivering further blows to the delivery of welfare and higher education. Michael Reisch talks to us about the future of social work through a critical lens.

Michael Reisch is the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. A former Woodrow Wilson Fellow and Fulbright Scholar, he has held faculty and administrative positions at six major U.S. universities, and in Europe, Asia, and Australia, and leadership positions in national, state, and local advocacy, professional, and social change organizations. He has published and presented widely on the history and philosophy of social welfare and social work, social justice concepts and practice, and contemporary policy issues. His work has been translated into ten languages and he has lectured in Asia, Australia, Europe, and Latin America. His books include The Road Not Taken: A History of Radical Social Work in the U.S.; From Charity to Enterprise: The Development of American Social Work in a Market Economy; Social Work in the 21st Century; The Handbook of Community Practice; Social Policy and Social Justice; and For the Common Good. Forthcoming books include The International Handbook of Social Justice, Politics and Social Work, and Social Work Practice and Social Justice. He has directed political campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels in four states and been honoured by the Maryland General Assembly, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the National Association of Social Workers, and numerous local and national nonprofit organizations and universities.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2013, June 1). What is the future of social work: In conversation with Michael Reisch [Episode 52]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/what-is-the-future-of-social-work/.

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Transcription Podsocs 52: What is the future of social work? In conversation with Michael Reisch

Thank you to Jessica Geron for this transcription

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
This morning on Podsocs we have Michael Reisch from the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, Michael is the distinguished Professor of Social Justice. Michael welcome to Podsocs.

Michael: Thank you Patricia, it’s good to be here

Tricia: And you’re talking to us from Maryland this morning

Michael: Yes, I’m in my office in Baltimore

Tricia: Michael I’ve just read your article entitled ‘What is social work?’ in the Critical Social Work journal. Would you like to tell us a bit about how you came to write on this topic?

Michael: Well, the full title of the article is ‘What is the future of social work?’ and I’ve been interested in looking at the future of social work for at least 20 years now. I’ve been very interested not only in the United States at both the local and national level but also internationally about the changes that have occurred in social welfare systems and the practice of social work as a result of global political and economic changes and the ideological rationalisations that have accompanied them. So, when this new journal came out I was very pleased to have an article published in its premier issue. I met the editors of the journal in Hong Kong in June of 2010. We were on a panel together there that was very well attended about issues related to social justice and social work and developing a sort of social work of resistance against some of the major global and local trends that are affecting not only social policy but also the quality and character of social work practice. So, I have been very concerned about these trends. I see them in my practice in the community obviously, in the material that gets published, and the policy changes which have occurred in the United States particularly in the last 30 years

Tricia: So, Michael what have been some of those trends?

Michael: Well, I think the major trend has been that the basic philosophy of social welfare which dominated, at least in the western world for much of the 20th century or at least since the 1930s and 40s in the 20th century, has been eroded by the processes of globalisation and the political and economic consequences. So that social work and the philosophy of social work which had combined in the west at least some elements of individualism and, you know, individual responsibility, and individual agency with some other qualities of socialism in terms of collective responsibility for human need, has really been undermined. I think what we’re seeing now, whether you call it neoliberalism or a resurgent individualism, is that the idea that we have a collective responsibility for human wellbeing not just for those people on the margins of society, but for all of us is being eroded by powerful political and economic forces and the ideological rationalisations that have accompanied them. We see this in the United States for example in the implementation of welfare reform, in cut backs to social services at the local, state, and national level. To the prioritisation of individual responsibility at virtually every area of social policy, from education, to health care, to welfare and I understand from my travels and my reading, that similar trends are going on in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and many countries in Western Europe as well. So many of the nations that were among the pioneers in establishing the idea of the welfare state are seeing dramatic changes. They sometimes go under slightly different names but it’s a similar effect throughout the world and from my contact with other colleagues I think it’s not only a process that is affecting the distribution of resources in terms of social policies but it’s also affecting the nature of social work practice

Tricia: Michael you talk about social work having become a very conservative profession, is that because of those influences?

Michael: Oh, I think definitely. Social work, I can speak best about the United States of course, but I think social work has always been very sensitive to the political, social, economic and cultural currents of the period. But, for certain periods in social work for example the turn of the 20th century and in the 1930s and part of the 1940s and maybe again in part of the 60s social work also represented, or at least fragments of social work represented, what I would call a counter narrative to the prevailing dominant narrative in society. This counter narrative was expressed not only by radical social workers but even by social workers who were more liberal reformers and the counter narrative was one that said that society does have an obligation to help those who are disadvantaged and marginalised and excluded and this lead social work to promote a variety of reforms and structural changes in society, raging from old age assistance to health care and public health and the promotion of a lot of social services to help those vulnerable populations. I think social work often without acknowledging it has been strongly influenced not only by the fiscal austerity but also as a result of major changes that have occurred in the philosophy of science and how we’re defining research. What are the kinds of questions that we even ask in terms of our scholarship and research? So, this is all against the backdrop of course, which has been a strong influence on social work through its history, and that is the desire to develop and maintain professional status and I would say that in the last 20 or 30 years at least in the United States, the desire to retain whatever tenuous professional status social work has in the United States, has lead it to embrace certain ideas about research practice and policy that are reflective of the conservative trends that have occurred in the broader society. The irony of course is that social work continues to espouse the rhetoric of social justice. In fact, in the latest revisions of the code of ethics, the National Association of Social Workers in the United States established social justice as one of the 6 ethical imperatives of the profession and the Council on Social Work Education which is the accrediting body of all schools of social work in the United States has said that social work schools both at the baccalaureate and the masters’ level should teach students to work for social and economic justice. Now if you took a step back and look at those phrases, those are pretty powerful political statements. Yet if you look at the actual practice of social work and the actual direction of social work education it seems to be in a contradictory direction, so the rhetoric is not matched by the practice in any sense.

Tricia: Have we lost our critical edge? Are we just accepting neoliberal concepts of our client groups about social problems, about how to solve them?

Michael: I think to some extent, but I don’t want to criticise the entire profession because there are social workers and social work educators in virtually every nation that are still maintaining a critical edge. But I think the dominant voices in the profession despite the rhetoric of social justice and concern for vulnerable and disadvantaged populations has basically adopted, without acknowledging it and maybe almost not consciously, the underlying values and ideology of neoliberalism. For example, there has been a lot of research lately in the mental health field in the United States for children adolescents and adults about the concept of resiliency. Now resiliency is important for people to survive under very unfavourable social and economic conditions. But, by focusing on resiliency rather than resistance that’s just one way in which the profession has basically acknowledged it is the responsibility of individuals to survive in an increasingly tenuous political, economic, and social environment, rather than the responsibility of society to correct the forces that are creating that tenuous situation. I think that’s just one example. I think the focus on evidenced based practice in an uncritical way by many social work scholars is another example. No one is going to argue that we need to provide evidence that our policies and programs are effective. Of course we need to do that or we would have no credibility, but the definition of what constitutes evidence and the attempt to apply essentially a paradigm that is derived form the physical science to the social and behavioural science where the fit is not very appropriate means that a lot of different kind of critical thinking and a lot of different kinds of research that would investigate the problems that people in the community in which we work are experiencing are not asked and are not given equal credibility in the academic literature. If that is the reflection of a lack of a critical edge then I would agree with your question. I think it’s also that that kind of thinking, whether you call it critical thought, or radical thought, or political thought, is increasingly discredited in the profession. It’s labelled as unscientific, it’s labelled as not scholarship but advocacy and I think that the strength of the social work profession has always been, at least in the United States and the other nations with which I am familiar. That its combined scholarly rigour with its political values, in terms of the kinds of questions that it asks, an examination of the structural roots of people’s problems, a refusal to trace the problems of people to their individual deficiencies or deviance, but rather to look at the broader social causes and environmental causes of people’s problems. That has always been a characteristic of social work at its best which has resisted the major, the dominant narrative in society, that looks at people and their problems as emanating from their own deviance or moral deficiencies or other negative qualities.

Tricia: Michael, we’re living in a world where inequality is increasing, we have climate change, there’s marginalisation of groups, immigration fears, so much happening. Yet social work seems to be very quiet generally on a lot of these issues and I often think, where is social worker’s voices in the media and on these issues? Do you have a thought on that?

Michael: Well, as someone who tries to get my big mouth in the media as often as possible I’m concerned about that. I think there are very few people, I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but there are fewer public intellectuals in social work than there used to be in the past. If you look back at history of social work in virtually every country in which social work has been prominent, social work was not only active in terms of practice in the community and in terms of publication but was also very visible to the public in terms of articulating certain positions about social and economic issues. One of the things which tweaked my attention in the mid-1990s was an article in a literary journal in the United States, which was basically directed at the mass literate public and it posed the question; If you want to become more familiar with the 2 major domestic policy issues, which at the time were welfare reform and health care reform, which books should you read? And they asked about 10 scholars if they could name 3 books that they would recommend to the public, and what was fascinating about that is that here are 2 issues which are clearly in the domain of social work and none of the scholars they asked were social workers and none of the books recommended by the scholars were written by social workers. I remember reading a short little article, what really struck me, here we are a field that has been so prominent in pushing for health care and public health measures, and so prominent in bringing the attention of the public issues of poverty and inequality and here are 2 major policy initiatives that are being debated and we were virtually invisible in the process. Now I don’t know if that’s true in other nations, but it was certainly true in the United States and that was in sharp contrast to policy debates that have occurred in previous eras in which social work was both visible in the media and in the political domain, but also behind the scenes in policy making playing a very critical role. Social workers are not playing that role to that same extent that they used to and I think that is very unfortunate because we have a lot to add to that discussion. One more comment on this, the changes that have occurred in social work research and scholarship and the pressures that those changes have placed on faculty in school of social work at least in the United States has made a dramatic impact on the kind of things that people publish and the audience they are targeting. Many of our younger faculty are producing excellent research but they are being published in journals in which there is a very limited readership, they are not thinking about, or considering disseminating their research to a wider audience through, literary periodicals, newspapers, public speaking, testimony before legislators, and the like. Now, I came into the field from a different perspective, I was an advocate and a community organiser before I was a social work faculty member, so I still consider that my role in the university gives me a small platform in which to express my ideas and the results of my research, but many junior faculty came into the field from a different path and with a different perspective so while their research could be very useful in shaping public opinion on a very wide range of issues, it’s not being used for that purpose and as a consequence the debate is dominated by people with other perspectives. Not only other disciplines, but also other ideological perspectives and that shapes the way the public views issues ranging from child welfare to services for the elderly, and as long as we cede that ground not only to other disciplines but to people from other political and ideological perspectives, the values we hope to implement through our scholarship policy practice will be marginalised and I think that’s what happened in the last 2-3 decades

Tricia: So, Michael how do we change this? Do we need to revisit some old lessons, or reconnect with old roots?

Michael: Well, I think that’s a first step. I think we need to be more self-effacing. We need to need to look at the gap between our rhetoric and the reality of our practice, both in higher education and in the community and in the policy arena and ask ourselves, are we truly committed to implementing the values that we espouse in all of our professional documents? If we are, what’s the best way to do that within the current climate, and how do the educational, research, and practice processes that are in place facilitate or impede our ability to implement those values into practice. I think we have to ask ourselves those hard questions and I don’t think anyone can answer them in any arena but we have to ask them. It’s striking as I go around the United States, how many schools of social work have phrases like ‘social justice’ and ‘working with oppressed and marginalised populations’ in their mission statements, yet if you look at the curricula of many schools of social work, if you look at the scholarship of many social work scholars it has very little to do with those topics. We don’t teach as much about poverty and inequality as we used to. There are fewer articles written about it by social workers, either in journals or the public media than there used to be. We are not asking the same kind of structurally based questions that social works scholars and researchers used to ask and examine. There are other scholars in other disciplines that are doing that, but not social work anymore. We are focusing primarily on issues affecting individuals and families. While those issues are very important and we need of course to help individuals and families, we are not addressing the environmental and structural causes. Now I am speaking primarily of the United States, I can’t be critical of people in other nations with which I have much less familiarity. In fact, when I have travelled around many countries within all continents I find more social workers there have a political and social conscience than they do in the United States even though our rhetoric is very similar.

Tricia: What’s our hesitancy about being political?

Michael: I think we are afraid to lose the tenuous professional status that we have.

Tricia: Because social work has been devalued to a certain extent in neoliberal trends hasn’t it?

Michael: Well I think elements of social work. The elements which stress collective responsibility which look at the community as a focus of intervention, those have been devalued. I think that those elements of social work which focus on strengthening individuals, and individual coping strategies have been valued. I think that’s why so much social work scholarship and so much of social work programs and the funding sources in both public and private are emphasising those kinds of issues where they provide their resources.

Tricia: And certainly, welfare has taken a hit in Australia and the UK as well and maybe part of it is trying to survive within that system

Michael: I think that’s true and I’ve spoken to some of your colleagues in Australia and other colleagues in Great Britain and the trends there are very similar. I mean look at the US welfare reform that was passed in 1996 during the Clinton administration, look at the title of the legislation, it is so clear that it reflects the ideology of neoliberalism, it was called, ‘the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act’. That was the title of it, and if you look at the preamble to the legislation which goes on for a couple of pages, it basically articulates a neoliberal view of why people are in need of welfare assistance. It doesn’t look at what’s going in in the broader economy, in which many of the kind of jobs which people used to be able to obtain which would provide them with a living wage are gone. It doesn’t address the issue of growing inequality of course, and that has become even worse since the legislation was passed in 1996. That embodies it. Another is if you look at the recent healthcare reform that was passed in 2010 in the United States, despite the fact that it will make some improvements in the coverage of health care and some improvements because it is emphasising preventive care, it still places responsibility primarily on the individual to purchase health insurance and it still relies on markets rather than government to provide that. These are all reflective of the prevailing neoliberal paradigm

Tricia: So, in some ways have we become agents of those ideologies which really in some ways are at odds with our social work values and roots of the profession

Michael: I would say so and I think that social work has always faced that dilemma even in the eras in which it was more reform or radically minded. There were persistent criticisms that social workers particularly in the public sector, were becoming agents of social control. I think even under the most optimal circumstances that is always going to be a tension within the field and I think we have to address that tension, to what extent are we agents of change and to what extent are we agents of social control. People have been writing about this for a long long time. So, I think that that is a dilemma that, you know, is always going to be with the profession given where our sources of funding come from and the role that social work plays in our societies, but I think that has become more prominent in the last 20-30 years than before and the sad part about it is that it is not acknowledged.

Tricia: So, the first step is recognising and revisiting that tension and keeping an awareness of that?

Michael: Exactly. I mean there have been scholars in several counties that are writing about the role of social workers in what is sometimes called the new disciplinary regime which is reflected not only in welfare but also behavioural health and education, juvenile justice, criminal justice, and so forth. I think that a first step would be to recognise what has happened to the nature of our practice. The theories underlying practice. The research that we used to buttress or rationalise our practice and then how all those things are communicated through the educational process. I think that that might be a very painful step to take but I think it’s a very necessary step if we are going to take any corrective measures.

Tricia: So, Michael we’ve got a few minutes left. Where to from here for social work?

Michael: That’s a tough question.

Tricia: It is too!

Michael: I tend to be optimistic. I like Gramsci’s quote ‘Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will’. So, I like to be optimistic, I think that there are some positive trends occurring in many many nations. Greater concern about the impact of climate change and the environment, greater emphasis on the creation of interesting multicultural coalitions, partnerships with people in the community. A lot of this is happening around the world at the local level. I think the challenge is to bring it to scale, regional, or national levels. To develop greater avenues for international cooperation around issues which all nations are experiencing right now. I think that the best we can do is to try to promote awareness within the arenas in which we have some limited influence and control. That can be at the local or state level, provincial level in certain societies, within our professional organisations and so forth and constantly speak out around these issues, try to affect the public discourse around these issues. Raise the questions that need to be raised, challenge the prevailing assumptions, correct the myths that keep getting repeated ad nauseum in the media, address the gap between our rhetoric and practice, not in ways that are antagonistic, just try to tell people ‘this is what’s going on, what do we need to do to bridge that gap between our rhetoric and reality?’. I believe very strongly that my colleagues truly share those values, I don’t think that they are just glibly reciting those values for the purpose of making themselves look good, I think that they sometimes struggle with how to translate those values into meaningful ways into our scholarship teaching and practice. I think that we need to have those conversations at a local level and then share them through journals, conferences, other national and international venues and maybe get some good ideas from other sources.

Tricia: Michael thank you very much for being on Podsocs.

Michael: You’re very welcome, I wish you all the best with your program.

Tricia: Thanks Michael.

[Musical outro 27.32 to END]

Interview ENDS: 27.55