The rise of the New Social Work Bohemians and the death of Radical Social Work

I loved radical social work back in 1995 when I started to train as a social worker. It was edgy, different, reflected the culture of the home I grew up in and allowed me endless opportunity to debate in the halls of North Hertfordshire college. The trouble was that by the 90’s radical social work was taught as a thing of the past, an intervention that actually had no intervention. Its only focus to radicalise the oppressed and shout a bit louder. Radical social work as an idea seemed to already be dead and ridiculed as I traversed my way through two years of DiPSW learning.

There was definitely an element of romanticism that attracted the 24 year old me to these models of social work and the writings of Roy Bailey, Mike Brake and others. In them I could see the conversations that happened around me as a child growing up, ward party meetings, debates and days spent at marches and rallies with my mum and dad. I loved the marches especially, the police officers always seemed to have a ready supply of sweets that they willingly shared with all the kids. So you can see how the ideas of radical approaches to social work and equality would appeal. But had i missed the boat, had radical approaches in social work had a very brief moment and been proven to be ineffective? That was certainly the learning I left college with.

I have often pondered the fate of radical social work and the impact it had if any on modern social care systems and social work practice.The rise of care management would suggest that it had very little impact as an enabler of equality. The case work model heralded as the early driver of social work relationship based practice had become the core model of social work through the 70s and 80s. For me, it seemed to have one drawback as a social work tool, it wholly looked at the individual as the source of the required change rather than the wider societal constructs that shaped and sustained individuals distress and inequality. From this model of case management, the seeds of care management seem to have grown. Developed as the ideal approach to deliver commissioned, prescription based care and focusing the causes of need at the individual level. Not in a way that allows for self empowerment and choice but one that meets perceived self failure with risk aversion and control dressed up as meeting need. The much maligned NHS and Community Care Act served in many people’s eyes as the legal bludgeon that forced through these new approaches. This Act at its heart was the first major attempt to reform care and introduce the small steps towards inclusion. It did however herald the dawn of care management, Social work as a tool of assessment to buy interventions. The industrialisation of social care was well and truly born.

If radical social work had anything positive to offer surely we would have seen it shaping care management and more importantly the ability of people it worked with to live the lives they wanted. If you took the teachings of North Hertfordshire College in 1995 you would know that the core concept of radical social work was to tell the individual you worked with to ‘man the barricades’ and demand their rights and as a social worker to stand right there next to them. One lesson 45 minutes long and what I thought was going to be a detailed analysis of social works role in resisting oppression and ensuring equality became nothing more than ‘well, we have to mention it in the syllabus’.

To a certain extent they were correct, in that they only taught the purely political concepts as set out in mainstream social work academia of the 90’s. An approach that I think social work academia has never recovered from. The chasm that many talk of between academia and practice for me started in that lesson. What those lecturers seemed to miss or not be willing to acknowledge was that the idea of radical social work had permeated much more than giving a narrow political message. Those approaches set out before my time of practice set a very firm foundation for some of the concepts we now take for granted.

At this point, in a parallel universe (well the first draft), this blog then launched in to comment on the chasm that had grown between social work academia and front line practice. I also attempted to prove that without radical social work and the joining of social work with disability activists groups, social care would not have embraced personalisation or advocacy, inclusion or human rights. However, much cleverer people than I explore these in articles and debates elsewhere but this blog wasn’t meant to be about what radical social work was and what it achieved but rather to state that it is a thing of the past.

Radical social work is dead, partly killed by the fact that radical is the new black, mainstream and compliant. Partly strangled by the horror I feel when listening to a speaker and they introduce themselves as a radical social worker but then go on to explain that what they do is what every social worker should do. They may well be a radical social worker but I don’t know what that means anymore and I’m not sure how it is reflected in modern day practice, more importantly how it benefits people. There is nothing radical in upholding people’s human rights, it’s what we do.

In a practice world where radical social work no longer exists something slightly different may be filling the void. Something that can only be described as the rise of the New Social Work Bohemians. Partly because I love a good name but more importantly because the history of the bohemian movement is increasingly reflected in this branch of social work.

The term radical seems to have shifted from its natural descriptor “believing or expressing the belief that there should be great or extreme social change” to one that describes radical approaches as characterised by a departure from tradition; innovative or progressive change. The shift of radical ideas in health and social care seems now to be the domain of management models and a way of re-branding change programmes.

At its core this tips a nod to the traditions of the past. Radical thinking of previous decades is often what has defined current policy. Think personalisation, advocacy, human rights as a core to practice and the foundation of all modern care law. But now there are dedicated NHS websites calling for the radicalisation of its staff and offering training on how to be radical with a School for Health & Care Radicals. There is nothing wrong with this organisational approach to new ideas, however, organisationally owned and led ideas can never be truly radical. That is not to say you can’t have radical ideas from within health and social care and implement them but this is generally done despite the system not because of it. Radical ideas from practitioners grow and challenge the system they cannot be commissioned by it. The modern penchant for reactive short-term responses to perceived wicked questions within health and social care is as far removed form any idea of radical thinking as you can get yet seems to want to wholly align itself to the concept, or at least the terminology. As I say radical social work is dead. So is radical nursing if there ever was such a thing!

In 2014 I was lucky enough to host an event at which Lyn Romeo the chief social worker was present. It was a positive event looking at social work taking back and owning its own destiny of practice, driving community social work and strengths based approaches. We had a question time panel and one of the questions put to Lyn was “is social work an art or a science”. A great question. Lyn’s answer as I recall was that it was both. This is so true, social work is both. A profession based on research and evidence that works alongside people to effect change but one that also requires artistic responses and freedom of thinking to create something new with people. More importantly it requires a capacity for love in its infinite forms, the acceptance of humans as unique individuals that may require a truly creative relationship to overcome the rigid discriminations of society.

Whilst inequality in society has been a constant its inherent discriminations ebb and wane in their public support. At a time where there appears to be an increased tolerance of ill-informed and stereotyped discrimination, let alone an outwardly vile application of such abhorrent principles  dressed up as political view points, you will generally see the rise of Bohemianism. Predominantly in the Arts and historically in the youth culture but now increasingly more so in the new social work movements and ethos. A collective of practitioners committed to ideas of equality in their truest form, creatively shaping a social work response in the post Care Act world, seeking to end the incarceration and commodification of people.

In a world where the delivery of social care and social work is tougher than I have ever experienced before you see something new emerging. There is a clear momentum of creative social work. In part embedded in the old heart of social work but driven by a new desire, an enhanced application and will to create. Whilst Kate Tempest tells us why Europe is lost or others gaze upon KRANKENHAUS (HOSPITAL) by Maria Lassnig or The Blindfolded Man by Marlene Dumas, Social work is changing and joining these creative Bohemian opportunities.

The growth of social media and the ability to connect is a key driver in these new ideas. Now not only can social work across the UK start to connect and share but social work across the world is beginning to influence at an international level. The art of the Blog has been harnessed by many to share new ideas and thinking, no longer shackled by the dogma and rigidity of a singular academic approach but driven by a passion to shape and harness something new in our profession. Casting a nod to the 17th-19th century pamphlet writers, seeking equality and citizenship at the individual and community level, influencing policy and direct action. Across the internet you can see growth in the insightful and challenging commentary of social work and social care. All of these offerings can only be relevant if you understand the reality people face and live everyday, you only have to look at what surely must be the Samuel Peeps of 21st century London @MarkNeary1 and his insight into social care.

The marking of a life taken embodied in the Justice for LB quilt is yet another reminder of the power of art. I have followed the campaign every step of the way using it to question my own practice and reflect through a previous blog. The quilt for me was an image that defined the pain but also the creativity that would not let a young mans death be forgotten or unanswered. The stories and creativity of @sarasiobhan images have to be felt by social workers to shape what they do. We must understand that statements of human rights and radical practice from social workers are meaningless if they do nothing  more than fill a conference slot.justice-quilt-preview-2-justiceforlb-8-638

For me Twitter has played a huge part in not just sustaining my knowledge and learning at a real level but has connected me to a wider network of social workers and inspirational people in the social care world. Individually developing something new, something shaped by people not done unto them. Creating challenge through examples such as the #unwisedecision day. This event sought to highlight the ludicrous subjectivity that many public sector professionals apply to their practice. The Social Worker sharing their unwise decision about chocolate, sex or alcohol was not a flippant piece of publicising but one that highlighted the perceived worth of people by some that would refuse such a life for others. The key was a collective act across the country at the same time. Not to get people to follow the law, although that would be a great by product, but to grow the idea beyond the perception that people are allowed to make unwise decision to one where the creative delivery of social work makes it a reality.

Many a self proclaimed modern ‘radial social worker’ will tell you they are because of their drive to promote people’s human rights and deliver choice and control. No, sorry that is your job not a radical approach. If we believe radical is doing what we are supposed to do then it is no wonder that the term has been hijacked and used as confirmation of the new ‘change management style’. If you need proof have a look at the PCF

Social workers recognise the fundamental principles of human rights and equality, and that these are protected in national and international law, conventions and policies. They ensure these principles underpin their practice. Social workers understand the importance of using and contributing to case law and applying these rights in their own practice. They understand the effects of oppression, discrimination and poverty.

Recognises the contribution of social work to promoting social justice, inclusion and equality
Is receptive to the idea that there may be conflicts in the social work role between promoting rights and enforcing responsibilities.

See, we were supposed to be doing that all along

Obviously the world of social media can also engage those in our profession who cannot see beyond the negatives, engaging in a self promoting downward spire of doom. Don’t get me wrong, debate and questioning is excellent indeed vital to enable the continued growth of the job many of us love. However, the trap of critiquing continually without suggesting solution or responsibility will only play out in your practice and well being. As the No1 New Social Work Bohemian once said “being a social worker is an honour. If it ever stops feeling like an honour then stop doing it”

Social work has to be so much more than the application of legislation. It has to embrace the responsibility it has to people. A responsibility it is granted by society, not one it owns to deliver. We can and should hold on to the very elements that took us on this journey in the first place. Celebrating all that was right in the social work models of the past and merging them with not just the evidence of todays research but the desires and creativity of people’s aspiration, assets and strength. Social work has to earn it’s right to enter living rooms, walk the streets, sit on park benches and at peoples bedsides. Knowing and delivering much more than the forms you clutch has to be a given or you have no right being there. Indeed if we proffer forms and abdicated the responsibility of our role to citizens our profession will die.

Modern social work is well placed and key to understanding  and mitigating the inherent failings of reactive ideas, policy and commissioning that trips up its own outcome due to narrow thinking. The ability to understand beyond the systems yet work within them, moulding what is good with what is progressive, is an art. An art that social work can bring. One that should be inherent whether you are a case holding frontline worker a manager or any other role. We are a single profession defined as such not by a qualification but a common value base and belief. If you haven’t taken those steps towards the positive new age of social work or if you have drifted from its path then come and join in.

Social work has to be part of the solution. In a time desperate for strong professionals with a will to fight positively through dark days we need to respond. Its to easy to become the negative face of adversity when times are tough. I read a tweet not long ago that stated “We need social work in every area to put right what is wrong in society”. Now I may be misinterpreting the intent of this tweet but it is so wrong, wrong in every way. We are not the custodians of society, we need to learn to be part of it, in fact we need to ask humbly if we can come and play again. Then and only then on an equal footing can we work alongside people and create opportunity, not risk averse application that does unto. That’s why we need to join and start to be part of the solution

So what is a New Social Work Bohemian?, the very question I was asked on Twitter recently, Well how about this; ‘Positive, progressive, creatives with a humanist understanding of the art of people, cultures, love and a dash of science to add colour. We are certainly not there yet but every member is doing something new, something beyond the rigidity of purest models of the past and the pressure of the money or lack of. Creating with citizens, making the tears bearable the opportunity real, the ends of life the best they can be and the next generations ready to drive us forward.

You don’t need to sign up or tell everyone you’re a New Social Work Bohemian just go create.










9 thoughts on “The rise of the New Social Work Bohemians and the death of Radical Social Work

  1. Pingback: The rise of the New Social Work Bohemians and the death of Radical Social Work by @Mwharvey | National IRO Managers Partnership

  2. Perhaps social work would be best viewed as neither a science nor an art, but as a *craft* – an occupation that requires an ingrained understanding of its own underlying principles combined with a flair for creating elegant and satisfying solutions, but, above all, years of practice and getting one’s hands dirty, actually building things of visible, tangible and lasting value.

  3. From Keith Beniston – (retired Social Worker – ex Herts CC)
    Although I am retired from social work, I continue to follow developments in the field – including various twitter and blog sites. Your sites, (Twitter and Blog), are, of course, included in my regular reading and I was particularly interested to read your article on “The rise of the New Social Work Bohemians” In that article you refer to the 2014 event in which you put the question “Is Social Work a science or an art?” to Lyn Romeo. You may recall that the question was the one I submitted to you for inclusion on your list of questions for the event.
    Somewhat belatedly I must apologise to you for not thanking you at the time for including my question at the event. Furthermore, I must thank you now for describing this as a “great question”. Thank you.
    I recall the answers from the panel which included Lyn Romeo. Those answers did summarise to describe Social Work as being both an art and a science. I also recall that the panel members were pressed for time and were not able to offer much in the way of elaboration on their reasoning’s behind their answers. You now provide that elaboration in this blog.
    You state that:-
    “social work is both a profession based on research and evidence that works alongside people to effect change but one that also requires artistic responses and freedom of thinking to create something new with people. More importantly it requires a capacity for love in its infinite forms, the acceptance of humans as unique individuals that may require a truly creative relationship to overcome the rigid discriminations of society.”
    I agree. Social work is all of these things. I am sure that you will agree that it is also more than these things.
    If I were to answer my own question “Is Social Work a science or an art?”, I would want to include in the answer the concepts of ‘Logic’, and ‘Reason’. Let me expand, by way of a detour.
    Confucius has been attributed with saying many things. I read recently that some scholars believe that the first of his ‘sayings’ goes something like this –
    — “Wisdom begins by naming things correctly” —
    I do not know whether it is a fact that Confucius said this at all, let alone as the starting point for his works. I have read elsewhere that it was the Greek Philosophers who first proposed this axiom. I am quite happy to accept that it was either Confucius or the Greeks or even both. It is the axiom itself that I put forward as the starting point.
    If indeed “Wisdom begins by naming things correctly”, and we accept that this is a useful starting point, I now ask – “How wise is the term ‘Social Work’?”
    Put another way – “Does the name “Social Work” correctly ‘name’ that which ‘social workers’ do?”
    In short, are “Social Workers” correctly named in accord with who they are and what they do?
    If the answer is ‘Yes’, then, according to Confucius, ‘Wisdom’ prevails.
    If the answer is ‘No’, then there is no ‘Wisdom’ in so-called “Social Work”.
    I realise that am being somewhat mischievous in my logic here, but if you are willing to be patient with me I assure you that I am leading to a serious end point.
    I ask you to imagine that you get together a group of social workers and that you ask them to ‘name’ what it is they do. How likely is it, do you think, that they would name what they do as “Social Work”? I suspect that they would use words such as “assess”, “safeguard”, “care plan”, “promote independence”, “promote Rights”, etc etc…all good and proper terms to put forward, but somehow not complete as answer to the question.
    On the other hand, if you were to set up a separate and parallel exercise with a matched group of social workers and ask them to explain what “Social Work” is, I suspect that they would give the same list of answers.
    I suspect that for both groups the list would turn out to be very long.
    There would be the possibility in both groups that some participants might come up with a short list, and indeed might conclude: (i) Social Work is that thing that social workers do, or, (ii) Social Workers do that thing that is called ‘Social Work’. But whatever the groups and participants might conclude, everyone would acknowledge that they were not even close to an accurate answer.
    Bring the two groups together and ask a different question, however, and you might then get a different answer.
    Ask this third group “What is it that social workers do that no other worker, tradesperson, professional does?”. Would the answer be long or short? Would it include words such as “assess”, “care plan”, “safeguard”, promote rights” etc. etc.? I wonder?
    It seems to me that there is a ‘chicken or egg’ feel to the questions “What is Social Work?” and “What do Social Workers do?” The answer to one turns out to be the answer to both questions. Yet they are different questions and it is reasonable to assume that the answers should be different.
    After much thought and reflection, I give the short answers – (i) “Social Work is that thing that Social Workers do”, and (ii) “Social Workers do that thing which is called ‘Social Work’”. I confess that these are ‘cop out’ answers. I ‘cop out’ because even after nearly 40 years in the profession and even after 2 years of reflection in retirement, I find that I do not have a comprehensive and accurate list of the things that constitute ‘Social Work’. Neither do I have a comprehensive and conclusive list of what it is that Social Workers ‘do’. I just find it easier, therefore, to stick to the pithy answers. This does not mean, however, that I have no ideas at all. It means that I am still searching for the answers.
    It is vital to the credibility of the profession of “Social Work” that answers can be put together to these questions – “What is Social Work?” and “What do Social Workers do?”.
    The answers, whatever they are, are the things that guide, drive, and define what it is that Social Workers actually do ‘on the ground’ day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, as they do the thing that they do, whatever that is.
    The answers to these two questions, “What is Social Work?” and “What do Social Workers do?”, are the very templates that form the things that are Social Work and form the things that Social Workers do. Each and every Social Worker has to have answers to these questions in order to ‘know’ what it is they ‘are doing’, and in order to know what it is they ‘should be doing’, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
    The extent to which any Social Worker has arrived at the answers will be demonstrable in their day to day practice. It will be evident in terms of the affect that their practice has on those ‘others’ affected by it (be they ‘service users’, ‘carers’, ‘agents of other agencies’ or even the social workers own ‘managers’).
    If the Social Worker ‘knows’ what ‘Social Work’ is. If they can ‘name it’. If they can ‘name’ what it is they do. If by practice they can convey that ‘name’ to those others, then those others will ‘know’ that unquestionably, unarguably, unambiguously, and without dispute or complaint, that the Social Worker who is in front of them has the “Wisdom that begins by naming things correctly”.
    A Social Worker who can convey such ‘Wisdom’ may or may not be Bohemian, but they would certainly be ‘Radical’.
    As a final note, I return to your generous statement that my question “Is Social Work a science or an art” is a “great question”.
    Thank you for your statement, but I disagree. It is not a “great” question. It is, in fact, a closed question. It implies that Social Work is only a science, an art, or both. Social Work is clearly a lot more than these things. Social workers are more than ‘artists’ and/or ‘scientists’ – that much is self- evident. What Social Workers are, and what it is that they do that is called “Social Work” have to be ‘named’ and ‘explained’ in order for the profession to have credibility. Calling Social Workers ‘artists’ or ‘scientists’ does not explain or give credibility. They perhaps need artistic and scientific skills. But they need more than this. They need to be able to think clearly, reason objectively, be knowledgeable and be able to learn by experience – and a lot more besides!
    There must be the equivalent of a Nobel prize waiting somewhere out there for whoever does come up with the answers. In the meantime, the profession moves forward to a new era as it looks to the wisdom that will come from the Bill currently passing through Parliament. In part, at least, this Bill attempts to ‘name’ what Social Work is and what it is that Social Workers do. As far as I am aware, this is the first comprehensive attempt at this exercise in the history of the profession. What this signals to me is the fact that whatever it is that Social Workers do, and whatever it is that Social Work is, our society recognises that it is something valuable, that it is needed and that it is here to stay. This Bill proposes within it a space in which the profession can evolve its own answer to the questions, “What is Social Work?” and “What do Social Workers do?”. It is the responsibility of the profession to ‘name’ these things clearly.

    Keith Beniston October 2016

    • HI Keith, great other from you and thank you for your views. It’s probably a blog in its own right and i will post a link to Twitter as i am sure it will stir the debate further. Interesting view on the Bill as a positive opportunity for SW to define its role and future. I’m not sure thats how the popular debate is viewing it though may well be the reality.

  4. Perhaps you need to read Ferguson and Woodward (Radical social work in practice) and the like …. By the way – as an academic and a Children and Families sw practitioner (joys of two part time jobs) my feet are firmly in both camps and have been for 10 years or so. I can assure you that frequently in practice I see systems, corporations and individuals who do not operate in a ‘Radical tradition’ so completely reject the idea that it is now ‘mainstream’. The impact of cuts have profoundly impacted the families I work with – care applications are rising as families face stress and have few places to turn. If there is no need for Radical Social Work, why is it that 99% of the families I work with are either on benefits or in low paid jobs …

    • BB thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Interestingly your comments mirror the points i was making in the blog. Nothing radical in the mainstream, just because you call it radical. Also nothing radical in stating that SW is there to promote the human rights, equality and liberty of peoples amongst many other things, thats our job not radical. So where is the space for the radical SW and what does it look like in daily practice. This is what i wanted to explore, i’m not sure I suggested there was no need for radical in fact the opposite, just question what it is. It is so much more than just a title.

  5. Pingback: The Liberty Safeguards – the door is open for better social work | Last Quango in Halifax

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