1975 Radical social work
Refocusing social work, seeing more than the individual
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The decades after the Second World War witnessed the establishment of the welfare state according to Beveridge’s plans. Not only social security and in-cash aid expanded, but also the personal social services and in-kind support blossomed. There were abundant social work job opportunities and likewise, social work education grew extensively. The social work practice was heavily influenced by the work of Mary Richmond and the social casework methodology, as well as by the upcoming psychotherapy.
However, by the early seventies, while social work was under a lot of criticism from the political right about lack of efficiency and effectiveness, on the political left concern grew about the effects this approach to social work had. Social problems became individualised and the structural causes behind somebody’s problems disappeared out of view. By encapsulating social work into the direct relationship between service provider and client, the focus quickly came to lie on the client’s own responsibilities and what he or she could do to reduce the problems being faced. Features of society that caused social problems remained hidden and were not addressed in an attempt to improve social quality. In that sense, social work became a partner in crime in the culture of silence around social justice (see the work of Paolo Freire).

Dissatisfied with social work focusing too much on individuals and not addressing the social causes of distress, a number of practitioners launched Case Con, which described itself as a revolutionary magazine for social workers. The first issue appeared in 1970 and stopped being published in 1977 after 25 issues. The title Case Con referred to case conferences but also to the con, the dishonest trick, of reducing structural social problems to individual client`s own responsibility. In line with this, Case Con also published a manifesto in which it was argued social workers should try to change society in order to tackle the fundamental causes of social problems. Additionally, the magazine criticised the rise of managerialism in social work agencies and neo-liberalism as an increasingly dominating political paradigm.

It wasn’t however not until 1975 that radical social work gained some wider recognition. That year, Roy Bailey and Mike Brake published an edited book entitles Radical social work heavily criticising traditional social work (and social work education!) for being a-political. In 1980, the first book was complimented by Radical social work and practice. Both were well received within the social work community and gave radical social work not only an increased acknowledgement, but also some academic status and robustness.
Roy Bailey later became known as a folk singer.

Although during the eighties and nineties little was heard about radical social work, it re-emerged recently through the work of people like Iain Ferguson and Michael Lavalette and the Social Work Action Network (SWAN). Among other things, this new interest resulted in an updated manifesto (2004) and a new journal: Critical and Radical Social Work. Radical social work is also closely related to and sometimes the same as critical social work or structural social work. One could also argue policy practice being a segment of radical social work.

This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 05-2013
Date of latest revision: 06-2019

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