Is Social Work Rocket Science?


Is social work complex, like rocket science? I am still not sure. I’ve heard social work be described as being harder than rocket science (which I suppose isn’t hard if you are an actual rocket scientist) and I’ve heard it described as being simple common sense (which I am always sceptical about). I think I have come to the conclusion that social work practice isn’t really complex but as the Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers said in 2018, it is working with complexity. Social work is deep in the messy stuff, the grey areas of life which is then fused with primary legislation and mixed with the social workers interpretation of what we think we see in the smallest snapshot glimpse of someone’s life. And like all our lives its murky, confused, confusing, laced with double standards and things that you just can’t properly explain to anyone.

Despite the million and one different variables in peoples lives we experience, I do think as social workers we can identify much of what we hear and see in terms of peoples well-being & security (which equals happiness maybe?) into four outcomes that Neil Crowther brilliantly blogged about recently –

Love, Work, Home and Hope.

People don’t tend to want more than these four things. Complexity might attract the ‘professional’ (those who are also drawn to blue lights, rushing into the Big Cases ready to be the Decision Maker), however the genuine complexity (i.e. the messy stuff which isn’t easily solved with a set of pink papers or a court order) is usually left to someone else to sort as the blue light professional moves on to their next case, never looking back to check on how the person’s life continues.

In my experience, of the four outcomes Hope is first among equals. Hope is about ambition, a belief in a better future not only for ourselves but for our families and others. Hope should be about ambitions without ever been dismissed as over ambitious. For social workers, I feel that working with people to enhance hope and opportunity, means that we need to be able to critically evaluate everything and mostly ourselves and our own worth to the person and their family and friends. Do we enhance the outcomes that people want? Do we enable relationships to thrive regardless of the difficulties they may cause us (anyone wish to displace this troublesome Nearest Relative?). Do we take a risk enabling approach to enhance relationships and help provide loving relationships to replace us? Do we genuinely strive to support people to achieve social status? To evaluate everything means to evaluate ourselves.

We are at our best when we believe in people. We are the only profession who is taught to do that. We believe that people are good and where they are not we work to alter factors around them to facilitate change and ensure good. To believe in people is to believe in hope. If the outcome is a nursing home what is our approach to hope and ambition within that? Do you remember this blog?

If Andrew actually needed something to provide for occupancy of his mind, and it wasn’t just that others thought he did, perhaps our job was to recognise and respect that he loved football. Not to dismiss what his voice, his wishes, feelings and beliefs and instead confer onto him our solution of restrictive day centres and so called ‘supported’ housing. If people want to scale an active volcano, or become prime minister, or race high speed cars, is it not our job to hear their voices and positively engage with their wishes, feelings and beliefs to help them construct the world they want for themselves? One in which they can experience happiness?

Maybe it’s time for us to slightly reframe ourselves as social workers. I have felt I have peddled a worn-out bag of care management tricks for years and generally the tricks don’t work. The very things we do to keep people ‘safe’ are the very things that expose them to classical health risks for dull, restricted and inactive lifestyles. Our illusion and box of tricks is seen through (just ask people with learning disabilities and their families), the tricks may be disappearing, but we remain – social workers laid bare without the tricks and care plans (including the less than visible ‘fairer’ charges’). Social work reclaiming its purpose, upholding social justice by advocating for values of inherent dignity, equality, democracy and freedom.

So, are we ready to stand beside people and their families now without claiming we have a bag of magic tricks?. Can we talk honestly about the illusion that are and instead be clear there are no complex short cuts to life and no day care or home care or care home that’s likely to mend the broken heart or fulfil potential or lead to a world of things that we might have? And if there are 4 things that people want and need, Love, Work, Home. Hope, what’s our role? These things are messy and will involve us exercising humility. We are not the professional expert. People and their families are the experts of their own lives that we really know so very little about. Our unique professional role may be keeping the hope alive.

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