Theorising Social Work Research
Social Work: What Kinds of Knowledge? 26th May 1999, Brunel
Some Thoughts on the Relationship Between Theory and Practice in and for Social Work
Professor Nigel Parton (email) Centre for Applied Childhood Studies School of Human and Health Sciences University of Huddersfield Huddersfield HD1 3DH Tel: 01484 422288 Introduction
My purpose in this paper is to explore in a very initial way what I see as some central issues in trying to establish what is the nature of the discipline which is social work. In doing so I will argue that some of its central characteristics, particularly in terms of its various ambiguities, also make it a difficult discipline to put boundaries around. It is a discipline which is not only informed by other disciplines, but which is invariably seen as subservient to or dependent upon them.
Ironically the characteristic which is perhaps central to its rationale and raison d'être - its commitment to something called 'practice' - has until recently been seen to undermine its claim to being a proper intellectual pursuit which is able to point to its own knowledge base and research traditions. While the emergence of modern social work occurred in the nineteenth century at a similar time to many of the mainstream social sciences such as sociology, psychology, criminology and so on, social work is still seen as 'newer', 'younger', 'less developed'. This in itself is interesting and there is clearly a story to be told and some serious research and analysis to be done as to why this should be the case, but this is not my purpose here. My purpose is to consider the nature of knowledge for and in social work and in particular to argue that it is this theory/practice relationship which is worthy of our attention and which perhaps sets social work apart from the other social sciences.
Michael Sheppard (1995; 1998) has argued that when considering knowledge for social work we need to be concerned not only with theoretical validity, whether in epistemological and methodological terms a form of knowledge is valid, but also, what he calls, practice validity. By practice validity Sheppard is referring to the extent to which it takes a form which is consistent with the nature and purpose of social work, and it is with this issue we are primarily concerned here. What is it about social work that makes it distinctive from other professional practices, for example, law, medicine, therapy, counselling? And is there something about practice knowledge which differentiates it from attempts simply to apply knowledge from other disciplines, for example, the social sciences, to a particular area of social and professional activity? In order to address these issues it is important to locate social work in its particular social, political and historical contexts and identify some of the key factors which have influenced not only its development but its form.
While in recent years, as I will argue, social work has become legalised and proceduralised and there have been increasing efforts to scientise and rationalise practice and emphasise empiricism, outcomes and the 'evidence-based' movement, this has not always been the case.
These developments need to be tempered by a recognition that many of the earliest impulses for social work in the nineteenth century were fed by religious convictions about the nature of human struggles derived from the tremendous social and economic changes of the period. At the centre of much of this early social work were beliefs about the capacity of human beings for personal transformation and the opportunities that were required for meeting human needs. As Weick and Saleebey (1998) have argued 'the early moral and social orientations of the profession run deep in memory but they have become part of an increasingly silent language as the weight of the scientific world view suppressed these appreciations' (p.22). Throughout its history one of the central tensions has been between the scientific and the more humanist, client-centred approaches to practice. While the latter has perhaps lost out in recent years, it is a secondary part of my argument that this needs to be rediscovered. Not only will this help reinvigorate our understanding of theory/practice issues in and for social work but it will make a contribution to the way theory is thought about in the social sciences more generally.
These issues were nicely illustrated in a debate carried in The British Journal of Social Work in the late 1970s. In 1978 Brian Sheldon articulated what he saw as major problems in the relationship between theory and practice in social work and produced suggestions about how these might be overcome (Sheldon, 1978). Essentially he argued that the relationship between theory and practice was inconsistent and muddled and needed to be put on a much firmer footing. However, this was difficult in the context of: the social work education curriculum which was seen as eclectic; the negative attitudes by many in the profession towards science as a means of evaluating competing concepts; and the lack of any rigorous evaluation of practice itself. Drawing an analogy with the work of a pharmacist, his main suggestion for improvement was that some of the essential principles of science, particularly bio-medical science, should be drawn on as a model to improve the situation. His aim was 'to show that modern conceptions of the scientific process do not necessarily clash (either at a philosophical or a methodological level) with many of the accepted practices of social work; secondly, that science provides us with the key to the development of a cumulative evaluation of its different theoretical components. Thirdly, there are important similarities between the work of the researcher and that of the social work practitioner: both erect hypotheses about the possible relationships between events, and both ought to be required to pay attention to phrasing these so that they are placed at risk of refutation by subsequent work' (Sheldon, 1978, p.17, my emphasis). His solution to the problems of fit he identified between social work theory and practice resided with an injection of knowledge for practice derived and modelled from positivistic science. For 'if we wish to retain the advantages of personal evaluation (the immediacy and believability of the findings to those who gather them, for example) then something needs to be done to improve its reliability. My own solution involves a small injection of positivism - counterbalancing emphasis on what can actually be seen to have changed, rather than impressions of change inferred from conversation alone' (Sheldon, 1978, p.18).
What Sheldon was alluding to was a development which in recent years has gathered apace and can be seen as one of the major developments for trying to legitimate, defend and develop social work - the increasing attractions of evidence-based practice, where it is argued social work should primarily be grounded in research which demonstrates which strategies are beneficial to which clients, when and why. The conceptual framework emphasises a scientific base where predictive techniques about 'what works' are introduced to both work with the individual case and in the planning of services. The value of empirical findings about the circumstances of clients and outcomes from different interventions is seen as central. Such ideas share a common theoretical base in that they are seen as neutral and apply across the situations, contexts and problems faced by practitioners.
In the same issue of the British Journal of Social Work, Bill Jordan provided a critical commentary on Brian Sheldon's paper (Jordan, 1978). While sympathising with Sheldon's concerns about the way theory and practice in social work were interrelated, Jordan had major criticisms of Sheldon's analysis of the problems and his suggestions for their resolution. He felt that the analogy with pharmacy grossly simplified the way such occupations operated and exaggerated the positive impact of drugs on social and health well being. More particularly Sheldon seemed to have a very benign view of the nature and role of science in society and the way such knowledge, particularly the social sciences, can usefully be applied to and drawn on in social work, for Jordan felt that 'literature and poetry afford far more penetrating and meaningful insight into the human heart than psychological texts' (Jordan, 1978, p.25). Crucially it fails to understand the nature of 'helping' in social work for many of the 'problems' that come the way of social work cannot be 'solved' in any clear, measurable or calculative way.
Jordan argued that helping in social work has as much to do with caring and sharing as it is with changing things, which in some situations may deteriorate. Social work practice is influenced by far more complex and remote forces than 'a precise scientific knowledge for use' can encompass, and it is vitally important that social workers understand some of these forces if they are to work effectively. Jordan concluded by arguing that 'of course it is important for social work to try to evolve precise, testable theories. But it is also essential that it remains open to real moral, social and political dilemmas, and that it learns to live with inevitable uncertainty, confusion and doubt' (Jordan, 1978, p.25, my emphasis).
Along with Jordan I wish to argue that 'uncertainty, confusion and doubt' are key elements in characterising the nature of social work, and always have been. Rather than be embarrassed by this and try to define them out via increasingly scientised and rationalised approaches, we should recognise they are at the core of what it is to do social work and is a significant factor in what makes it distinctive. If this is the case they should form an essential part of any theoretical approaches which are serious about being useable in practice. What it also recognises is that issues which social work has been grappling with throughout its history around uncertainty, doubt, ambiguity and so on, have now been recognised by numerous social theorists as key characteristics of postmodernity, late modernity, the risk society, or whatever you prefer to call it. This provides, perhaps, a real opportunity for social work to draw on its experience to help and inform other areas of social science.
Social Work as a "rational-technical" or a "practical-moral" activity?
What the debate between Sheldon and Jordan points to, amongst other things, is how we can best understand and conceptualise the nature of day-to-day social work practice. Is it primarily a rational-technical activity or a practical-moral one? While the growth of managerialism, systems of audit, procedures, legalism and an emphasis on outcomes and evidence-based practice suggest it is the former, this is quite inadequate. While the proliferation of procedures and so on in most areas of social work aim to make practice more accountable and transparent, they render the social work process and the tacit assumptions upon which 'thinking as usual' takes place in practice immune from analysis. For even prescriptive assessment and monitoring schedules require interpretation and judgment to be made practical (White, 1998). These developments, however, are only the most recent example of the dominance of the rational-technical approach to understanding the theory/practice relationship.
The work of Donald Schön (1983; 1987) is instructive in this respect. While he is concerned with the nature of professional practice beyond just social work he argues that the technical-rational model has been embedded in the institutional context of professional life for many years. He sees it as implicit in the institutionalised relations of research and practice and in the normative curricula of professional education so that even when practitioners, educators and researchers question the model they have considerable difficulty challenging it as they are a party to the institutions that perpetuate it. Such an approach can be seen to epitomise what has come to be associated with modernity.
According to Schön the epistemology of professional practice which has dominated most thinking and writing about the professions treats rigorous professional practice as an exercise of technical rationality, that is as an application of research-based knowledge to the solution of problems of instrumental choice. Rigorous professional practice is conceived as deriving its rigour from the use of describable, testable, replicable techniques derived from scientific research and which is based on knowledge that is objective, consensual, cumulative and convergent. On this view social work becomes the application of rigorous social science in the same way as engineering becomes the application of engineering science.
However, Schön argues that such a model fails to capture how professionals operate and how they 'know' in practice, for problems are not presented in a way where such rational-technical approaches easily fit. Real-world problems do not come well-formed but on the contrary, present themselves as messy and indeterminate. Knowing in such situations is tacit and implicit in the practitioners' patterns of action and feel for what they are dealing with. It develops from dialogue with people about the situation, through which the practitioner can come to understand the uniqueness, uncertainty and potential value conflicts that must be addressed and thereby reaches 'a new theory of the unique case' that informs action. Practice-knowledge is thus derived from 'reflection-in-action' and emphasises interaction. Knowledge of this sort, Schön argues, not only provides a more accurate reflection of the theory/practice relationship but is more flexible and adaptable than technical rationality. Such an approach recognises that social work practitioners are not so much theoretical as they are practical, concrete and intuitive and incorporate elements of art and craft as well as disciplined reasoning. Social work characterised as art rather than science is a theme which has been lost in many recent discussions of social work, yet art has the virtue of being able to accommodate notions of ambiguity and uncertainty in ways which pose major problems for rational-technical approaches.
However, Schön's approach while suggestive is a generic theory of professional activity developed primarily from the experiences of private practice in the fields of architecture and design, as well as the human services, where the concern is the inappropriate way theory/practice are traditionally conceptualised. His introduction of the 'reflective practitioner' idea never seriously questions that practitioners, let alone those with whom they work, would not agree about the most appropriate way of reflecting and what would constitute the most appropriate outcome. While seriously trying to engage with the way practitioners operate, he never questions that this could ever be anything other than based on rational processes which can be understood and explained. A major problem with Schön's work is that it is not derived directly from observing practitioners in practice but from sessions where experienced practitioners in a tutorial role are attempting to explicate and pass on their knowledge to 'novices'. However, what people do and what people say they do, and how people think in action and how people reflect on the way they think in action, are not necessarily the same things. Even so Schön's work provides a number of insights into the nature of theory/practice in social work which pose serious questions about the applicability of the rational-technical model based on positivistic science.
In order to develop these insights further we will return to the work of Jordan who in various publications since 1978 (1979; 1984; 1987 and 1990, together with Jordan and Parton 1983) has taken forward his ideas in much greater detail. He argues that while social work, like medicine, the law, education or social security, is organised through a system of formal roles, linked to each other in a complex, hierarchical organisation which in turn is linked with others to form a network of social services under central and local government oversight, what is different about social work is not that it tries to influence individuals, families or communities - clearly it does - but that it goes about this in a certain way - through informal negotiation. Social workers are differentiated from workers in other services mainly by their willingness to forsake the formality of their roles, and to work with ordinary people in their 'natural' settings, using the informality of their methods as a means of negotiating solutions to problems rather than imposing them. Imposed, formal solutions are a last resort in social work, whereas they are the norm in other settings. The further social work moves from this situation the more it loses what is distinctive about it. Jordan argues that the uniqueness of social work is derived from the way it addresses issues of welfare that pays close attention to individuals' own understandings of their needs, and to the informal processes by which they cooperate together. He suggests that the success of a social work intervention should always be measured in terms of the meanings attached to behaviour by actors in their social context. 'This does not mean that social workers must become moralistic and judgmental - exactly the reverse. It means that they must become more sensitive to the significance attached to words and actions by clients and others, and to the subtleties of the processes by which people co-exist and cooperate in communities' (Jordan, 1987, p.143 my emphasis).
What this suggests is that issues around the nature of reflexivity which have been so much debated in social theory in recent years have been a part of social work for many years - but its significance has not been sufficiently developed.
The Changing Nature of Social Work
So how can we capture some of the central themes and characteristics of contemporary social work? Sheppard argues that: 'State social work may, then, be considered a socially constructed profession, in the sense that it has been created as a means for working with certain individuals who have been defined as socially problematic. Its focus is one on individual-environment interaction and its orientation is towards these individuals as subjects. It is in the combinations of these elements of concern, focus and orientation that social work may be most clearly "marked out". This formulation helps both define social work and to distinguish it from other activities' (Sheppard, 1995 p.52).
While I sympathise with Sheppard's characterisation, it is important to recognise that the notion of 'state' social work is not straightforward. For while many social workers are employed in state agencies - particularly social service departments - this is currently changing significantly and an increasing number are employed in large and small voluntary organisations with a growing number in the private sector. Certainly in other countries in North America and across Europe, social work is not and never has been as associated with the central and local state as it is in the UK. While the role of both voluntary and private organisations has become increasingly significant in the UK in recent years, particularly as they have taken on a growing profile as 'service providers', it is important to recognise that the state not only provides many of the resources for funding such services it has a growing and significant role in terms of inspection and regulation. In this respect the introduction of more and more audits, inspections, regulations, procedures and monitoring systems has not so much reduced the role of the state, but reconfigured it in important ways such that in some respects its significance has increased. As I will argue it is this relationship between the individual and the environment, as Sheppard calls it, or the relationship between the individual and society, as I prefer to call it, that is key to understanding the nature of social work, and it is the role of the state which is the major influence on the way this relationship is mediated and articulated in the UK.
The emergence of modern social work is associated with the transformations that took place from the mid-nineteenth century onwards in response to a number of interrelated anxieties about the family and the community more generally. It developed as a hybrid in the space, the 'social' (Donzelot, 1988), between the private sphere of the household and the public sphere of the state and society. It operated in an intermediary zone (see figure 1). It produced and was reproduced by new relations between the law, social security, medicine, the school and the family (see figure 2).
The emergence of the 'social' and the practices of social workers, who were to become its major technologists, was seen as a positive solution to a major problem for the liberal state (Hirst, 1981). Namely - how can the state establish the health and development of family members who are weak and dependent, while promoting the family as the 'natural' sphere for caring for those individuals and thus not intervening in all families? Social work developed at a midway point between individual initiative and the all-encompassing state. It provided a compromise between the liberal vision of unhindered private philanthropy and the socialist vision of the all-pervasive state which would take responsibility for everyone's needs and hence undermine individual initiative and family responsibility.
Issues in relation to the child exemplify these tensions: for children to develop their full health and sensibilities, they could not be left to the vagaries of the market and the autonomous patriarchal family (Dingwall and Eekelaar, 1988). The emergence of the 'social' was seen as the most appropriate way for the state to maintain its legitimacy while protecting individual children. For liberalism, 'the unresolved problem is how child rearing can be made into a matter of public concern and its qualities monitored without destroying the ideal of the family as a counterweight to state power, a domain of voluntary, self-regulating actions' (Dingwall, Eekelaar and Murray, 1983, pp.214-15).
Originally, with the emergence of modern industrial society, this activity was carried out by voluntary philanthropic organisations, and Donzelot (1980) argues that two techniques were of significance in their relationship with families, particularly on behalf of children -moralisation and normalisation. Moralisation involved the use of financial and material assistance which was used as a leverage to encourage poor families to overcome their moral failure. It was used primarily for the deserving poor who could demonstrate that their problems arose for reasons beyond their control. Normalisation applied to attempts to spread specific norms of living via education, legislation or health, and involved a response to complaints, invariably from women about men, and hence provided a means of entry into the home. In return for this guidance, and moral and minimal material support, philanthropic workers were given an insight into what was happening inside the home and leverage to bring about changes in behaviour and lifestyle. Clearly, however, there were problems if individuals did not cooperate or did not approach the worker in the first place, so that children were left to unbridled parental devices.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Britain, such philanthropic activities were increasingly absorbed into the formal institutions of the state. This process continued through to the early 1970s in the United Kingdom, with the introduction of local authority social service departments as the 'fifth social service' (Townsend, 1970), to operate alongside the other main state welfare services of education, health, housing and social security. While moralisation and normalisation were to be the primary forms of contact by social workers, this was increasingly framed in legislation which would also give the possibility for coercive intervention. Tutelage, as Donzelot (1980) calls it, based on the notion of preventive intervention, would combine a number of elements, though coercive intervention would be used for the exceptional circumstances where the techniques of moralisation and normalisation had failed.
One of social work's enduring characteristics seems to be its essentially contested and ambiguous nature (Martinez-Brawley and Zorita, 1998). Most crucially, this ambiguity arises from its commitment to individuals and families and their needs on the one hand and its allegiances to and legitimation by the state in the guise of the court and its 'statutory' responsibilities on the other. This ambiguity captures the central but often submerged, nature of modern social work as it emerged from the late nineteenth century onwards. Social work occupied the space between the respectable and the dangerous classes, and between those with access to political and speaking rights and those who are excluded (Philp, 1979; Stenson, 1993). Social work fulfilled an essentially mediating role between those who are actually or potentially excluded and the mainstream of society. Part of what social workers have sought to do is strengthen the bonds of inclusive membership by trying to nurture reciprocity, sharing and small scale redistribution between individuals, in households, groups, communities and so on. But part is also concerned with the compulsory enforcement of social obligations, rules, laws and regulations. The two are intertwined and invariably the latter provides the ultimate mandate for the former - it is in this context that social work involves both care and control. While it has always been concerned to liberate and emancipate those with whom it works, it is also concerned with working on behalf of the state and the wider society to maintain social order.
However, the latter has in more recent years increasingly became its dominating rationale so that the essential ambiguity which lies at its core appeared to become submerged and lost. For as the twentieth century proceeded the growth of modern social work in Britain became increasingly dependent on the development of, what came to be called, the welfare state which became its primary sponsor and which provided its primary rationale and legitimacy. As a result it mediated not only between other diverse state, voluntary and private agencies but also the diverse and overlapping interests and discourses which informed and constituted them.
Thus the essential ambiguities of social work were increasingly modified and became closely associated with the new forms of social regulation associated with the welfare state (Garland, 1985). The central focus of modern systems of regulation was the classification of the population based on the scientific claims of different experts. Increasingly, modern societies regulated the population by sanctioning the knowledge claims of the new human sciences, particularly medicine, psychiatry, psychology and social work - the 'psy complex' (Ingleby, 1985; Rose, 1985).
The 'psy complex' refers to the network of ideas about the nature of human beings, their perfectibility, the reasons for their behaviour and the way they may be classified, selected and controlled. It aimed to manage and improve individuals by the manipulation of their qualities and attributes and was dependent upon scientific knowledge and professional interventions and expertise. Human qualities were seen as measurable and calculable and thereby could be changed, improved and rehabilitated. The new human sciences had as their central aim the prediction of future behaviour.
For social work to operate quietly and in an uncontested way, it required a supportive social mandate together with an internal professional confidence and coherence. The latter, particularly in the period following the Second World War, was provided, as we have seen, from psycho-dynamic theory, while the professional aspirations veered towards medicine and psychiatry (Payne, 1992).Similarly, the growth of social work from the late nineteenth century onwards in the United Kingdom ran in parallel with, and was interrelated with, the development of social interventions associated with the establishment of the welfare state in the post-war period - what Rose and Miller (1992) refer to as 'welfarism'.
The key innovations of 'welfarism' lay in the attempts to link the fiscal, calculative and bureaucratic capacities of the apparatus of the state to the government of social life. As a political rationality, 'welfarism' was structured by the wish to encourage national growth and well-being through the promotion of social responsibility and the mutuality of social risk, and was premised on notions of social solidarity (Donzelot, 1988).
As Olive Stevenson (1998a; 1998b) has indicated, during the post-war period, social work was imbued with a degree of optimism which believed that measured and significant improvements could be made in the lives of children and families via judicious professional interventions. In the context of the institutional framework of the other universal state welfare services, while social work was constituted as a residual service, it was based on a relatively positive and optimistic view of those it was working with and of what could be achieved.
However, just at the point when social work emerged to play an important role in the welfarist project in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Britain, 'welfarism' itself was experiencing considerable strains in both its political rationality and technological utility. As a consequence, the rationale and activities of social work were particularly vulnerable to criticism and reconstitution as they could be seen to personify all that was problematic with welfarism.
The problems encompassed both the economic and social spheres, from the mid-1960s onwards. In the economic sphere, they included: a slow-down in economic growth (particularly in the UK compared to its western competitors); increased difficulties in controlling inflation; a gradual increase in unemployment; and a growth in proportional terms of the public sector in comparison to the so-called private productive sectors of society. In the social sphere they included: the rediscovery of poverty and significant areas of continued and growing social deprivation; the growth of violence in terms of crime, and various forms of social indiscipline; a decline in individual responsibility and attachments to the traditional nuclear family; and a failure of the various 'social sciences' and of the various social experts who operated them, to contribute to social well-being (Parton, 1994).
However, scandals and public inquiries into cases of child abuse have proved 'emblematic' of all that was seen as wrong with social work (Parton, 1985; Parton, 1998) and proved crucial in introducing a more legalised, proceduralised form of practice and hence losing many of the key elements of social work in terms of its moral-practical and humanist traditions.
The possibility of supplanting welfarism by a new rationality of government was provided by approaches informed by the New Right, often associated in Britain with Thatcherism (Levitas, 1986), which were increasingly dominant from the mid-1970s onwards. The central element of both the critique and recommendations for change was that not only the political rationalities but also the technologies of government pursued by 'welfarism' were themselves central to the problems and thus required fundamental change. Increasingly, it was argued that 'welfarism', in terms of its moralities, explanations, vocabularies and technologies, needed to be rethought, and that this indicated the need for a new form of government.
However, it would be simplistic to see the criticisms of social work policy and practice as arising simply from the anti-welfare New Right, for vocal criticisms were also voiced from the left, feminists, anti-racists, various user groups, and other professional and community interests, as well as from within social work itself (Clarke, 1993). What has happened, however, is that the critiques can be seen to have informed and consolidated a range of new strategies of government which we can term 'advanced liberal' and which includes the following key elements: extending market rationalities - contracts, consumers, competition - to domains where social, bureaucratic or professional logic previously reigned; governing at a distance by formally separating the activities of welfare professionals from the apparatuses of the central and local state and the courts; governing them by new systems of audit, devolved budgets, codes of practice and citizens' charters; and giving individuals new freedoms, by making them responsible for their own present and future welfare and the relations which they have with experts and institutions. No longer is the emphasis on governing through society - the social - but through the calculating choices of individuals (Rose, 1996).
It thus seems that recent years have witnessed a series of important changes in the nature of social work and in the context in which it operates - though clearly the two are closely interrelated (Parton, 1996). While in the twenty-five years following the Second World War the development of social work could be characterised as positive and optimistic, since the early 1970s there have been major changes, some of which can be seen as fundamental and dramatic.
With the demise of 'welfarism' social work seems to have not just been subject to criticism but no longer seems to play a central role in contemporary welfare developments. It is as if social work represents all that was wrong with the welfare state - soft, woolly, paternalistic and overly interventive and insensitive at the same time - 'the wimp and the bully' (Franklin and Parton, 1991).While the election of New Labour has brought in a government with new ideas there seems little doubt that there are some important continuities with the previous Conservative administration, in part arising from repositioning itself with new political constituencies. It has maximised its political advantage by aligning itself with the aspirations of the upwardly mobile and trading on their insecurities and fears of the socially excluded. The consequence is a politics of enforcement which is promoting policies of 'welfare to work', reducing the level of eligibility for social security benefits, and toughening policies on law and order. More specifically, New Labour argues that national prosperity is crucially related to the skills of the workforce so that education and training have become the key instruments for its 'social' programme. The principle of reciprocity applies to civic obligations so that rights imply responsibilities and benefits entail contributions. Welfare-to-work measures are thus morally justified because they apply conditions to benefits which are appropriate and welfare-enhancing (Driver and Martell, 1998; Jordan, 1998).
New Labour is also communitarian and emphasises family values, self-help, voluntary associations and civic responsibility in an 'age of giving'. It is authoritarian in many of its precepts and sits very uneasily with the pluralism of present day culture seen as so characteristic of late modernity. The drive to modernise, rationalise, managerialise and order seems quite out of step with many of the social, economic and cultural changes of the past twenty years.
In this context it seems social work is not given any great prominence - perhaps it is seen as it is too much associated with the negative images of Old Labour and Old Welfare. Where it does have a place it is, as we have already argued, in providing a proceduralised and legalised service in a bureaucratic way - quite denuded of the face-to-face skills required for negotiating, mediating and so on. In failing to recognise the central ambiguities which lie at the centre of social work and which lie at the core of the tensions to be addressed by the advanced liberal state, there is a failure to develop the major strengths which lie at the heart of social work and which, I would argue, will become increasingly central if social theory itself is going to make a significant contribution to contemporary society.
Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Social Work
The predominant response to the range of changes and challenges to social work since the early 1970s has been to construct ever more sophisticated systems of accountability and thereby attempt to rationalise and scientise increasing areas of social work activity via the introduction of ever more complex procedures and systems of audit - whereby it is assumed the world can be ever more subject to prediction and calculation. As I have argued throughout, however, social work is much better characterised in terms of indeterminacy, uncertainty and ambiguity (Parton, 1998b). As a consequence systems and organisational frameworks which operate as if issues are resolvable in any kind of scientific or calculative/probabilistic sense are in great danger of missing the point. The rehabilitation of the idea of uncertainty, and the permission to talk about an indeterminacy which is not amenable to or reducible to authoritative definition or measurement, is an important step, I would suggest, for recognising and beginning to theorise the contemporary complexities of practice. I would argue that notions of ambiguity, indeterminacy and uncertainty are at the core of social work and should be built upon and not defined out and thereby open up the potential for creativity and novel ways of thinking and acting. As David Howe has argued, 'uncertainty is the domain of the educated professional' (1995, p.11).
Noel Timms suggested in 1968 in his discussion of the centrality of language to social work, such an approach not only sees the nature of social work in terms of 'art' as much as 'science', but that more questions are raised than questions answered, and some of the uncertainties exposed are not capable of ready solution. Timms argued further that 'nor would a ready-made solution necessarily be the most helpful, since a recognition of the uncertainty and its patient exploration is more likely to help us understand the nature of social work' (Timms, 1968, p.vii).
Similarly, in the area of social theory Steven Seidmann has argued that 'postmodernity may renounce the dream of one reason and one humanity marching forward along one path towards absolute freedom, but it offers its own ideal of a society that tolerates human differences, accepts ambiguity and uncertainty, and values choice, diversity, and democratisation' (1998, p.347).
In this context we are thus encouraged to think much more creatively and imaginatively about the relationship between theory and practice. Rather than seeing the relationship in terms of the application of theory to practice we are recognising that theory can be generative. Theory can offer new insights and perspectives such that practitioners can think and act differently. Ironically there is nothing as practical as a good theory. Many years ago Kenneth Burke (1937) spoke of critical theory as a civic discourse. Burke never separated action from contemplation, willing from imagining, or poetry from power. Instead he argued that all intellectual activity (even the most theoretical sort that disdains politics and practice) is itself a kind of practice, first and foremost an act (Lentricchia, 1983). In doing so, Burke helped recover the classical relationship between theoria and praxis through a realisation of theory's practical power. By concerning itself with the ways we make and change allegiances to key symbols, theory participates in the ongoing moral and practical recreation of individuals and society.
The great strength and distinctiveness about social work is that it has always had the potential and has often explicitly recognised that practice and theory are closely intertwined so that, at a minimum, practice informs the development of theory as much as, if not more than, vice versa and that it tries to give voice to the marginalised and silenced. It recognises that the most that can be anticipated is that we should try and improve dialogue, understanding and interpretation rather than see ourselves as legislating and acting with authority. This is not to deny the importance of the latter but it is aware that "truth" is invariably contested, complex and ambiguous. It would be a real shame if we lost all this just at the time when other areas of social science seem to be "discovering" it.
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