The great social work debate – conservative or liberal?


Back in January I did read Justin Nutt’s post on Social worker doesn’t mean liberal. I felt he was balancing precariously on a rather wobbly fence.  Today, I was heartened to read Deona Hooper’s response.

Can a social worker hold conservative views? Well I suppose they can but I think the question should be, Can a social worker continue to do so if they are practicing social work well? I don’t necessarily mean empathy with the people we see every day– essential but not the point. I mean the practicing of social work. I am talking about critical reflection – real critical reflection. Fook and Gardner describe it well in their book   – it is not simply about understanding our clients’ internal struggles and the interpersonal interactions between ourselves and our clients. Critical reflection also demands attention to structural factors that affect individuals and communities and brutal self-examination. If we really practise critical reflection well, we constantly challenge our own beliefs so they don’t interfere with our work by imposing our prejudices on others. If we are honest with ourselves things change – for us and our clients. The down side is we can be uncomfortable a lot of the time.

Let’s assume for a moment that I truly believe that unemployed people don’t work because they are lazy. If they took personal responsibility and got off their butts they would get a job – a belief shared by my family and my community. Ok let’s take it a step further. Imagine I approach my unemployed clients with this belief (consciously or unconsciously). I guarantee you no change will happen and I would more than likely do harm by cementing fixed notions of privilege and disadvantage. If I acknowledge and challenge my beliefs and recognise any assumptions in those beliefs or indeed my own position in society, I might be open to hearing (and I mean hearing) about intergenerational poverty, social exclusion, marginalisation, lack of education, caring for a child with a disability or even dyslexia or depression (the list goes on)…and their interaction together. If I truly hear I would be forced to acknowledge that these stories do not quite fit with concepts of laziness as the root cause or potential cure. Recognising this mismatch could be very uncomfortable for me and perhaps challenge the core of my own socialisation and dearest held beliefs. Only then can the real work can begin – with my client and on myself.

Our practice frameworks encompass knowledge and draw on theory and research (and I don’t mean the products of think tanks). It is often difficult to distinguish between independent information and ideologically driven beliefs (see the Point of Inquiry podcast with Gabriel Sherman for an interesting example). By practising social work, we are constantly challenged to consider alternative perspectives especially when the realities of what we see and hear do not fit with current approaches, beliefs, ideologies or politics. We live with uncertainty in a world that is far from black and white. As Hooper pointed out, all people do not start out on an equal footing. Inequality and social problems are disturbing realities in the OECD countries where political environments are conservative and pay homage to the cult of individual responsibility as the sole cause and solution to all complex problems. This approach leaves a whole lot out and has little hope in alleviating the problems people face.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s research shows that these approaches contribute to inequality and make things worse for everyoneMarston, McDonald and Bryson point out who really benefits from the ways welfare is delivered – or not. Interestingly it is not the people that first come to mind. When it comes to politics is there any robust research that shows a sole focus on individualism contributes positively to all people rather than simply the privileged minority at the top of the class ladder? We are constantly told it does but where is the evidence that supports the claim? Sure we have a value-based profession but so do all professions – just look at anybody’s codes of ethics. But we do not blindly accept values whether they are professional or personal. We challenge and deconstruct these too. Social work values moisten the soil so we can dig into people’s lives without doing harm and critical reflection sharply spotlights our own assumptions. Knowledge and evidence works hand in hand with values and self-knowledge to ensure we practise social work well.

Perhaps we should abandon the words conservative or liberal when it comes to social work – too many assumptions come with such categorisations. When we debate categories we end up debating what we think these words mean and we assume a shared meaning. Let’s talk about values, critical reflection and knowledge instead and free ourselves. As social workers, our mandate is to understand the tensions in our practice and most of all challenge ourselves particularly when it is about beliefs we consciously or unconsciously hold sacred…and yes it might hurt – but hey isn’t that what we do?

Written By Patricia Fronek

The great social work debate – conservative or liberal? was originally published @ Social Work, Social Work and has been syndicated with permission.


Our authors want to hear from you! Click to leave a comment

Related Posts

Subscribe to the SJS Weekly Newsletter


  1. Michael B April 16, 2014
  2. M Pearce April 16, 2014
  3. Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D Charles E Lewis Jr April 16, 2014
    • Kendra April 18, 2014
  4. MSWUnplugged April 18, 2014
  5. Will Rainford April 21, 2014
  6. StuckonSW May 10, 2014
  7. gpierini January 24, 2017

Leave a Reply