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Innocence Lost and Suspicion Found: Do we Educate for or Against Social Work?


Amy Rossiter

School of Social Work
York University
Toronto, Ontario


This paper concerns directions for education in critical social work. I have to confess at the outset that the topic unnerves me. I find that the more I teach, the more perplexed I become at the responsibility for social work education from a critical perspective. I think this is because my thoughts about social work seem to be taking me farther and farther away from what is possible to teach and still call it social work. I would love the simplicity of teaching students to “do” social work. But I am deeply suspicious of the innocence of “doing social work.” So on my worst days, I believe that I am hiding my deepest suspicions about the project of social work from my dewy-eyed students who “just want to help” while I try tactfully to get them to be a little more suspicious of impulses that seem quite pure to them. On my best days, I sometimes think that chronic suspicion might be a form of action which can fuel some kind of radical democracy that resists the dire consequences for people of the current global order. The project of this paper is to trace my relation to the concepts of suspicion and innocence in social work and then raise questions about what this means for directions in social work education.
I want to start by sharing a little moment of revelation which occurred during a series of conversations I had with two Cuban psychologists with whom I was participating in a research project last year. During the course of our conversations, I realized that these two people had a peaceful and energized relationship to their work. This was a novelty for me because I'm used to encountering human service professionals who are burned out by a deep ambivalence about what they do. The reason for these psychologists' sense of peace was simply that they believed that the goal of their work was to further the values of the Cuban revolution - values they believed in. They understood that their job was to further the cause of liberation. They felt that their personal values, professional values, and the values of the state were synergistic. These were people who were thriving in their jobs. They had an energy and devotion to their version of psychology that was profoundly moving.

When asked what word best described professional ethics in Cuba, one participant said “solidarity.” And at that moment, I realized how exhausted and beleaguered I am by a lifetime of being positioned as a “professional helper” by a state that organizes the people's problems as individual pathologies that are best administered by professionals who are trained not to notice the state. The Cuban psychologists thrive because they are part of a state that, in theory, embodies their aspirations. I don't thrive because my very identity is in jeopardy when I am called a professional within a state that uses the terms and definitions of professionals to hide its oppressive foundations; where the most innocent position we can take is chronic suspicion of who we are and what we are doing. As I get older, I wonder if one can thrive intellectually and spiritually by being a chronically suspicious person. This is not a question I dare ask in front of my students.

Let me outline my suspicions that I so politely euphemize as “critical social work.” One of the learnings that emerged from talks with the Cuban psychologists was my recognition that for years, I've been on a search for a site of innocence in social work - a kind of “thing” that I could teach as “the right direction” for social work. In retrospect, I also think I have hoped that finding a site of innocence could take away the pain of my contradictory relationship to the state. I think I've been on the lookout for a theory, a practice, that would make doing social work a fine thing to do by magically doing away with social work and myself as a history which is marked by oppressive relations and ideologies which conceal these relations.

Our profession has a history of this belief in a place of innocence. How many times have we heard the phrase “being an agent of social control or social change?” The myth here is that you can choose to be either one - someone who does control or someone who does change with the latter being the innocent one. Typically, schools have been split between casework as the agents of social control and community work as social change people. This fiction did a great deal to disseminate the notion that there is a space that is not one of social control - but one of social innocence. I have really wanted to find that space in order to teach it, because my sense of competence as a professor of social work seemed to depend on achieving some innocent space I could impart to my students. Could it be radical social work? Structural social work? Feminist postmodernism? Isn't there some fancy combination that would teleport us out of the contradictory and messy place made for us by history?

I have to admit that only recently I have I begun to question my search for innocence in social work. Barbara Heron, in her work on development in Africa, raises questions about the impulse to help the vulnerable Other (Heron, 1999). Heron locates this impulse in the history of white, bourgeois women's identity formation within colonial relations, where “goodness” and “helpfulness” are central aspects of civilizing missions. Civilizing missions produce the “Other” in need of help, thereby sustaining the identity of the helper as good, innocent, and helpful. Such relations obscure the problem of power and privilege in relations between helper and helped. In social work, two identity's are sustained through helping - helper and helped, one who has, one who needs, one less vulnerable, one more vulnerable. Vast realms of identities fall outside such relations - are they not real in social work? Isn't the terrain of helping awfully small for both helper and helped? But I feel happy when I am helping. My identity is momentarily complete in the small moments of help. It is clear that my own completion depends on the helplessness of others. I am no exception to history in the history of white bourgeois women.

In a critical social work, is there any innocence in helping?

I've been brought to this question by a growing understanding that there is no such thing as knowledge that doesn't exclude at the same time that it includes. For some time, poststructuralists have told us that there is no innocent knowledge. But Melissa Orlie (1997) takes this a bit further by calling what is excluded at the very moment any knowledge is deployed a potential trespass. In Orlie's view, trespass is the inevitable outcome of the process of creating culture. Orlie says:


Trespasses originate not in a recalcitrant will, but in the pursuit of living. The fact that trespasses are not always intended does not lessen their weight and efficacy. Trespasses are the harm brought to others by our participation in the governing ways of envisioning and making the world. The trespasser is the “lawful citizen” who, because well-disposed toward the law, daily becomes the agent of injustice. Trespassers are not the active hands-on instruments of wrongdoing, but the “responsible”, well-behaved predictable subjects of social order who reinforce and extend its pattern of rule. From the perspective of trespass, evil is not a mysterious force without nor an obstinate element deep within us. In its most common modern forms, evil is rarely intended and seldom the product of malice but is an effect of living our locations and pursuing our felicity. Everyday evil does not originate in sin, and in its most usual forms it is not pathological, though it may be manifested in practices that pathologize others. Ordinary evil arises from and rests upon the surface of beings and things (Orlie, 1997, p.23).

The important piece of Orlie's work for me is the implication that once we have accepted that the potential for some kind of trespass occurs whenever knowledge is deployed, we can understand the futility of the search for a space of innocence for social work. Given social work's central space within the culture creating activities, I want to shift my work from a search for an innocent knowledge or theory, to thinking about how we might develop a space that allows us to assess the governmentality, in Foucault's terms (Foucault, 1997), that creates the potential for trespass in of all of our daily actions as social workers. This is what I mean by suspicion, and it stands against the possibility of finding an innocent knowledge, and instead hopes to maintain ethical vigilance over the inevitable trespasses of our work. So the question I ask myself is what is a social work that even while it hopes and works for a society that acknowledges the connection between individual well-being and social justice, understands that it's work is also the site of everyday trespasses that are deeply historical.
Let me give some examples. I am spending my sabbatical volunteering at a Community Health Centre in Toronto. The health centres in Toronto do a lot of community organizing, and a lot of advocacy with particular respect to homeless adults and street kids. I wanted to work there for awhile because I wanted to see what it felt like to work in what could be thought of as the most innocent social work space - one clearly fighting for marginalized people. Would I thrive here as the Cubans thrive? Would I be able to go back to school and say “do this work, and save yourselves as social workers”? The answer is no, despite the fact that I love what I am doing and I believe in it and I admire the work of the Centre. The answer is no because it can never be innocent work, although there is the possibility of assessing the risks of trespass and finding certain actions good enough.

The example involves recently received money from the Ministry of Health to expand the Centre's outreach to Homeless people. One of the projects is to make sure that homeless people have health cards with which to access the regular health care system. I participated in a meeting with the Ministry of Health where officials were teaching us to use a computerized system for tracking how many health card applications had been make so that we could be “accountable'. The process of computerization necessitated creating a formal definition of a homeless person and slotting that definition into the computer software. Here is an example of the trespass of every initiative. In order to get health cards, a number of different and disparate people are turned into a category of sameness - the homeless. Only the creation of that category can get them the service they need. But the trespass is that people are inserted into a category through which their identity and personhood is marked by lack - they are “the homeless”. The “homeless”- once non-existent in Toronto - are being created as an identity and my work to get health cards is part of that construction process. This is a trespass against the complex identities of people with housing problems.

Perhaps one of our clients was struggling with his identity in terms of this developing totalizing category when he looked up at me while taking some soup I offered him, and said, “I am a complete fuckup.” Have I contributed towards someone seeing themselves as a “complete” anything - as an identity? Have I been making the newest dividing practice, in Foucault's terms? The answer is yes - I am involved in processes that are creating new identity categories that are part of the web of governmentality, - and this is the trespass against someone like Stephen of getting folks health cards.

Even more suspicious, the moment of giving Stephen the soup feels innocent. Twenty-one years of being a mother means that when scrawny, shaking, dirty guys falling down from drinking Listerine sit in the lobby and eat the soup I give them, I feel nothing but satisfaction that there are some vitamins, some protein feeding that body. It is an addictive gratification. But in my giving the soup, Stephen and I find it hard to recall the fact that it is his right as a human being to eat. My giving soup confirms the dividing practices of haves and have nots. This gesture trespasses against our common citizenship. The charitable gesture of giving him the soup both helps him and confirms our inequality. My best shot at innocence is also a trespass. I want to trouble the moment of gratification I feel by being conscious that I am giving soup and making class at the same time.

Is awareness of the inevitability of our trespasses important or is it just depressing sophistry? I want to argue that in keeping ourselves aware of our participation in governmentality, we struggle with an ethics that is a practice of freedom. Foucault's view is that “the concept of governmentality makes it possible to bring out the freedom of the subject and its relationship to others - which constitutes the very stuff of ethics.” Perhaps our freedom in social work consists in the struggle to notice trespass in order to evaluate its consequences, think about minimizing risks, or reconsider our participation in the act - rather than believing that there is a knowledge that is innocent of trespass.

To this end, I am interested in thinking about how the Health Centre can make its choices mindful of how we practice freedom. In the examples concerning the computer category of homelessness, I think that alerting ourselves to the dangers of identity categories can allow us to use the category to get services, but to remain aware of the critical importance of creating multiple discursive positions for people who use the centre. One example of this was a recent public demand, partially organized by the centre, that the city council declare homelessness a disaster. The public declaration was made by community workers, concerned organizations and individuals, including many homeless people, who, in signing their names, accessed the category “citizen” as an important resistance to the imprisoning category of “homeless”. On the day of the declaration, I saw people hands signing their names to a demand that their government act. These are different hands that the ones that receive the soup. My seeing of these two positions helps me to form intersubjective relations that at least maintain vigilance over the everyday work we do to make class. So perhaps suspicion of the category “homeless' can allow us to see the need to deploy other categories as a conscious organizational strategy designed to mitigate the totalizing effects of the power of the category 'homeless.” Or perhaps, acting at a different level, I can be more aware of the danger I pose to Stephen, at the moment of giving soup, when the forces in my subjectivity pull me towards a charity model. I can more freely choose to make sure that I privilege advocacy over charity in how I spend my time. These are, I think, the choices that Foucault talks about as practices of freedom in our relation to others.

Here, I have to check myself for my inevitable flight towards innocence. As much as I'd like to have a practice of freedom that is pure and free from doubt - a technique - there is no such ahistorical, decontextualized space. We are always acting in and through a history in which the contradictions of history are lived out in our practices, and no person - even ones who do it perfectly can be extracted from history. I am reminded of Philip Roth's novel “American Pastoral”, in which Roth illuminates the power of history to defy the particularly American myth that right actions of individuals guarantee innocence. Roth's main character, speaking to his brother about his daughter who engaged in violent terrorism, says “If what you are telling me is that I wasn't, I wasn't enough, then, then, I'm telling YOU that what anybody is not enough. To which his brother replies, “You got it! Exactly! We are NOT enough! We are NONE of us enough! Including the man who does everything right!” I need to maintain suspicion over my Americanness that always whispers in my ear that I can find a technique, a power that can allow me to ignore the history in which our trespasses are embedded.

Unfortunately, I have to bring my troubled selves to the classroom. How can I hope to sort out “educational directions?” Let me get my nightmare out of the way first. The nightmare is this - Forty students walk into the classroom and they look at me all expecting that I teach them how to DO social work. I look at them and I say “guess what?” What you think of as doing social work is an identity position that facilitates governmentality. So we're not going to do social work, we're going to undo it. Then some student puts up a timid hand and asks - “But what's the first thing I say to a client?” This nightmare makes me so glad I have tenure. Because I'm afraid that what I am offering is teaching students to do social work by not being a social worker - and I wonder if this is at the heart of dilemmas in teaching critical social work.

The fact is that what I am suggesting as a possible practice of freedom in social work is absolutely opposed to the reigning discourses of professionals and professional education. And it is more and more difficult for me to come to grips with the extent to which I loathe current practices of professionalism and everything to do with it. I am particularly rageful at the degree to which discourses that create professional certainty and infallibility as the ordinary professional, consign us to the boredom, the harm to others, and the harm to ourselves. I am concerned with professionalism as a trespass because reserving knowledge as the property of one person is essentially undemocratic. As an undemocratic act, it demolishes the connection between well-being and justice. But again - how do we teach students that learning to be a professional may well make them increasingly ignorant as they become blinded to the multiple and diverse viewpoints that occur in the social world?

Over the past two years, my young adult children have been working in the kind of low-level, low-paid social service jobs that are plentiful in the neo-conservative era. They have no specialized training for these jobs, and it is clear that they are not expected to “help” in any professional sense, but to take good custodial care of homeless people and intellectually impaired adults. They have come home with stories about their work that make me consider the limitations on identity that is produced by helping. Their work involves basic caretaking of vulnerable people and it falls outside discourses about help or improvement. I have been amazed at how the discursive organization of what they do (ie. not professional) makes it possible to flex relations of help with their “clients” and thus allows for questions about privilege to emerge. My daughter, for example, took five developmentally delayed young men to the gym to play basketball. She, who never played or enjoyed sports, had a wonderful time playing basketball for the first time, because this group of people valued fun over competition, support over performance. The positions of helper and helped disappeared here, as mutuality between people, all of whom had gifts to offer, prevailed. And every time these encounters take place, questions about the failure of society at large to benefit from the integration of special needs people emerge. We know in those moments that categories of abled and disabled impoverish us all. I think it is a victory when her disabilities and abilities journey alongside the abilities and disabilities of her clients. While her work is located within multiple trespasses of the marginalization and management of difference, I think the basketball game is a victory that co-exists with trespass, and I wonder if these moments are better critical social work than my various races towards innocence.

Rather than innocence, I think we need what John Keats defines as negative capability -- “being capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (cited in Scharff and Scharff, 1989, p.210). This to me is the essence of critical social work. I want my students to increase their negative capability as part of social work education. I think this will help them eschew the drive to innocence in professionalism to hear a larger social world in which they are participants who carry histories and locations that are potentially dangerous as well as advantageous to people in other locations and histories. I want my white students, for example, to be able to tolerate the knowledge that they will be dangerous to people of colour all their lives - to live with this place in history without jumping to innocence in the form of these absurd cultural competence models that tells them who they can or can't look in the eye. I do not want them to jump to moral panic that can be fixed by a crash course in anti-racist social work. The work of understanding the trespasses of one's participation in creating culture in order to practice freedom is much harder than that, and it is surely life-long.

Yet this is easier said than done. Social work forms - professional, educational, personal, work to poison the use of doubt and uncertainty as resource. As a profession we spout nonsense about “competencies”; in the classroom we test whether students have indeed “got it”; and personally we feel vulnerable to criticism that we are “not teaching social workers who know how to practice.” When I receive an e-mail from my niece who just began her PhD. psychology studies, that reads “Auntie Amy, I feel sure that careful, rigorous scientific studies can prove the effectiveness of psychotherapy”, I feel a million miles from being able to talk to her, and I don't know how to begin to bridge the territory. I don't know how to explain that the certainty she that feels will legitimate her practice is deeply problematic. What do I want my students to do? I want them to move from deploying expert knowledge to assessing the governmentality of helping as a routine practice of ethics necessitated by the historical development of social work in Western capitalist countries. This means being able to assess the risks of trespass and to make difficult and imperfect choices in full view of those trespasses.

I want them to make the assumption that our professional stories of helping are partial and fallible and but that they tend to dominate the context in which they are used and make some stories visible and others invisible. I want them to try to access the wealth of resources that lie outside the dimensions of helper and helped, even as the necessity for help is acknowledged.

I want my students to be enriched by the knowledge of their clients. An example here are the harm reduction approaches where, for example, heroin addicts are staffing needle exchange programmes. Arguing that experiential knowledge acquired through drug use is vital to knowing how to reduce harm in drug use, addict/activists demand recognition of the importance of that knowledge. It is extremely interesting to me to think about how an addictions social worker and a harm reduction peer could work together with mutual regard for each other's contributions. What would it mean to have dialogue about our different knowledges with our clients? How would we have a conversation where social work knowledge was a resource in dialogue, but only one of multiple contributions to the dialogue?

I want my students to begin to understand the history of social work as a dividing practice and to raise questions that resist these practices. This means questioning how we can tell the difference between helping people who are trapped by historical and social circumstances, and pathologizing them. It means trying to understand the difference between inspecting people for flaws and getting to know them. It means understanding the difference between power and domination. What is an authentic use of power in social work and how do we distinguish this from domination?

Finally, I want my students to recognize that social work is a problem for identity. To do social work in capitalist, imperialist countries is to occupy a place of pain and doubt. There is no theory that can shield us from the complexity of the gesture of a white middle class woman giving an alcoholic Native homeless man a bowl of soup. It is a gesture that is overdetermined by my history of ancestors who landed in the New World, and great aunts who were missionaries, and great grandparents who were farming folks who moved West and destroyed his linguistic and cultural heritage in order to cover up the theft. We are helping out of this history, not apart from it, and this necessarily troubles the act of helping and thus our identity as helpers.

So what do I have to offer my students? That they learn to tolerate a troubled professional identity? That they doubt the innocence of their desire to help? That they privilege doubt over certainty? That the knowledge they pay tuition for is as good as that of junkies who are really supposed to be clients? This is a huge disjuncture for students who come in wanting to help and graduate to take jobs in child protection where they perform checklist risk assessments.

I am aware that I no longer know what “preparation for practice” means. I am painfully aware that what I want my students to learn bears little relation to the social work they will be expected to perform. If they do well in my classes, they will not be particularly desirable in employment settings. Worse, they may be alienated and depressed by the gap between critical social work education and doing social work as a job. I think these are difficult dilemmas for critical social work, and they are made worse by the conservative nature of the times.

I am aware that I want to end this paper and that I feel the only legitimate practice of ending a paper is through a leap to innocence - a prescription, a way out. In critical social work stories, we always have hopeful endings to the complicated plots. So here is my hopeful ending: I do believe that victories coexist with trespasses. While I have no recipes for making them happen as a program for critical social work, I hope that we can be more conscious of our victories in small moments like enjoying a basketball game. These victories are signals about what might be possible, and their acknowledgement and celebration adds weight to the possibility of keeping social work on the side of common decency: spiritually, politically and practically. I think our victories help us to develop our thoughts about what kind of culture we want to create, and help us invent languages and forms of sociality through which to strive for better imperfections. If this can happen when we do social work, then I think I can believe that it's worth doing.


Foucault, M. (1997). Ethics: Subjectivity and truth. Edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: The Free Press.

Heron, B. (1999). Desire for development: The education of white women as development workers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, Toronto.

Orlie, M.(1997). Living ethically, acting politically. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Scharff, D. and Scharff, J. (1989). Object relations family therapy. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.



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