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The Politics of Social Work: Power and Subjectivity


Stephen A. Webb
Department of Applied Social Studies
University of Bradford
England, UK



        This short article is entitled 'The Politics of Social Work' and some may anticipate that I am going to look at how central and local government affects social work and social services departments, and sometimes visa versa. But ? I am not. I am going to argue that politics is about a network of forces that create a varying distribution of power and examine the effects this has on subjectivity and social relationships. Translated across to social work this means that the politics of social work revolves around: firstly, the structuring and organization of professional relationships within various settings; and secondly, the structuring and organization of relationships between clients and their human and physical environment. Thus I will consider, for example, the political aspects of the case conference, writing of reports and assessment procedures all of which construct 'political' regimes and are elements of the process of power. I also indicate in the last section of the article that the politics of social work is caught up in our definitions and constitution of subjectivity and what counts as valid subjective experience. 

         A 'situated model of power' for social work is developed which draws on the writings of Michel Foucault. Some models of power, by focusing upon two central actors in a relationship of power, e.g. client and social worker, fail to understand the importance of a broader social context to the creation of a relationship of power. The reworked Foucault developed here, however, does not follow the rather typically social constructivist accounts of his writings, but instead, maps out a Foucault thickly laced by key phenomenological concepts. This move requires that we couple the concepts of power and subjectivity within a consideration of critical social work practice. With this in mind, towards the end of the paper some suggestions are made about what a critical social work might look like, if it does not merely wish to contain what people say and route them towards a definite end point, but instead, energetically open up a new space of subjectivity which more closely conveys an appreciation of life as a whole, whilst making our habitual relations of power vibrate until they disjoin.

        With regard to the notions of human and physical environments mentioned here; by 'human' I mean: others affected by a client's words or actions, e.g. a victim of abuse, her family. By 'physical' I mean the changes that a client can make to her or his landscape, e.g. destroying things in her home, or the changes wrought on a client by her environment, e.g. by poverty, by living in an unfurnished house and so forth. In both cases, of professional and client relationships, the interaction between humans and their physical environment is of crucial importance in effecting change for good or for ill. For instance, in the UK it has become abundantly evident that high rise blocks or flats are damaging to one's well-being. But we also know that a particular setting will constrain one's words or actions, e.g. for some children a classroom may be an intimidating place in which to answer a teachers question. Research in psychology is now showing that the colors of walls, carpets and furniture and the layout of a room can affect our mood, feelings and how we behave. To this end psychotherapists are being consulted about the decoration of prison cells for violent prisoners. The effect of this is to try and curb violent behavior and graffiti. A senior probation officer recently told me that he had put into interviewing rooms (which had suffered badly from vandalism) quality furniture and decorations and that in six months there had been no damage done. What this tells us is that if we change human environments, we can adjust behavior and mood. But this is not enough: if we can change human behavior and interaction we may also change how humans relate to both their human and physical environments. The capacity to effect changes, bar nature's capacity, e.g. earthquakes, is at root a human capacity and a form of power. In so far as social work is about making changes to the conditions of human life, social work is fundamentally about the use of various kinds of power. Some uses of power in social work not only demonstrate bad practice, but also are regarded as immoral and illegal. In 1990 in the UK the case of 'The Pindown Experience', which occurred in the county of Staffordshire, came to the public and media attention. Children in residential homes had been badly mistreated by social workers who used crude behavioral methods, namely tight negative reinforcement regimes, to control them and make them behave 'properly'. The effects of the Pindown system on the children who experienced it were traumatic and in some cases devastating. Many, perhaps most, uses of power in social work are intended to produce good ends, but this should not obscure the most important point that they are nevertheless uses of power, and as such, as a matter of good practice and not mere theoretical whim, should be critically evaluated.

        The means of change is the use of power(s); and change itself, it seems to me, is about producing conditions, affects and situations different to the status quo. However, it must be recognized that power is not just about change in the above sense, but is often about maintaining the status quo in the face of a threat of change. But even in this case we make changes. When we feel threatened we will often make changes to our behavior and strategies of life to resist that threat and preserve things as they are.

        Though social workers may try to produce change in their clients, they also often try to preserve their own status and methods of working and thereby resist change. The Cleveland Inquiry (1987) showed a child abuse scandal in the UK in which one of the professionals involved, the pediatrician, had failed to make a sufficiently comprehensive assessment because she was so committed to one method of diagnosis of child sexual abuse, i.e. anal dilation techniques, that all other considerations fell by the way. Her inflexibility and maintenance of a rather singular approach may have reinforced her feelings of professional authority and power but produced distress for herself because of official criticism of her and acute distress for the parents accused of perpetrating child abuse. A support group called PAIN (Parents Against Injustice) was involved in helping and campaigning on behalf of the parents accused of abuse. This example points to power that is expressed by knowledge bases, techniques and education which is an important condition of professional identity, authority and practice.

        In the above discussion it was indicated that there are two basic notions of power: power as capacity - one's ability to produce change; and power as exercised - one's doing or saying something, and changing or trying to change a situation. We might call the first potential power and the second actual power. One caveat here is that the use of the word 'potential' may suggest that potential power is not really power at all because we have not actually done anything though we have the ability or capacity to do so. I would want to reject this 'realist' view which says that only power is exercised is real power. Against this view we can say that a person may act or refrain from acting because s/he anticipates what others could or would do if s/he did or omitted to do a certain action. It is precisely their recognition of our potential power that causes them to do or not to do something. Christians refrain from sin because they are in awe of God's potential power. Civil servants obey Prime Ministers, not because of anything the Prime Minister will do to them but because of the constitutional powers vested in her or him - the legitimate 'potential' power s/he has been afforded. So what one has the capacity to do can be as significant as what one actually does in social and political relationships.

        Social workers are given the capacity to act, as well as actually acting as social workers due to several legitimating powers: (1) Social work knowledge bases, e.g. skills, methods and training in several forms of disciplines such as sociology, social administration, social policy, psychology and law; (2) Law and legal powers pertaining to social workers, e.g. rights to removal of children at risk; (3) The respect and deference given to those in authority and to those who are educated and can speak and use language well; (4) Recognition of 'professional' status.

        These factors pre-structure the power-domain of social workers in general; as such, they are capacity-giving factors. I'm sure the reader can think of other examples. And of course they can be used in the exercise of power over others. The latter two powers are drawn on by the social worker in interactions dependent upon whether the other person is prepared to show (3) or (4). Social work knowledge and legal powers are to be found within the worker herself and can be used unilaterally though it makes the task of a social worker that much easier if the other understands and agrees to the use of (1) and (2). The successful exercise of the capacity-giving factors (1) to (4) turns on how the social worker handles any or all of them as well as (in meetings with other professionals) the role (e.g. the chair of a case conference), position (e.g. Principal social worker) or recognition in terms of respect, expertise, experience and so forth that s/he commands. For instance, one can forcefully, "I'm a social worker and my training tells me that this child is not developing sufficient motor skills commensurate with her age." This little speech is not likely to achieve a warm or co-operative relationship with a parent. It is bullying and arrogant, and uses jargon which may confuse a client. It may frighten a parent into adequate parenting and thus the social worker may feel s/he has been successful in this use of power. But to speak this way to a client is to contravene some of the basic touchstones of good practice such as showing sensitivity to the client, their problems and their circumstances. Equally, if a social worker meeting with other professionals says "I've been a professional for 15 years and I know I am right"; while colleagues may reluctantly give way to the speaker, making it appear that the exercise of power has been successful, they will probably be offended by the confrontational style and be unwilling to accede to further demands by that social worker. The maintaining of one's ability to convert a capacity into an exercise of power in the presence of others depends on how one uses one's power, e.g. with courtesy or aggression. This is a skill which is a power in itself. The aggressive use of power may work in the short tem but not in the long term. It not only matters what you say but how you say it, and the same applies to material actions - things that one does, as opposed to what one says or writes. The study of the use of language in social settings (sociolinguistics) and its relation to power is one aspect of social work practice which has not been properly examined in the research and literature

        One must remember that for an exercise of power to be such, does not require that it is successful in its ultimate aims. That speech or an action aims to bring about material changes, i.e. getting someone to do an action or fulfil a task they would not otherwise have done; or mental change, i.e. changing someone's opinions or what they were going to say, is power being exercised. More minimally, one's knowing that one is exercising power, i.e. awareness that one is using a capacity with the intention to change matters, is a way of establishing that power is being exercised.

        The foregoing discussion has largely cast power in terms simply of what individuals have the capacity to do or actually do to others. If this summed up my view of power, I could be accused of 'atomism' - the idea that persons are at all moments asocial independent beings unshaped by forces of the collective, historical/evolutionary entity we call society. But this is not my view, I believe that the myriad of human relationships, many of them being shaped by a host of other relationships and social practices, form a structural network, the most important totalising forces of which are the ever changing power relationships. This richly textured fabric is society. My mentioning society as a evolutionary changing historical phenomenon is intended to point out that society is at root a dynamic field of power-relations wherein some kinds of social practices are done not because someone is forcing us, but because an action is 'always done this way'. They have a regular form which has been inherited from the past, and the latter constrains us from doing the action differently. This regular form is indicative of 'the way of doing X' being socially authorized and having a set of rules for the proper performance of X. The combination of tradition and the set of rules produce and maintain a regime of appropriate modes of performance, and obedience to these gives assurance to others that one is co-operative and compliant, and not anti-social. The ways we eat our meals, what clothes we wear for certain occasions, how we talk to people, how we queue, that we talk in whispers in churches and libraries and so forth. All these ways of performing, or engaging in social practices, are the result of training which has made us socially disciplined. The training and the reproduction of disciplining in our everyday lives can be called following Foucault (1979) "disciplinary practices". They constitute some of the most important forms of regulatory power and means by which society maintains itself. Looked at in this way we can see that so many aspects of our lives are the result of this type of power and are not, as we uncritically tend to say, simply a matter of normal behavior. The production of the 'normal', normalization, is, as we can now see, a complex social and historical meeting of exercises of power, via commands, orders, warnings, recommendations, approvals, and exemplary actions especially from those to whom one is expected to defer, e.g. the Government, teachers, one's parents, to do or not do in this or that way, certain kinds of things. Still in some states of America there are laws which prohibit certain types of sexual acts. Such prohibitions, at least in part derived from scripture, also entail permissions, namely to only partake in 'moral' kinds of sexual acts! Such power to repress is not merely negative in content but positive in that prohibitions leave open to one the 'right and good' methods of performance. Further on I shall argue that social work is much in the business of using normalization strategies and this of deploying disciplinary power. The latter, drawn from many sources, is given a refined professional expression through the trained persona of the social worker. The use of power to discipline clients is made legitimate precisely because of the unity of 'professionalism' and training of the social worker.

        In less formally unequal situations, e.g. social workers negotiating with other workers or professionals, the use of disciplinary strategies is not so evident. Social workers in this situation are not involved in normalization but in influencing, persuading and convincing their colleagues of the validity of their judgement or opinion. In this situation where there is greater equality of power and skills of exercises of power can be met with appropriate resistance and negotiation. The flow of power has less opportunity to be one way. Of course there are clients who are skilled in dealing with social workers and are very good at 'working the system'. But many clients who live in poverty, lack education and high verbal abilities and feel threatened by the presence of a social worker, may go along with anything that is suggested however much they dislike it, or may show frustration and then anger, i.e. inappropriate resistance. If the latter occurs, it may be taken by the social worker as a refusal to work for change, and the person or the family may be adjudged 'difficult'. Such a judgement may be recorded and later influence another social worker's view of the person or family. This leads to another point which is that the recording process acts as a 'structural' repository of power. It is the place where influencing judgements are held. It is a resource not only of information but of a power/knowledge; that is, knowledge which is the basis of a pre-set agenda of how the social worker can deal with the now labeled 'difficult' client. Here the social worker starts out from a position of power over the client because s/he has prior 'knowledge' of what the client is like. S/he's got the clients cards marked. If this is the case, it cuts across the oft-heard injunction for social workers to 'start from where the client is'. This yet again demonstrates what Francis Bacon, the 16th century English statesman and philosopher meant when he observed that 'knowledge is power'. We could extend this to say that consensus of opinion is power. If because social worker A has written down in official files that Mr Jones is unpleasant, and B, C and D read it, (and because it is an official report it has authority and thus likely to be believed), then B, C and D social workers will be suspicious of Mr Jones and prone to exercise their professional powers in a tougher way than they might have done if he had been described as friendly. Different types of judgement motivate varying ways of using power in the treatment of people. To give a fairly obvious example, Hitler and the Nazi Party portrayed the Jewish people as vermin who were destroying German life and culture. This widespread effort to get people to see Jews as animals, as lower species, in effect allowed the authorities to try and destroy all things Jewish, not least the Jewish people themselves through the means of extermination camps such as Auschwitz. An analysis of the rational technologies deployed under the Holocaust regime indicates a twisted Kantian logic whereby good means do not show up as good ends. Wicked uses of power were legitimated through recording and acceptance of certain types of judgement about people. The recording process detaches the author from what s/he writes such that we often say of some judgment in a report not "Ms Susan Social-Worker says here ?. " but "It says here ?." At this level no-one is named and made responsible; what is written down has the appearance of being objective, official and even truthful. At this juncture we might show some caution towards analyses of critical theorists, such as Habermas and Marcuse, who would equate the value of an object with concealment of injustice and deceitful ideologies. The presence of the object has an aura of insistence of its own reality. The object, in this case the record of a meeting, indicates that work has been done. So we have to be extremely careful in what we write down as it will live on after us, affecting other perceptions, and how social workers use their powers in their treatment of a client.

        Power then is not just personal but also structural. That is, it resides and is exercised through our relationship to other social workers and officials, to institutions, e.g. the social service department, to language skills, technical vocabulary, skills of persuasion and so forth, to language in the form of assessment reports and the recording process, to legal powers, to social work knowledge, and, most profoundly, to the culture of power and our willingness to enter into the restless spirit of this addictive yet corrupting culture. Power thus pre-figures our relationships with clients, at both an inter-personal and structural level.

        A better way to explain this might be to characterize power in relation to discourse. Fairclough (1989) focuses on two aspects of the power/discourse relationship; power in discourse and power behind discourse. Power in discourse is concerned how power is actually exercised and enacted, that is face-to-face spoken discourse. On the other hand, power behind discourse focuses on the orders of discourse, as dimensions of social institutions, structures or societies, and the way these are shaped and constructed by power relations. Examples of each of these dimensions are easily found in social work practice. Take for instance an interview between a social worker and client, in which the social worker is constantly interrupting the client whilst s/he is trying to explain the circumstances under which a child was left unattended over a long period of time. The social worker does not interrupt simply because s/he wants to do all the talking, as people sometimes do. S/he interrupts in order to control the contributions of the client, to stop the client repeating information or giving obvious and irrelevant information, to ensure the client gives the information the social worker wishes to hear. In this sort of example we can say that power in discourse is to do with the ability of the social worker to control and constrain the contributions of a non-powerful participant, in this case a client suspected of neglecting a child. This is an example of power in discourse. Another example of power behind discourse might be the assessment procedures of children who are considered at risk of sexual abuse. During such assessments social workers often feel contradictory pressures. On the one hand they feel obliged to treat clients in a disengaged and technical way, in order to establish that their interest is purely professional when discussing personal and sensitive issues such as sexuality. Yet they also feel obliged to treat clients sensitively and as persons to try and cancel out the indignity of treating them as mere assessment objects. The constraints on the settings of risk assessment are particularly significant in attempting to guarantee that the encounter is a professional one. Such assessments can legitimately only take place in "social work space", they cannot take place in a bar or restaurant. There are also constraints on the people who can take part; there is a restricted set of legitimate actors who can take part. There are constraints on the topic of question and answer during the assessment. Questions from social workers must relate strictly to the social problem at issue, whether or not the child is at risk from sexual abuse, preventing, for instance, the sort of topical development we would find elsewhere in discussions about people's sexual activities and preferences. The sequence of procedures which constitute a risk assessment are highly routinized, following a standard procedure. Social workers exercise power over clients within encounters such as this because of the power behind their discourse. As Fairclough explains, this kind of power is the "policing of conventions, they way they are enforced, both in the negative sense of what sanctions are taken against those who infringe them and in the positive sense of what affirmations there are for those who abide by them" (1989, p.61). The policing of conventions is in the hands of institutional power holders such as social workers, lawyers and teachers. The two types of power discussed by Fairclough, roughly correspond to my examples of power as capacity and power as exercised. Taken together they help us understand how "power is situated" in relation to certain people and in relation to particular contexts.

        Now we can begin to recognize that social workers enter into an elaborate field of power relations and use many different types of power to achieve their ends. In this sense social workers cannot escape the nets of power; they are always present. It is Foucault who teaches us that "power is co-extensive with the social body" and that "relations of power are interwoven with other kinds of relations" (1980, p.142). Within all social networks we always find that power is something which runs through them and which acts to bring about certain effects. Clients as "subjects" of such power relations are produced and reproduced at specific sites of social work practice. Minson (1980) suggests that the constitution of subjects, such as clients and consumers takes place through the operation of specific relations of power which are best understood as the construction of personal categories. These include categories such as child, mother, father, deviant, co-operative and worthy. Thus power as the construction of personal categories in social work is closely aligned with notions of moral acceptability or unacceptability. Nevertheless my point is to encourage social workers as a matter of good practice to understand how power operates in social work relationships; to uncover it in one's own and others practice. To do this is to engage critically in the pursuit of just and empowering relationships. If I may be permitted to nail my colors to the mast: I want to argue that without critical practice and political criticism, you cannot have good social work practice. The former is part of everyday practice and must not simply be consigned to the classroom or dismissed as mere intellectualizing.

        Taking this consideration of subjectivity further, critical social work practice requires an "open-ness" to time, personal ontology and inter-subjective relations. In light of recent theoretical discussions of power we may well need to radically rethink our conceptions of subjectivity and individuality within social work. A phenomenology of power and subjectivity as informed by writers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Gadamer in contemporary social and cultural theory, may influence critical social work in a constructive way. The view, for example, that subjectivity is open-ness and contingent within a field of temporal relations as expressed by phenomenological thinkers, suggests that there are as many forms of subjective being as there are forms of time (see Mensch, 1996). The problems of the subject and of power are ones Foucault himself was continuously rethinking. He recognizes the importance of Heidegger's view of the constitution of the subject in a temporal frame and of the development of a new philosophy purged of humanism. In Being and Time,Heidegger explained that human existence constitutes the open-ness where beings can be revealed. Human beings exist as this open-ness in an inauthentic or authentic way (see the translation by Joan Stambaugh, 1996). Similarly, for Foucault freedom is not subjective, instead it is a "clearing" of possibilities for thought and action which take place in a particular mode of temporality; what I called above a disposition towards "open-ness" within contingent circumstances. The requirement of an open-ness for social work is a political one in the sense that we must consider what to do about the configurations of power and subjectivity as they emerge within the social world. A central concern for Foucault was his attempt to analyze the connections between the temporal constitution of the subject and techniques of domination. As Rajchman (1985) points out "In his book on prisons, the historical constitution of the subject becomes a problem not simply about knowledge, but about power, and not simply about discourse but about practice." (p.117) Subjectivity and power are caught in the web of temporal practices. Indeed, the secret of our temporality is expressed by social work. Social work teaches us to recognize the continuity, the indivision of experiences where each moment of a clients life is caught up with all others in the same propulsion of time, and, simultaneously, to recognize the movement that prevents the fixing of meaning, and makes arise indefinately, beyond the present given, the latent content of a clients life-world. Mood, for instance, without being the object of any intended act of consciousness, can underlie and guide specific forms of client experience.

        Social work is based on a recognition that to be active is a normative social requirement, e.g. active for change. Underlying this is the modern mode of the activity of confessing what one has done as a basic strategy of identification and the valuing of oneself. Accounting to and for oneself across time is regarded as a morally authenticating activity for both clients and social workers alike. It is in this sense that social work as a practice pre-figures the recognition of mood and activity in social life and thus incorporates what might be called a phenomenology of affect. The subject is placed center stage in social work. As we have seen, however, mood and affect as temporal subjective forms are always caught up within networks of contingent power relations. The utterance "Take that look of you're face" issued by a parent to a child is a good example of the way in which power can intercept mood. Mood is either an expansion or contraction of one's scope for action in relation to others. Our affective phenomenology is either affirmed or rejected, by people such as social workers, who intervene in our lives. The aim of such interventions would not be to find the authenticity of self experience, or to anchor choices, responsibilities and life projects within a definite range of fixed judgement, but to constantly question and transform the role of one's "self" in one's thought. Foucault develops a model of subjectivity based on "the Nietzschean idea of the nonfinalized problematization of the forms through which the experience of the subject is constituted" (Rajchman, p.124).

        In summary then a critical social work operates within the contingent fields of subjectivity and power. Translated across to practice, the moral ideal of such a view of subjectivity would be that of the "fullness of being" which is maximized by the possibilities of the subject's open-ness to being and time. Those elements of practice, which cut things off at their roots and which permanently foreclose the possibilities of open-ness, are the adversaries of a critical social work. The sexual abuse of children is one example of this, a type of social work practice which merely constrains clients within a fixed technical-administrative framework of social control is another example.



Fairclough, N. (1989) Language and Power, Longman, London.

Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish, Peregrine Books, London.

Foucault, M. (1980) 'Power and Strategies' in Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge, edited by Colin Gordon, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Brighton.

Heidegger, M. (1996) Being and Time translated by Joan Stambaugh, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY

Mensch, J.R. (1996) After Modernity, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Minson, (1980) 'Strategies for Socialists? Foucault's conception of power' in Economy and Society, Vol.9, No.1.

Rajchman, J. (1985) Michel Foucault: The Freedom of Philosophy Columbia University Press, New York.


The author, Stephen Webb, Ph.D. can be contacted at;
Department of Applied Social Sciences
University of Bradford
West Yorkshire, Bradford, BD7 1DP, UK
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