Charles Dickens, Social Worker in His Time

By Andrews, Arlene Bowers | Social Work, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Charles Dickens, Social Worker in His Time


Andrews, Arlene Bowers, Social Work


February 7, 2012, marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, British author and social reformer. Social workers, who owe much to the social movements influenced by Dickens's powerful pen and voice, surely will be among the people who celebrate his life and work going forward from this occasion. Though he lived before social work emerged as a profession, Dickens deserves to be titled an honorary "social worker" for his tireless promotion of compassionate social norms with regard to the poor and oppressed, advocacy for social policy reform, and development of community programs. This article provides a brief review of Dickens's value to social work and recommends ways to draw on his immortal wisdom while developing social work practice for the 21st century.

Social workers are giving renewed credence to the power of real-life narrative for assessment, meaning, and therapeutic change (Larsson & Sjoblom, 2010; Riessman, 2008; Riessman & Quinney, 2005). Fictional narrative can also enable exploration of thoughts, feelings, and observed actions and expressions that are the essence of social relationships (Goldstein, 2002; Hardy, 2005). The Council on Social Work Education's (CSWE) Education Policy and Accreditation Standards (2.0) (2008) stipulated that "social work education is grounded in the liberal arts, which provide the intellectual basis for the curriculum and inform its design" (p. 3). While reading literature, budding and experienced social workers alike ponder the dilemmas of literary characters, gain enlightenment about their own real-world concerns, and realize ways to make meaning from dilemmas (Falkenheim, 1993). Greene (1966) referred to this as "symbolic engagement" that promotes awareness of "perplexities, nuances, and ambiguities." Turner (1991) emphasized the potential for literature to be far more than a "source of illustrations for common human predicaments" (p. 237); careful study of literature through the social work lens can enrich the development of "sensibility," which extends thought and feeling and builds on intuitive understanding.

This article aims to remind social work practitioners and scholars of the rich legacy that Dickens left for advocates of social justice. The social work educator can open to almost any page of Dickens and find a lesson rich with descriptions of human behavior in the social environment as well as effective and ineffective social interventions. Here, I offer a few lessons focused on understanding the professional lens, changing social norms, and interpreting case studies across ecological systems. Extensive resources exist to help educators and students probe this subject more deeply--people have been writing about Dickens for over a century. Such resources are secondary to the primacy of Dickens's publications--no one can substitute reading about Dickens's work or life for reading Dickens's work.

For the sake of brevity and illustration, excerpts from selected Dickens' publications are offered here, but adequate study would be grounded in all of his works. The stories, novels, and essays contain complex themes, intricately woven, that must be taken out of context here. Numerous biographies of Dickens have been published (for example, Ackroyd, 1990; Orwell, 1940), including a classic in his lifetime (Forster, 1874). In the following section, facts from the life of Dickens are drawn from the most recent biography, by Michael Slater (2009). Observations about Dickens's writings come from my own reading of the works.

LESSON 1: CONTEXT AND THE PROFESSIONAL LENS

Social workers must learn to continually assess the personal lens through which they view social life and develop and polish a professional lens. The social work lens is informed by the profession's core values of service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence (NASW, 2008); theoretical understanding of human behavior in the social environment; and training in social change at the individual, family, group, organizational, and community levels (Andrews, 2007; CSWE, 2008). …

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