Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

'A Profession of Faith' or a Profession: Social Work, Knowledge and Professional Capital

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

'A Profession of Faith' or a Profession: Social Work, Knowledge and Professional Capital

Article excerpt


Social work in New Zealand is currently in the midst of a major professionalization project with moves towards greater occupational closure, higher entry standards and greater oversight of education. Contradictions between the stated social justice focus of social work, its space in the intersection of personal lives and public institutions and the search for greater recognition emerge. There are complex links between perceived status of social work within complex institutional settings and the aspirations of practitioners. Bourdieu's (1984) concept of a 'distinctive space' proves useful in exploring the construct of professional capital in social work in New Zealand.


This article develops an understanding of professional capital in social work following a qualitative study of New Zealand social workers' involvement in continuing education in which raising the status of their profession emerged as a motivation for career development (reported in Beddoe, 2010; 2011; 2013). The findings of that study revealed social workers conceptualising scholarship and research as in part seeking the means to increase the professional capital of their profession. The journey starts with a conceptualization of social work as uniquely placed in the fabric of social policy; in an intermediary zone between service users of health and welfare services and the large bureaucracies that maintain them. Social workers and other stakeholders negotiate role and status within this zone.

Social work shares with other helping professions, (for example, health workers and teachers) a location on the margin between the everyday lives of citizens and the major social systems. Where social work differs perhaps, is that it is a social practice bom in modernity, its development propelled forward by the shift in focus within social policy from human improvement and social need, to the current obsession with risk (Webb, 2006). Caught up in this shift, social work has become more embedded in the state apparatus in some countries and in commercial health services in others, and while this expansion has bought some gains, it has led to increasing ambiguity about its core mission as a profession concerned with human rights and social justice (Olson, 2007).

Contemporary social theory assists us to investigate and analyse the nature of social work in order to better understand practitioners' understandings of the status of their profession and the nature of its journey to date. Contemporary social work scholars have drawn on the work of Bourdieu to assist in this interrogation (Garrett, 2007a, 2007b; Houston, 2002). Jenkins asserts that Bourdieu regarded social work as a solution for those whose access to higher education in the 1960s had "created a disjuncture between their subjective expectations and their objective probabilities". Educated people unable to find middle-class employment who saw "themselves as an 'ethical vanguard', [where] a range of 'cultural reconversion' strategies result in a 'profession of faith' ending up as a profession (Jenkins, 1992: 144 -145). Bourdieu (in Bourdieu et al., 1999) was not unsympathetic to social work and recognized the contradictions inherent in the profession very clearly. This passage was written following his interview with a municipal social worker in the north of France:

Social workers must fight unceasingly on two fronts: on the one hand, against those they want to help and who are often too demoralized to take in hand their own interest, let alone the interest of the collective; on the other hand, against the administrations and bureaucrats divided and enclosed in separate universes (Bourdieu, 1999: 190).

In this passage Bourdieu captures a strong element of the day-to-day discourse of social workers as they talk about their experience. Their sense of being in authentic communication with clients within complex health and social care systems while having to establish a distinctive and contested territory within those systems resonates with Bourdieu's 'fight on two fronts'(Beddoe, 2013). …

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