Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The New Social Work Radicalism: Results and Prospects

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The New Social Work Radicalism: Results and Prospects

Article excerpt


In April 2006, an historic conference took place at Liverpool University in England. The conference, attended by almost three hundred delegates, was convened in the first instance to mark the retirement of Chris Jones, Professor of Social Work at Liverpool and a leading critic of neoliberalism in social work. The conference also provided a major opportunity, however, for social work practitioners, academics and service users from across the UK to discuss how best to challenge the processes of managerialism and marketisation that were increasingly shaping social work practice. It proved to be the launching pad for a campaigning organisation, the Social Work Action Network, based on a vision of a new radical social work.

This paper will describe some of the developments within radical social work that have taken place since 2006, not just in the UK but globally, and attempt to assess their significance. Such a task is not without its dangers. One is reminded of the Chinese leader Zhou en Lai's comment in the early 1970s when asked to evaluate the impact of the French Revolution of 1789: 'It's too early to say'. Ten years is indeed rather a short period on the basis of which to assess whether a current within social work widely believed to have disappeared in the early 1980s is back to stay, or whether it's re-appearance will prove to be a flash in the pan. What is undoubtedly true is that radical social work theory, and even more so radical practice, is still very much a minority approach within professional social work, and the forces ranged against it are very powerful indeed. Despite this, I shall argue below that in a global context of wars, revolutions, economic crisis and austerity, the need for a more radical social work profession has never been greater.

The first part of the paper will explore some of the factors that have contributed to the emergence of what I will call 'the new social work radicalism'. The next part of the paper will look at four examples of this new radicalism: the Social Work Action Network in Britain and internationally; the New Approach group in Hungary; the Progressive Social Work Movement in Hong Kong; and the Orange Tide in Spain. The final part of the paper will attempt to assess the future of the movement and the challenges it is likely to face.

The New Radicalism: Contributory Factors

The emergence of a radical social work movement in the early 1970s marked a decisive moment in the history of social work. It constituted a serious challenge not only to the individualistic/remedial approaches that had dominated the profession in many countries until then but also to a conservative, elitist model of professionalism which was hostile to trade unionism and often guilty of putting the narrow interests of the social work profession above the requirements of social justice and the needs of service users. In essence, in the words of the eponymous text, radical social work involved 'understanding the position of the oppressed in the context of the social and economic structure they live in' (Bailey and Brake 1975: 9). While different factors contributed to the decline of that movement in the 1980s, one important factor was what the late Marxist writer Ellen Meiksins Wood called 'the retreat from class' that took place almost everywhere in that decade (1986). This did not mean of course that there was no resistance to that retreat, whether within professional social work or in the wider society. In Britain, for example, struggles continued during the 1990s to promote anti-discriminatory and antioppressive practice, particularly in the field of social work education (Thompson 2016: 15; Singh 1996). In Canada and Australia, forms of critical and structural social work continued to be developed, albeit in some cases shaped by a less than radical identity politics or postmodernism (Mullally 1997: 111-115; Pease and Fook 1999: 1-17). In reality, however, by the late 1990s neoliberalism had become, in Gramsci's term, hegemonic, the 'common sense' of the global elites (Forgacs 2000; Harman 2005) if not always of the populations they governed: the annual British Attitude Surveys during most of the past thirty years, for example, showed opposition to privatisation and a continuing commitment to publicly provided services, especially in the area of health (BSA 2016). …

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