Restorative Justice, Responsive Regulation and Social Work

By Burford, Gale; Adams, Paul | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Restorative Justice, Responsive Regulation and Social Work


Burford, Gale, Adams, Paul, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Two of the dichotomies or tensions at the heart of this profession are especially important for the themes of this special issue on restorative justice and responsive regulation. These are the relation between formal and informal helping and between care and control, or empowerment and coercion. In this article, we make a case for the importance of Braithwaite's work, especially his (2002) book, Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation, for conceptualizing the nature of social work in relation to these dualities. Since Braithwaite's writings do not have social work or social welfare scholars and professionals as their primary audience and are less familiar to much of that audience than they should be, we seek here to provide a context for reading both Braithwaite and this issue of the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare.

Key words: restorative justice, responsive regulation, social work, child welfare, family violence

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Reflecting on the essence of social work brings its duality as a profession concerned with both individual and community well-being sharply into focus (Albers, 2001; Weick, 2001). Two of the dichotomies or tensions at the heart of this profession are especially important for the themes of this special issue on restorative justice and responsive regulation. These are the relation between formal and informal helping and between care and control, or empowerment and coercion. In this article, we make a case for the importance of Braithwaite's work, especially his (2002) book, Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation, for conceptualizing the nature of social work in relation to these dualities. Since Braithwaite's writings do not have social work or social welfare scholars and professionals as their primary audience and are less familiar to that audience than they should be, we seek here to provide a context for reading both Braithwaite and this issue of the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare.

Social Work as Social Control

When sociologists and historians look at social work, they tend to see a profession the essence of which is social control. For them the language of therapy, helping, or even empowerment disguises a coercive core (e.g., Funiciello, 1993; Gordon, 1994; Margolin, 1997; Polsky, 1991; Tice, 1998). Some recent literature of the profession, on the other hand, has challenged the methodology of those researchers who rely on case records as evidence of what social workers actually do in the field (Floersch, 2002; Wakefield, 1998). Simon (1994) has emphasized empowerment in the history as well as recent theory and practice of social work. For those, including the present authors, who embrace empowerment as central to good practice, there remains, however, the challenge of reconciling these self-images of empowerment with the undeniable reality that social workers function as agents of social control, usually paid directly or indirectly by the state to do so. This is nowhere more evident than in the fields of child welfare and corrections. In child protection in particular, where social workers are the core profession, are backed by the power of the state, and have enormous power over their clients, the language of empowerment, partnership, and strengths characterizes innovative practices like family group conferences and patch (Adams, 2000). But can such practices be truly empowering in the bureaucratic, professional, and legal context of state or county child welfare agencies and family courts or even in corrections (Boyes-Watson, 1999)? Braithwaite's synthesis of his work in the areas of restorative justice and responsive regulation, developed in his recent book of that title, challenges us to reconceptualize the relation between two apparently irreconcilable yet irreducible aspects of social work--care and control, or empowerment and coercion.

Formal and Informal Helping

Social work, like the whole field of social welfare policy and services, has similar difficulties in specifying the optimal relation between formal and informal helping. …

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