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Social work must reclaim historic mandate to push for fairness

Social work needs to reaffirm its historic mandate to stand up against social injustice rather than focusing on “rescuing” people from the margins of society.

The call came from leading European social work academic Professor Walter Lorenz at the International Federation of Social Workers’ European Conference in Edinburgh.

Prof Lorenz said the current situation where a few refugees were being saved from the “high seas from drowning” was indicative of this and as futile as 19th century acts of charity in tackling the “catastrophic collapse” of social bonds caused by industrialisation and capitalism.

This realisation that the state could “not stay on the margins” had ultimately led to the creation of the modern welfare system, he said.

Prof Lorenz said social work needed to reassert its role agitating for a fairer society in the face of “economy-driven policies” and privatisation moves across Europe.

“Its [social work] mandate, from its beginnings in the varied contexts of social disruption caused by the industrial revolution, was to find a balance between valuing and enhancing the autonomy of the modern individual and at the same time enable those threatened with marginalisation and exclusion to fit into modern society,” he said.

“It is time to renew the broader vision of social work, to bring its mission in from the margins of society, where its function is restricted to rescuing individuals who are in danger of falling out of the ambit of society or of being excluded, to the centre where fundamental questions of social cohesion and the construction of a society under the conditions of modernity are at stake.”

Prof Lorenz, of the Free University of Bolzano in Italy, said social work was born from a recognition that social cohesion in modern, industrialised society is not a “natural phenomena” but must be constructed and fostered.

As such, the job of social work was not just for the good of those receiving support but “the benefit of society as a whole”.

The professor stressed the ‘social’ in social work distinguished it from therapy work. It was a profession that recognised how problems affecting individuals must be looked at in the context of “the whole of society”.

“Poverty cannot be restricted to an individual concern, just as diseases like cholera, the plague of the 19th century cannot be cured by offering therapy to individuals or exhorting them to be more hygienic, or just as the education of children cannot be left to the individual good sense of parents that they devote enough energies and money to the education of their children.

“It is the social connection, the social concern that in all those instances is key to tackling the issue. And social work is singularly mandated to fulfil this dual mandate, at the level of assisting individuals and of identifying within the individual need a social issue, a public issue.”

Prof Lorenz claimed European integration was failing because of a lack of understanding that economic processes had to be underpinned by social policies creating social cohesion in the same way welfare support does in individual countries.

He added: “The discrepancy between the ‘humanitarian’ face of the EU, communicated through declarations on inclusive human rights and programmes for social integration, and its de facto economic and fiscal policies weighs ultimately heavily on social service personnel who have to reconcile the contradictions at the level of individual case decisions.”

Prof Lorenz said unless social workers contributed to social policy-making, they would only be “smoothing over the gaps of built-in contradictions” preventing the full impact of divisive policies from reaching the level of “public alarm”.

He urged practitioners not to take refuge in “softer” areas of work like counselling and coaching and to realise their “social mandate”.

He said: “A European  perspective on social work is, for the purposes of this realisation, not an optional extra for specialists but a core requirement for competence in contemporary social service work.”