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    Building a Political Agenda for Social Work

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    The foundational values of human rights and social justice have always been compounded with socialism and social democracy as core ideals and “right principles” of social work. Social workers are committed to promote human rights, social justice and address the root causes of poverty, oppression and inequalities.

    The “Global Agenda” launched in 2012 by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) has reinforced this commitment. In that sense, social workers need to understand and analyze the impact of change on social welfare and the transformation of society towards values of equality, human well-being, social justice, and citizens’ participation.

    The nature and operation of institutions and economic systems and the distribution of resources and power are also core commitments for social work. Thus, the pursuit of social justice in the twenty-first century requires that social workers acknowledge the political dimensions of all practices and the need to engage in multifaceted struggles to regain influence within the political and public arena.

    Therefore, social work needs to strengthen its progressive values and influence the understanding of social problems and social relations through a materialist perspective. Social work also needs to focus its commitment on the impact of the wider social structures such as class, injustice, power, oppression, exploitation, domination and inequality promoted and reinforced by capitalism. Under the current neoliberal paradigm of austerity and market justice, social work needs to see society as a struggle between groups with competing interests.

    Social work should focus upon economic and political institutions that influence and are influenced by institutions supported by the dominant neoliberal ideology. The central concern of social work should be, power – both personal and political – and how the powerful elites define and constrain the most vulnerable and working classes. Thus, social work needs to criticize the dominant institutions, advocate for their dismantling and suggest a vision of transformation. In other words, social work should seek to transform the conditions and social structures that cause these inequalities in order to contribute to the transformation of the current society to one that is more congruent with the principles of social justice.

    Why Ideology Matters?

    Ideologies are systems of beliefs that guide our choices and behaviors, and indeed justify our thoughts and actions. As Bailey and Gayle explain, structures, systems of power and advantage play a central role in maintaining the development of points of view. In this sense, it is important to see the world through an ideological lens. Why? Because ideology relates to power and the distribution of power in society. In questioning this relationship, social work has the opportunity to achieve a new moment for social and political action in accordance with its own values and commitments.

    The Ideology in Social Work

    Social work in Western countries has lost its political direction. It has failed to clarify its own ideology and to preserve its own values and ethical commitments. Social work emerged from working-class movements for social justice and became in time a mediator between the state and the people. Social work values are guided by the pursuit of socialism and social democracy. Thus, socialism and social democracy are embedded in social work values and commitments.

    Both have a common understanding and sharing interests about the collective needs in relationship to the individual. They also believe that social justice is a goal for all in society. Those actions and policies to achieve social justice will emerge from a more equitable distribution of wealth and knowledge among classes. Social work needs to rebuild a new relation between the political and social movements, based on the recognition of the rights and claims of the citizens. Economic and material needs are a key priority for citizens and social work should advocate for them through political and social action.

    The state has a fundamental obligation to play a major role in the maximization of social equality. The collective goals of the community must be respected. The distribution of resources should serve the public good, not the private needs. Another important element in achieving social justice is the recognition of class interests and the gendered and ethnic class locations within society. In that sense, “The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development” needs to bring and reinforce the ideological dimension as the central focus of social work in order to social work pursue political and social action.

    (Building) a Political Agenda for Social Work

    According to McKendrick and Webb in Taking A Political Stance in Social Work, “taking a political stance in social work necessarily involves a close historical examination of the influence of social and economic structures as well as the constituting context of relations of domination”.  In that sense, social work needs to rebuild its own political strategy to confront structures that need transformation. Thus, to build a political strategy some key questions should be defined: should social work take a conflict perspective?

    What can social work do to reinforce its own progressive values within society? How should social work position itself between citizens and competing neoliberal interests? What is the political agenda of social work? How can we promote social justice without pursuing a conflict perspective?

    Social workers cannot be servants of financial capitalism and supervisors of expenditure of the most vulnerable. Neoliberalism brought managerialism, corporatisation and performance as key demands for social work. McKendrick and Webb also argues that “the ‘spirit of capitalism’ is the ideology that justifies people’s commitment to capitalism, and which renders this commitment attractive within the mainstream society”.

    Social work needs to build a strategy rooted in ideology that will confront and transform the nature of capitalist exploitation that affects the most vulnerable citizens, and the working class. As McKendrick and Webb acknowledge, “social work, inevitably operates within a ‘grand tension’ of refusing the dominant order while at the same time being contaminated by this very order”.

    However, social work should clearly advocate for a large public sector which is directly provided by state allocation. Education and health care should be provided as decommodified public goods. Economic and material needs should also be at the forefront of any social work political strategy, such as the debate and implementation of a basic income that will enhance people’s standard of living. Moreover, immigration and refugee policies should also be key priorities in which social work should advocate and lobby for them.

    The “Global Agenda” is embedded in progressive social work values, so it should define and promote a political strategy to pursue and respect those values in order to contribute to the transformation of the root causes of social and economic inequalities.

    Filipe Duarte is PhD candidate and researcher in Social Work at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His research areas of interest are: social citizenship rights, comparative social policies, political economy of the welfare state, politics of austerity, and anti-oppressive and structural approaches to social work and social policy.

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