Is social work an anachronistic profession?

In this final post taken from the ideas of The Spirit Level, I’ve been thinking about the evidence from past societies about greater equality, and about how social work values are often in tension, if not outright conflict, with societal ones, and, I guess, about what that says about our profession, and where we fit.

See, if societies grow progressively (no pun intended) less egalitarian as they develop, and if social work’s collective beliefs about the distribution of resources more closely mirror those of the past than today, then what’s the future for our profession? And, of course, for society too?

Evidence suggests that hunter/gatherer societies were more cooperative and less hierarchical because of a clearer sense of interdependence; as natural resources are depleted, will we regain an understanding of just how much we need each other? Will social work values, then, that are obviously more well-suited to ‘flatter’ societal power structures, come back in style?

Or are social workers destined to cope within a dominant value structure that doesn’t reflect our understanding about the way that wealth should be distributed or, perhaps more importantly, about the negative consequences of tremendous inequality?

If that’s the case, then how will we, as social workers, respond? Will we cave to societal norms that devalue redistribution? Will we seek status in order to thrive within that power dynamic, rather than resisting it? Will we spend increasing professional energy dealing with the symptoms of inequality?

Or will we rise to the challenge of turning the tide?

Does it matter, I guess, if we’re ‘out of touch’, if we are true to our value code? Do we, in fact, gain some maneuvering room if we’re operating a bit outside the system? Is there some advantage in being seen, in fact, as distinct, because it helps us to attract social workers who are not only clear about the mandates of the profession with which they are affiliating, but also obviously comfortable with the idea of standing apart?

Will history come around to us, again?

Will we concede?

Or are we content to be anachronistic, since we believe it to be right?

2 responses to “Is social work an anachronistic profession?

  1. This is such a great post – you addressed concerns I’ve felt recently. How often does the shift in societal trends and / or cultural movements impact the helping professions? More often than not, unfortunately!

    • Thank you so much for the feedback! I encourage my students to think critically, not only about the societal problems we face, but also about our profession’s response to them (and, sometimes, the ways in which we play into those dynamics). Too often, there’s a tendency to pat ourselves on the figurative/collective back for the good work we do (undoubtedly!), without being intentional enough about how we must be counter-cultural, at times, when the prevailing winds are moving decidedly against us!

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