The Local, European and International Discourse of Social Work

In presenting a further edition of English language papers emerging from the work of ERIS, the European Research Institute for Social Work, in its collaboration with the Czech and Slovak Social Work Journal, this edition of the Journal is engaging in local, European and international discourses on social work. It may be a surprise to see material about Brazil, India, Italy and the UK alongside research on local concerns. What does this mean, and why is it important?

Any journal in a specialist area such as social work engages in a discourse in several senses. It is a location for professionals, researchers and writers in that specialist area to present ideas for debate and information from research and analysis to contribute to veracity in that debate. In a wider sense, the contents of a journal represent the nature of that specialist area. What is researched, reported on and debated is, at least partially, that specialist area: it represents it in the sense of providing a picture of it. But it does so only partially, because social work is also what social workers are doing every day in their agencies, and what managers and policymakers are organising and promoting in social services. The role of an international academic journal has a particular place in that discourse among practitioners, managers, policy-makers, researchers and teachers of social work as they ‘do’ social work. It is to express and make concrete what knowledge and understandings of this professional area of engagement in society may be made available from what they do and may be made useful to others taking part in the discourse.

Representing the research life of two countries, the Czech and Slovak Republics, this journal’s publication biannually in English offers local research findings to the international discourse, and brings international findings into the local discourse. Is seeking to achieve that possibility idealistic, or is this a valid strategy for developing a useful professional discourse for both local and international benefit? We can see from this edition that opportunities for understanding and progressive development can emerge from many different interactions in the material we present here.

Thus, Iva Kuzníková’s study in this edition, of how healthcare social workers in the Czech Republic view their work, reports findings that obviously and directly connect with professional actions and decisions that local practitioners, managers and educators may need to make within the course of their work. But it also points to policy responses that are required, to recognise and develop a role for healthcare social work more generally. That knowledge and experience is relevant in healthcare work everywhere. Similarly, Olga Hubíková’s paper about Czech allowances for family carers looks at the Czech findings and explores how these compare with what happens in other countries. Both papers take the local and point to it as an example of shared experience in Europe and internationally, presenting options that are relevant both locally and internationally.

Part of the discourse in which Hubíková’s paper engages refers to the social policy options of cash for care schemes. These offer direct payments to family and community helpers for support for people in need of care (da Roit, Le Bihan, Österle, 2007). Social work practitioners and educators The Local, European and International Discourse of Social Work will also explore the findings to interpret how they may make appropriate responses to people needing and receiving domiciliary care. What this paper illustrates is that few apparently valuable innovations in the complex area of human and social relations are indisputably beneficial: there are always ambiguities and antagonisms to be negotiated. This negotiating role of practice often lies unrecognised in the formulation of policy initiatives. Perhaps the lack of understanding and establishment of social work in health care, identified by Kuzníková’s study, reflects this lack of recognition of the role of negotiating innovation in social services systems. This failure to develop the role of social work appropriately applies more generally than in healthcare. The findings are therefore relevant more widely than on the local scene and in a particular specialty. The need to develop robust understandings of policy options and their practical implications is one of the reasons for the value of interaction of the practical and managerial with the academic in the discourses of a profession such as social work through its journals.

Deeper ideas about society and social change emerge from the underlying issues and (I take up expressions from the papers) the conundrums, precariousness and invisibility of some participants, including social workers, in social provision that these papers identify.

Higgins’s paper on the responses to role conflicts that may lead to failure among English social work students also speaks directly to a concern for practitioners everywhere who supervise social work students in practice education. The author makes it clear that his paper participates more widely in discourse about social work. When we decide that a student should fail in the practice requirements of a social work course, we also raise questions about what is expected of social workers. This represents, in turn, issues in our debates about the aims, nature and values of the social work profession. Illuminating crunch decisions, such as failure to qualify, allow us to identify, explore and begin to resolve important but sometimes concealed issues in our profession. In this way, they become a universally relevant site of discourse about social work.

The discourse of social work is, of course, broader than discussion of evidence about social services and social work education. Šárka Ulčáková’s paper about issues of social change arising from modernization policy strategies in Italy explores broader social trends there with which their social work must come to terms. By showing us such reactions, her work facilitates our thinking about the same trends here and with which our social work must also negotiate an appropriate response. By understanding something of the patterns there, we can begin is travel the intricacies of potential paths of change here.

Thus, through local-European-international discourses, we may explore both potentialities and failings. The paper by Mendes, de Almeida and Werlang about social work research management in Brazil raises questions about the financing and direction of scientific development of the social work profession which will be familiar to social workers everywhere. More broadly, it raises questions about the extent to which research funding recognises social work as an intellectual and academic discipline, or as a subsidiary of disciplines such as psychology, in the case of Brazil discussed in this article, or of social policy and other social sciences, or whether it should be seen as an interdisciplinary representation of social science (Shaw, Arksey, Mullender, 2006). There are also considerations about whether social work as a practice represents a particular kind of social intervention and therefore requires specialist research methodologies beyond other social science methods and a research concern for the people engaged in a work setting and in the social relations of labour and employment.

The paper by Amaldass, Neema Gnanadev and Hilaria Soundari on women’s entrepreneurship in India offers transferable insights in another way. First, it highlights the role of social entrepreneurship as an important policy strategy for bringing together both economic and social development, so that the economic priorities do not overpower the social in responding to the needs of poor people wherever they are, in the same way as we saw in the paper about Brazilian research that the social work should not be overpowered by the psychological. Being entrepreneurial, in the sense of being energetic and forward-looking in our practice and organisation, has sometimes been claimed as a valuable style of action missing in conventional social work (Pinker, 1990). But more recently, financing sustainable social action through a model that combines both economically sound business activities with social concern and long-term social benefits has been proposed as an important strategy that secures service provision against political whim and economic pressures (Nicholls, 2006; Mawson, 2008). It connects a social welfare approach to poverty and social need with economic and social activation of beneficial services in poor and oppressed communities. It separates economic development from possibly authoritarian control by political and economic elites (Payne, 2014:222–4). Šárka Ulčáková illustrates these points in her paper about social interventions through cooperatives in Italy. In these, entrepreneurship generates financial sustainability for social interventions and promotes networking and cooperation.

The second range of important insights offered by this paper is its focus on developing the role of women in poor communities. It emphasises that gender divisions in our society hold back purposeful action on poverty. For practitioners, it offers an opportunity to work for liberation from gender oppression as part of social interventions of all kinds, not just in social development.

A journal may stimulate our discourse with information and insights from new perspectives and redirect it from our accustomed perceptions and interests. Thus, we read research and analysis on unfamiliar situations or distant locations in a different way from local participants. We examine information and insights from Brazil, India, Italy or the UK through the lens of our local experience and conceptions. Limitations in our current thinking and practice are stripped bare by an awareness that we share so many continuities with other places and systems. Did we believe that our local experience of difficulty comes from our local failings? This idea is subverted: it is systematic inadequacies in social organisation that we must surmount to improve our practice and to develop what social work can offer to our community.

Moreover, we need not demand completeness in these contributions to knowledge, since partial conceptualisations allow us to build up through our imagination our local responses from the potentialities offered by our understandings of the other. We are not guided by the totality of research findings from another place and another social situation; rather our social response is informed by local insights drawn from European and international research. The Czech or Slovak manager might look at the lessons of exploring failure among social work students in the UK, for example, and think what this might teach us about employees who seem not to be performing at their optimum capacity. Here, the discourse is often about inadequacy of the person or their skills, but Higgins shows us that it might just as well be about weaknesses in our conceptions of the task we have defined. In the same way, Kuzníková shows us that difficulties in the social work task in Czech healthcare partly arise from inadequacies in conceptualisations of the opportunities for social work that healthcare
services might offer to their patients.

It is not only that social workers must try harder, but that the organisations in which they work and the social policy that informs their role must change. As in the traditional view of entrepreneurship, we must be energetic and creative. But we must also, as in the renewed concept of entrepreneurship, generate a sustainable model of organisation and promote a focus and urgency in local, European and international efforts to generate social services that engage with what our research and analysis tells us are important issues for our societies to resolve.

Malcolm Payne,
Emeritus Professor,
Manchester Metropolitan University,
United Kingdom

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