Social work’s graveyard of nice ideas

Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Dr. Chris Maylea, Senior Lecturer, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

Last year I wrote a paper calling for the abolition of social work, described by one of the peer reviewers as ‘a drive-by shooting’ of social work. In that paper, I argued that (Anglophone mainstream) social work is stuck, due to a lack of coherency, its yearning for professionalism, and its inability to deal with past abuses or to rise to contemporary challenges. I argued that social work has failed, and we should abandon it because it has not succeeded despite failing for decades. Despite generating some satisfying ruffles, the attack was not fatal, and social work continues on unabashed.

Paul Michael Garrett wrote an excellent and scholarly response to my paper, pointing out the many flaws in my argument. I won’t embarrass myself by repeating these flaws here, but despite a comprehensive refutation of my argument, Garrett and I appear to agree that social work is indeed in need of transformation. Garrett puts forward his ‘dissenting social work’ as an alternative solution, calling, as many have before, for a robust and radical transformation of social work into something that is worth saving, something based on hope, rejecting the defeatism I am accused of endorsing.

Garrett’s ‘dissenting social work’ is a genuine triumph, a resurrection of radical social work for the ‘post’-pandemic world. As a framework, it hits every progressive left note in the register, from decolonisation to ecology to feminism to unionism and everything in between. It is, without doubt and with all sincerity, an actual solution to the problems of contemporary Anglophone social work. Readers can read Garretts’ book for the full details. It will, like all other solutions to the problems of mainstream Anglophone social work, be completely and utterly disregarded by mainstream Anglophone social work.

Perhaps I am wrong about this. Perhaps the profession will stop violating people’s human rights in mental health settings, or stop removing First Nations or black children at frankly scandalous rates. Perhaps the AASW, BASW and NASW will adopt Garrett’s ‘dissenting’ social work as essential to the core curriculum for social work students and rush required professional development for social workers in practice. Perhaps these professional bodies will expel social workers who collaborate with neoliberalist regimes or who commit human rights violations. I doubt it. History suggests we, as a profession, are not moving in that direction.

In my call to abolish social work I cite van Ewijk, Ferguson, Dominelli, Beresford and Croft, Reisch, Stoesz et al. and Garrett himself, but there are dozens – hundreds more calls to reform the profession. Garrett has been calling for reform to social work for over 20 years, others for much longer. Dettlaff et al., for example, echo concerns about social work noted 30 years ago. Social work has had ‘dissent’ for over 50 years. Irrespective of Garrett’s demolition of my arguments about what is wrong with social work, or the hopefulness of his reform agenda, it is only destined to join these other great reform agendas in social work’s graveyard of nice ideas. Social work takes these calls for reform and absorbs them, adopts them into the rhetoric and carries on regardless. We social workers are endlessly calling for a revolution that we never perform. As Kafka is alleged to have said, “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

This is the way social work is truly ‘stuck’ and how it has truly ‘failed.’ It is post-revolutionary bureaucratic slime. We know that social work is racist, colonialist, we know that it can be used as a tool for oppression, and we have known this for decades. It really doesn’t matter why social work has failed to fix itself, but if after 50 years we still need a ‘dissenting’ social work then perhaps we need to ask why we need social work at all. If, in 50 years from now, we are still clamouring for a ‘dissenting social work,’ what will we have achieved in 100 years of clamouring?

This call for abolition is not the defeatist and hopeless surrender to neoliberalism Garrett characterises it as. It is simply an understanding that social work is not worthy, not capable, of overcoming defeat. It is not a vessel in which we can store our hopes for the future. Just because social work has failed does not mean that we should give up hope for social justice and human rights. There are many activist groups, human rights organisations, community groups and lived experience alliances who are working towards these goals without also inflicting the kinds of harm social work seems incapable of relinquishing. To again misquote Kafka, there is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope — but not for social work.

THE SOCIAL LENS: A SOCIAL WORK ACTION BLOG - The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original author(s) and do not express the views of the UBC School of Social Work and/or the other contributors to the blog. The blog aims to uphold the School's values and mission.