Time for pushback? Dissenting social work

Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Paul Michael GarrettNational University of Ireland in Galway, Republic of Ireland.

Paul Michael Garrett responds to the notion that it is time to “end social work” by arguing it is time to create more oppositional forms of education and practice alongside a “rainbow coalition” of other progressive, anti-neoliberal social forces.

Springtime for social work/ending social work?

If solely looked at in geographically expansive and quantitative terms, social work can appear to be in spectacularly healthy shape. In the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), a social work licensing system has been in place since 2008 and the profession is growing significantly. These developments point to a new “spring of social work” after its abolition during the period of Mao (Leung, 2012). Turning to the US, the field is due to “grow by 16% over the coming decade – some of the best job growth in the nation” (Burghardt, 2021). However, because of social work’s apparent failure to stay true to the laudable aspirations featured in the International Federation of Social Workers‘ (IFSW, 2014) definition, some have called for the “end of social work” (Maylea, 2020). Elsewhere I have maintained that the notion is faulty, unfeasible and politically misguided (Garrett, 2021a; Reimagining Social Work Collective, 2021). At the same time, I do agree with focal aspects of Chris Maylea’s contention that social work is being bled of its more socially progressive ethical elements.

Crafting compliance and docility

Across a number of jurisdictions, there are detectable moves to re-orient social work and, from above, to remake it. This was starkly illustrated in Ireland by the actions of the profession’s regulatory body, CORU. In its revised Code of Professional Conduct and Ethics (CORU, 2019), the organisation crassly deleted mention of the phrase “human rights”: a rather extraordinary redaction given the International Federation of Social Workers’ (IFSW) definition of social work situates the aspiration to safeguard and promote human rights as central (IFSW, 2014). In short, CORU is the perpetrator of an act of symbolic violence committed against the ethical base of social work. The blunt intention is one which aspires to make social workers “play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance” (Levinas, 1969: 21). This stultifying trend also cuts deep into the neoliberal university and Christine Morley (2018) has written with brave lucidity on this topic.

If there are no sustained attempts to generate more critical and dissenting forms of thinking, then the heterogeneous bundle of practices that we call “social work” is at risk of being “hollowed” or completely “emptied out” (Marx, 1981 [1857-58]: 488). In such a dystopian scenario, practitioners are increasing likely to evolve into docile functionaries wholly steered by algorithms and machine learning. Whilst not seeking to rehearse the arguments I made against the “end of social work” proposition, I will paraphrase the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson: it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of social work. Hence, given the profession’s probable longevity, the question becomes this: what is to be done? We can’t leave the neoliberal battlefield because now that battlefield is EVERYWHERE.

Dissenting social work (DSW) contests the idea that social work educators and practitioners ought to serve as mere handmaidens or functional auxiliaries of capitalism and the institutional orders that it requires, but before briefly outlining the DSW focus, it is important to try to get a sense of our present conjuncture. What are some of the key factors shaping the world, our lives and the “field” that we inhabit? Here, the idea of conjunctures, often associated with the work of Gramsci, may be helpful. Moreover, seeking to decipher what is significant, albeit in very general terms, is crucial in enabling us to calibrate the prospects for DSW.

The “old is dying and the new cannot be born”: Back to Gramsci

Following Gramsci, we can maintain that we are living during a period when the “old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Antonio Gramsci in Hoare and Nowell Smith, 2005: 275–276). We are at an “interregnum” in which the course of history is manifestly uncertain. Across the globe, the main constituent component of our present conjuncture is, of course, provided by the pandemic and responses to it. Indeed, social workers are presently amongst the millions of “essential” workers placing their lives in jeopardy as they go about their everyday tasks. However, it is important to emphasise that this contagion did not arrive into an empty social and economic space; rather, the COVID-19 crisis arrived in a world with a “pre-existing condition” in that it was largely ordered, structured and driven by the imperatives of the global ruling class. A range of intermeshed issues relating to migration, global warming and the threat of neo-fascism are also shaping the times though which we are living (for a more detailed articulation see Garrett, 2021: Ch. 1).

The DSW themes

My suggestion is that DSW cannot be articulated along the lines of “blueprints” or “action plans,” but that it might be provisionally perceived as operating within a space patterned by, at least, a dozen themes, even commitments:

DSW is attuned to and seeks to eradicate the harms caused to humans, other species and the planet by capitalism.
DSW is enriched by feminist perspectives and the theorisation of heteropatriarchy.
DSW combats white supremacy and racism and is alert to the dangers of fascism.
DSW tries to decolonise social work knowledge and to learn from perspectives derived from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
DSW recognises that social work has frequently been complicit in oppressive processes and nurtures a willingness to evolve forms of social work education and practice which challenge them.
DSW encourages analyses vibrating with an historical pulse and is keen to examine the evolution of economic, state and cultural processes marginalising, stigmatising or exploiting different groups.
DSW is future-orientated and dismissive of ideas implying there was a “golden age” of benign social work existing before the arrival of neoliberal capitalism.
DSW appreciates the tremendous gains which technology brings, but is alert to the threats posed by techno-authoritarianism.
DSW is rooted in critical social theory, committed to reading beyond the “set list” and keen to emphasise the need for open debate on the future(s) of social work education and practice.
DSW is intent on critically interrogating “false trails” and voguish theorists and theories often failing to adequately address core concerns impacting on social work.
DSW is convinced that dissent has to be a collective endeavour as opposed to an individual activity.
DSW is aligned with, energised, replenished and sustained by the oppositional activity generated “on the ground” within trade unions, activist social movements, community organisations, progressive coalitions, “user” networks, marches and campaigns.

Clearly, the themes are far from exhaustive and are a foundation for discussion rather than a bombastic “manifesto.” Rather, interlinked, they aspire to provide a “thinking space” and a “space for action.” Moreover, all of these points can, of course, be debated, refined, supplemented and even supplanted.


DSW interrogates dominant ways of understanding the social world within the discipline. It might, therefore, be interpreted as a form of neo-social work adding to those efforts bent on pushing back against moves to limit the field of possibilities for educators and practitioners. In this sense, I have merely identified a number of coordinates that we might begin to group around within a wider “rainbow” coalition of anti-neoliberal social forces. I am not so naïve as to believe that DSW is likely to become accepted by the “official” representative organisations of social work.

Rather, mindful of the DSW imperatives, we need to activate and nurture our own alternative structures within the structures. That is to say, independent organisations and caucuses – such as the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) and similar alternative bases for action – inside of “official” social work and educational agencies and organisations (Reimagining Social Work Collective, 2021). In this context, adherence to its main DSW tenets could begin to detach sizeable and influential fractions of educators, practitioners and users of services who, in coalition with other social movements in civil society, might have a gradual and significant impact in pursuing – again after Gramsci – a “war of position” against neoliberalism and the toxic social order it produces and sustains.


Burghardt, S. (2021). The end of social work: A defense of the social worker in times of transformation, San Diego, US: Cognella.

CORU (2019). Social workers registration board code of professional ethics https://www.coru.ie/files-codes-of-conduct/swrb-code-of-professional-conduct-and-ethics-for-social-workers.pdf

Garrett, P. M. (2021a) ‘”A World to Win”: In Defence of (Dissenting) Social Work—A Response to Chris Maylea’, British Journal of Social Work, published online 11 February doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcab009

Garrett, P. M. (2021b). Dissenting Social Work: Critical Theory, Resistance and Pandemic. London: Routledge.

Hoare, Q. and Nowell Smith, G. (eds.) (2005). Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 10th reprint.

Leung, T. F. (2012). ‘The work sites as ground of contest: professionalisation of social work in China’, British Journal of Social Work, 42: 335-352.

Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and Infinity, Pittsburgh, Penn: Duquesne University. (Translated by A. Lingis).

Marx, K. (1981 [1857-58]). Grundrisse. London: Penguin.

Maylea, C. (2020). ‘The end of social work’, British Journal of Social Work, published online 3 December, DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcaa203

Morley, C. (2018). ‘Beyond silence and conformity: A reflection on academic activism as resistance to managerialism in the contemporary university’ in A. L. Black and S. Garvis (eds.) Women activating agency in academia: Metaphors, manifestos and memoir. London: Routledge, pp 79-89.

Reimagining Social Work Collective (2021). ‘Dissenting social work: A Conversation with Paul Michael Garrett’, 9 April https://open.spotify.com/episode/7C7r5N8fMV8wmxzzkm2TPt

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