For more than two decades, the notion that ‘there

For
more than two decades, the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ to the free
market as a basis for organising both economy and society has exercised an
extraordinary influence over almost every aspect economic, political and
academic of social life and thought. Such market fundamentalism, or
neoliberalism, as it is usually known, has become a kind of global common
sense, reinforced on the one hand by ‘end of history’ theories of the sort
advanced by US State Department official Francis Fukuyama in the wake of the
fall of communism in 1989, and on the other by postmodern analyses which
dismiss all attempts to make sense of this ‘new world order’ as antiquated
grand narratives; at best, these are written off as misguided; at worst, they
are decried as the harbingers of a new totalitarianism. Social work, like other
social professions, has been profoundly affected by this neo-liberal onslaught.
As you would expect, the specific forms in which these ideas and policies have
shaped social work services and forms of practice have varied from
country to country and have been, to some degree, ‘contingent on context’. In
the Global South, the context has usually been one of the Structural
Adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund,
which have required governments to privatise whole swathes of the public
sector. By contrast, in the West, ‘neo-liberal social work’ has mainly been the
product of the twin processes of marketisation and managerialism,
underpinned by theories of New Public Management. Despite these regional
variations, however, the global prescriptions of the Washington Consensus have
left few countries – and few welfare regimes unaffected. Right now, there is a
crisis in social work. The global economic crisis has meant devastating cuts to
welfare provision while neoliberal policies have seen an increased emphasis on
the privatised provision of services within local authorities. This
commodification of health and social care, run on a business model that has put
profit before social need, has had a detrimental effect on
those dependent on service provisions. Inadequate training, poor
facilities and weak or incompetent inspection regimes are the reality of
private care businesses which cut back on standards to undercut competitors in
the welfare market. This paper is mainly going to look at the possibility of
the emergence of the philosophical social work by covering the philosophical
reflexivity in social work and the role of social workers in this
context. 

 

The Philosophical Social Work

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To practice effectively
in today’s complex and changing environment, social workers need to understand
how contemporary cultural and philosophical concepts related to the people they
work with and the fields they practice in. Exploring the ideas of
philosophers, including Nietzsche, Gadamer, Taylor, Adorno, MacIntyre, Zizek
and Derrida, this text demonstrates their relevance to social
work practice and presents new approaches and frameworks to
understanding social change. This paper proposes a philosophical social work
attitude towards reflexivity that avoids self-surveillance, individualisation,
or a confessional attitude, but rather is intended to inspire informed action
in Social Work. This perspective follows Parker (2015) who reminded us “to look
at how the subjectivity of the researcher affects and interconnects with that
of the researched, and what forms of agency are facilitated or blocked in the
process”. Such a critical attitude towards reflexivity provides the conditions
for the possibility of reflexivity to challenge the status quo. The paper
attempts to provide a useful heuristic when dividing reflexivity into
ontological, epistemological, and ethical dimensions, and when applying these
dimensions, as interconnected as they are, to reflect upon Social Work (theoretical,
academic, practical or political). It also proposes that reflexivity is a
first-person psychological concept, meaning that it should be applied to yourself,
that is, to your own theories and practices, before it is applied to the other.
This entails an understanding of the reasonable perspective of the other as
legitimate as our own view (even if these perspectives disagree).

 

Ontological
Reflexivity

Ontological
questions in philosophy concern the being and nature of things and events. When
it comes to Social Work we suggest discussing assumptions about the nature of
social justice phenomena, the nature of social justice theories and concepts,
and the nature of Social Work itself. This ontological reflexivity includes a
consideration of the implicit assumptions about the nature of humans and human
activity. The hermeneutic philosopher Gadamer suggested that the essence of the
hermeneutic experience can be found in an open dialogue. Thus, although
reflexivity is the first-person process, it always includes the others in an
intersubjective exchange. Because for Gadamer “the logic of the human sciences
is a logic of the question”, we express entry points for reflexivity in the
form of questions

What is the nature of humans? Most Social Work (it does not matter whether it
is located within a Catholic or radical tradition) begins with the assumption
that humans are not just isolated individuals. Marx argued that we are
individuals only to the degree that history and society enable us to be
individuals because human consciousness is sublimed in the history and society
we live in. Mental life is socially embedded; there is no unsocialised self.
Marx argued, providing an entry point for reflexivity, that perceptions about
human nature are influenced by our own social position and by an ideological
understanding of social reality. Marx also provided a solution to such
misrepresentations that have influenced radical Social Work: Praxis allows us
to do something about societal dependencies, injustices, and intellectual
misrepresentations. 

Following Marx, critical thinkers have suggested that human existence takes
place within a societal context, that society is not an external environment or
an external variable, but rather an active agent that constitutes the self even
if we are not determined by it. However, one of the main problems stems from
the question of how we should understand society and which categories Social
Workers should privilege. This problem is an important site for ontological reflexivity
because it determines which social justice goal “I” will focus on. For
instance, how can we describe contemporary Western society? We might describe
it as developed, industrialised, secular, democratic, liberal, neo-liberal,
multicultural, open, advanced; or as patriarchal, neo-colonial, capitalist; or
as consumerist, leisure-oriented, communicative, information-based,
technological, modern or postmodern; or as combinations thereof. Descriptions
can be based on the economy, political system, industry, technology, knowledge
production, and so on.

Similar arguments could apply to concepts used in social justice research as
they have a history and a social background. Philosophers and psychologist have
looked at the various meanings of social justice, but this examination needs to
be accompanied by an analysis of the nature of the concept of social justice
itself: where does this concept come from? Who used it within which political
and philosophical background? How did it become part of “my” identity? What are
positive and negative values assigned to it within a culture? For example, the
concept of social justice has religious Christian backgrounds, and roots in the
French revolution, but is also inspired by socialist and radical traditions.
What is it about “my” own cultural and political background that makes If
social justice is social, historically, and culturally constituted, then does
this entail that social justice is relative? Not necessarily! The historicity
of concepts does not imply that there is no progress concerning concepts
(however, progress is a historical assumption that requires its own
justification). Yet, historicity can explain why great thinkers such as
Aristotle, who developed sophisticated ethical systems, did not think about social
justice for slaves. It can explain why Immanuel Kant, who suggested never
treating humans as means but always as ends, could provide “racist”
constructions of “blackness”. Reflexivity in this context means deciding on the
possibly valid, yet historically limited, meanings of social justice.

Another example of ontological reflections in this area concerns certain
traditions more palatable to “me” than to others and what are the action
consequences that these traditions bring with them? 

The nature of the concept of difference versus the nature of the concept
inequality. At first sight, it might seem that difference is a concept that
refers to natural kinds whereas inequality refers to social kinds. A closer
look reveals that difference is never difference for itself – it is always
different for “us.” We have different ear sizes, but this difference is not
meaningful to us although it might have been. The difference can be real or
imagined but the difference is made real through social constructions, actions,
and structures. Inequality is clearly a social kind and has major ramifications
for social life, including health, crime, and so on (Wilkinson & Pickett,
2009). However, inequality demonstrates historical and cultural trajectories
and takes on different shapes in different countries. The reconstruction of the
nature of those differences should be part of ontological reflections. 

What is the nature of Social Work? It is evident throughout history that Social
Work need not be a unified programme and that diverse approaches
exist that reflect contexts. Hence, totalising ideas about the true meaning of Social
Work mighton run counter to the complexity of this endeavour. For example, in
Europe more radical initiatives have been proposed, often in the context of
political programmes, whereas in English-speaking North America reformist
approaches have been appropriate and legitimate. The point here is to
understand our own location and the choices we prefer as reflecting our own
societal embeddedness, which may influence the assessment of the possibilities
and limitations of approaches. A broad definition of Social Work may provide
the conditions for the possibility of working together on a larger scale (if we
think this is important).

Epistemological
reflexivity

Social
Work produces, distributes, and consumes knowledge. Epistemological reflexivity
challenges our knowledge, our assumptions about knowledge as well as
our practices of knowledge. Academics have argued that epistemological
reflexivity needs to be applied at all stages of research, including “the
selection of problems, the formation of hypotheses, the design of research
(including the organisation of research communities), the collection of
data, the interpretation and sorting of data, decisions about when to stop
research, the way results of research are reported, and so on”. 

Differences between the researcher (this may include practitioners) and the
participant or client (the Other) in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, age,
experience, and so on come into play in the production and dissemination of
knowledge. These social labels may reflect different rationalities, values,
languages, and norms that can be traced to cultural or subcultural contexts.
The researcher, informed by his or her cultural assumptions, may prefer
research topics, methodologies, interpretations, interventions, and so on, that
neglect or even violate the participant’s unique subjectivity and living
conditions. The Social Worker may impose his or her own version of health,
empowerment, and resistance onto the other, a rationality that is shaped under
the influence of existing power relations. 

Are power and knowledge related? There is no way around it: Research contexts
are laden with power, and a power differential exists in the
researcher-participant relationship. Traditional researchers are less concerned
with this issue, partly because the power imbalance helps to control the
variables under investigation and to promote certain interventions. Social Workers,
in contrast, may intend to empower the other but may find themselves occupying
a position that is reinforced by professional status, expertise, class,
educational background, institutional support, to a certain degree
interpersonal expertise, and by the relational structure of research as it is
conducted in our societies. With such a privileged position, the researcher can
easily, despite best intentions, produce, disseminate and reify cultural
assumptions, visions of self-realisation, and social utopia. 

Feminists, postcolonial theorists, and historians have shown that the
production and dissemination of knowledge are susceptible to power, money and
social relationships. In this context, it is important that researchers reflect
on whether or in what ways they perpetuate and reproduce the political,
economic, patriarchal, and radicalised status quo. This may require
relativizing and contextualise in front of the other the power of the
psychologist, reveal the historical-cultural situations of knowledge, and
explicate the influence of power and money on Social Work. In that sense
epistemological reflexivity is not oriented toward “ourselves” as an inner
monologue, but rather as a dialogue with the Other. Parker (2012) phrased it so
aptly when he suggested that we should not consider ourselves as “the bedrock
of experience but as something that is crystallized from historical and
institutional structures.

Bourdieu (2016) conceptualised researchers as social actors who tend to
struggle for status and resources. While doubting Bourdieu’s concept of an
absolute “will to power” in Social Work, Social Workers should reflect on
motivations for research and practice. Do we research
and practice for the sake of social justice and what is the role of publications,
grants, promotions, and reputation? Although critical social justice
researchers align themselves with the marginalised instead of with the
governmental, industrial or corporate bodies that provide resources, the
continuation and actualisation of many projects often cannot be carried
out without financial resources and institutional support. A reflection on
issues of power in the “game of knowledge” can help to trace institutional and
discursive inequalities. Social Workers who are unreflexively about power,
knowledge and their own subjectivities (as taking place in a social context)
may perpetuate the status quo and colonise the other.

Social justice psychologists could even go further and use Lacanian ideas to
emphasise the point of radical reflexivity. Nobus and Quinn (2012) argued that
“in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the analysis guided not towards a moment of (self)
recognition, as the culmination of a Socratic ‘knows thyself’, but towards
a practice of non-recognition in which knowledge appears as a foreign
substance”. Taking the other into account could lead one in the process of
epistemological reflexivity to a trauma “whereby theories collapse, beliefs
fall apart and that which we thought we knew is revealed as deception and
sham”. 

It is clear at this point that epistemology and ethics interact. Considering
the other as an end and not as a means in Social Work is not only an
epistemological stance but also an ethical position. This puts social justice
psychologists outside the standards of the discipline of psychology. As
Richardson and Slife (2011) summarise this situation aptly: “Academic or
professional psychologists with a social justice orientation are commonly
viewed as arbitrarily injecting their preferred moral outlook into their work
rather than remaining appropriately value-neutral, or at least tolerant and
non-judgemental. They recommend not cordoning off ethical commitments but
rather acknowledging moral choices, virtues, and goods.

Ethical
reflexivity

 

We
have suggested that any kind of social or psychological activity is inherently
a moral project because it engages with persons, communities, or cultures.
Ontological and epistemological decisions have ethical dimensions. The
conducting of research has a moral dimension as having the presentation of
research and the practice of Social Work. Given the huge amount of
literature on ethics that indicates the complexity of the debates, we will only
present some examples that intend to represent ethical dilemmas and issues that
Social Workers might encounter or that they need to reflect upon.

Is “my” self-evident ethics arrogant? Sati (widow burning) is a ritual where
the Hindu widow joins the pyre of a dead husband and immolates herself. The
British annulled this practice as illegal and as a crime. Sati seems
to be a case for self-evident ethics but may reflect a Western approach to the
problem. According to the postcolonial thinker, Spivak (2016), the act of the
criminalisation of Sati can be understood as a case of “white men saving
brown women from brown men”. Spivak asks if given a voice, how would a
subaltern subject, in this case, an Indian widowed woman, speak for her
condition. 

According to Spivak (2016), Sati is not considered a suicide in Hinduism. It is
a sacred ritual in which death is understood by all members of the religion,
including women, as a signifier for free will. The practice of Sati
symbolises a woman’s choice. When the woman is burned in the fire she becomes
free from her body for the entire cycle of birth. According to Spivak, the
abolition of widow burning imposed a greater ideological constriction on Hindu
women than before and deprived them of exercising their freedom. However,
Western ideals of modernity have contempt for this type of courage and for such
ideals of womanly conduct. Spivak then contrasts her understanding of Sati with
ideas of sacrifice in the West: “Perhaps Sati should have been read with
martyrdom; with the defunct husband standing in for the transcendental One; or
with war, with the husband standing in for sovereign or state, for whose sake
an intoxicating ideology of self-sacrifice can be mobilised. 

Spivak does not advocate the killing of widows nor do we. The ethical problem
arises when the social workers already know what is best for the other, but
neglects the voice and the standpoint of the other. Social workers need to be
reflexive of the history and contexts of activities that may diametrically
oppose their own values. They need to ask, especially in contexts that are
dissimilar to their own, whether the subaltern subject or the victim of social
injustice is given voice to speak and how it is possible to recover his or her
subjectivity without constructing his or her wishes as inferior, problematic,
or stupid. We might even ask whether social work is required in contexts, in
which the subject does not perceive a problem to act upon. 

 

 

Conclusion

Smith (2012) summarised the current status quo on the issue very well: “there
is the re?exivity of academics in a particular ?eld, say social theory,
interested in persuading colleagues to examine the taken-for-granted concepts,
values, and practices of the ?eld. The question is what this reflexivity
embellishes. I think that Maton (2014) makes valid points when discussing the
attitude that might emerge from reflexivity: “it has now become a sin to not be
reflexive. The term is used as a marker of proclaimed distinction and
originality, with position-takings effectively claiming, ‘I am a reflexive
actor producing reflexive accounts of reflexive modernity, while you are
unreflexively and inadequate, an outdated relic of a bygone era'” (p.
54). 

Yet, reflexivity, the way we understand it, includes respect for the research
intentions of the other, which should prevent such sentiments, or at least
allow one to work on such sentiments. Reflexivity is not an oncological
endeavour but includes the participation of others. It involves an
understanding of the social nature of humans, the historicity of social
concepts, and the disunified reality of much of social justice. It means
discussing the role of the other, which includes a discussion of the role of
“me,” that research needs to be with and for the other and not merely about the
other, or that social justice research and practice is an ethical project.
Such reflexivity may allow the conditions for avoiding the narcissistic trap of
adoring reflexivity for its own sake while at the same time creating social
justice and informed action that is aware of its limitations as well as its
possibilities in the here and now.