Monday, February 13, 2012

Thoughts on Power and Social Work

I read the article "Power and social work in the United Kingdom: A Foucauldian excursion"* by Tony Gilbert and Jason L. Powell and I think it expresses the root of my hesitation to take on a cloak of authority in my professional life. I know the authority we take on as professionals is legitimate and well-earned, and that we are held to a set of standards, but somehow I still feel hesitant. It feels like being in a position of authority reinforces a power structure I don't feel right being a part of. It feels hypocritical, like somehow it undermines the principles and values of social work (social justice, e.g.) to claim this authority, even if the authority is legitimate... After all, shouldn't someone who really values solidarity with her clients naturally be at odds with any system that reinforces a power hierarchy between the professional and the client?

The article describes the situation as more nuanced than that - i.e., that power is relative/relational, and that it is fluid rather than static. It also offers some hope of potential for social workers to resist or work to correct power inequalities. The authors of this article maintain that it is impossible for individual social workers to remove ourselves from the flow of power, and that we are both actors and acted upon by the concept of governmentality. This offers me some hope in a strange, resigned way - that is, being in a position of power/authority is not endemic specifically to social work. Regardless of what profession or path we choose in life, we are still going to be a part of a society that is comprised of a constant flow of power. So truly, if there is really no way out of the flow of power, we may as well embrace it and make the best of it... especially since social work specifically makes a conscious effort - more so than the vast majority of other professions - to achieve values like social justice and valuing the worth of individuals.

I mean, what else are we going to do - reject society entirely and live like hermits in the woods? Not only does that undermine the purpose of working to promote societal change (which is why we're all social workers to begin with, right?); but it is also, if I understand the Foucauldian perspective correctly, futile anyhow - since we all govern ourselves with our own thoughts, thus perpetuating the power dynamic even in the absence of anyone else!

And anyway, just like any other professionals, don't social workers deserve to be acknowledged for, and make a living by, our expertise? Isn't authority kind of a good thing? If you're sick, you want a doctor who is an authority in her field, right?

On a related note, after reading Saul Alinsky's book Rules for Radicals*, it seems reasonable to accept the idea that instead of trying to live life as we wish it were (head in the clouds), we have to start from where it is (feet on the ground) - and in doing so, acknowledge, understand, accept and work within existing power structures, or else be doomed to ineffectiveness.

But while there are ingrained mechanisms within our NASW Core Values and our Code of Ethics for undermining and resisting inequality, as members of this modern society, we still in many ways inherently perpetuate inequality. In so many ways, we as professionals and academics - even social workers - can fall victim to embracing hubris to promote ourselves, or choosing not to speak up when a moral dilemma arises because it may compromise our job or career, etc... So my question is not do I want to be a professional social worker. My question is: how can I be a social worker with integrity? How can I live a life and have a career that is in line with my values? How can I advance in my career without compromising my ethics? Ultimately, how do I avoid selling out? Link

I don't have the answers to these questions, and that bothers me. What are your answers?

*References (not perfect APA format - don't judge. It's late.):

Gilbert, T. and Powell, J.L. "Power and social work in the United Kingdom: A Foucauldian excursion" - if you want to read the full PDF of the article, I can email it to you. Published online before print December 8, 2009, doi: 10.1177/1468017309347237 Journal of Social Work January 2010 vol. 10 no. 1 3-22

Alinsky, S. Rules for radicals. 1971, Vintage Books. More info:

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