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‘Just do it!’ Social work, ethics and resistance. Dr Iain Ferguson Morag Faulds Memorial Lecture University of the West of Scotland 21 st June 2011. Jean-Paul Sartre 1905 -1980. From Existentialism to Marxism: the Power of Circumstances.

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just do it social work ethics and resistance

‘Just do it!’ Social work, ethics and resistance

Dr Iain Ferguson

Morag Faulds Memorial Lecture

University of the West of Scotland

21st June 2011

from existentialism to marxism the power of circumstances
From Existentialism to Marxism: the Power of Circumstances

‘A simple formula would be to say that my life taught me la force des choses – the power of circumstances’ (Sartre, 1969)

agency freedom and constraint
Agency, Freedom and Constraint

‘ This is the limit I would today accord to freedom: the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned social being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him’ (Sartre, 1969)

‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already given and transmitted from the past’ (Marx, 1851)

ethics and social work
Ethics and Social Work
  • ‘Ethical dilemmas occur when the social worker sees herself as facing a choice between two equally unwelcome alternatives , which may involve a conflict of moral values, and it is not clear which choice will be the right one’ (Banks, 2006: 13)
shrinking spaces managerialism and social work
Shrinking spaces:managerialism and social work
  • ‘Management’ is a separate and distinct organisational function
  • Progress is seen in terms of increasing productivity
  • Increased productivity will come from the application of information and organisational technologies
  • There must be a shift from a focus on inputs and processes to outputs and outcomes
  • Measurement and quantification needs to increase
  • Markets or market-type mechanisms should be used to deliver services
  • Contractual relationships should be introduced
  • Customer orientation should be central
  • The boundaries between the public, private and voluntary sectors should be blurred (Harris and Unwin, 2009: p11)
ethical practice and performance management
Ethical Practice and Performance Management
  • ‘A dominant theme in the criticisms of current practice is the skew in priorities that has developed between the demands of the management and inspection processes and professionals’ ability to exercise their professional judgement and act in the best interests of the child. This has led to an over-standardised system that cannot respond adequately to the varied range of children’s needs...
  • For some , following rules and being compliant can appear less risky than carrying the personal responsibility for exercising judgement’(Munro, 2011)
voices from the frontline ferguson and woodward 2009
Voices from the Frontline(Ferguson and Woodward, 2009)

‘We live in a performance framework where outcomes have to be seen to be measured. I think we all know that outcomes are really very, very difficult to measure but nevertheless they are measured, a lot of them are measured in such meaningless ways’

Frontline manager in a generic team

'The managers control day-to-day practice, which is just chasing numbers and chasing targets'.

Social worker in children's services

a climate of fear just do it
A Climate of Fear: ‘Just do it!’
  • Reduction in professional autonomy
  • The pressures of inspection and the need to meet targets
  • The weakening of collective cultures (professional and trade union)
  • Tension between priorities of management and front-line staff:
  • ‘There’s a huge gap between managers...who are trying to implement what we’ve been talking about and their understanding of what good practice is’ (cited in Ferguson and Woodward, 2009)
ethical practice and marketisation
Ethical practice and marketisation
  • Competition: the ’race to the bottom’
  • ‘My experience has been that workers’ conditions have gone down and down, the wages have gone down, the hours have gone up... How on earth do you provide empowering practice if workers are totally disempowered? I don’t think it’s possible’ (cited in Ferguson and Woodward, 2009: 93)
  • Marketisation and continuity of care: The case of Southern Cross
  • Cuts, eligibility criteria and increased rationing
a new critical radical social work or just good practice ferguson and woodward 2009
A New Critical/Radical Social Work – or just Good Practice? (Ferguson and Woodward, 2009)
  • Retaining a commitment to good practice. 
  • Practice as 'guerrilla warfare' and small-scale resistance .
  • Practice as working alongside service users and carers
  • Practice as collective activity and political campaigning.
retaining a commitment to good practice
Retaining a Commitment to Good Practice
  • ‘If we don’t take some kind of personal responsibility then we just become more insulated, more depressed and more demoralised and to me, that’s kind of what radical practice is, it’s not allowing yourself to get demoralised and maintaining a sense of focus’. Amy, frontline practitioner in children’s services, 20 years qualified
  • ‘Our team has very strong social work values ...we’re unafraid to challenge the internal system and we have an excellent manager as well so we can see ourselves as a force...insisting on creating that kind of dialogue’.
  • Kathryn, Joint Disabilities Team, eight years qualified
radical practice as guerilla warfare and small scale resistance
Radical practice as ‘guerilla warfare’ and small-scale resistance
  • ‘The Social Worker as Agitator’ (Attlee, 1920)
  • ‘Middle-class bandits’ (Pearson, 1975)
  • Deviant Social Work
  • ‘In my own research I have met so many practitioners who recognise that the hardships facing their clients have everything to do with the nature of contemporary neoliberalism and nothing to do with character or morality’ (Jones, 2007: 193).
working alongside service users and carers
Working alongside service users and carers
  • Involving service users and carers in social work education
  • Building collective alliances
  • Avoiding tokenism
radical practice as collective activity and campaigning
Radical practice as collective activity and campaigning

Rethinking Ethics and Politics:

‘Ethics and politics are not separate spheres but different viewpoints on the same subject – the former investigating such matters as needs, desires, qualities and values, the latter examining the conventions, forms of power, institutions and social relations within which alone such things are intelligible. It is for this reason that Aristotle regards ethics as a sub-branch of politics ‘(Eagleton, 2009: 316).

towards a political or situated social work ethics banks 2011
Towards a political or situated social work ethics (Banks, 2011)
  • Radical social justice (IFSW statement)
  • Empathic solidarity (empathy essential starting point but not enough – needs to lead to solidarity)
  • Relational autonomy (social workers can act as agents but understanding both the possibilities and limitations of that autonomy)
  • Collective responsibility for resistance (resisting responsibilation – blaming individuals for their problems/also involvement in collective forums, especially trade unions)
  • Moral courage – a key social work virtue
  • Working in and with complexity and contradictions – ethics not about simple dilemmas, or simply choosing between two sets of actions. (Banks, 2011)
collective action and political campaigning
Collective Action and Political Campaigning
  • Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia, 2008),Briskman et al
  • Social Work After Baby P: Issues, Debates and Perspectives, Ferguson and Lavalette, 2009
  • Social Work Action Network (www.socialworkfuture.org)
  • Black Triangle Campaign
  • Defend Glasgow Service Campaign
ifsw definition
IFSW Definition
  • The social work profession promotes social change, problem-solving in human relationships, and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work (www.ifsw.org.com)
  • Banks, S. (2011) ‘Ethics in an Age of Austerity: Social Work and the Evolving New Public Management’. Journal of Social Intervention: Theory and Practice, Vol 20, Issue 2.
  • Ferguson, I. and Woodward, R. (2009) Radical Social Work in Practice, Bristol: Policy Press
  • Harris, J. And White, V. (2009) Modernising Social Work: Critical Considerations, Bristol: Policy Press
  • Lipsky, M. (1980) Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, New York: Russell Sage Foundation
  • Marx, K (1851) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


  • Sartre, J-P (1969) ‘Itinerary of a Thought’, New Left Review, 1/58, November-December, 1969