Shawn Maxam asks are social workers change agents or social control agents?
The concept of street-level bureaucracy was first coined by Michael Lipsky in 1980, who argued that “policy implementation in the end comes down to the people who actually implement it”. He argued that state employees such as police and social workers should be seen as part of the “policy-making community” and as exercisers of political power.
I am currently in my first semester of social work graduate studies and not only is social work aka one of the helping professions vastly different from my lay person notions but the work done in my future profession has vast implications for our society in how the work I do perpetuates power and privilege in our society. Every week I have been experiencing a “professional existential crisis” and decided to see what the public thought about what social workers do. Below is an excerpt from my social media virtual round-table discussion:
Me: I assume we engage in “public service” professions because we want to craft transformative change but often the status quo only allows transactional change to occur. We then become older and the market economy forces us to become administrators and bureaucrats where rules and procedure take precedent over innovation and risks. Revolutions are steeped in taking chances. Not playing it safe. Of course I’m stating this within a macro framework. Everyone has agency within the structure. But systemic oppression and inequality doesn’t continue to exist by accident.
JG: They’re the overlapping area on the Venn Diagram… Sort of like educators.
NB: Captain America’s partner the Falcon was a social worker. If that’s the moral field you’re playing on, you’re in the clear.
Me: Yeah. Highly medicalized today though and much less social justice informed practice. Important work but neoliberal policies…
CZ: (Highly) Subjective.
KM: I’m with CZ. You also can’t lump the entire profession together…
Damn you Che, Malcolm, Fanon and Harriet Beecher Stowe!
JC: Depends on the social worker, doesn’t it. I meet enough of the former variety to be heartened.
Me: agreed JC. I was thinking more from a macro-structure-systemic perspective.
AT: I think it depends but anyone working for (a) gov’t organization has difficulty affecting real social change. So I vote the latter
JC: From a macro perspective, aren’t we all screwed into working for agents of social control?
JS: My mom was a social worker in a hospital, and she really was the one who helped people through things. She took people in to identify bodies, sat with them to help figure out funeral arrangements, went with doctors to tell people their loved ones had passed… She was the one sent in to a patient’s room in Maternity because she wanted to name her daughter “Latrine” – my mom was like, “It is a lovely name, but do you know that it means toilet?” and the lady was like, “nobody knows that!” and my mom explained it’s the word they use in the military and the lady went with Latrine anyway (it does have a pretty ring, you gotta admit).
So that being said, a gentle supporting Social Worker can be an agent to help someone make positive, informed choices. Someone with an agenda is going to be more of a social control agent…
I think I agree with most respondents that it is highly subjective but Michael Lipsky’s Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service does present some of the structural constraints that prevents even the most well-intentioned individual from doing great work. Fortunately we can all help to change things.
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