Care, control, contradiction: dialectical social work and the new pedagogy for social care

By Carson Rainham

[Image: The 13 Abril communal council in Caracas's Barrio 23 Enero, Venezuela.]

“History is a great predictor of the future”. Between the brown folding panel walls of the committee room in which I’m sat and the brown floors, with its brown tables and its brown doors I listen to the words of the experienced child protection social worker leading a training session on outcome based plans and smirk a little.

I’m writing my dissertation on dialectics in social work. The unintentional nod to historical materialism piques my interest . “History is a great predictor of the future” he says it again and I wonder what place Marxism has in this government building.

That said, there is a long tradition of bringing Marxism into social work. In 1975, Roy Bailey and Michael Brake published Radical Social Work, a seminal text in understanding the class politics of the profession. Three years later, Paul Corrigan and Peter Leonard published their work Social Work Practice Under Capitalism: A Marxist Approach. Both texts aimed to look at the concrete conditions of the working class in Britain and how the social relationship between social worker and service user was defined by production and the state and while they opened a much needed dialogue they faltered respectively in their homogeneous view of class and their belief that only through the trade unions can the working class and social workers unite and organise.

At its most extreme and effective, after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, social work became a role taken on by mass organisations, such as the Cuban Federation for Women, instead of becoming a profession in and of itself which promoted a community orientated service provision focused on reducing the barriers to involvement in the labour market, as well as ‘economic, political and social involvement with the revolution’.  In 1998, the University of Havana produced a six year social work program which noted a need to deviate from the traditional training of social workers in order to create a social work that integrated with these mass organisations. As such it sought to be a service of the people for the people, and reduce the social relationship between the people and the state.

In the west, the critical and radical tradition of social work has remained at the margins, occasionally influencing theory and practice but never with a set method that seeks to change the entire dynamic of the social relationship between the state and service users. The main method of practice currently, one that is written into every level of social work, is that of anti-oppressive practice.

In the eighties, social work was exposed as a racist institution which often pathologized and sought to control black people. Research showed a disproportionate removal of black children from their families and subsequent placement into residential care, and that black people were much more likely to be compulsorily admitted to hospital under the Mental Health Act. Pushing for a practice which addressed these issues, anti-oppressive practice looked at challenging the discourse through anti-racism and anti-sexism etc. but instead ended up moralizing to the poor by policing the sometimes oppressive language of service users. By placing the onus of liberatory practice upon the state, anti-oppressive practice became defined by the state which then disburses its benevolent workforce to clear up its own messes in a way it sees fit. In the same way that trade unions often capitulate to capital to the detriment of workers, anti-oppressive practice allows the state to define oppression, to define what is not oppressive and provide an apparently benevolent welfare from the top down stifling any working class organisation. The contradictions are unequivocal.

In his essay What is Orthodox Marxism? Georg Lukacs reminds the reader that ‘for the dialectical method the central problem is to change reality’ thus presenting to us the purpose of the method itself as a revolutionary tool.

The question as to whether there is a need for dialectical social work then is a question as to whether social workers have a place within a revolutionary struggle to abolish the conditions under which service users come into a social care context. In contradiction to this social workers are utilised by the state to provide or deny welfare. The dialectic of social care versus social control therefore coexists within social work. However, if social workers are to serve the needs of the working class they must also seek to understand how the the ideological, socio-economic and political environments in which they live shape their experience and their interactions with the state.

But what is dialectical social work? How do dialectics fit into practice?


The purpose of applying the revolutionary method is to divorce social work from a milieu of liberal “anti-oppressive practice” which only aims to uphold the profession for its own sake.

Instead the dialectical method provides social workers and service users with the tools for assessing the conditions within which they live, recognising the contradictions that make up those conditions and to identify and as such demystify the abstractions which the state puts before them.

An example in practice is the housing crisis. There is an affordable housing shortage in the UK but given that there are upwards 200,000 empty houses across England, with 19,845 of those in London alone while the numbers of people in temporary accommodation in September 2017 were recorded at 78,180 it seems relevant to understand this through dialectical analysis, one which is critical of the mode of production and the conditions it creates.

These conditions include but are not limited to the of funneling public sector money used to house families in private B&B’s and hotels, sometimes to the sum of hundreds and thousands of pounds a week, instead of funding the building of long term social housing and alleviating the pressures of many social workers.

Engels writes that in ‘such a society the housing shortage is no accident; it is a necessary institution and it can be abolished together with all its effects on health, etc., only if the whole social order from which it springs is fundamentally refashioned.’

By identifying the contradictions that social work comes into contact with on a daily basis, dialectical social work presents a new mode for preventing and challenging the main causes of exploitation in society instead of merely trying to react to it after the fact. 

However, the task might be Sisyphean in nature. Dialectical social work is impossible without a complimentary radical pedagogy within social work education. In London, social work students are reacting to the increasing neoliberalisation of their education and reacting to it in creative ways. Last year, students at Goldsmiths embarked on a year long fee strike, withholding money from the university until they appropriately addressed the pushing out of working class and BAME students from the course. New cohorts are organising with the hope of networking with universities nationwide to address the contradictions inherent in a course that teaches radical social practice but enacts none of it.  

Dialectical social work, if it is to exist at all, must be bound up in a social program initiated from the grassroots. It must include a radical pedagogy which is developed and taught by social workers and service users together, learning from one another and developing a process of disentanglement from the state. The task is long and the commitment must be firm if we are to expect to refashion the social order in any meaningful and liberatory way.