Stan Cohen was the academic who coined this phrase as he tried to understand the media and public response to the 1960’s phenomena of ‘mods and rockers’. A series of seaside clashes between different youth gangs became identified as a major threat to the social and moral order of the time, the young people transformed into ‘folk devils’. Cohen’s fascination with the process of stereotyping and stigmatisation turned into a very influential school of criminology called ‘deviancy studies’. Although he had left social work (he had trained in his native South Africa and then worked in London), preferring what he called ‘the safer world of sociology’, many social workers were attracted to his ideas. In CASE CON, the radical magazine of the seventies, various writers railed against the process by which individuals in difficulty came to be labelled as ‘clients’ with professional interventions serving to ‘amplify’ or exaggerate that role, creating ‘deviant careers’.
In his contribution to the Bailey and Brake book, ‘Radical Social Work’ (1975) Cohen was not, however, especially impressed with how his ideas had been taken up by social workers but he does this in a comradely fashion. The chapter is worth rereading because he honestly touches on the tensions SWAN still struggle with, which is how we turn academic theories into something that can be used in our direct work with individuals. He concludes his chapter with a series of ‘suggestions’. These include the need ‘to think very concretely about how to avoid stigmatizing your clients, unwittingly facilitating their drift into further trouble, trapping them in cycles of rejection’. One I especially warm to is his encouragement for us ‘to stay in your agency or organization, but don’t let it seduce you. Take every opportunity to unmask its pretensions and euphemisms’
And most challenging perhaps, ‘In practice and theory, stay “unfinished”. Don’t be ashamed of working for short-term humanitarian or libertarian goals, but always keep in mind the long-term political prospects. This might mean living with the uncomfortable ambiguity that your most radical work will be outside your day-to-day job’ (1975, p. 95).