What does a Radical Model of Theory and Practice have to offer Social Work Practitioners in Contemporary Social Work with Adults?

By using Spitzer’s (1975) analysis of ‘social junk’ and ‘social dynamite’, I will identify the issues arising in today’s context for service users who are perceived to fall into these two groups. It is important to note that there are a multitude of complexities exposed to individuals that can be argued to occupy many different service user groups, however for the purpose of this essay I aim to particularly focus on disabled adults and adults with drug and alcohol dependency. By providing examples of the ways in which issues such as: benefit and resource cuts, privatisation and the pathologising and criminalisation of behaviour has on these service user groups I will be able to appropriately apply solutions from the perspective of radical social work both in theory and practice form. I will then summarise the points made throughout this article and collate the reasons as to why and how a radical social work can support social workers and service users in today’s context.

The 1960s and 70s saw a rise in interest in the social consequences of capitalism (Howe, 2009). Radical social work was developed in an attempt to alleviate the consequences imposed onto individuals in a dominant capitalist society (Leonard, 1975). Spitzer (1975) provides a Marxist analysis of capitalism, identifying that it defines two service user groups: social junk, those that are classified as dependent and a drain on society’s resources, thus needing care, and social dynamite, those that are dangerous and needing to be controlled. With the development of capitalism dependent on the exploitation of labour workers (Poynton, 2011), an economic system has been created, which in crisis, creates and recreates hardship for individuals whilst concurrently reducing the welfare resources introduced to relieve that very hardship (Brake and Bailey, 1980). The latter is a contradiction demonstrating the overwhelming power held by capitalists in society – the ability to create a hierarchical structure in which an ‘underclass’ categorises those that Spitzer (1975) refers to as social ‘junk’ and ‘dynamite’.

            As a result of capitalism, the societal involvement in social problems was hidden and not addressed; consequently social work became a ‘partner in crime’ in the silence culture of social justice (Steyaert, 2013). Pearson (1973) argues that to proclaim the humanistic nature of social work is fraudulent in that it produces an aims culture, aims of which are impossible to achieve in a capitalist society. Social work intervention, according to radical social workers, is ineffective if the client is unaware of the social context intrinsic to their social problems (Bailey and Brake, 1980).

Radical social work involves understanding oppression in the context of social and economic structures rather than affixing the problems to the individuals who are oppressed (Brake and Bailey, 1975). A radical social worker’s role involves positive assistance, the sustaining of mutual respect and the location of a service user’s problems in a wider social and political context (Brake and Bailey, 1980). Leonard (1975) outlines four aims for radical practice: education, linking people with systems, building counter-systems and individual and structural responses. Radical social work is deemed to be the foundation in the development of theories such as anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice and critical social work theory. It is said to have transformed the social work value base to include anti-oppressive values (Ferguson and Woodward, 2009).

The 1970’s saw a tremendous rise in trade unionism amongst social workers, allowing for a collective identity to be created (Ferguson and Woodward, 2009) and thus contributing to radical social work practice. Along with this came ‘Case Con’, a social work magazine complementing the development of radical social work in the early 70’s. A theme of homelessness was developed throughout, with squatters supported and families sheltered in social work offices (Social Work Action Network, n.d. a).

Radical social work declined in the 1980’s with the election of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party into Government. Ferguson and Woodward (2009) describe the deprofessionalisation of social workers as a result of them being ‘soft’ on the groups that this particular Government and the media branded as ‘scroungers’ and the ‘underclass’. The role of the welfare state in this era, and in the current context it can be argued, has been significantly reduced with access to support such as benefits and housing becoming more conditional and less abundant. Almost thirty years since the Thatcher Government, welfare state responsibilities continue to be mitigated and the poorest and most vulnerable individuals and communities become marginalised further, with people now more excluded than they have ever been (Ferguson and Woodward, 2009). This can be illustrated with the example of food banks. In 2008/09 25,899 people accessed food banks in comparison to a substantial increase to 913,138 people in 2013/14 (Trussel Trust, 2014).

The above points can also be substantiated by use of legislation enacted to reinforce capitalist ideology. The NHS and Community Care Act (1990) introduced the concept of care management, replacing direct work with adult service users with the bureaucratic managing and ‘rationing’ of resources (McNicoll, 2013). In section 79 of the Care Act (2014), a local authority is required to delegate its functions – thus conforming to the neoliberal notion of marketisation. Policy is developed in an attempt to further reduce reliance on the state. The Care Act factsheets (2014) state that local authorities should be working with communities to identify services that are already available to them, in other words utilising that of the third sector to promote independence.

The revisiting of community based work is central to radical social work theory and practice. Community development projects were intrinsic in the 70’s to a radical social work as they moved away from the pathologising and individualistic model of deprivation towards an understanding of class structure and economic and social contexts (Hatton, 2008). Social workers today are becoming progressively disheartened with the increasing bureaucracy resulting in less direct work with people – reopening the case for community social work (Holman, 2013). In today’s statutory context, social work has become more about fulfilling organisational functions than practicing the values on which it was developed (Asquith et al, 2005). Teater and Baldwin (2012) provide examples as to implementing community based work today: students conducting community profiles whilst on placement, utilising resources to conduct research projects concerning unmet need and information sharing amongst other authorities to gain a variety of perspectives. The values of a community approach reflect notions of collectivism rather than individualism (Jordan, 2007), thus allowing for acknowledgement of social problems in their social context.

The privatisation of public services contributes to the capitalist dominance in society and the increased emphasis on health and social care organisations running for profit can have disastrous consequences for service users. Whitfield (2012) criticises the notion of ‘payment by results’ whereby providers are rewarded once targets and performance outcomes have been met. This is argued by Leys and Player (2011) as dangerous, as the quality of treatment is not accounted for in these outcomes. The epitome of this is Winterbourne View where service users with learning difficulties and mental health problems were abused at the hands of their carers. The serious case review conducted by Flynn (2012) identified that the average weekly fee for patients at Winterbourne was £3,500, with this providing no reflection of the service quality or patient safety and unlike most long-stay institutions, their annual turnover equated to £3.7 million.

In situations such as this, and in an era where integration between health and social care organisations is becoming more prevalent, advocacy in the context of radical practice is crucial. Boylan and Ing (2005) argue that providers need to promote awareness of advocacy as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) (2010) state that there is limited information available on advocacy to those with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act (2010). This was particularly pertinent in the case of Winterbourne View; if the patients had been provided with access to advocates it is fair to suggest that the abuse may have been recognised sooner and in a more sensitive manner. SCIE (2009) state that a clear role within advocacy is to work alongside people to ensure that there is a move away from a service-led culture; an opportunity to empower individuals rather than just allowing them to argue their case.

            The experience of a ‘mixed economy of care’ among stroke patients was explored in a research study undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (1994). It was identified that the service users felt unprepared in becoming ‘consumers’ in relation to the purchasing of care and were reluctant in asking for support for fear of having an irritable response or their services withdrawn. The notion of the ‘mixed economy of care’ can not only lead to confusion and fear amongst vulnerable adults, but also expose them to abuse. Taking Spitzer’s (1975) analysis of ‘social junk’ as represented by the Government and media, the service users perceived to fit into this category are older people and people with physical and learning disabilities. Looking at how the personalisation agenda specifically in relation to direct payments affects the two service user groups, it is difficult to argue that this does not render service users more susceptible to abuse. Whitfield (2012) states that direct payments are ‘dressed up in the language of choice’ (pg. 7) and this is artificial as the state are transferring the risk and accountability to the service user. Samuel (2012) identifies a danger to this in that service users may employ unregulated workers, or friends and relatives that leave them at a heightened risk of poor quality care and abuse than that of people using general services. As well as this, he argues that they may be less likely to report poor care and abuse, especially if those that are employed are relatives or friends. Teater and Baldwin (2012) argue that the personalisation agenda facilitates anything but a collective approach and ‘cements’ and individualises service users within the care market.

            As well as the above, in a climate of austerity and severe cuts to benefits and services, disabled people continue to be the hardest hit (The Hardest Hit, n.d.). Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people (Office for Disability Issues, 2011) and with plans to reduce benefit eligibility by up to 500,000, more than 25,000 people with a disability will be forced out of work (Disability Rights UK, 2012). Austerity measures limit the availability of resources and services and thus the amount of people that can access them. In other words, as resources and services are diminished, the service users deemed to be eligible for those that remain become increasingly reduced. Vulnerable adults needing to be maintained in the community within their support networks are denied access to services as a direct result of the ever-tightening eligibility criteria (Teater and Baldwin, 2012).

            A radical social work would stress the need for collective action between both professionals and service users. Langan (2002) states that people are united today with the conviction that society is disintegrating. A dominating feature of radical social work aims for values of equality, justice and involvement in society by means of collective action (Howe, 2009).  Policies need to be developed from the bottom-up, with service users with first-hand experience of the impact of governmental policy perceived and treated as experts. People need to develop a ‘collective approach to autonomy’ (Teater and Baldwin, 2012: 36) to be able to critically appreciate their circumstances (Doyal and Gough, 1991). This directly linking to Bailey and Brake’s (1980) argument mentioned above around the ineffectiveness of social work if an individual is not aware of the social context to their problems. The Mental Health User movement along with the Disability Rights movement are the epitome of when collective action has successfully challenged policy and societal perspectives.

One way in which we can help promote further collective action between service users is to develop forms of participation that are less tokenistic, moving to the view that service users are allies. Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of participation illustrates three areas of participation that provide service users with a degree of power: partnership, delegated power and citizen control. If methods are developed that reflect these three areas Warren (2007) argues that service users will: influence service provision, increase their confidence and self-esteem, become empowered through collective involvement and develop peer-led initiatives. Baldwin and Sadd (2006) argue that current participation can be viewed as tokenistic, however we must stress the importance of eliminating this, forming alliances and moving towards the top end of the ladder in which Arnstein (1969) describes. An example of ways in which this can be done reflects practices at the University of Bath, in which service users are involved with interviewing, lecturing and assessment of students and their readiness to practice.

As well as the above, service providers will also benefit in the sense that service users and carers hold first-hand experience and knowledge that can challenge stereotypes and educate professionals (Young et al, 1998). Professionals also need to act collectively in order to actively advocate for social justice. This can be achieved alongside a trade union such as UNISON or by joining a radical campaigning group such as the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) (Baldwin, 2011). SWAN’s (n.d. b) ethos echoes that of radical social work – promoting models of practice ‘rooted in social justice’ and to advocate alongside service users and carers. This stresses the importance of forming alliances as mentioned in the example above.

            It is apt to suggest that adults with a drug and/or alcohol dependency are classified within what Spitzer (1975) would label the ‘social dynamites’ of society. The stigma associated with people that have drug misuse problems is substantial in that they are stereotyped as dangerous and dirty; this having a direct impact on the ways in which policy is implemented to support them (UK Drug Policy Commission, 2010). People experiencing stigma are less able to participate in seemingly generic life experiences – a career, intimate relationships and a place to call home (Goffman, 1963). A research study undertaken by Corrigan et al (2009) identified that people labelled as drug addicts are less likely to be offered and given help than those with a mental illness or disability. The control element required for these ‘social dynamites’ is substantiated by the criminalisation of drug possession, with up to seven years in prison punishable to those caught with Class A drugs (Gov UK, 2014). By criminalising the use of drugs it pathologises and individualises the issue and attributes it to that of the person, rather than considering the societal factors that may cause a person to take drugs. This is the basic premise radical social work wishes to eradicate.

            The UK Drug Policy Commission (2010) states that professionals should be adequately trained to appropriately respond to people with substance misuse problems. In a radical context, this could involve revisiting our professional value base, particularly in relation to anti-oppressive values. In an article written by a social worker for Community Care (2014) it was argued that we as social workers have a duty to identify and fight discrimination and oppression at every level. If we are not actively identifying and challenging discrimination toward our service users then in effect we are not practicing social work according to the definition provided by the International Federation of Social Workers; ‘principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities’ (IFSW, 2014).

            Another radical offering to address issues such as the above is to expose the political nature of social work to students within social work education. Many students advocate a commitment to social justice, however they are disillusioned in their belief that this can be achieved through individual practice (Baldwin, 2011). A political standpoint can help social workers become sensitised to the client and their perception of their situation – this is particularly important for those who have succumbed to self-blame (Bailey and Brake, 1980). This is directly applicable to individuals with substance misuse problems as there is a tendency to internalise the societal stigma and blame themselves for the issue rather than recognise it in a social context. A social work assessment reflects an individual’s need and eligibility to access resources. An assessment in this sense is a highly political social work activity, with social workers used by organisations as resource managers rather than ‘enablers of choice and control’ (Baldwin, 2011: 198). By not having this political nature of social work exposed, we may risk further perpetuating inequality and oppressive practices (Thompson and Thompson, 2008). Along with this comes the importance of developing critically reflective practitioners within social work education. Having this skill allows social workers to recognise the influence of power inequalities which contribute to the creation of problems for service users (Howe, 2009). Baldwin (2011) argues that a critically reflective stance is crucial in that it notes how users are constructed within the welfare system.

            Radical social work is retrievable in today’s context if it is able to rediscover ‘its humanistic roots’ and the principles of individual liberty and human rights (Langan, 2011: 163). This article has used Spitzer’s (1975) analysis of ‘social junk’ and ‘dynamite’ in relation to disabled adults and adults that have substance misuse problems and highlighted the issues exposed to these groups in today’s capitalist dominant and neo-liberal society. I have explored issues such as: the personalisation agenda, direct payments, austerity measures and resource cuts, privatisation and the criminalisation of behaviour and offered solutions from a radical social work perspective to help in overcoming them. To summarise, the solutions offered within this article are: advocacy, the revisiting of community based social work, exposing the political nature of social work particularly within social work education, forming alliances with service users by developing less tokenistic forms of participation, ensuring we continue to be critically reflective, acting collectively and reminding ourselves of our main principles of social justice and anti-oppressive values. As demonstrated in this article, it is undeniable to argue that radical social work, if applied in the ways outlined above, can make a significant contribution to alleviating the pressures of neoliberalism and capitalist measures in today’s context of social work services for adults. If we can completely apply a radical approach to our practice as social workers, principles such as equality and social justice will become more prevalent in society rather than branded an unachievable aim.


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