In this chapter, two claims are made. First, whatever a new politics of social work is founded upon, it can only have credibility if it focuses on practice, on what social workers actually do. Despite the huge literature that exists on social work, virtually none of it is based on evaluations of what social workers do, especially how they practise when face-to-face with service users. An aim of this chapter is to contribute to correcting this by drawing on data from a participant observation study of social work practice in child protection. The second claim the chapter makes is that, while it is appropriate to focus on the things that go wrong and how systems fail in social work, one important emphasis for critical analysis needs to be on what constitutes best practice. The mass of data that a research study generates needs to be allowed to speak for itself in the sense of revealing whatever the findings are, whether that be in showing good, bad or average practice. How such things are defined and assessments made are, of course, contested issues, and need to be part of the critical discussion and justified through the use of theory. I attempt to show how it is possible to identify practice that is ‘best’, and the basis upon which such claims might be made.
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