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About this book

Power is an unavoidable issue in social work. This important text explores these complex issues, both at a conceptual and applied level, in order to give students a clear understanding of the theoretical frameworks relevant to practice and to help them begin to think through the challenges they are likely to face and how they will deal with these.

Table of Contents

Why Do We Need to Think about Power?

Chapter 1. Why Do We Need to Think about Power?

Abstract
Power is an awkward and slippery concept, and it has proved highly problematic for social work both in theory and in practice. Indeed, conventional definitions illustrate the fundamental nature of the challenge. The Oxford Dictionary of English offers eight variations, of which three at least are directly relevant:
the ability or capacity to do something;
the capacity or ability to act in a particular way to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events; or physical strength or force exerted by someone … (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2005)
Roger Smith

Ideas of Power

Frontmatter

Chapter 2. Ideas about Power

Abstract
Social workers have for a long time been uncomfortable with the phenomenon of power. They are, at one and the same time, acutely aware of their own relative powerlessness in an organizational and structural sense, and yet concerned as to how to manage their own authority over service users. Indeed, it seems that they are confronted with a very real irony; whilst having limited capacity to change structural aspects of oppression, they are also expected to exercise further controls and constraints over the oppressed. Jones’s (2001) survey of practising social workers found this to be a matter of great concern. One said:
I think the … government is into having a two-tier system and the clients we work with are not needed so we are there to keep those at the bottom in their place and out of sight, or to be blamed if things go wrong. I think most local authority social workers today, unless they are completely apolitical, would accept that most of what we do is about policing. You can still do some useful things for your clients but it is more difficult than ever. (quoted in Jones, 2001, p. 550)
Roger Smith

Chapter 3. Modes of Power

Abstract
Having attempted to clarify some of the theoretical issues surrounding the nature of power, the key question to be addressed in this chapter is: how is power exercised and experienced? This will precede a more detailed consideration of the contexts within which power relations are played out (Chapter 4). It is clearly a matter of some relevance that power and its relationships can be differentiated, notwithstanding Parsons’s (1969) view that this is unnecessary. Any attempt to operationalize the concept, that is, to provide a ‘definition-in-use’, must consider the characteristics which determine its exercise in specific settings.
Roger Smith

Chapter 4. Sites of Power

Abstract
It may on occasion seem a long journey from the realm of concepts and theories to the immediate challenges of direct practice. Attempts to make these connections by discussing the ways in which power is expressed (Chapter 3) may also seem incomplete if they are not contextualized. For those concerned with the critical issues of taking professional decisions and intervening in people’s lives, the value of ideas can only be realized to the extent that they are linked effectively to concrete realities. For this reason, it is important to focus on power in context, in the distinctive settings where its relationships are played out.
Roger Smith

Mechanisms of Power

Frontmatter

Chapter 5. Structural Influences on Practice

Abstract
At this point in the book, the focus will shift somewhat to bring into consideration a range of rather more concrete manifestations of power which in their different ways help to shape the context for social work intervention and affect day-to-day practice directly. I have chosen specifically to focus on three key areas: the structural forces which shape the social work agenda (see Jones, 2001); the organizational context; and the service user perspective. Each of these will be addressed over the next three chapters.
Roger Smith

Chapter 6. Professionals and Organizations

Abstract
In the previous chapter I set out some of the structural factors which are likely to impact on social work practice, both in the sense of conferring the authority to act and in defining the terms on which intervention takes place. However, for most practitioners there is also a strong sense of being the subject of more immediate influences, which are bound up with the organizational and institutional settings within which they work. These factors may be as diverse as operational policies and procedures, team dynamics, cultural and professional norms, or management styles, but it is almost certain that some or all of these will be experienced as significant determinants of what is expected and what is possible in the performance of the social work task.
Roger Smith

Chapter 7. Service-User Strategies

Abstract
Although this book is written by a social work academic and is addressed to those involved in social work practice and learning, it would clearly be an omission to ignore the perspective of service users. It is of crucial importance, both to our understanding and to the achievement of good practice, that recognition is given to the capacity of service users themselves to influence power dynamics. We should not diminish the overarching impact of structural factors, inequality or oppression, but it would be erroneous to believe that power operates only in unilinear fashion, from the top down. The context is undoubtedly crucial, and we have already noted the significance of ideology, the state and other institutions in creating the frameworks within which social work and other interpersonal transactions are carried out. Jones (1983; 2001), for example, has argued repeatedly that state social work is constructed and managed in a way to ensure that control is maintained over disadvantaged and marginalized groups in society:
State social work, unlike many other aspects of state social policy provision such as health and education, is very class specific and always has been so. It is an activity imposed on the most vulnerable, impoverished and damaged in society. (Jones, 2001, p. 549)
Roger Smith

Taking, Making and Using Power

Frontmatter

Chapter 8. Empowering Relationships

Abstract
In the final part of this book, I want to move on to consider some of the ways in which social workers can develop interventions which utilize and reframe power relationships to the benefit of service users and those around them. The aim will be to consider a number of different routes by which these outcomes can be achieved. In particular, whilst working with individuals remains at the heart of the social work enterprise, I want to incorporate a perspective which addresses the links between different practice levels, in much the same way as Thompson suggests with the PCS model.
Roger Smith

Chapter 9. Groups, Communities and Systems

Abstract
It has been a central theme of this book that social work practice must take account of and renegotiate power relationships in order to stand any chance of achieving effective outcomes. However, it has also become clear that these relationships cannot be viewed simplistically, for example, purely as structural forces which operate consistently and impose uniform outcomes. As we have seen previously, the dynamics of power depend on a variety of factors which operate at a number of distinct levels.
Roger Smith

Chapter 10. Power: Meeting the Challenge

Abstract
It has been observed on a number of occasions that social work practice is experienced as a kind of dichotomy. The tension between concern for individuals and their needs, on the one hand, and the desire to transform unequal and unfair social circumstances, on the other, is sometimes divisive. Social workers have, over the years, felt under some pressure to identify themselves with one camp or the other (Cooper, 2002, p. 8). This has been described as the basis of a kind of ‘civil war within the profession’. Social work was for a long time perceived as either being about achieving structural change through expressing solidarity with oppressed groups and advocating for social justice, or about meeting individual needs through counselling and casework. The two perspectives were viewed from within as being incompatible, and, in different ways, as betraying the real needs of service users and the real meaning of social work practice. Whilst attempts were made to bridge the divide, these were limited and largely unsuccessful. Nevertheless, as Cooper observes, such dialogue gradually became more easily achievable, particularly as insights from feminism and anti-psychiatry demonstrated the connectedness between subjective worlds and external social realities. He argues that the domain of practice represented by social work requires an ability to work across and between apparently fixed barriers:
for us as social workers … there is really no choice but to go on having these kinds of cross-boundary dialogues. We necessarily, by virtue of being social care workers, occupy a psychosocial domain … [O]ur activity is also framed by its location within the public sector. We cannot avoid the question of our relationship to the state. (Cooper, 2002, p. 9)
Roger Smith
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