Skip to main content

About this book

Social work is being constantly shaped by external forces such as new information technology, managerialism, increased public accountability and programme risk management. Although an appreciation of how these forces impact on direct service is required, an exclusive focus on them can prevent social workers from genuinely embracing current practice opportunities.

Existentialism – a philosophy that emphasises our existence in the world as free and responsible agents helping to shape our own experiences through the choices we make – has influenced the development of social work almost from its origins. This ground-breaking text highlights social work’s existential heritage and the existential threats and challenges to current social work practice, and explores how existential philosophy can help direct service social workers find purpose and meaning in their daily practice in a radically uncertain and alienated twenty first century world.

This is a fascinating read from one of the leading scholars in existentialist social work, and an essential guide for today’s student and practitioner in the application of existential social work practice.

Table of Contents

1. Being-in-the-Social Work-World

What does it mean to be a social worker today, working in a social work world? The lived experience of social work practice is the starting point for existential social work. In existential thought, our consciousness is not separate from our world but exists within the worlds we inhabit. By the time of starting their first job, the social work graduate is immersed in the daily challenge of delivering social work services. Social work theory that pays little attention to the lived experience of direct service work can appear remote and irrelevant. After all their essays have been written and marked, the tendency is for graduates to leave social work theory behind and to focus on the functional aspects of the job. The pressure of frontline social work services and the high levels of accountability expected in this new risk-averse work environment can encourage a complete disjunction from the reflective emphasis of academic training. The heavy administrative requirements of most direct service social work jobs can consume huge amounts of work time. Suddenly, the job can feel quite onerous and bureaucratic, miles from the expectations of student days. The first conceptions of social work were created from the lived experience of the first caseworkers. They created the social work world that we inhabit, whether, as a social worker, you are working with many colleagues in a public hospital, as the only social worker in an isolated rural community, or in an emergent field such as an internet-based service. Other social work texts focus on the context of practice or on the politics of social services; these texts assume that the bigger picture is shaping social work at the coalface. Social work is indeed being shaped by larger external forces, like information technology, managerialism, disruption, increased accountability, and risk management. An appreciation of how these forces affect direct service is required. However, focusing exclusively on these forces leaves social work students confused and perplexed about the value of direct service.
Mark Griffiths

2. “Immortal Social Work”: The First Existential Social Work Practice

The next two chapters cover the fragmented history of existential thought in social work. They are relevant today because they provide some insight into how social work can thrive in this technological age. Does working within the limits of our functional role as social workers actually give us and our clients more freedom to be creative? Every time a social worker sits with a client he or she gives testimony to the value of social casework, an individualized service that recognises the value of the professional relationship in helping a person talk through issues as a way of helping to solve them. The same applies to the participants or members of a group or community with whom a social worker is working. In these next two chapters, I want to pay homage to those existential social work writers who have come before me, for their help in shaping my views on this approach. In this chapter, I am exploring the first existential social work movement, which began with Jessie Taft and the Functional school of social work. In Chapter 3, I explore the contributions of Ruth Wilkes, Donald Krill, Neil Thompson, and Jim Lantz to existential social work practice. As I explained in Chapter 1, social casework, as first defined by Mary Richmond (1922), was derived from the selective lived experiences of early caseworkers building upon a primordial form of existential social work – which she eventually defined as: ‘those processes which develop personality through adjustments consciously effected, individual by individual between men [sic] and their social environment’ (pp. 98–99).
Mark Griffiths

3. Existential Social Work Comes of Age

Social work writer Noel Timms (2014), in an interview, described the ‘course of a life’ as resembling ‘the meandering flow of a river, which every now and again breaks into existential floodplains’ (p. 750). In the 1960s and 1970s, the period examined in this chapter, existential floodplains developed within social work. Social work writers began explicitly applying existential thought within social work and identified themselves as existential social workers for the first time. Since the late 1960s and to the present day, existential thinking has been present in social work in the influence of a variety of existential therapies, in the application of existential philosophies to social work, and in the identification of existential issues clients face, including their making sense of their involvement within human services systems. In this chapter, I explore the first social workers who identified as existential social work writers and the ‘fellow travellers’ who use existential thought and combine it with other approaches. I also explore one existential and phenomenological thinker who has been largely ignored by existential social work to date. A practice example is provided to show ways in which raising existential issues in practice can help a client face their personal challenges. In this review of existential social work writing, I describe the key developments of this first flowering. Finally, I make some suggestions about what needs to happen now if existential social work is to progress into the twenty-first century.
Mark Griffiths

4. Existential Social Work Assessment and Intervention

Social work texts face some level of program prescription regarding assessment and intervention in most human services fields. Computerized case management systems, and the presence of detailed and regularly updated government-endorsed guidelines and policy frameworks in most high-risk areas of practice, mean that social work texts face a perpetual test of relevance. In this chapter, an existential approach to social work assessment and intervention is proposed that focuses on the elements that remain crucial to the service encounter. The existential approach builds upon traditional social work practice and experience in valuing the unique personal circumstance of each client. The uniqueness of these situations needs to be discovered mutually with the client as part of the transformation process of discovery. Current social work approaches to assessment and intervention can be divided into the modern and post-modern, and the strengths and limitations of these approaches are explored in this chapter. The existential approach embraces modern and post-modern elements whilst aiming for a practice that is present and available to the unique and personal aspects of the given situation. Below, two case examples from the published literature are presented to help illuminate key aspects of existential social work assessment and intervention.
Mark Griffiths

5. Existential Social Work in Social Policy, Social Movements, and Team Work

What do social workers need to know about social policy and social movements? Do these things really have any relevance to the day-to-day social work that practitioners face in direct service? Once again, I commence my examination from the point of view of the lived experience of the direct service social worker. When commencing work in a human services system as a social worker, it can feel as though everything is prescribed. It can feel like you are a small cog in a huge machine, but there are usually many other small and medium-sized cogs whirring away nearby. Here is where I want to begin, because, in one sense, immediate team relationships are more important to team work performance than social policy, or program direction or procedures. At the same time, the apparent stability of social policy is quite deceptive. The existential idealist philosopher Hegel (2009) understood that the real, material world we look at everyday would not exist without all the ideas that created it. Think of cars, computers, desks, and chairs.
Mark Griffiths

6. Creative Social Work and Existential Social Work

In this chapter, I explore what it means to be creative in social work and how an existential approach can help in maintaining creative practice. I begin with a creative act by a medical social work colleague that highlights the reality that the limitations of actual social work practice are where creativity takes place. I then examine the contribution of David Brandon, a Zen-inspired social worker, as well as the short-lived creative social work movement in the United Kingdom, where social work was explored as a literary art, and where Brandon’s work continues to inspire creative writing on social work. I argue that an existential social work approach is built on the concrete reality that we are all artists in our lives when we face our anxieties and take calculated risks. Our creativity may know no bounds, but, ethically, creative practice requires that we absorb and address the dark side of creativity and use it for purposes that enhance well-being and promote constructive outcomes.
Mark Griffiths

7. Evidence-Based Practice and Existential Social Work

The purpose of this chapter is to examine evidence-based practice (EBP) from an existential social work practice point of view. I explore the unique existential perspective on this topic that all research is grounded in people’s lived experience in the world. I discuss the risk of scientism, which privileges a narrow kind of EBP as the only legitimate form of real knowledge. I explore the evidence that is left out of this viewpoint. There are numerous books and other publications on research methods in social work and EBP. While I don’t describe those matters here, I do engage with the different research paradigms by looking at a typical family violence incident explored in a recent social work research textbook from a contemporary positivist perspective. I then consider the same incident from an existential social work practice perspective. I examine the three worlds of program evaluation for EBP: the client world, the program delivery world, and the outcomes world. In covering these three areas, I detail the results of a research method rarely discussed in EBP, known as prospective longitudinal studies, which have significant implications for existential social work practice. In the outcomes world, I explore the experience of failure with clients in direct practice, but also in whole-of-government strategies. I discuss how an exclusive focus on outcomes can be detrimental to social work practice. Finally, I document the ten-year evaluation process of the successful juvenile justice group conferencing pilot program, detailed in Chapters 5 and 6, and look at the unanticipated costs involved in the program’s success.
Mark Griffiths

8. Conclusion

During the First World War, Gabriel Marcel, existentialism’s only philosopher with military social work experience, contemporaneously with Heidegger, developed the concept of being-in-the-world, a fundamental idea in existential phenomenology. Marcel experienced overwhelming human suffering and pain as he tried to help the family members of soldiers missing in action to find their loved ones. It was when he challenged himself to remain present and available to each request, and to avoid treating people as a category or number, that he radically altered his philosophical stance from idealism to existentialism as we know it today; and all this in spite of the sheer, overwhelming number of displaced people (Griffiths, 2016). Social work, in public human services areas, is faced with a not dissimilar challenge today. There are vast numbers of troubled and oppressed people interfacing with these systems, which are forced to develop and apply risk hierarchies to prioritize service to those in greatest need.
Mark Griffiths
Additional information