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About this book

In this ground-breaking text book, bestselling author Neil Thompson turns his attention to the question of 'What does it mean to be truly professional in the field of social work?'

Notions of professionalism in social work have changed over time. Early traditional ideas showed themselves to be elitist and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of social work, and have been followed by a period of uncertainty as to whether or not social workers are professionals at all. Now, with a move towards a new form of professionalism beginning to take shape, this book presents a cogent argument for reaffirming this vital aspect of social work. Informed by extensive experience and expertise, Thompson examines the role of the modern-day social worker in four parts: as problem solver, thinker, manager and professional.

Whether a student new to the complexities of this demanding, rewarding field taking a Social Work Practice or Placement module, or a qualified practitioner seeking a source of guidance, this book will help meet the challenge of developing a professionalism that is consistent with the values of contemporary social work.

Table of Contents

The social worker as problem solver

Frontmatter

1. Needs, unmet needs and problems

Abstract
The concept of need is a fundamental one in social work. It underpins so much of what we do. This chapter therefore explores what is meant by the term ‘needs’, how they are significant, and other related matters. In particular, it focuses on the concept of unmet needs and the problems that such unmet needs can generate. In doing this, I am setting the scene for the chapters that follow, in so far as they will all relate back in one way or another to the question of needs, unmet needs and problems. The significance of the concept of need should therefore not be underestimated. We begin by looking at the central question: what are needs? This is followed by a discussion of the significance of situations in which a person’s needs are not being met and what can arise as a result of this. This in turn sets the scene for a discussion of the problems that people may experience that are likely to bring them to the attention of social work personnel. What are needs? This is a more complicated question than it immediately appears to be. For example, there are different types and levels of need. We can begin with survival needs – those fundamental needs that have to be met if we are to stay alive. These are primarily biological – for example, in relation to food, drink and shelter. More complex issues arise when we consider the psychological dimension of needs in relation to such matters as identity, for example. This involves knowing who we are and where we fit into the world. Related to this are esteem needs – our need to feel valued. The picture gets even more complex when we add to this the significance of social needs. These include, among other things, being part of a community and citizenship (see Table 1.1).
Neil Thompson

2. The social context of personal problems

Abstract
Social work is part of the branch of social policy known as ‘personal social services’. This is an important term, as it connects the personal problems of individuals and families to the wider context of social services, with the emphasis on the social dimension. It is essential to be aware that, what are generally perceived as personal or family problems are closely linked to the wider social context. It can therefore be misleading and potentially dangerous to adopt a superficial approach to personal and family problems that does not take account of wider social issues. As Davis puts it: Social work is concerned with achieving negotiated change in the lives of people who face difficulties. Most people who receive social work services are members of disadvantaged, stigmatised and socially excluded groups. (2004, p. 7) This chapter, then, is concerned with exploring how personal problems need to be understood in relation to the social context. In many ways, personal problems are a reflection of wider and deeper social problems and concerns. As professionals we need to be aware of this so that we do not make the mistake of adopting a narrow, atomistic view that can have the effect of pathologizing (and thereby disempowering and disadvantaging) the very people we are trying to help and support. In this chapter, we first address the feminist adage that the personal is political, based on the key idea that an individual’s circumstances are inevitably connected to the wider sociopolitical context – they do not occur in a vacuum (see the critique of atomism in Chapter 1).
Neil Thompson

3. Promoting and preventing change: developing versus sustaining

Abstract
Social workers are often described as change agents. That is, we are seen as a group of professionals with a remit to play an important part in bringing about social amelioration. This is clearly a central part of the social work role. Promoting positive change in people’s lives is a significant part of the value social workers can bring to day-to-day activities. However, there is also a significant role in many circumstances for social workers to prevent change, in the sense of preventing deterioration in an individual’s or family’s circumstances. Either way, change is a significant factor for social workers, and so this chapter is devoted to considering the relationship between the professional role of social work and change. We begin by exploring the importance of change in social work. From this we move on to a discussion of how social work can be involved in promoting change. This is then followed by a consideration of how preventing change can also be a significant activity for us in many ways. As Brechin helps us to understand: What is required increasingly is a capacity to handle uncertainty and change, rather than simply operating in prescribed ways in accordance with professional skills and knowledge. Practitioners must, in a sense, face both ways, to be seen as appropriately knowledgeable and competent but at the same time be continually aware of the relative and contextual basis of their practice. (2000, p. 26) This chapter is therefore intended to provide a foundation for dealing with the professional challenges of responding to change and handling the uncertainties involved.
Neil Thompson

4. Perspective on problems: working in partnership

Abstract
As noted in Chapter 1, social work is concerned with problem solving. However, my idea of what is a problem may be different from your idea, and the ideas of others may be different from both our conceptions of what constitutes a problem. Problem-solving activities therefore need to take account of a range of perspectives. This is where partnership comes in. To try and impose our own definition of the problem without taking account of the perspectives of others involved in the situation is not likely to lead to successful outcomes. Indeed, there is a very high chance that we will increase the problems rather than tackle them. This chapter is therefore concerned with exploring how we can develop systems of working that are premised on the central notion of partnership. The chapter begins with a discussion of multiple perspectives and is based on the idea that there is no single correct way of seeing the situation. Everyone has their own perspective and discrepancies in perspective can lead to significantly different outcomes from those that we are aiming for. Next, we explore issues relating to the significant task of making partnership a reality. Simply having a commitment to the notion is not enough. We also need to have some clear ideas about how to put it into practice in a meaningful way. Here we explore what is involved in taking our ideas forward on this vitally important, but often misunderstood and oversimplified, concept. As we shall see in Part 4, professionalism needs to be based on contemporary notions of partnership (we work together to produce the best results), rather than on traditional elitist notions of professionalism (we are the experts; we know best).
Neil Thompson

The social worker as thinker

Frontmatter

5. Reflective practice: developing critical analysis skills

Abstract
It is unfortunately the case that busy people can easily fall into routinized approaches based on habit that fail to do justice to the complexities of the situation they are engaged with. Reflective practice is presented as an antidote to this. It is an approach to professional practice that is premised on the idea of recognizing that our actions are based on an underlying professional knowledge base and that it is helpful to be clear about what that knowledge base is and how it can be used to good effect. In this way, we can develop our knowledge and understanding over time. We can gain confidence from understanding what is influencing our actions and we are in a stronger position to be accountable for our actions if called upon to do so. We begin by asking the fundamental question: why reflective practice? This involves looking at how reflective practice has come to be seen as such an important underpinning of professionalism these days. Various aspects of reflective practice are explored. This leads on to a discussion of how we can make critically reflective practice a reality. That is, it explores some of the steps that can be taken to promote a more reflective approach to practice that is sufficiently critical in its outlook. Why reflective practice? Thompson and Thompson (2008) make the point that reflective practice is not a new idea. It is none the less a very important concept that has received increasing attention in recent years. A key part of it is the idea that practice should be informed practice and not simply based on habit, routine or the unquestioning following of ‘instructions’ or the uncritical copying of others.
Neil Thompson

6. Social work as education

Abstract
In thinking of the social worker as a professional problem solver, one aspect that comes to mind is the significant role of education. That is, in keeping with the theme of Part 2 of social workers as thinkers, practitioners can be seen to play a part in helping others to learn – a process that involves a great deal of thinking activity. This can apply in a number of ways, as we shall see in this chapter. This is not to suggest that social workers should be involved in giving lessons in schools, colleges or universities, although there is an argument to support that as a worthwhile use of at least some proportion of social work time. Rather, it is a matter of arguing that problems are often allowed to persist, or may actually be caused by, a lack of understanding of various aspects of the situation. Playing an educational role can therefore be an important part of being a professional problem solver and can be a significant source of empowerment by helping people gain a greater depth and breadth of understanding of the challenges they face and thereby being better equipped to tackle them. We begin by asking the question: why education? and exploring some of the issues that are relevant to the educational role in social work. From this, we proceed to an examination of the skills and processes of an educational nature that social workers can draw upon when necessary or appropriate. Why education? The idea that knowledge is power is a longstanding one and one that has some considerable theoretical justification (see, for example, the work of the French social theorist, Foucault – see Faubion, 2000). This can apply at a very simple level – for example, where one person withholds important information from another, resulting in distress or suffering for the latter party.
Neil Thompson

7. Thinking and feeling: emotional intelligence

Abstract
Social work is traditionally seen as an activity that requires a balance of head and heart. This chapter explores issues connected with the relationship between thinking and feeling. It is misleading to discuss the term ‘thinking’ in isolation from other aspects of human psychology. Thinking and feeling are closely intertwined, and so to explore issues of the social worker as thinker without reference to the emotional dimension would be a serious mistake. This chapter is therefore concerned with how emotions play a significant part in shaping social work practice. The chapter begins with a discussion of the relationship between reason and emotion, drawing on a historical perspective to begin with. From this, we move on to explore the practical implications of working with emotion in the social work world. This recognition of the need to address issues of both head and heart reflects an important feature of professionalism. Allowing ourselves to be carried away by emotions would not meet the requirements of professionalism, but nor would trying to remain coldly rational without reference to the significant emotional dimensions of social work. It is for this reason that emotional intelligence is presented here as a key feature of professionalism. This chapter also introduces the ‘three Rs’ framework and explores the significance of resourcefulness, robustness and resilience. Reason and emotion Historically, western societies have placed great emphasis on rationality. The period in history known as the Enlightenment was regarded as a significant step forward in terms of moving away from the irrational superstition of what was assumed to have gone before. Post-enlightenment thinking therefore emphasized reason and rationality, especially scientific rationality.
Neil Thompson

8. Spirituality and meaning making

Abstract
We have seen that thinking is not simply a matter of rationality and logical analysis. There are other dimensions to what is generally regarded as thought. One aspect of this is the question of meaning making. How do we make sense of our lives? How does social work play a part in shaping the meanings of people’s lives? To what extent can social work itself be seen as a process of meaning making? These are all important questions, and so this chapter is concerned with the processes involved in thinking about what our lives and circumstances mean to us and the narratives or stories that we use to give a coherent thread of understanding of how our lives are unfolding. This process of meaning making is a key part of spirituality, and so the significance of spirituality in social work is an important feature of this chapter. The chapter is divided into two main sections. In the first one we look at making sense of experience. This explores some key issues about narratives and their role in shaping our life experience. The second part is entitled ‘Focusing on meaning’, and this latter section allows us to explore the implications of meaning making for social work practice. A consumerist, bureaucratic approach to social work can afford to ignore spirituality, narratives and meaning making, as the object of the exercise is to deliver services and ration scarce resources, regardless of professional outcomes. However, if there is a genuine professional commitment to promoting a positive difference, then spirituality and associated issue become far too important for us to ignore or neglect. Making sense of experience Thinking is often presented as if it were a relatively linear matter – that is, as if we simply think in straight lines.
Neil Thompson

The social worker as manager

Frontmatter

9. Managing self

Abstract
This is the first of four chapters that explore the significance of aspects of management in the repertoire of skills needed by social workers if we are to be successful in our efforts to promote well-being and social justice through problem solving and empowerment. In particular, we focus on what I shall be referring to as self-management – that is, those ways in which it is important that we are tuned in to how we are influencing situations and how those situations are influencing us. This is an essential part of self-awareness, as we shall see below. A basic argument underpinning the chapter is that we will struggle to manage the complex, difficult and demanding situations we encounter if we are not doing a good job of managing ourselves. We begin by looking at the importance of self-management and explore some key issues around why such factors are so critical in effective social work practice. This leads on to a discussion of the various ways in which we can rise to the challenge of self-management. This is intended to be a practical guide to the issues involved, but based on sound theoretical understanding. The importance of self-management The Palgrave Social Work Companion (Thompson and Thompson, 2016) is based on seven underlying principles, one of which is the importance of self-management. Self-management can be closely connected with the idea of self-awareness. As I have pointed out in one of my earlier works (Thompson, 2015c), there are two sides to self-awareness. There is that aspect which involves looking at what impact on the situation the individual is having. Am I aware, for example, of how other people are perceiving me and responding to me? The second side of self-awareness is to look at what impact the situation is having on me.
Neil Thompson

10. Managing processes, tasks and outcomes

Abstract
Being an effective social worker involves having an overview of the various processes and tasks that are needed and linking these to clear outcomes. This chapter is therefore concerned with what is involved in this aspect of the social work role. The chapter is divided into three main sections. In the first, we explore what is involved in managing processes, and there is a discussion within this of the various types of processes and how they interrelate. The second section relates to managing tasks, and here there is a discussion of the significance of having a clear focus on what tasks are needed in a given set of circumstances, how these relate to the overall process and the desired outcomes we are working towards. The third section relates to managing outcomes. This is a discussion of how to keep a clear focus on what goals we are aiming for. It is important to stress from the beginning that we need to have a clear picture of these three elements: processes, tasks and outcomes, as there has been over the years, considerable confusion about each of these and how they relate to one another. For example, some people create a false dichotomy between processes and tasks, as if it were a case of process versus task. This dichotomy is unhelpful, as the reality is that it is not a case of either process or task, but rather of both, and how each of these is related to the desired outcomes that we are working towards. Therefore, when people say things like: ‘I’m not a task person, I’m a process person’ (or vice versa) they are sadly missing the point. Managing processes The point was made in Chapter 6 that being professional does not mean being unfeeling, but it does involve a degree of keeping our feelings under control.
Neil Thompson

11. Managing risk and resources

Abstract
The subject of risk is one that has taken up a lot of people’s time and energy in recent years. Risk factors have always been a significant issue in social work, but there has been increasing emphasis on this aspect of practice since the 1980s when a number of incidents occurred that led to children being killed as a result of abuse. Unfortunately, in many ways this has produced a defensive reaction to risk and, as we shall see below, this has caused a number of problems. Managing risk is therefore a key part of social work. It highlights the professional nature of social work, in so far as the complexities of risk mean that carefully thought-through professional judgements are needed. Approaches to risk that attempt to reduce it to a process-driven matter of ticking boxes are not only doomed to failure, but are also positively dangerous, as they offer a far from adequate understanding of the issues involved. Alongside risk come resources. Resources are not unlimited, and so a key part of what we do in social work practice addresses the issue of resources. The two sets of issues – risk and resources – are closely interconnected, because risk management has resource implications, and the use of, or shortage of, resources has implications for how risk is managed. This chapter is therefore concerned with some of the various issues that relate to both risk and resources. The chapter begins with a discussion of assessing and managing risk. Some important questions are asked about what is involved in undertaking an assessment of risk factors and how we can then subsequently manage any risk situations that are identified in such an assessment. This is followed by a discussion of managing resources and the significant issues and dangers that are involved in this.
Neil Thompson

12. Managing expectations

Abstract
The general public tend to have relatively little understanding of what social work is all about and, unfortunately, members of other professions often share this lack of awareness to a certain extent. It is therefore vitally important that we are able to clarify expectations to make sure that there is not a mismatch that can lead to a wide range of problems, as we shall see below. This chapter is therefore concerned with what is involved in this process of being able to manage or negotiate expectations. The chapter is in two main sections. In the first one, we look at why expectations are so important and consider what a difference they can make in positive terms, or how problematic it can be if they are not clarified at an early stage. From this we move on to look at what is involved in negotiating expectations, what can be done to make sure that there is no mismatch that can be harmful to working relationships and can stand in the way of producing positive outcomes from social work involvement. Why are expectations important? The primary reason that expectations are important is that they shape, to a large extent, what is likely to happen further down the road. That is, they can put great pressure on people to conform to those expectations and, as such, they are a major influence on behaviour. They are also a significant source of conflict, in so far as unclear expectations can leave people with conflicting views about what should be done and how it should be carried out. It should be borne in mind that roles are sets of expectations, and so unclear expectations mean that people’s roles can become confused.
Neil Thompson

The social worker as professional

Frontmatter

13. Traditional professionalism

Abstract
The term ‘professionalism’ is one that has created a lot of confusion in the social work world in the last two decades or so. At one time, professionalism was seen as a key factor in social work, but there came a time when this was rejected and a period of what could be called ‘anti-professionalism’ came to the fore. That change will be the subject matter of Chapter 14 but, before we look at the changes that have developed, I want to take the opportunity in this chapter to explore the significance of traditional approaches to professionalism and what these have meant for social work over the years, to identify and consider the implications for present-day practices. The chapter is divided into two main parts. The first section examines problems with professionalism. It looks at how unsuitable a traditional top-down approach to professionalism is for modern-day social work (and, indeed, was for previous generations of social workers). The second part focuses, in particular, on the problem of ‘medicalization’, of how social work at one time adopted an openly medical model of practice. This has been heavily criticized over the years and largely replaced by a more psychosocial approach. However, as we shall see, there is still a significant legacy of medicalization that has a continuing detrimental impact on social work. Problems with professionalism We have a notion in our society of the ‘true’ professions, such as medicine, law and architecture. Other professional groups, such as nurses, teachers, town planners and so on, are often referred to as semi-professionals, as if they are not worthy of the official status of a professional.
Neil Thompson

14. The legacy of anti-professionalism

Abstract
In this second of four chapters addressing the significance of the ‘professionalization agenda’ in social work, we examine how reactions against traditional professionalism came about as a result of dissatisfactions with the earlier scene. We explore how a number of problems have arisen because of this, and how they are still with us today – problems that have held us back in many ways by undermining our professional credibility in the eyes of those we are seeking to help; other professionals we work alongside; and the general public. The chapter is divided into two main parts. In the first of these, we examine what I refer to as ‘the radical critique’. This is concerned with how the movement known as radical social work was, in its day, highly critical of professionalism and how this led to an era that I shall be referring to as ‘anti-professionalism’. By this I mean an approach to social work that rejects professionalism as a legitimate basis for practice. In the second part, we explore the problems that have arisen because of such an anti-professional approach. The radical critique As was noted in Chapter 13, traditional forms of professionalism were premised on elitism. In the days when such an approach was dominant, it was simply taken for granted that people with professional knowledge were in a position to decide on what should be done and how it should be done.
Neil Thompson

15. Developing an authentic professionalism

Abstract
Having reviewed in Chapters 13 and 14 some of the historical developments that have stood in the way of effective professionalism in social work, the time has now come for us to consider how developing an authentic professionalism can be a significant step forward for social work. In this chapter we therefore look at how social work can make a positive contribution to empowerment, not by rejecting professionalism, nor by returning to elitism, but by developing an authentic form of professionalism – one that builds on the strengths of traditional professionalism, but without the weaknesses. We begin by reaffirming professionalism and seeing how professionalism is beginning to be seen as a core set of issues again. From this, we proceed to explore how we can make a contribution to developing an authentic professionalism through our own professional practice as social workers. As part of this we revisit the ‘three Rs’ framework introduced in Chapter 7. Reaffirming professionalism We have already seen that much was wrong with traditional professionalism as applied to social work. We have acknowledged that radical social work was correct in critiquing it, but wrong to reject professionalism altogether. We are now at a crucial time historically in terms of social work professionalism, as we are seeing signs of a reaffirmation of professionalism. For example, within the United Kingdom in the past decade, we have seen the introduction of professional registration, which means that there are stronger controls over who enters the profession and who is allowed to remain within it.
Neil Thompson

16. Professionalism in practice

Abstract
In this final chapter, I provide an overview of how professionalism can be put into practice. In doing this, I am offering a concluding chapter not only to Part 4 but also, in effect, to the whole book. I therefore draw on a range of themes and issues that have featured in each of the chapters that precede this one. In focusing on professionalism, it is helpful to revisit the basis of professional practice. We therefore begin with a discussion of the four key elements of professionalism. The building blocks of professionalism We have identified four key factors that underpin professionalism: professional knowledge, skills, values and accountability. These are each important in their own way and link together to make a significant whole as an underpinning for professional social work practice. They are not the only four; we could also have focused, for example, on professional development and/or professional identity, but the four covered here should be helpful in giving a foundation for further learning. Knowledge. As we have seen, social work is a demanding occupation that involves a need for understanding a wide range of significant issues. To attempt to practise without at least the basics of that knowledge base puts us in a significantly disadvantaged position in terms of how effective we can be, and also introduces an unnecessary level of risk in relation to the harm that we can do to others and, indeed, to our own careers by trying to practise beyond our knowledge.
Neil Thompson
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