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Modernising social workCritical considerations$

John Harris and Vicky White

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9781847420060

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781847420060.001.0001

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Quiet challenges? Professional practice in modernised social work

Quiet challenges? Professional practice in modernised social work

(p.129) Seven Quiet challenges? Professional practice in modernised social work
Modernising social work

Vicky White

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

A growing number of writers have presented social workers as having been turned into unreflective people-processors by waves of managerialism over the last thirty years and, more recently, by the intertwining of managerialism with New Labour's modernisation agenda. This chapter outlines and questions this position before moving on to consider the ‘discretionary space’ within which social workers operate. This space is seen as being constructed by social work's location as a state-mediated profession and the duties social workers perform on behalf of the state, within that location. Next, the chapter explores the concept of resistance and what constitutes resistance in the current context of modernisation. It concludes that, while evidence of a continuing commitment to externally based radicalism is important for social work, so are the opportunities for ‘quiet challenges’ by social workers as they go about their day-to-day work in the discretionary spaces social work provides.

Keywords:   social workers, managerialism, New Labour, modernisation, discretionary space, social work, resistance, radicalism


A growing number of writers have presented social workers as having been turned into unreflective people-processors by waves of managerialism over the last 30 years and, more recently, by the intertwining of managerialism with New Labour's modernisation agenda. The chapter begins by outlining this position before questioning it and moving on to consider the ‘discretionary space’ within which social workers operate. This space is seen as being constructed by social work's location as a state-mediated profession and the duties social workers perform on behalf of the state, within that location. Next, the concept of resistance is explored, followed by consideration of what constitutes resistance in the current context of modernisation. The chapter concludes that, while evidence of a continuing commitment to externally based radicalism is important for social work, so are the opportunities for ‘quiet challenges’ by social workers as they go about their day-to-day work in the discretionary spaces social work provides.

Unreflective people-processing?

A number of commentators have claimed that we have witnessed the demise of the ‘autonomous reflective practitioner’ (see, for example, Dominelli and Hoogvelt, 1996) and have regarded social work as having been robbed of its ‘radicalism and transformatory potential’ (Butler and Drakeford, 2002, p 7; see also, Jones, 2001; 2005; Powell, 2001; Ferguson, 2008). In this vein, Postle has suggested that one of the strategies practitioners have employed to cope with the changing nature of their work has been no longer to challenge or question ‘inherent dissonances’. Drawing on the work of Lipsky (1980), Postle maintains that this approach involves practitioners adopting a ‘client-processing mentality’ through which they ‘psychologically adapt themselves to their jobs in order to cope with dissonances … this approach lends itself to an apparent willingness to follow procedural models of working’ (Postle, 2001, p 20).

The alleged rise of the unreflective, people-processing practitioner seems to render increasingly redundant proposals for alternative ‘radical’ approaches (p.130) to practice. In the face of these pessimistic claims, this chapter considers what capacity exists within modernised social work for ‘radical’ approaches to the interests of service users and social workers. Contrary to the arguments of much of the existing literature, the continuing existence of professional discretion is identified as offering ‘spaces’ for resistance, indicating that while the influence of managerialism is central to the modernisation agenda, it is possible to interrupt and disturb it at some points. Identifying the possibilities for resistance to the dominant modernising discourse of managerialism is consistent with the core place that has been accorded to such resistance in documenting, theorising and researching workplace cultures and behaviour more generally, as we shall see later. Within that literature, the possibilities for resistance are seen predominantly as lying within the existing frameworks of power rather than being concerned with wholesale transformation of those frameworks. Such an approach to power relations may be viewed by some as offering a weak form of resistance. However, this focus opens up the use of the discretionary space within practice in forms of resistance that do not have to be synonymous with large-scale transformative radicalism. It can encompass a range of ‘quiet challenges’ by social workers, working in and against managerialism for more critical forms of practice that seek to engage with furthering service users' interests. In seeking to develop this argument, the initial considerations are: where does the discretionary space within social work originate? What kind of profession is social work?

Social work as a state-mediated profession

Much has been written about how the state shapes the agenda of social work practice (see, for example, Howe, 1986; Aldridge, 1996; Harris, 2003; White, 2006), and this writing emphasises that ‘the critical characteristics of social work practice … do not derive from the prescriptions of professional social workers’ (Howe, 1986, p 2). In this sense ‘state social work’ depicts more accurately the field of social work usually referred to as the ‘statutory sector’. Given that the statutory duties of social work are undertaken on behalf of the state, it is the state context that draws the parameters of the spaces within which the problems and possibilities of social work practice are located.

Johnson's analysis of professional work (Johnson, 1972) can be used to illuminate social workers’ experiences of state social work and the discretionary spaces it provides. He viewed professions as occupational power structures which could be classified into three categories: collegiate, patronage and mediated. In the case of mediated professions, an agency, usually a state organisation, acts as mediator between the profession and its clientele in deciding with whom the profession will work and what should be provided for those people with whom the profession engages, within the parameters of legal frameworks and resource allocation (Johnson, 1972, p 77). Through this process, power is delegated to the professionals concerned and their status is legitimated by the functions they perform on behalf of the state (Hill, 1997, p 209). State-mediated professions:

(p.131) do not resist the extension of state power for they have no choice but to be public employees. On the contrary they generally welcome the extension of state power, for it is the only source of such power as they themselves possess; indeed, these occupational groups owe their very existence to the power of the state. (Cousins, 1987, p 97)

Social work can be considered as being located within just such a state-mediated professional organisational structure, as the basis within and through which social workers operate (Hugman, 1991, p 201). Thus Johnson's concept of the state-mediated profession makes sense of the overall features of social work's position and functioning, but the analysis remains at that general level. It does not move on to consider how state mediation shapes the nature of professionals' work and the discretionary space it affords. Derber's work (1982; 1983) can be used to move into these areas of consideration.

Derber's historical approach to professional work highlighted the extent to which professionals have become engaged in salaried rather than independent employment. He was concerned with what distinguished professional work from other types of work; just what was it that made professional work distinctive? The particular aspect of its distinctiveness that he pursued was the extent to which professionals control their work in situations of ‘dependent employment’, for example state employment (Derber, 1983, p 309). In order to explore this aspect, Derber examined the way in which professional work is controlled. He argued that in any sort of work, professional or otherwise, there are two potential components of control: control over the means of work (technical subordination), that is over the execution of work, and control over the ends of work (ideological subordination), that is over the goals or purposes of work. He maintained that, although professionals lack control over the ends to which their work is put, they nevertheless retain considerable discretion over the means of undertaking their work, unlike many other workers. The exercise of discretion in the means of undertaking professional work provides a ‘domain of freedom and creativity’ (Derber, 1983, p 316) or, we might say more modestly, discretionary space, within which professional work is carried out.

In the case of social work, its ends are established by the state. It is, in Derber's terms, ‘ideologically subordinated’ but, he argued, the means by which the state's ends are achieved rely on the discretion of social workers (and see Hugman, 1991, p 202):

Keeping social workers' focus on individual pathology and away from social oppression was of major importance to state agencies … and formed the basis for a highly sophisticated ideological co-option, where social workers' moral concerns for the well-being of their clients could be accommodated in a form of practice which served institutional ends. (Derber, 1983, p 333)

(p.132) Derber's distinction between the ends and means of professional work suggests that social workers, as state-mediated professionals, may retain considerable degrees of what he termed ‘technical autonomy’, that is, control over how they do their work (Derber, 1983, p 335). Mashaw made a similar distinction for some areas of state employment (such as social work), identifying specialist skills and intuitive judgements that are used in the ‘professional treatment model’, with professionals accorded discretion about how tasks are performed within general frameworks (Mashaw, 1983, ch 2), a position supported by Hill: ‘The organisational or planning activities at the top of hierarchies set contexts for, but do not necessarily predetermine decision-making at field levels, where very different tasks are performed and very different problems have to be solved’ (Hill, 1997, pp 187–8).

The classic study that illustrated the discretion within these organisational spaces, which state-mediated professionals have in deciding how to undertake their work and how to go about solving problems that may differ from those at the top of hierarchies was Lipsky's Street-level Bureaucracy (1980). He placed a particular emphasis on street-level bureaucrats' face-to-face contact with people using their services:

On the one hand, service is delivered by people to people, invoking a model of human interaction, caring and responsibility. On the other hand, service is delivered through a bureaucracy, invoking a model of detachment and equal treatment under conditions of resource limitations and constraints, making care and responsibility conditional. (Lipsky, 1980, p 71)

Lipsky suggested that, in these circumstances, street-level bureaucrats like social workers have discretion because the nature of the services they provide requires human judgement that cannot be programmed and for which machines cannot substitute (Lipsky, 1980, p 161; of course, this position is now less tenable — see Coleman, this volume, Chapter Two). In similar vein, Challis argued that social services departments' implementation of central government legislation required social workers to have a degree of discretion if they were to deal with the idiosyncrasies of people's lives (Challis, 1990, p 6). Further, Hudson suggested that it is in the interests of such agencies not to fetter the discretion of street-level bureaucrats, because they are engaged in carrying out much of the difficult rationing of services in situations where demand exceeds supply. It is the exercise of the discretion they possess in carrying out this function that is the source of their power over service users (Hudson, 1989). These three factors — the difficulty of programming human judgement, the consequent need for the exercise of discretion and the power inherent in its exercise — shape the space within which social work operates. The detailed construction of the space depends on three further factors:
  • (p.133) expertise — a body of knowledge that can be learned and transmitted;

  • indeterminacy — work within areas of uncertainty which are portrayed as only susceptible to specialist, esoteric and non-transferable professional skills;

  • invisibility — working situations in which detailed surveillance of work is difficult (Hill, 1997, pp 209–10).

While social workers' claims to the exercise of discretion on the grounds of expertise may be contentious and contested, indeterminacy has been a significant dimension in social work's general claim for a significant degree of discretion in its operation: ‘Professional insulation from external controls is likely to be greatest where the outcomes of professional activities are relatively vague and intangible … This may be a factor in professional attachment to casework’ (Sibeon, 1991, p 27). Within their casework, social workers have been found to exploit indeterminacy in using their own preferred methods of work (Pithouse, 1987, p 49) and it is the autonomy to do so which, traditionally, has been the basis on which the job has been routinely undertaken (Pithouse, 1991, pp 45–6), as an ‘invisible trade’ (Pithouse, 1987). Social workers have, then, been regarded as statemediated professionals who have a degree of ‘technical autonomy’ (discretion) over the means by which they carry out the ends of the state, within a professional treatment model.

Social work's subordination to statutory duties

The legal underpinning of social work, through its mandate of statutory duties, is the tangible manifestation of the state's ends (or goals) in social work; statutory duties define the responsibilities to be exercised by social workers on behalf of the state. Anleu argued that this legal underpinning affects the environment in which social work is practised (Anleu, 1992, p 41). Howe went beyond seeing the statutory mandate as a contextual consideration that affects social work and, instead, regarded it as determining the nature of social work much more directly (Howe, 1986, p 160). Aldridge presented the state as unequivocally shaping social work and setting its agenda in tasks that are determined by the government of the day (Aldridge, 1996, pp 182–3). Social work is, therefore, in a subordinate position in terms of both how it is defined and how it is organised:

Social work is ‘overdetermined’ by the economic and social formation so that its status is best seen as relatively subordinate rather than as relatively autonomous. Put at its most uncompromisingly straightforward, state welfare is an element within the state apparatus, and as such will be to some extent articulated with it at both ideological and material levels … What passes for social work is the product of the varying capacity of certain institutions and agencies to give it particular definition, to shape what it is that constitutes legitimate professional knowledge and the manner in which the delivery of services should be (p.134) organised. In both respects, this means that the nature of social work is an accomplishment, a construction … (Webb, 1996, p 173)

If the nature of social work is a construction, what we have witnessed over the past two decades is a political and policy reconstruction project as social work has undergone major structural and ideological changes, beginning with the Conservatives' reforms of community care/adults' services and children's services and culminating in New Labour's modernisation agenda. These changes appear to have left many social workers feeling disillusioned, disgruntled and under siege (White and Harris, 2001; 2004). For example, when Gupta and Blewett interviewed social workers they found that administration and performance targets dominated the work of social workers:

What is measured is paper output not work with children. All managers care about is getting the assessment finished on time … We are scrambling around to find more children to be adopted or else we lose our three star status and hundreds of pounds, yet adoption may not be right for these children. (Gupta and Blewett, 2007, p 177)

Similar concerns arose in reflections from social work practitioners participating in discussions on the impact that the organisational context has on their work, as part of a post-qualifying social work programme, across 2007–08. These social workers felt that their performances were being scrutinised inside their organisations, in terms of their potential contribution to moving their employing local authorities up league tables and improving on their star ratings (also see Foster and Wilding, 2000), as well as by the external audits on which these rankings are based; the emphasis was on targets, standards and outcomes — on quantitative rather than qualitative measures of their practice (Harris and Unwin, this volume, Chapter One). They felt that a persistent theme of management was that social workers' loyalty was owed to maximising their contributions to the mission statements and corporate goals of their employing organisations ‘rather than to the code of ethics of their professional body’ (Foster and Wilding, 2000, p 154). They were often set unrealistic timescales for assessments in children's services and faced restrictive use of Fair Access to Care Services (Department of Health, 2003d) criteria in adult services, as well as pressure from national standards frameworks and performance indicators, on a daily basis. They experienced management oversight and supervision as having become more intense as a result of a desire to control and direct front-line practitioners, in ways that corresponded with Hughes' evocative reference to the ‘glass cage of total exposure’ (2005, p 615). A key dimension of this exposure is computer-based performance monitoring, a commonplace practice that allows managers to collect data and analyse a wide range of staff activities. Ball and Wilson liken this to Foucault's image of the panopticon, where observers can observe unseen (Ball and Wilson, 2000, p 539). Information technology, quality systems and performance reviews were seen by (p.135) the social workers as forms of increased scrutiny and inspection of their day-today work, ensuring that only ‘core business’ is undertaken.

Westhues et al (2001, p 42) see the origins of these changes in the application of business principles to the development and delivery of human services, replacing social work managers with ‘business’-oriented managers, who are more comfortable with a marketplace emphasis (Westhues et al, 2001, p 42; see also Harris, 2003). Consistent with this insertion of a more business-like approach into social work, the social workers identified an increasing emphasis in their practice on cost-consciousness, cost control and achieving ‘Best Value’. Social workers spoke of having to seek authorisation from managers to spend even a pound; this resulted in their ‘dressing up’ assessments, through embellishment and exaggeration, in order to acquire more resources for service users and carers. The views of these social workers are characteristic of a widespread disquiet that social work has moved from being a bureau-professional service to a service that is increasingly subject to external regulation and output controls (Harris and Unwin, this volume, Chapter One). It is claimed that the changes involve reorienting the identities of social workers so that they adopt managerial values and align themselves with managerial concerns (Halford and Leonard, 1999, cited in Davies and Thomas, 2002, p 462). The increasing commodification and marketisation of social work is seen as having resulted in the “end of expertise” and declining professional autonomy (Dustin, 2007, p xi) and has been accompanied by increasingly voluminous and prescriptive requirements (see, for example, Garrett, 2003; Tanner and Harris, 2008, ch 2) concerning what social workers must do and how they must achieve New Labour's goals. In Derber's terms, this amounts to the extension of the subordination of social workers from their ideological subordination to the state's ends and into the state's technical subordination of the means by which they undertake their work. At the same time, this state intervention into the means of undertaking social work seems to have undermined the basis for social workers' ideological co-option, leading to widespread dissatisfaction with the ends the state is seeking to pursue through social work (Harris, this volume, Chapter Four; Evans, this volume, Chapter Eight).

The extent to which ‘technical subordination’ has occurred is much debated in terms of whether discretion continues to be exercised in social workers' everyday decision making (Baldwin, 1998, 2000, 2004; Ellis et al, 1999; Bradley and Manthorpe, 2000; Evans and Harris, 2004; 2006; Evans, 2006; Hughes and Wearing, 2007, p 88). Drawing on Kirkpatrick et al (2005), Lawler argues that the increase in performance management and greater proceduralisation has reduced the autonomy of front-line staff and constrained and regulated their decision-making (Lawler, 2007, p 128). The loss of discretion reported by a wide variety of state social workers is consistent with the introduction of proceduralised, managerialised approaches to practice (Dustin, 2007, p 26). A front-line manager in children's services offers the following comments on professional autonomy and discretion: “I think we have a lot less professional autonomy because of all the compliance tasks that must be done … I've got three pages of compliances (p.136) and I think that generally it's the professional autonomy that has been removed on a lot of levels” (Thomas and Davis, 2005, p 723). Similar comments are offered by child care social workers: “Our professional judgements are constantly undermined if it doesn't suit the performance targets”. ‘Decisions are often made on the least expensive option not necessarily the one based on the social worker's recommendation’ (Gupta and Blewett, 2007, p 175).

How are we to explain the disjunction between the kinds of analyses constructed by Johnson and Derber, which see state professionals such as social workers enjoying discretion in their work, and recent more pessimistic accounts of the disappearance of such discretion as social workers allegedly become unreflective people-processors? In retrospect, Johnson's and Derber's analyses can be seen as being contingent upon a particular historical moment, that of the post-war social democratic state. In that welfare regime, social rights were accorded to service users as ‘client-citizens’ (Roche, 1987, p 369), with state power as the ‘caretaker’ of their social existence, intervening in their lives ‘to encourage the passive consumption of state provision’ (Keane, 1988, p 4). This was a ‘clientelist relationship between the citizen and the state’ (Powell, 1997, p 209). For Marshall, social rights were ‘not designed for the exercise of power at all … they concern individuals as consumers, not as actors’ (Marshall, 1981, p 141). If citizens were expected to consume social work in this way, there had to be state provision that embodied expertise and professionalism in the delivery of social services (Marshall, 1975, pp 205–6). Faith in disinterested professionalism, as the exercise of public service, enjoyed cross-party political support and became a cornerstone of the post-war social democratic consensus on welfare (Marquand, 1988) and this was the institutional basis for the exercise of discretion in social work. Indeed, such was the privileged position occupied by social work at this historical moment that it was able to have aspirations not only to exercising technical autonomy but also to using that autonomy to challenge its ideological subordination to the state-defined ends of social work, by counterposing a range of alternative paradigms (radical social work, feminist social work, anti-racist social work and so on) against the state's formulations.

In contrast, in the widespread pessimistic analyses of current developments, the incursion of managerialism into social work practice has reversed the process and has moved from a sole concern with the ends of the state, which characterised social work in the social democratic welfare state, to an accompanying focus on the means by which those ends will be realised, through detailed prescription of the nature of social work practice and monitoring of the outcomes (Harris and Unwin, this volume, Chapter One). While this general trend is undeniable, and aspects of it are explored in other chapters, is it still possible, contrary to the arguments reviewed thus far, for social workers to resist the counterproductive and damaging effects of the dominant discourse of managerialism? Where there is ambivalence and uncertainty, is there the possibility of resistance (Harris, 2003, p 184)? It may be that social workers, at least for some of the time, are able to hold on to social work values and defend their professional practice, rather than being (p.137) totally dominated by managerialising and modernising discourses. In any case, those discourses experience difficulty in extinguishing professional discretion, for reasons identified by Lipsky (1980). As mentioned earlier, Lipsky saw the work of street-level bureaucrats as happening in services in which discretion is necessary in order to meet a variety of human needs; discretion is necessary simply to do the job. However, the vague, ambitious and often contradictory goals of street-level bureaucracies create another area of discretion: the space in which to translate nebulous policy into practice. Finally, Lipsky recognised the discretion that streetlevel bureaucrats themselves have to create space in order to advance their own values, interests and needs (see Evans and Harris, 2004, pp 883–90).

There is evidence that, instead of being subordinated and stifled by managerial control, some social workers have used these kinds of spaces and that practice has continued to develop (White and Harris, 2001; 2004). This suggests that, while social workers may be subject to managerialism, they are not necessarily and inevitably always subjected by it. Resistance may have flickered under the gale of modernisation that has hit social work, but perhaps it has not been snuffed out.

Resistance — the challenge to managerialism?

Braverman's work on labour processes was enormously influential in understanding changes in the workplace and how they affected people's working lives (Braverman, 1974). He was criticised for neglecting workplace resistance but Jermier et al (1994, p 4) have argued that this was not the case. The following quotation from Braverman indicates why workplace resistance emerges:

But, beneath this apparent habituation, the hostility of workers to the degenerated forms of work which are forced upon them continues as a subterranean stream that makes its way to the surface when employment conditions permit, or when the capitalist drive for a greater intensity of labor oversteps the bounds of physical and mental capacity … it renews itself in new generations, expresses itself in the unbounded cynicism and revulsion which large numbers of workers feel about their work, and comes to the fore as a social issue demanding solution. (Braverman, 1974, p 151, quoted in Jermier et al, 1994, p 5)

From this beginning in the work of Braverman himself, the labour process studies that built on his work had a great interest and attention in documenting and theorising workplace resistance (Jermier et al, 1994; Harris, 1998a; Thomas and Davies, 2005). This was originally conceptualised within a Marxist frame of reference, with a central place accorded to class struggle:

‘Real’ resistance in and around capitalist work organizations could take many forms, but would derive from only one source: revolutionary class (p.138) consciousness. Thus, the meaning of resistance was straightforward and was to be interpreted as struggle against the fundamental defining feature of the capitalist mode of production: exploitation of labour through the generation and extraction of surplus value. (Jermier et al, 1994, p 2)

Thomas and Davies concur that ‘the antecedents of workplace resistance were derived from essentialist expressions of class-consciousness and were the outcome of a capitalist mode of production’ (2005, pp 711–12). Studies in the main focused on the ‘prototype male blue-collar worker’ and became ‘the blue-print for understanding all forms of resistance, carried out by all categories and types of worker engaged in workplace opposition’ (Thomas and Davies, 2005, p 712; Jermier et al, 1994, p 9). In early studies, given that the antecedents of resistance were located in class struggle, other social divisions — such as gender, ‘race’, sexuality, disability, age and ethnicity — were rendered invisible. This ‘all or nothing view of resistance’, driven purely by class conflict, was found to be increasingly inadequate in relation to understanding resistance (Thomas and Davies, 2005, p 712).

In response, more recently the concept of resistance has been widened to include new categories of workers that were previously overlooked, in order to understand its complexities (Thomas and Davies, 2005, pp 712–13) and with increasing recognition that ‘the nature of resistance will vary across space and time’ (Jermier et al, 1994, p 9). One aspect of embracing this variation is the move away from ‘grand narratives’ about resistance, and greater attentiveness to the meanings that workers themselves attach to their forms of resistance in the workplace. A more ‘bottom-up’ approach (Collinson, 1994, p 26) allows capturing of the responses of social workers to the practices of managerial control. The dissatisfaction in which resistance is rooted has been seen as going ‘well beyond the ranks of a small numbers of politically committed individuals.… [it] embraces very large numbers of workers who might not think of themselves as “political”’ (Ferguson, 2008, p 4). This cautions against seeing managerialism as having ‘a cohesive and fixed meaning’ and, instead, points to ways in which it might be ‘negotiated, contested and resisted’ (Davies and Thomas, 2000, p 552); individuals respond to managerial and modernising discourses in many and complex ways.

What constitutes resistance?

Drawing on research in the late 1990s and the 2000s, Thomas and Davies (2005) suggest that there has been greater questioning of what ‘counts’ and what does not ‘count’ as workplace resistance. They undertook research focused on the effects of ‘New Public Management’ on social workers and managers from two contrasting local authorities. The interviews explored issues of ‘change, professional performance expectations, and feelings of “comfort” and “fit” with new managerial subjectivities promoted within the New Public Management discourse’ (Thomas and Davies, 2005, p 722). From this study, the authors identified a variety of forms of workplace resistance. These ranged from ‘subtle (p.139) acts and behaviours’, for example, ignoring requests for information and writing letters of complaint, through to distancing the self from managerial discourses by challenging and reinterpreting standards and procedures, the latter characterising the actions of front-line managers cited in other studies:

“There are so many rules and procedures and everything else that … you know, no-one's got the memory of an elephant, so everybody's got a whole load that they can't remember. So there's a sort of ignoring of certain things … and in a sense I think that's quite tolerated.” (Evans, 2006, pp 158–9)

“I still really live by the tenet that rules are there to be broken and so I see procedures and guidelines as a way of enabling us to work but not necessarily as being the way we should always work and so I see them as being something that is, if you like, it's a framework, but that does not stop you putting different material on the inside. It doesn't stop you putting different pictures in. It doesn't stop you challenging.” (White, 2006, p 126)

Social workers also may engage in a variety of forms of resistance. First, workers often mystify or conceal their knowledge of service users in order to acquire resources (‘dressing up assessments’, referred to earlier). Collinson (1994, p 25) refers to this as strategic manipulation of knowledge and information. Second, another resistance strategy is to deliberately delay paperwork or assessment plans so that managers are manipulated into taking a particular course of action. For example, one of the post-qualifying social workers mentioned earlier often left decisions about cases until last thing on a Friday afternoon, especially if accommodation for children was needed, in order to bypass some of the decisionmaking procedures. Third, apparent cooperation with a social work task may often conceal resistance. Such forms of resistance centre on ‘destabilizing truth and challenging subjectivities and normalising discourses’ (Thomas and Davies, 2005, p 727). These forms of resistance to managerialist discourse and practices are often subtle and small scale, and such local, individual struggles are rarely part of a wider campaign; they do not ‘result in radical rupture or apocalyptic change’ (Thomas and Davies, 2005, p 720). Rather, resistance operates in complex ways, rather than being a simple bifurcation of all or nothing, so that resistance by one person might be viewed as compliance or indifference by another (Jermier et al, 1994, p 2): ‘Resistance and consent are rarely polarized extremes on a continuum of possible worker discursive practices. Resistance frequently contains elements of consent and consent often incorporates aspects of resistance’ (Collinson, 1994, p 29).

A less active form of resistance than those considered so far is what Collinson (1994) calls ‘resistance through distance’. This describes the way in which workers try to escape or avoid the demands of managerial authority and to distance (p.140) themselves, either physically, mentally and/or symbolically, from the organisation and its prevailing power structure. Workers avoid being associated or allied with managers and adopt an ‘us and them’ attitude. On the basis of a series of interviews, Jones (2001) maintains that ‘the depth of the divisions between the front-line practitioners and their managers’ was a surprise to him. He goes on to say that ‘if a ‘them and us’ culture is a measure of proletarianization then I have no hesitation in describing state social workers as being thoroughly proletarianized. I heard no positive word about managers’ (2001, p 559). Moving into management is often dismissed by social workers for this very reason. It is seen as requiring compromise and conformity in order to move from being one of ‘us’ to one of ‘them’. A practitioner experienced acting as a manager in a community adults team in this vein, as follows: “We're split on two floors. The manager never came to see upstairs people and I often said to him, ‘you ought to come upstairs for a cup of coffee with us, we want to see you’, but he never did” (White, 2006, p 136).

This practitioner went on to explain that, when she became acting manager, she had to make a conscious effort to speak to social workers. This experience as acting manager made her think about the personal compromises she would have to make in order to accommodate to the management culture:

“You could be behind that door and nobody would ever know that you are there. I hated that. It's just something about the role that cuts you off. And so I'm glad really that I didn't take that on permanently. It still wouldn't interest me. You know, I'd be stuck behind that thing all day [points to computer] and in meetings. But, the meetings, again, are so far from the reality of everyday work.” (White, 2006, p 136)

Similarly, in an earlier study, a social worker in children's services stated:

“I wouldn't want to be a manager. I have found my little niche. I do what I can. I don't feel I can compromise myself, to the extent that I would have to, to go up the career ladder. In some ways you can feel a rebel, self-righteous that you haven't.” (White, 1991, p 61)

Distancing through ‘us and them’ formulations can lead to another form of resistance through distancing, cynicism. Cynicism can be the last resort for resistance: a way of escaping the encroaching logic of managerialism that provides an inner space for workers when other avenues for opposition have dried up (Fleming and Spicer, 2003, p 160). For such workers, compliance with organisational goals does not mean that they have internalised the values of the managerialised organisation. Finally, resistance through distance can also involve withdrawal from active participation in the workplace. Often, dissatisfaction and unhappiness in social work is expressed in individualised ways — absenteeism through sickness and stress, moving job or leaving the profession (Collins, 2007).

(p.141) In stark contrast to resistance through distancing strategies, Collinson suggests there is also ‘resistance through persistence’, when workers (drawing on organisational knowledge and professional skills) demand greater involvement in the organisation, by monitoring practices, challenging decision-making processes and generally making management more accountable (Collinson, 1994, p 25). For example, in one study women social workers exercised influence by responding to departmental consultation documents on specific areas of practice, either through their teams or on an individual basis (White, 1991). Social workers using such strategies draw on a wide variety of knowledge (for example: technical, organisational, procedural, local, regional, cultural, historical, legal, economic, strategic/political and self), which those in more senior positions may not share and which can be used as an important ‘weapon of resistance’ to challenge and disrupt the power of managerialising and modernising discourses. Social workers can control the flow of information upwards, play on the essentially private nature of their work and exploit management's reliance on their goodwill, on which service provision depends.

Thus far, implicitly and at one point explicitly (see Jones, 2001), boundaries have seemed to exist between social work practitioners and managers. However a recent survey ‘found that 89 per cent of senior managers had been involved in social services work’ (Ackroyd et al, 2007, p 15) and this would seem to keep alive the possibility that some of them, at least, might seek ways of preserving rather than constraining practitioner discretion. Ackroyd et al maintain that, in social work services, professional values have remained ‘surprisingly robust’ and management practice has been shaped or partially captured by professional ways of thinking (Ackroyd et al, 2007, p 20). Such differentiations within management suggest that organisations are not fully integrated and consensual wholes, even across different levels of management, as envisaged by mission statements or organisational visions. They are stratified on a number of different levels and, as a consequence, the goals of senior managers and front-line workers may be different, with the possibility of overlapping interests and alliances between local managers and social workers (Harris, 1998b; Causer and Exworthy, 1999, pp 84–5; Evans, this volume, Chapter Eight). A recent study discovered that procedures offer scope for interpretation and that social workers were able to exercise substantial discretion, with the support of front-line managers (Evans, 2006, p 277; this volume, Chapter Eight).

Very few writers have examined the idea that managers themselves may resist the imposition of managerialism. However, LaNuez and Jermier suggest that managers may engage in organisational sabotage. They define sabotage as a ‘deliberate action or inaction that is intended to damage, destroy or disrupt some aspect of the workplace environment’ (1994, p 221). Managers' resistance by sabotage is similar to that of workers. Managers may deliberately work without enthusiasm, take time off, engage in deliberate inaction by withholding relevant information, and fail to adhere to established policies, procedures and rules, or intentionally denigrate the organisation and its products or services (1994, p 242). Salaman (1979) notes that, despite the efforts of higher managers to ‘design and install “foolproof “ and (p.142) reliable systems of surveillance and direction’, there will always be ‘some dissension, some dissatisfaction, some effort to achieve a degree of freedom from hierarchical control — some resistance to the organization's domination and direction’ by other managers (Salaman, 1979, p 145, cited by Gottfried, 1994, p 105) and this resistance is found at many different levels in the organisation.

Conclusion: transformative radicalism and quiet challenges?

There have been calls to find ‘more effective ways of resisting the dominant trends within social work and map ways forward for a new engaged practice’ (Jones et al, 2004). Some writers argue that the way forward is to work outside the state context, towards global resistance: ‘radical resistance involves tapping into a long tradition of radical social work and applying it in a global context’ (Powell, 2001, p 165). Ferguson and Lavalette (2005) have linked such a strategy to what they argue is the most significant social movement of our time, namely, ‘the anti-capitalist movement’ or ‘global justice movement’, which they think will ‘play a significant role in the discovery of a new, engaged social work practice’ (2005, p 208). This movement was first encountered in a demonstration in Seattle in 1999, when 80,000 people brought the proceedings of the World Trade Organisation to a halt, and was followed by other demonstrations elsewhere in succeeding years. Ferguson and Lavalette stress the importance of these movements and ask whether ‘individual social workers, as well as national and international organisations, are prepared to engage with these movements, and on what basis’ (2005, p 220). They contend that there are two points of convergence between contemporary social work and the new movements: the rejection of and resistance to marketisation and managerialism and the ‘overlap between the values of social work and the values of anti-capitalism … the promotion of social change; the commitment to social justice; and emphasis on human rights, empowerment and liberation’ (2005, p 221; see also, Lyons et al, 2006; Lyons, 2007). However, they argue that values alone are not enough for a renewal of engaged social work practice, there is the ‘question of organisation’.

Ferguson and Lavalette maintain that, after Seattle and the anti-war movement, there has been a ‘rediscovery of the effectiveness of collective action and organisation’ (2005, p 222). These movements have provided an opportunity ‘to create new, much stronger, and much more radical, networks of social workers and service users, both nationally and internationally … the pessimism and despair that has surrounded social work practice for so long can be replaced by the hope that … another social work is indeed possible’ (2005, p 223). Nationally, a number of events have taken place which demonstrate that social workers are interested in collective resistance: for example, a conference in Nottingham (2006), ‘Affirming Our Value Base’, which drew over 1,500 participants; one in Liverpool (2006), ‘Social Work in the 21st Century’; and in Glasgow (2007), ‘Social Work a Profession Worth Fighting For’ reasserted social work's social justice agenda, launched Social Work and Social Justice: A Manifesto for a New Engaged Practice and initiated (p.143) Community Care's campaign ‘Stand up for Social Work’. Lymbery argues that collective resistance can also occur by ‘reconfiguring professional associations so that they are more politically engaged’ (Lymbery, 2001, in Hughes and Wearing, 2007, p 11) and Meagher and Healy call for coalitions of professional associations (Meagher and Healy, 2003, in Hughes and Wearing, 2007, p 11). Consistent with this emphasis on externally based resistance, Powell finds it difficult to visualise how social work can carry on radical resistance within a state that is ‘privatising social services or operating quasi-markets. It seems axiomatic that radical resistance has to be carried on outside the state in civil society’ (2001, p 159).

Despite the undoubted significance of the forms of external resistance identified, there is also a need for practitioners to engage in resistance in the workplace; they can be ‘in and against’ current forms of social work.1 This involves recognising and engaging with management and professional agendas in organisations in order to provoke change from within. One social worker commented that she thought social work had been, to date, a “quiet profession” and she reflected a view expressed by many other social workers interviewed in the same study, that social work needs to stand up and be counted” (Cree and Davis, 2007, p 159). Regardless of the extent to which social workers move towards standing up to be counted, this chapter has suggested that opportunities for resistance can be found in the nooks and crannies within existing organisational frameworks. Some commentators may view this as offering a weak form of resistance, as compared to the vision of transformative radicalism offered by the proponents of anti-capitalist/global movements. However, as Thomas and Davies remind us ‘the effectiveness of small-scale localized struggles in effecting larger scale change should not be underestimated … the global is a construction of aggregated local events and discourses, not something that stands entirely outside of them’ (2005, p 733). This focus on ‘quiet challenges’ opens up a view of discretion and resistance that does not have to wait for the fruits of large-scale transformative radicalism to ripen. It encompasses a range of more subtle challenges through which resistance will continue because, amoeba-like, it will adapt and mutate (Powell, 2001, p 87).

While there is no doubt that social work inhabits a ‘frosty climate’ and is ‘haunted by uncertainty’ (Bauman, cited in Powell, 2001, p 23), Bauman's uncertainty can be reclaimed ‘as fertile ground for the development of ideas and suggestions of ways forward for those with the courage to engage’ (McDonald, C., 2006, p 19). This courage to engage and to make a difference continues to be the major reason why people come into social work. The challenge in seeking to make a difference involves negotiating ‘the slippage between the potential and ideals of social work as a professional activity and the reality of social work as organisational work’ (Lymbery and Butler, 2004, p 10). As Lymbery points out, ‘a restored belief in the role of social work at the level of practice can then provide the basis for a renewal of confidence in social work's ability to impact on other levels — a classic example of a “bottom-up” approach to change’ (Lymbery, 2001, p 381). Such an approach is likely to involve resistance to managerialising and modernising (p.144) discourses; on a day-to-day level, subtle acts and quiet challenges can contribute to that resistance.


(1) The phrase ‘in and against’ was coined by the London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group (1979), which argued that in struggles against the state, state workers held a contradictory position, working in and against the state.