Recent analyses and critical commentaries have re-discovered the importance of meaning and experience to the task of social work (Parton and O'Byrne, 2000). How the world is experienced, defined and mediated by service users is beginning to re-assert itself as a legitimate concern for practitioners and policy makers concerned with delivering effective and relevant services. Whilst much contemporary social work has been ‘hi-jacked’ by the re-moralization and corrective agenda of New Labour, there is still a place for social work to legitimize and respond to the felt and perceived world of the service user. In this issue, meanings and experience are explored by Ben Gray in ‘Befriending excluded families in Tower Hamlets’; Mary Larkin in ‘Life after caring’; Rachel Harding and Paul Hamilton in ‘Working girls’; and Rachel Lev-Wiesel and colleagues in ‘Growth in the shadow of war’.
Gray, for example, explores how a combination of proactive work and support prevents the need for highly intrusive and reactive responses to child protection issues. Most notably, befriending and the provision of emotional support elicit high levels of disclosure from parents largely marginalized from mainstream society and services. Larkin explores the post-caring experiences of former carers, with two distinct findings—that carers have a post-caring trajectory with different phases and needs, and that some carers are ‘serial carers’ with vastly differing caring experiences. Taking account of these differing experiences in different points in time should lead to a more nuanced response to post-carer needs. Harding and Hamilton explore how homeless women understand their choices and motivations to engage in sex work. Importantly, they analyse the constraints upon the women's choices and the role of abuse and coercion in their decision making. Interestingly, women do not necessarily perceive themselves as ‘victims’, and they are active in framing and determining their identities as ‘working girls’. Importantly, Harding and Hamilton argue that the decisions of women regarding sex work, and their active role in decision making, should inform both policy and practice responses to this issue. Lev-Wiesel et al. examine the impact on nurses and social workers ‘directly or indirectly exposed to traumatic war-related situations’, and conclude that these experiences and reactions to them are different. In particular, whilst workers may find working with war victims traumatic, it can also be a challenge and a source of personal growth. Personal resources and personal meanings that enable personal growth are critical to post-traumatic growth and survival.
The connection between language, framing of issues and meaning is pursued by Gary Clapton in an historical analysis of the work of the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children 1888–1968. This is an excellent example of the use of archival records to provide an in-depth analysis, and Clapton outlines the Society's important role in early child protection and the regulation of families, and illustrates that the tension between care and control has long been with us. Not only is this an important snap-shot of time; it is, as the abstract says, ‘part of the DNA of social work’. Gai Harrison, drawing on the work of Bourdieu and the notion of cultural capital, explores the subtle role of ‘language politics’ in shaping social work. The article illustrates the powerful role of language as the cultural capital in shaping personal identities and in shaping life chances. Harrison illustrates that, despite the language diversity of Australian society, English dominates social work training and frames both policy and practice—a symbol of a long colonial history. This linguistic domination serves to exclude ‘other’ non-English speakers and reinforces the social exclusion of non-white groups. This issue is not readily addressed by the training and employment of bilingual social workers, as they experience much of this linguistic domination and ‘othering’ themselves.
The power of meaning, theory and ideological views are examined by Johanna Woodcock Ross and colleagues as they analyse how cultural and structural constraints impact on practice development in the area of infant mental health inter-agency work. In particular, medical and deficit understandings of mental health remain powerful, inhibiting the development of earlier, preventative work with infants. This is exacerbated by lack of understanding about child mental health, literally preventing some social workers from recognizing the problem, and an ‘ideological stance to denying the existence of infant mental health’.
In an article on ‘Community anti-poverty strategies’, Roni Strier examines the complex construct of ‘community’ using discourse analysis to place it within varying theoretical discourses, and argues that this inadequacy of conceptualization has translated into community anti-poverty strategies. Ideological disputes, differing framings of the issue and differing representations of community responses have plagued work in this area. Strier provides a strong analysis of key issues but also, importantly, offers ‘practical recommendations that can guide social workers in developing strategies that better reflect the plights, desires and aspirations of communities in poverty’.
Hugh McLaughlin, in ‘What's in a name?’, analyses contemporary meanings and labels in social work, particularly the labels used to describe the relationship between those who commission and provide services and those who receive them. Such labels are important, as they ‘conjure up differing identities, identifying differing relationships and differing power relationships’. Finally, Richard Hugman, in ‘But is it social work?’, pursues the notion of identity on a broader canvas, examining the contemporary debate on social work identity, particularly whether social work should focus on micro or macro levels. He compares social work in the ‘global North’ and the ‘global South’, and concludes that the distinction is an unhelpful polarity. Rather, social work should seek to link up these two levels, and adapt to the contexts, structures and cultures within which it is operating.
This is an interesting and stimulating issue that readers should enjoy.