Chapter One: Introduction

NUI Galway set up the first social work programme in the west of Ireland in 2004. A member of the first cohort of an enthusiastic and engaging group of students had a firm opinion on the role of theory in social work. After having undertaken a range of social work-related activities prior to her becoming a postgraduate student, she pronounced with some confidence: ‘theory won’t get you through the door’. Angela’s succinct declaration, which resulted in lively exchanges during a module on social theory and social work, echoes an opinion widely held in and beyond the profession. On one level, her view may appear convincing and connect to our intuitive understanding, our ‘common sense’ (and, perhaps, personal experience) of social work. Arguably, on difficult home visits, where social workers have to ask troubling questions or convey upsetting news, theoretical knowledge may not seem to be of much help. Although it may have sparked animated discussions at university, when the real work of social work has to be undertaken, theory becomes redundant, if not something of a hindrance. Some of the content of the module I was teaching Angela and her class may have seemed somewhat challenging. It may be understandable how student participants doubted the usefulness of wading through Bourdieu’s dense and complex prose. He never had to plot his way across the varied topography of social work practice. He never had to complete a late Friday-night visit to an ‘unknown’ family subjected to a child abuse investigation. He never experienced the feeling of trepidation, the dry mouth and the queasy tummy while climbing out of his car trying to find a flat number on an ill-lit estate (see also Ferguson, 2010a).

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