Two: Social work’s enduring tensions

This chapter examines how social work has always engaged with people who are poor and socially excluded. Social work, as we currently understand it, has developed over the past 200 years as a response to the difficulties faced by certain groups of people at the onset of industrialisation and capitalism. For much of social work’s history, the term ‘the poor’ has been frequently used to describe these groups. The concept of social exclusion is a late 20th-century development. Nevertheless, social work has a long history of involvement with the poor and dispossessed.

The introduction discussed the concept of the dialectic and argued that the nature of society is one of contradiction, conflict and change. The outcome of the conflict is not simply the triumph of one set of ideas – or one group of people – over another, but something new and distinct. The introduction also emphasised the importance of action and engagement as a force to bring about change. The social workers here operated in the Victorian period, at the onset of industrialisation and large-scale production, characterised by the creation of the modern city and large-scale factory work (Pearson, 1975).

Social work operates on the margins of society and works with those people whose experiences set them apart from the majority, so, in this sense, social exclusion is a useful term to adopt. It has been argued convincingly that social work has always concerned itself with ‘the poor’ or ‘marginalised’ (Jones, 2001). This can be traced back to the beginnings of social work in the UK in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

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