19: Involving service users in social work education and research: is this structural social work?

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In the concluding chapter of the recently published Routledge Handbook of Service User Involvement in Human Services Research and Education, Cameron et al (2021) discuss whether or not service-user involvement makes a difference. They are very careful and modest in their answer: ‘It can and should make a difference when it is carried out meaningfully and when it is allowed to have an impact’ (Cameron et al, 2021, p 507). In this chapter, we take this discussion a bit further by connecting the collaborative models presented in this book to the social work theory of ‘structural social work’. This theme was developed at a meeting in Antwerp where members of Bind-Kracht and representatives of the Mobilisation course discussed the values underlying their projects. We built on this discussion at the international meeting in Antwerp as part of our transnational European Social Fund project. During the group discussions, we discovered how the objectives, methods and results of our models are linked to the characteristics of structural social work. In other words we investigated whether cooperation with service users in education, research and policy is structural social work.

In order to answer this question in a well-founded way, we dispose the core elements of structural social work and link them to the examples and conclusions of the chapters in this book. But first we start with a brief description of our view on structural social work. Structural social work is grounded in critical social theories and is related to critical and radical social work. It emphasises emancipation and social justice and challenges the dominant social and economic structures and excluding societal processes like colonialism, capitalism, racism, heterosexism and ageism. This approach focusses on how these structures and mechanisms are the root causes of social problems and produce and reinforce oppression.

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