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In this chapter, we focus further on activating our framework specifically with exo and macro levels of the ecological context. With regard to wider engagement with the exo and macro levels, we begin with a discussion about our well-established and advanced practices in the fields of community work, community development and social development from which we can draw. We then consider some of the opportunities and challenges to developing expertise in sociolegal practice within the areas of mental health and criminal justice practices (by way of illustration) as a means of mediation and interaction with exo- and macro-level concerns. We then recap on the ecological approach, and propose networking as a particularly useful approach to help move from more general to specific interactions across exo and macro systems. The overall intention of this chapter is to expand and enhance the capacity for social work to operate effectively in interactions across the ecological system levels.

Community and social development, community work and community education are core strands of social work alongside individual and group work approaches. We use the term ‘community and social development’ here, although note the important critical differences between community work, education and development and their complexity. Larsen et al (2013) provide a thought-provoking discussion on community work and participation specifically, and how this has developed historically. They remind us that community work and community organisation is an age-old practice across many societies, which social work and related professions became involved with from the mid to late 19th century onwards.

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In this book, we offer a framework as one ‘constant’ in terms of a frame for critical ART to:

  • recognise social work as a duality of support and protection that should be at the forefront, irrespective of the method or practice approach used;

  • emphasise the important temporality of life events and transitions;

  • commit to an ultimate goal of achieving health and wellbeing for individuals, families, groups and communities;

  • automatically consider intergenerational relations at individual, family, community and social levels in our interventions;

  • take an approach based on civic engagement and partnership, which assumes that whatever work is being done is carried out by co-citizens, each with a part to play in the process.

To bind together the learning from this book, and to identify ways forward, we begin this chapter with a commentary under the theme of ‘critical ART’. We then reflect back on the framework to provide signposts of how to develop our framework, and how social workers can be leaders in this regard. We end with final reflections and acknowledgements, setting out some signposts as to the direction for our own future learning.

We have put forward the idea of critical ART to bring together the core practices of analysis, reflection and thinking to make connections between your practice context and the knowledge that informs this. The following sections provide some final illustrative commentary. In sum, we have argued that critical analysis will allow a balanced appraisal, using a defined approach to collecting evidence to support this. It also helps to weigh up the potential and limits of different approaches in line with the aims and objectives of service delivery and support.

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This chapter explores the importance of empathy and resilience as key underpinning functions for effective social work based on family and social support principles and practices. We explore how social support as a core practice emerges from empathetic responses from the social worker, manifested through a presence approach and real connectedness. This positive engagement, in turn, enables individuals, families and communities to achieve resilience, and is demonstrable as by their continued capacity to cope. As highlighted elsewhere in this book, the importance of contextual relationships of support and protection across the lifecourse, within the ecological model, is highlighted. Social support enlistment that builds resilience for individuals and families can then form a lynchpin for active empathy by social workers. We explore these approaches in practice contexts. Finally in this chapter, we look at a set of three social work practice tasks as illustrative, namely, working with people living with mental health issues, families in poverty and family support partnership and prevention approaches.

We should not presume that although integral to social work practice, empathy is always present and being demonstrated by the practitioner. As has been well documented, there are many situations where social workers are suffering personal trauma themselves; sometimes, although not always, it is work-related, which hampers their capacity to remain empathetic to those they work with and for. In such instances, while it may be that the social worker is more unable (for whatever reason) than unwilling, the impact is, of course, detrimental for the service user (Segal, 2011).

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The relationship between family support and child protection has been long established in child welfare (Parton, 1997), although right up to today there remains a perceived ‘tension’ in this relationship (see Devaney and McGregor, 2017) and a disconnection in the aims of protection and support. However, family and social support have always had, by nature, an emphasis on protection built in. As Dolan and Frost (2017: 383) conclude, practices that are ‘good’ for child protection are likewise ‘good for family support’. We assert the same can be said for adult protection. These practices include working in partnership, a strengths-based approach, offering services based on need, including basic poverty, using the community for support, relationship-based and reflective practice and upholding social justice and rights. Referring back to McGregor and Devaney (2020a, b), we emphasise the importance of an approach of ‘supportive protection and protective support’. While we focus here on elucidating in particular the theories and practices emerging from family support and social support discourses, the assumption of duality of support and protection underpins this commentary.

This chapter draws mostly from the proven track record and pioneering work of Pat Dolan and colleagues (see, for example, Canavan et al, 2016) and related publications about family and social support theories. It connects parenting and family support to underpinning social support theory, and demonstrates the relevance of family support as a broad overarching practice of support and protection with children, families and vulnerable adults. This includes a focus on lifecourse and life events, intergenerational relationships, civic engagement and participation and health and wellbeing as underpinning frameworks for social work.

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Social work is a complex activity and there is no simple or singular way to learn how to understand, do, critique and improve it. It takes an array of approaches, theories, skills, knowledge and practice experience built up from the beginning of our education and training and throughout our professional careers. Theoretical, methodological, practical and experiential knowledge all play a role in shaping our understandings, critiques and practices of social work. Students and new graduates in particular need a set of parameters and frameworks around which they can begin to develop a sense of what social work is and how it can be carried out, supporting and protecting children, families and adults through individual, group and community work. Experienced practitioners also need to refresh their learning and keep up to date in their practice teaching and supervision. While it is important to avoid over-simplification of a complex and sometimes contradictory strategy, identifiable ‘scaffolding’ is necessary. The unique contribution of our work is to bring together in a dynamic way the dual role of support and protection across the lifecourse within an ecological context. By doing this, we are offering some scaffolding to help students integrate the complex range of intersectional and diverse themes that inform social work practice. Scaffolding means that we have clear theories, ideas or knowledge around which to develop our critical analysis, reflection and thinking.

We are academic professors based in the West of Ireland. We work at an international UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre within the Institute for Lifecourse and Society (ILAS) and School of Political Science and Sociology in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies, National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway.

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A lifecourse perspective that encourages us to view life as a series of journeys and transitions helps our critical understanding of the multiple factors that affect people’s lives from birth to death. It is a multidisciplinary concept, and historical and cultural factors are essential to bear in mind. Social work by its nature is a lifecourse discipline, and whatever area we work in, such as medical social work, family practice or probation, interventions take place with attention to the whole lifecourse of the person as well as their intergenerational relations. Disruption to or within a person’s lifecourse is one of the most common reasons people seek and use social work services so this theme already has relevance when considering protection, safeguarding, family support, social support and transitions.

In this chapter, we advance the discussion further, focusing more closely on disruption. Disruption in a person’s lifecourse may be ongoing and reoccurring, such as persistent neglect of a child within a family, enduring mental ill health or a need for lifelong disability support. Disruption can also occur at specific moments, such as the impact of loss through death or separation. Sometimes it is a whole systems change that causes disruption, such as, for example, the transition from communism and the re-establishment of social work in Eastern Europe in the late 20th century (Schilde and Schulte, 2005; Hering and Waaldijk, 2006), or the disruption caused by sectarian conflict, as in Northern Ireland (Duffy et al, 2020). Much of social work is focused on mediating at times when there is a disruption to people’s development and lives.

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An underpinning assumption in this book is that social work is necessarily a complex set of dualities. It seeks to regulate and liberate. It is perceived as a beacon of rights and justice and as a regulator and reinforcer of societal norms. It has moments of great achievements in the past, alongside ‘horrible histories’ (Ferguson et al, 2018). The dilemma of social work is that it is a socially constructed phenomenon that promotes itself as committed to progressive social change while it draws from conservative intellectual sources (Witkin, 2017). Social work operates within a context of neoliberalism that can turn potentially progressive notions such as empowerment into an individualised rather than a structural focus. Conversely, the movement towards greater emphasis on civic engagement, partnership with service users and democratisation of knowledge within current postmodern conditions has opened up greater scope for social work to critically engage at both individual and structural levels towards transformative practice.

In social work literature, questions are asked about whether social work is more about being ‘servants of a “sinking titanic” or actors of change?’ (Jönsson, 2019), and ‘is social work at war, and if so, who or what is the enemy?’ (Golightley and Holloway, 2020: 304). Alternatively, ‘is it about protest?’, as Shokane and Masoga (2019) ask in relation to social work in South Africa. The question of whether we are at the ‘end of social work’ has also been posed (Maylea, 2020). While these are important questions to ask, we are of the view that they give insufficient attention to the fact that balancing the duality of ‘care’ and ‘control’ in social work is the very nature of the strategy.

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