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The language of social work is ‘community-focused’ and ‘community-based solutions’ are sought. What does this really mean for social work practice and for those who live in communities? Is social work in fact retreating from communities, and distancing itself from exclusion and poverty? With a focus on choice, social work has succeeded in individualising social problems, yet offering little new in the way of solutions.

Social capital is difficult to define. It refers to those intangible resources: friendships, networks, trust and shared values, many of which are associated with positive ideas of community. Field (2003, p 1) sums it up as “relationships matter”. This should have an immediate resonance for social workers who are engaged in a variety of neighbourhood-based schemes and projects.

Generally speaking, the more friends you have, the nearer your family and the greater your network of support, the greater your levels of social capital. The different types of ‘community’ you belong to can also reflect social capital. The sociological concept of social capital therefore provides a valuable framework for understanding the nature of community-oriented social work.

Bourdieu (1984) is arguably the originator of the concept of social capital, which for him is closely aligned to cultural capital. This in turn is connected with consumption (see Chapter Seven). Bourdieu began with a study of French society influenced by class and he specifically investigated the French middle class. His interest is in how social capital (or the lack of it) is a feature in maintaining the existing social order and inequality. He also identified cultural capital and actual capital as being significant.

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This chapter draws together the ideas of earlier chapters, arguing that the concepts discussed are interlinked and interdependent in relation to people’s lives. They form the basis of the society in which social work operates. The question posed is whether social work has properly recognised the fundamental shifts in societal organisation and the increasing difficulties this brings for (potential) service users. Social work as an occupation is largely one of engagement with the poor, and this book has shown how poverty is endemic in our economic system and affects all service user groups. By exploring society though the concepts of production, reproduction, consumption and community, a sociological analysis has been used that focuses on the life worlds that service users, and crucially social workers, inhabit.

There is considerable continuity in the contradictory nature of social work. The book has also shown how society is changing because of the decline of large-scale production in the West, a shift to the service sector industry and an attendant decline in traditional communities. The economic system remains capitalist, although the way it manifests itself has changed. It has been suggested that it is the nature of consumption and choice that has come to be the dominant theme in this renewed version of market-driven capitalism. This has in turn created new challenges for social workers. Consumption creates the illusion of equality, masking the clearer inequalities associated with production.

The first part of this conclusion focuses on social work practice, and shows how sociology can inform all stages of intervention.

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The previous chapter was designed to get readers thinking about how to use sociology in the work they undertake. Earlier chapters emphasised the material conditions of people’s lives. We all experience the same things, but, of course, we experience them in different ways. How social workers apply sociological concepts to their work also depends on the kind of work they do, and where they do it. For example, some social workers are involved mainly in ‘forensic’ work, while others work in community settings. Some are ‘providers’, while others are primarily engaged in assessing for, purchasing or coordinating services.

This book also identifies that there is a lengthy tradition in social work that places social justice and change on the agenda. Students of social work want to bring about change, often expressed in terms of ‘making a difference’ (Price and Simpson, 2004). The changes to social work practice and organisation discussed in this book mean that this tradition is in danger of being lost. A consequence is that social work will become just another service industry. The authors’ experience as educators also indicates that social workers want to reconnect with the lives of service users and communities: they do not enter the profession to spend their days filling in forms. They also realise that many of those who are involved in ‘direct working’ with service users are often low paid, relatively poorly trained and frequently perceive local authority social workers as distant figures.

With this in mind, the book concludes by examining this tradition of change in social work, realising that many things are far easier said than done.

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The authors have been teaching sociology (and, for that matter, social work) for nearly 30 years, many of which were spent in practice. One of the shifts that has been apparent in social work during this period has been the move towards an office-based bureaucracy. During discussions about the nature of social work with students, and practitioners undertaking post-qualifying programmes, the authors have become acutely aware of how little direct contact many social workers have with service users, and that sociology has only minimal impact on their practice. As a result, the authors have developed an approach to the teaching of sociology and its relevance for social work that is reflected in this book.

The approach has been well received. Many students have commented, however, that although the ideas are accessible and relevant (because they are located in the real world), they are not always easy to grasp (because that is the nature of sociology, trying to explain the commonplace). Above all, the book was written because the authors have a strong desire to rekindle what C.Wright Mills (2000) famously termed ‘the sociological imagination’ in today’s generation of social workers.

As noted above, this book came out of the authors’ teaching and it is designed to be as accessible as possible to all readers. Students begin courses full of enthusiasm and this is to be encouraged, but the authors were presented with the problem of how to maintain accessibility when the material within the book was so varied in its complexity. In addition, not all readers respond in the same way.

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