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Pierre Bourdieu, ‘a philosopher turned anthropologist (and, later, sociologist)’, was born the ‘son of a postman in a remote peasant village in southern France’ (Callinicos, 1999a, p 288; see also Noble and Watkins, 2003, p 521). Drafted in 1955, he served as a conscript during the Algerian war of independence that had begun the previous year. While the war continued, he began working at Algiers University, carrying out the fieldwork he drew on throughout his career. Upon his return to France, Bourdieu went on to become the Chair of Sociology at the Collège de France. He wrote more than 40 books and over 400 articles (Lane, 2000).
Beyond France, social work literature has tended to neglect Bourdieu. Twenty years ago, his name did not even feature in the index of Dominelli’s (1997) Sociology for social work. This omission is surprising given that Bourdieu is one of the very few high-profile sociologists – Bauman (2000a) being a second notable exception – to have shown a keen interest in social work (see, particularly, Bourdieu et al, 2002, pp 181–255). In the UK, Houston (2002) was one of the first to explore Bourdieu’s relevance for social work, with Fram (2004) and Emirbayer and Williams (2005) pursuing a similar endeavour in the US.
Renowned for his dense prose style and the vastness of his ‘output’, Bourdieu often presents considerable challenges to his first-time readers. After discussing some of these potential barriers, the chapter will explain parts of his ‘conceptual arsenal’ (Wacquant, 1998, p 220) by dwelling on ‘habitus’, ‘field’, ‘capital’ and ‘symbolic violence’ (see also the useful contributions in Grenfell, 2012).
Jürgen Habermas was born in 1929 in Dusseldorf, Germany. As a teenager, he ‘joined the Hitler youth along with many of his peers’ (Houston, 2009, p 13). His subsequent professional and intellectual career has, however, been rooted in the thematic concerns of the Marxist Left and, more recently, social democracy. Indeed, some argue that the German’s work and public interventions provide the ‘philosophical arguments that might protect democratic societies from his own nation’s past’ (Neilson, 1995, p 809). In terms of his theorisation, Habermas distances himself both from the pessimism of Weber – and his ‘iron cage’ perception of modernity’s dominant rationalising impulse (Roberts, 2004) – and from the Frankfurt’s School’s disdain for popular or mass culture. For him, meaningful communication provides a possible antidote to the damaging and corrosive tendencies associated with modernity. Indeed, his ‘leitmotif ’ is the notion of ‘unconstrained, open debate amongst equals’ (Baert, 2001, p 85). Perhaps paradoxically, he has a ‘dense, heavy and discouraging writing style’ (Scambler, 2001, p 1).
Habermas remained ‘one of the most coherent and persuasive defenders of the project of the Enlightenment’ during a period when postmodernism increasingly became the focal ‘ism’ within academic and cultural settings (Baert, 2001, p 89). However, it ‘seems to be rarely recognized’ that Habermas has also been as ‘damning of the unreconstructed Enlightenment project’ as any postmodernist: whereas postmodernists have ‘judged the Enlightenment project to be flawed beyond redemption, Habermas has committed himself to its necessary and compelling reconstruction’ (Scambler, 2001, p 9, emphasis in original). Since the 1970s, a defence of this reconstructed version of the Enlightenment project, and against those he regards as advocates of counter-Enlightenment, has been increasingly apparent in his work.
One doesn’t have a power … wholly in the hands of one person who can exercise it alone and totally over others. It’s a machine in which everyone is caught, those who exercise power just as much as those over whom it is exercised.… One impoverishes the question of power if one poses it in terms solely of the state and state apparatus. Power is quite different from and more complicated, dense, and pervasive than a set of laws or a state apparatus. (Foucault, 1980, pp 156–8)
Lemme hear you say
Fight the power
Lemme hear you say
Fight the power
We’ve got to fight the powers that be.
(Public Enemy  ‘Fight the power’)
Paul-Michel Foucault was born in 1926, in the city of Poitiers in France, into an upper-middle-class family. In his early 20s, he was often seriously emotionally disturbed, attempting suicide on a number of occasions (Defert, 2013). In his late 20s, while living in Sweden, Foucault appears to have achieved a greater sense of ease with himself. At this time, he reportedly became something of a dandy, speeding from Uppsala to Paris in a shiny white sports car and matching white outfits (Defert, 2013).
His earliest publications as an emerging scholar in the 1950s were ‘steeped in the humanist discourse that he would soon rebuff’ (Behrent, 2013, p 68). In 1954, his Maladie mentale et personnalité (Mental illness and personality) was ‘deeply infused by Marxism and phenomenology in their most humanist forms’ (Behrent, 2013, p 69). Foucault’s theoretical orientation altered in the 1960s and this was reflected in Mental illness and psychology, a new version of the previous book.
Among the few things I took in during my stint in the Philosophy Department at Humboldt was the idea – I forgot whose – that the underlying motive for all human action is the desire for recognition – recognition of one’s worth and dignity as a human being, without which one was a nonperson; a slave. The concept had articulated very precisely the obscure cravings of my soul, and it had lodged itself in my imagination. It had felt incontrovertible. (Lasdun, 2007, p 133)
Like the central character in James Lasdun’s (2007) novel Seven lies, a number of writers located within the field of social work appear to have become fixated with the ethics and politics of recognition. Many have made thoughtful contributions stressing the relevance of this theorisation for practitioners’ day-to-day encounters with the users of social services.
Within philosophy, ‘recognition designates an ideal reciprocal relation between subjects in which each sees the other as its equal … one becomes an individual only in virtue of recognizing, and being recognized by, another subject’ (Fraser, 2003, p 10). The German philosopher Hegel (1770–1831) coined the phrase the ‘struggle for recognition’ (‘Kampf um Anerkennung’), but it was the early 1990s that marked a resurgence of academic interest in this theme. According to Charles Taylor (1992, p 26), ‘recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people’, it is a ‘vital human need’.
The ‘two most prominent main contemporary theorists of recognition’ are the neo-Hegelian philosophers Taylor and Honneth (Fraser, 2003, p 28). Published in 1992, the former’s The politics of recognition, variously referred to as a ‘catalytic essay’ (Markell, 2003, p 2) or ‘signal essay’ (McNay, 2008, p 2), probably remains the single most influential work on the theme in contemporary political theory.
Remaining within the European context, with which Social theory and social work has largely been concerned, the contributions of Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri and the Autonomist Marxists, and Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello present, at times, thematic continuity with other theorists examined in the book. For example, from a different angle than the recognition theorists, Badiou examines questions relating to ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’. Negri and Autonomist Marxist theorists dwell on issues connected to work in contemporary capitalist societies. This is also the case with Boltanski and Chiapello, who, although not operating within a specifically Gramscian perspective, ‘offer a classic analysis of the mechanics by which hegemony is exercised’ (Couldry et al, 2010, p 110). Importantly, despite the fact that all these writers remain largely unknown within the field, the range of their theoretical interests is of great relevance to key concerns in social work (see Table 11.1).
Badiou’s major books are Being and event (Badiou, 2005a) and, what is sometimes referred to as ‘Being and Event 2’, The logic of the worlds (Badiou, 2009; see also Hallward, 2008). These represent his ‘defiant riposte to the post-modern condition, a condition which claims that philosophy has exhausted its universal history’ (Barker, 2002, p 4). Badiou’s perspective is entirely antithetical to postmodernist theorising, which, as mentioned in Chapter Two, had an impact within the academic literature of social work in the 1990s. His own philosophy hinges on the concept of ‘the “event” as a form of momentous change … in the realms of science, art, love, and emancipatory politics’.
For a theory to be ‘critical, it must be connected to the hope for some significantly better – more just, or at least less oppressive – society’ (Allen, 2016, p 12). This perception resonates with the view that theoretically critical approaches express a similar yearning for a ‘better way of being’ (Levitas, 2007, p 290). A core assumption of Social work and social theory is that a better social work can exist within an economic and social system that puts people before profit. Such a ‘utopian’ inclination or impulse – what Ruth Levitas (2007) calls ‘looking for the blue’ – is inseparable from an emancipatory politics whose steadfast commitment is to ‘destroy the appearance of a “natural order” … reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be mere contingency’ and make what was previously ‘deemed to be impossible seem attainable’ (Fisher, 2009, p 17).
Currently, however, for some within the field of social work, critical social theory and the longing for something different constitutes an unwarranted challenge to what we might term unthinking neoliberalism (see also Schram and Pavlovskaya, 2018). In this sense, ‘looking for the blue’ is a threat that troubles many within the mainstream domains of social work and associated fields. This is not to argue that this ‘mainstream’ tends to be unequivocally defensive, arid and conservative. Rather, it perhaps shares some of the characteristics of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ referred to by Nancy Fraser (see Chapter Five). Here, one finds a heightened moralism and gestural celebration of ‘diversity’, but little meaningful interest in combating the hurt and hardships promoted and sustained by the ravages wrought by neoliberal economics.
Social workers, broadly conceived, are engaged in assisting asylum seekers. Grounded in a small empirical study encompassing the Republic of Ireland and Switzerland, the article comments on the wider context and issues relating to asylum, migration and social work. The findings incorporate themes stretching across six interrelated dimensions: the practitioners’ own backgrounds; the lack of professional social workers; the dependence on volunteers; inadequate resourcing and high caseloads; inadequate supervision; and categorisation. All these issues are significant for social work education and for a profession that needs to exhibit more interest in questions of migration and more of a commitment to human rights.
Since 2004, the Habitual Residence Condition (HRC) has restricted access to the welfare state and ‘safety net’ social protection for those who cannot prove their ‘connection’ to the Republic of Ireland. For many, this has resulted in poverty and social exclusion. Informed by Badiou’s promulgation of ‘one world’ politics, the article focuses on social workers’ experiences of the HRC in two cities. A preliminary study, with a small group of practitioners, highlights the way they are responding to the HRC. Common themes relate to: inequality of access to the welfare ‘safety net’; ambivalent social work attitudes towards the HRC; the role of practitioners in opposing the HRC; the personal cost of challenging the inflexible operation of the HRC; and bureaucracy and the HRC. Located in an ambivalent position, on account of the demands of both the state and more progressive aspects of the profession’s value base, social workers are resisting the HRC but not on a collective basis.