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Making connections

Drawing on a range of theorists and competing perspectives, this substantially updated and expanded second edition places social theory at the heart of social work pedagogy.

This book imaginatively explores ways in which practitioners and social work educators might develop more critical and radical ways of theorising and working. It is an invaluable resource for students and contains features, such as Reflection and Talk Boxes, to encourage classroom and workplace discussions.

This new edition includes:

· An extensive additional chapter on Foucault

· Reworked and expanded versions of the chapters featured in the highly-praised first edition

· Revised Reflection and Talk Boxes

· New and updated references to stimulate further reading and research

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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.

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NUI Galway set up the first social work programme in the west of Ireland in 2004. A member of the first cohort of an enthusiastic and engaging group of students had a firm opinion on the role of theory in social work. After having undertaken a range of social work-related activities prior to her becoming a postgraduate student, she pronounced with some confidence: ‘theory won’t get you through the door’. Angela’s succinct declaration, which resulted in lively exchanges during a module on social theory and social work, echoes an opinion widely held in and beyond the profession. On one level, her view may appear convincing and connect to our intuitive understanding, our ‘common sense’ (and, perhaps, personal experience) of social work. Arguably, on difficult home visits, where social workers have to ask troubling questions or convey upsetting news, theoretical knowledge may not seem to be of much help. Although it may have sparked animated discussions at university, when the real work of social work has to be undertaken, theory becomes redundant, if not something of a hindrance. Some of the content of the module I was teaching Angela and her class may have seemed somewhat challenging. It may be understandable how student participants doubted the usefulness of wading through Bourdieu’s dense and complex prose. He never had to plot his way across the varied topography of social work practice. He never had to complete a late Friday-night visit to an ‘unknown’ family subjected to a child abuse investigation. He never experienced the feeling of trepidation, the dry mouth and the queasy tummy while climbing out of his car trying to find a flat number on an ill-lit estate (see also Ferguson, 2010a).

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Most theoretical perspectives derived from sociology and social theory tend to argue that modernity – itself a contested term – has not yet been exhausted. ‘What is the nature of the modernity which we inhabit?’ is a key question preoccupying many theorists, giving rise to a plethora of competing views on what it is to be ‘modern’ and on how moderns think, feel and act (Garrett, 2008). Deliberating on these matters is inescapably political: sociologists and social theorists should not be perceived as providing ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ accounts of how we are evolving because they all, more or less explicitly, owe allegiances to particular political projects intent on remaking the world in particular ways. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Giddens, who appeared to provide a sociological ‘road map’ for the politics of New Labour. With his revealingly titled Beyond Left and Right, he furnished a ‘book full of sneers at social democracy and the welfare state’ and was to ‘become the ‘theoretician of the [former] British Prime Minister [Blair] and his New Labour regime, giving an intellectual gloss to a party that had lost – or rather severed – any connection to “first wave” social democracy’ (Therborn, 2007, p 100).

It was postmodernists who ‘stimulated an awareness of and a debate about modernity’, and this chapter will begin by briefly looking at their contribution (Therborn, 2011, p 55). After briefly examining the derivation and definition of ‘modernity’, the focus will be on postcolonial theory. Important here is the failure of many theorists to locate modernity in the context of European expansion and the domination of subjugated populations (Connell, 2007; De Sousa Santos, 2012).

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In recent years, questions related to modernity have, on occasions, dwelt on the notion that we have shifted from a period of ‘solid modernity’ to one of ‘liquid modernity’. The main sociologist associated with this theorisation is Zygmunt Bauman. He was born in Poland in 1925 but left in the late 1960s and arrived – after short stays in Israel, Canada and Australia – at the University of Leeds, where, from 1990, he was an Emeritus Professor.

Until his death, in early 2017, Bauman was an exceptionally prolific, influential and, in his final years, controversial sociologist (Tester, 2004). Attention was directed to his having worked for Poland’s intelligence services from the end of the Second World War until 1953 (Edemariam, 2007; Ramesh, 2010). Irrespective of the precise accuracy of such reports, it is impossible to comprehend Bauman’s role without locating it in the context of the civil war that erupted in Poland following liberation from Nazi rule (Tester and Jacobsen, 2005). However, he was also criticised for an alleged lack of scholarly detail in his later work. Derbyshire (2004, p 49), for example, criticised Bauman’s ‘theoretical impressionism’, maintaining that his apparent reliance on ‘nothing more substantial than articles in the Guardian and the Observer colour supplements’ was ‘objectionable’. Perhaps there is some truth in this critique, but Bauman’s ‘defence of a morally committed sociology’ was compelling and serious. Indeed, his contributions should be taken into account, albeit critically, in any book seeking to address social theory and social work (see also Smith, M., 2011).

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For some writers, the term ‘modernity’ is of little use and functions to mask the centrality and significance of capitalism. Jameson, for example, proposed, as a ‘therapeutic recommendation’, substituting capitalism for modernity in all the contexts in which the latter appears (quoted in Callinicos, 2006, p 50). Over 20 years ago, a similar position was taken by Woodwiss:

I wish to question the general sociological utility of the concept formerly known as capitalism – modernity.… In my view, the term ‘modernity’ as a specifically sociological sign has its origins in the representation of American society contained in the work of sociologists like Daniel Bell (1960) and David Riesman (1950), and given a technologically determinist inner logic … in the 1960s. This was a representation that identified the combination of liberal democracy, a capitalist economy, an ‘open’ class structure and an individualistic value system as the antithesis of totalitarianism whether fascist or communist. (Woodwiss, 1997, p 2)

Woodwiss (1997, p 4) recommended, therefore, that ‘we restore … capitalism, to its rightful position of pre-eminence within sociological discourse’.

Despite remarkable transformations having taken place over the 150 years since the publication of Das Kapital (henceforth, simply Capital) in 1867, this chapter stresses its continuing relevance for those working in social work and associated fields. To this day, Marx’s seminal text provides a devastating critique of capitalism and remains a vital resource for those seeking to understand and develop strategies of resistance within capitalism.

The year 2018 is the bicentenary of Marx’s birth and the suggestion that Capital may be of relevance to present-day social workers could be seen as mere provocation since, arguably, the world in which the book appeared is radically different from the one that we now inhabit (Derrida, 1994).

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Flying out of New York in August 1981, I was a little concerned about the aeroplane’s take-off. Edgy and anxious passenger banter about who might be populating the airport’s control tower, guiding our pathway into the sky, fluttered through the cabin. Fast-forward to Ireland in August 2017 and the Health Information and Quality Authority announced that it was aware that some private nursing homes are prone to charging elderly residents �20 to attend Mass (O’Halloran and Clarke, 2017).

Almost 40 years apart, these, seemingly, random occurrences can be conjoined because they relate to the evolution of a particular form of capitalism: neoliberalism. In the first instance, the nervousness on the night flight out of New York was attributable to the fact that President Reagan, launching an assault on trade union rights, had sacked 11,345 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO) taking part in a nationwide strike. This state offensive against the trade union movement tends to be perceived as one of the foundational, and symbolic, moments associated with what was subsequently to become known as ‘neoliberalism’ (Harvey, 2005). Turning to contemporary Ireland, the ‘top-up fee’ that nursing home residents are expected to pay is reflective of how neoliberalism currently operates in practice. It is a rationality that aspires to incessantly and unremittingly maximise profits for capitalists. Importantly, as the Irish example illustrates, neoliberal practices result in encroachments into areas formerly considered beyond the reach of market imperatives. Everything, everyone, becomes a potential source of capitalist accumulation. Anything can be monetised, even an elderly nursing home resident’s desire to attend Mass.

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In 2017, to mark the 80th anniversary of Antonio Gramsci’s death, the Italian Cultural Institute in London hosted an exhibition featuring the original copies of his famed Prison Notebooks. According to the curators, this was the first time that the Notebooks had been exhibited outside of Italy (Italian Cultural Institute, 2017). The years Gramsci spent as a prisoner of Italian fascism (1926–37) amounted to ‘an eleven-year death-agony’ (Fiori, 1990). His ‘teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food, his chronic insomnia was so severe that he could go weeks without more than an hour or two of sleep at night, he had convulsions when he vomited blood, and he suffered from headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell’ (Hoare and Nowell Smith, 2005, p xcii; see also Gramsci, 1979). Gramsci was to die under guard in a clinic in Rome at the age of 46. At his funeral, ‘held as quickly as possible on April 28, 1937 the watchful police guards far outnumbered the mourners’ (Buttigieg, 1986, p 2). The ‘product of those years of slow death in prison were … 2,848 pages of handwritten notes which he left to be smuggled out of the clinic and out of Italy after his death’ (Hoare and Nowell Smith, 2005, p xviii). Written between February 1929 and June 1935, substantial obstacles face readers of the subsequently published Notebooks today. First, Gramsci’s web-like prose can appear fragmentary, even lacking coherence. The Notebooks ‘consist of a massive series of notes and essays, sometimes rewritten and redeveloped with no single plan to give them structure’ (Martin, 1998, pp 3–4; see also Schwarzmantel, 2015).

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