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This chapter explores the engagement of social workers in the policy process in England. It describes the professional discourse and socialization process regarding policy practice and then moves on to discuss the degree to which English social workers actually engage in policy practice. The chapter concludes with an effort to explain the very limited engagement of social workers in policy practice in England.

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Social work and sociology

Society is undergoing change, and, as a result, social welfare services – including social work – are being transformed. This book explores the sociological basis of contemporary society and shows how social workers experience tensions and contradictions in practice.

The book uses case studies and self directed activities to enable students to relate sociology to daily lives. It explores key themes in turn, examining their relevance for social work and how they can be applied to practice, particularly in areas such as children and families, mental health, disability and older people.

Relevant and accessible, the authors explore aspects of class, ethnicity and gender and conclude with suggestions of how sociology can inform practice and enable social work to engage with processes of transformation.

The book provides essential material for students of social work and social care, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. It will also be relevant to social policy and sociology undergraduates.

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Social exclusion as a concept has its origins in France (Murard, 2002). The excluded (les exclus) referred to those people who were excluded from the main forms of French society and as a result lived on the margins. In many cases, this was quite literally so, as new housing developments were established at the periphery of towns and cities. The rioting in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities in late December 2005/early January 2006 provides evidence of this, as well as some of its consequences. The terminology became adopted within the European Union, and it soon established itself as a broad term to refer to people who lived on the margins, and who either were, or perceived themselves to be, excluded (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1995).

For those who live on the margins of society, the continuing process of being excluded becomes a daily reality. Individual experiences underline the nature of the exclusion. There is a case, however, for moving beyond the individual to explore how social exclusion is defined.

Burchardt (2000a) argues that an individual is socially excluded if he or she does not participate to a reasonable degree over time in certain activities of his or her society, where this is for reasons beyond his or her control, and where he or she would like to participate. The definition becomes non-specific and inclusion or exclusion results from an individual preference. For example, if there were no desire to participate, using Burchardt’s definition there would be no ‘exclusion’.

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This chapter examines how social work has always engaged with people who are poor and socially excluded. Social work, as we currently understand it, has developed over the past 200 years as a response to the difficulties faced by certain groups of people at the onset of industrialisation and capitalism. For much of social work’s history, the term ‘the poor’ has been frequently used to describe these groups. The concept of social exclusion is a late 20th-century development. Nevertheless, social work has a long history of involvement with the poor and dispossessed.

The introduction discussed the concept of the dialectic and argued that the nature of society is one of contradiction, conflict and change. The outcome of the conflict is not simply the triumph of one set of ideas – or one group of people – over another, but something new and distinct. The introduction also emphasised the importance of action and engagement as a force to bring about change. The social workers here operated in the Victorian period, at the onset of industrialisation and large-scale production, characterised by the creation of the modern city and large-scale factory work (Pearson, 1975).

Social work operates on the margins of society and works with those people whose experiences set them apart from the majority, so, in this sense, social exclusion is a useful term to adopt. It has been argued convincingly that social work has always concerned itself with ‘the poor’ or ‘marginalised’ (Jones, 2001). This can be traced back to the beginnings of social work in the UK in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

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This chapter will introduce the concept of production, by exploring the sociological contributions of Marx and Durkheim to the study of work in a capitalist society. The impact of changing patterns of paid work (including patterns of male and female employment) will be analysed in this framework. Finally, alienation will be introduced and discussed as a concept of importance in the study of work and society.

The concept of production has a lengthy history within sociology and one of the first writers who dealt with the subject was Karl Marx. Marx argued that production is essential to human survival and that we all need to produce; the term has come to be related to both the process and organisation of production. A more accessible way to understand the concept is to think about work.

Work can be conceptualised in a number of ways:

  • As an activity – this is quite simply what we do. Social workers, for example, may undertake many different activities as part of their job, such as visiting people, attending meetings, filling in forms, writing reports and going to court.

  • As a process – this includes all of the above as part of a continuing process in, for example, ensuring the safety of a child. The process also includes contact with other people within the place of work, including supervisors.

  • As organisation – this focuses on how the work is organised and includes management structures and aspects of managerial and organisational control.

You will probably recognise that social workers do not actually ‘produce’ anything that other people would recognise as a ‘product’, unlike someone who works in a car factory.

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This chapter will explore how the concept of production and work can be applied to social work practice. It will look at how work (or the lack of it) impacts on family life and how this can generate the problems encountered by social workers. It will also explore the relationship between perceived ‘social problems’ and production. The chapter will conclude with an analysis of social work as ‘production’.

A traditional view of family life and work is that the family provides the (usually male) worker with a ‘safe haven’. This is explored in the next section, which looks at how society ‘reproduces itself ’. Our concern here is to show the relevance of theories of work and production for social workers. The sociology may not appear to be immediately relevant; however, it is through understanding the nature of production that we can develop a better understanding of poverty, social exclusion and inequality.

One of the aims of this book is to show how sociological explanations of exclusion and poverty are of relevance to social work practice. Whether or not people ‘work’ the level of their wages, or income, is a significant factor in their social position. The majority of people who use social work services are likely to be poor, either through not working or through being employed in a low- or even minimum-waged job. Jones (2001) argues that poverty is still a major factor for the majority of service users. Theories of production explain that capitalism seeks to drive down wages. Thus, poverty is endemic within the economic system and any understanding of it needs to begin here.

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This chapter explores the core concept of reproduction in sociological theory and analyses gender and family relationships as functional to the reproduction of capital. The contribution of feminism is considered, especially in relation to women’s paid and unpaid work. The chapter concludes with an exploration of ‘discourse’ as reproduction.

Within sociology, reproduction refers to the mechanisms by which society creates, maintains and recreates the conditions for it to continue. So, while production concerns itself with work and how society organises itself to produce goods and wealth, reproduction is concerned with how society organises the lives of its population to ensure that they participate in ‘production’. Classical Marxist theory, therefore, explores how capitalism organises itself to ensure that capitalism continues to thrive and how the state takes on the role of organising society to this end.

Reproduction also has come to be closely related to the sociology of the family. Sociologists have developed different perspectives on this, but the primary concern here is to examine functionalist and feminist critiques of it from the 1970s onwards.

Finally, in more recent developments, aspects of sociology have focused on discourse. This is mainly associated with developments out of Marxism by Foucault, and has become one of the dominant sociological developments of the past 15 years.

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This chapter considers social work’s response to theories of ‘reproduction’ and ‘relationships’, especially given the feminised nature of social work. It explores typical case scenarios and examines the extent to which social work practice supports traditional family responsibilities that underpin the post-industrial economy.

One of the aims is to demonstrate the significance of sociological approaches for practice, especially in relation to social exclusion and poverty, and to use different methods in doing so. Chapter Two, with its historical emphasis, identified some enduring tensions in social work that, it is suggested, are highlighted by a sociological approach, which necessitates an analysis of the relationship between people, society and social work. This was followed by an examination of the concept of ‘production and work’ and its relevance to social work practice. This chapter begins with some case studies and invites the reader to engage with a series of questions, drawn from the material relating to ‘reproduction’. There follows a discussion of the case studies around those themes, incorporating further aspects of sociological inquiry.

When reading through the case studies, note down the links to the theories outlined in the previous chapter, and try to link these to theories of production identified in the earlier section, since the two are not easily separated. As you will no doubt soon become aware, there are many issues and discussion points in the case studies. This shows the interdisciplinary nature of social work. For example, in case study 1, you could think about the question of mother/parent–child attachment (Bowlby, 1953; Rutter, 1972; Howe, 1987; Fahlberg, 1994).

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While production and reproduction have a long sociological history, it is only more recently that consumption has attained greater sociological attention. This chapter examines consumption, arguing that it has a contradictory force of its own. It brings about new forms of inequality and exclusion for the poor, but it can also be a means of inclusion, for example, the ‘pink pound’ (the combined spending power of gay people). Understanding the nature of consumption and its broader linkages to production is crucial for social workers’ understanding of their service users’ social position.

History is from day to day, and nothing … has been more daily than keeping shop or going shopping. (Adburgham, 1989, p viii)

Miles (2001) offers a comprehensive discussion about consumption, including summaries of the work of leading theorists, and how this relates to ‘the real world’. He argues that one of the difficulties with the term is that it is so much a part of our lives, we do not even think about it, we just do it – even those who have relatively little money. Miles engages in a sociological discussion about the distinction between ‘consumption’ and ‘consumerism’. This book is more concerned with the processes of consumption as they relate to capitalism and production.

Production refers to what is produced or manufactured; broadly speaking, it refers to work, that is, how we earn money. Consumption in its broadest sense refers to what we ‘consume’, that is, what we spend. This chapter began by saying that consumption is a new concept, but it is important to emphasise that what is new is the sociological study of consumption, which has developed considerably in recent years.

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This chapter uses case studies to highlight the consequences of being unable to consume, the increased isolation experienced by many families and individuals, and how this affects social work. It concludes with an examination of how social work itself has become an enterprise based on consumption, arguing that for many people choice is but an illusion.

These case studies represent many areas social workers deal with (see also the case studies in Chapter Six). Consumption and the consumer society are relatively new developments, as demonstrated in Chapter Seven. It is, however, important that social workers make some attempt to understand how they affect the lives of people they work with. Readers are invited to return to the exercise in Chapter Seven to reassess the extent to which consumption plays a part in their life. It may be that it plays a far bigger role than at first thought.

This chapter will also show that the concepts of production and consumption are closely related, and the areas discussed lead to a consideration of the extent to which contemporary society has shifted to consumption and whether production still plays a significant role.

Chapter Seven developed the ideas of Bauman in relation to the ‘new poor’. His argument is that they are the flawed consumers of a postmodern or postproduction world, and as such serve little purpose, as their traditional position as a reserve army of cheap, casualised labour has been eroded (Bauman, 1998). This view of the poor in relation to consumption is not without its critics.

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