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Author: Michael Reisch

During the past three decades, the ascendant neoliberal paradigm has produced an unprecedented centralisation of wealth and power and the institutionalisation of a market-oriented philosophy throughout the world. Its underlying values have transformed the basic tenets of social work practice and undermined the profession’s ethical foundation. It has promoted scientific, empiricist ‘objectivity’ as the principal criterion for respected scholarship and an ahistorical orientation to human problems, and compelled social workers to revise their relationship to the state, the market, service users and the community. In this context, it would be easy to predict a dismal future for social work, as some scholars have done recently. Instead of projecting a dystopian view of social work’s future, however, this article presents a more hopeful alternative. It argues that while social workers must be rigorous in their analysis of emerging societal problems and relentless in their efforts to link these problems to their structural and institutional roots, they must also maintain a sense of possibility based on an awareness of history and appreciation of the collective human capacity to create change.

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Author: Michael Reisch

The year 1968 was a potential turning point in the history of US social work. After a generation of inward-looking conservatism, significant numbers of American social workers revived the radical tradition of the profession that the purges of the post-war McCarthy period had repressed. New social movements, particularly the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and second-wave feminism, as well as the efforts of activists outside of social work, from Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez to the National Welfare Rights Organization, inspired new approaches to advocacy, research, practice and education. Inside and outside professional organisations and social service agencies, social workers began to advocate for progressive policies, the use of more expansive and more democratic practice frameworks, and the inclusion of content on race, gender, class and sexuality in social work education. For a brief period, it appeared that a major transformation of the profession was possible, even inevitable. Although the events of this critical year produced some important changes in social work practice and education, they did not change its fundamental orientation. Ironically, both the ultimate failure of the era’s radical activism and the introduction of identity-based content into the profession’s vocabulary and mission made US social work more vulnerable to conservative attacks over the following half-century. The developments that resulted from the ‘year of the barricades’ also made it more difficult for the profession to articulate a unified vision for a rapidly changing environment, and to translate that vision into new models of practice, research and education.

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