For this special issue of Critical & Radical Social Work, we take declarations of ‘the end of history’ as a reminder of the ways in which established ideas and noted events are linked into historical narratives that structure the temporal-generational and spatial-geographic nature of the various imaginations that shape professional social work in different times and places. The phrase ‘the end of history’ alludes to German philosopher George Wilhelm Hegel, who argued for a linear and teleological model of historical stages inevitably progressing towards greater human freedom via the emergence of the liberal state form. Achieving human freedom, via liberalism, would mean we have reached the end of history. This model of history was adapted by Marx into a theory of historical development that would instead end with the emergence of communism, a theory that underlies some critical and radical traditions in social work. The concept of history’s end gained widespread media attention when the US political scientist Francis Fukuyama (1992) boldly proclaimed that the end of the Cold War in 1988 was, in fact, ‘the end of history’ – liberalism qua capitalism had won out over socialism and communism. Fukuyama (2022) recently doubled down on this claim in addressing the economic success of strong states – Russia and China – not bound by liberal-democratic legal infrastructures and styles of governance, arguing both that these states are too fragile to endure forever and that their existence is, in part, responsible for the growth of anti-liberal populism in the US. US-style liberalism and its relationship with global capitalism remains, for Fukuyama, the only viable way to realise human freedom.
The relationship among modern nation states, capital and people endures as foundational to most theories of social progress and social justice. The so-called ‘end’ of faith in the possibility that Western nation states might adopt communism or socialism – or even a robust welfare state – as alternatives to (neo)liberal capitalism raises a whole host of challenges and questions about how we might conceptualise existing forms of life and work towards some vision of a better world. We anchor this special issue to this infamous phrase to signal a need to revisit how social work thinks about history and freedom, progress and loss, and accountability to the shifting conditions of existence and possibility through which we each reproduce and adapt the project of social work from one generation to the next.
State and professional discourses of progress or improvement regularly work through the omission and erasure of ongoing histories of struggle and disagreement, including how popular claims about redistribution and recognition centre colonial temporalities and logics (Rifkin, 2017), and how welfare restructuring ‘weaponises time’ to delay distributing the material conditions of survival (Mills and Pring, 2023). The necessity to speak of history and temporalities is bound to how conceptualisations of justice can be thinkable, or possible (Derrida, 1994). This special issue therefore foregrounds connections between genres of history or storytelling and temporal logics, engaging questions of memory, colonial chrononormativity, disciplinary perceptions of radical potential, social work education, the politics of remembrance, carcerality and the field-shaping power of origin stories.
The collection opens with a contribution from Susanne Maurer (2023), who, in ‘Social work as memory of conflicts? Reflections on a historiographical figure of thought’, extends for an English-speaking audience her work on social work as ‘memory of conflicts’ and an ‘open archive’ that contains multiple responses to the debates and perceived issues of specific times and places. For Maurer, the activities of social work are materials through which we can consider evolving, contested questions of social and political change. As she argues: ‘the idea of social work as memory of conflicts or open archive itself can be characterised as one specific answer to the dispute over history and memory (not only related to social work), while, at the same time, providing new approaches to understanding social work’s present(s) and future(s)’. Maurer’s contribution will be of particular interest to readers located in contexts where histories of our applied science and debate about historical narrative and method are less common.
Jennifer M. Poole and Samantha Zerafa (2023) engage a critical discussion of temporal logics in social work in, ‘No more deadlines? Tracing transcarceral time in “critical” social work education’. Their contribution questions compliance with historiographical reproductions of colonial chrononormativity by offering analyses from critical perspectives on temporalities via ‘crip, queer and pandemic time’. The authors offer analyses that embed attentions to abolitionist struggles, the violence of policing time and a suggestion for refusing transcarceral time, deliberately encouraging us to think beyond its punishing and confining temporal criminalisation. The analyses proposed provide a frame from which to appreciate the possibilities for liberation that may arise from temporalities that resist acquiescence to the transcarceral.
the labour of social work shows its commitment to staying in contact with realities that are in some sense stuck, suspended or recurring. This way of living the present may well be difficult at times because it assumes that only by continuing to endure the partial collapse of relations, plans, arrangements, worlds, histories and so on can social workers stay in a caring relation to them.
This includes, as she demonstrates through her analysis, careful engagement with state and event anchored histories of social work that generate narratives of loss, doom and refusal.
In ‘Social work’s complex cloth: teaching hard history in an antebellum cotton mill’, Jane McPherson (2023) contends with matters of national and regional identity, and the importance of engagements with difficult political and historical work, to catalyse analyses that might offer pathways to liberatory practice in social work. The interwoven histories of cotton mills, racism and women’s charitable work are offered as an example of a method for holding historiographies of the University of Georgia School of Social Work together as interwoven, ‘hard’ histories. This work, via teaching and learning, offers a perspective on confronting the positions of social work as socially just, while it is also a profession, discipline and set of practices that has advanced exclusion and division, and obstructed social change.
In ‘Dealing with a contested past: the Belgian decolonisation debate’, Ruwayda Said Salem, Kris Rutten and Lieselot De Wilde (2023) link national identity with professional identity and argue that social work must engage more directly with contemporary debates about colonial pasts and presents. Formal apologies for state violence are increasingly common and comprise part of the intergenerational memory and remembrance work of making sense of the present. For Salem, Rutten and De Wilde, however, national apologies and decolonising public space by renaming institutions and removing statues are only the beginning of reckoning with colonial nostalgia, competing interpretations and unprocessed history in the Belgian context. Social work, they argue, is part of the histories and structures of colonisation, and must engage more directly with the shifting politics of remembrance.
In ‘Disrupting the carceral narrative of gender-based and sexual violence’, Maddie Brockbank (2023) critically explores the ways in which colonial carceralities shroud historiographies of gender-based and sexual violence that advance individualising, criminalising tropes via the gazes of whiteness. Specifically, the ‘Othering’ of ‘perpetrators’ of gender-based and sexual violence is analysed for complicities with individualisation/criminalising logics, alongside an analysis of the centring of white women’s narratives to advance carceral logics and the ways in which this carceral gaze is extended through social work. Brockbank’s contribution leaves us with the hopeful possibilities that arise from abolitionist and anti-carceral social work via critical historiographical resistance.
The final article by Samantha Rose Ruth Zerafa (2023), ‘(Un)Mapping trajectories of fatness: a critical account of fat studies’ origin story and the reproduction of fat (white) normativity’, offers a perspective on field origin stories. Zerafa explores the contours of fat studies as a critical-historiographical project with aims to rewrite, subvert and resist modernist claims of biodeterminism and their use for surveillance and control while querying the erasure of the racial origins of fatphobia via a focus on the activism and scholarship of white and white-passing women. The analytical intervention presented suggests an international shift towards intersectional fat studies as a critical-historiographical entry point for activism and analysis.
Temporal logics are embedded throughout social work activities, including our historical stories, our research approaches, and our teaching and learning practices. Contributors to this special issue of Critical & Radical Social Work show some of the political, conceptual and practical work that remains to be done within and through social work after ‘the end of history’.
The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.
Brockbank, M. (2023) Disrupting the carceral narrative of gender-based and sexual violence, Critical and Radical Social Work, 11(3): 407–23. doi: 10.1332/204986021X16700108899928
Davies, S. (2023) Lost futures, doomed timelines and unwanted inheritances: how we are handling painful time in social work, Critical and Radical Social Work, 11(3): 360–73. doi: 10.1332/204986022X16703011487757
Derrida, J. (1994) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, New York: Routledge.
Fukuyama, F. (2022) More proof that this really is the end of history, The Atlantic, 17 October, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/10/francis-fukuyama-still-end-history/671761/.
Maurer, S.M. (2023) Social work as memory of conflicts? Reflections on a historiographical figure of thought, Critical and Radical Social Work, 11(3): 332–46. doi: 10.1332/204986021X16699859837133
McPherson, J. (2023) Social work’s complex cloth: teaching hard history in an antebellum cotton mill, Critical and Radical Social Work, 11(3): 374–92. doi: 10.1332/204986021X16731232086522
Mills, C. and Pring, J. (2023) Weaponising time in the war on welfare: slow violence and deaths of disabled people within the UK’s social security system, Critical Social Policy, doi: 10.1177/02610183231187588
Poole, J.M. and Zerafa, S. (2023) No more deadlines? Tracing transcarceral time in ‘critical’ social work education, Critical and Radical Social Work, 11(3): 347–59. doi: 10.1332/204986022X16703251226390
Rifkin, M. (2017) Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Said Salem, R., Rutten, K. and De Wilde, L. (2023) Dealing with a contested past: the Belgian decolonisation debate, Critical and Radical Social Work, 11(3): 393–406. doi: 10.1332/204986021X16815762062699
Zerafa, S.R.R. (2023) (Un)Mapping trajectories of fatness: a critical account of fat studies’ origin story and the reproduction of fat (white) normativity, Critical and Radical Social Work, 11(3): 424–39. doi: 10.1332/204986021X16669839613749