Looking back to look forward: a collaborative autoethnographic study of the effects of neoliberalism on social work practice, education and research

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  • 1 University at Albany, State University of New York, , USA
  • | 2 Miami University, , USA
  • | 3 Colorado State University, , USA
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Neoliberalism emerged as a powerful force across the globe, adding market-based pressures to social work practice, education and research. Using a collaborative autoethnographic approach, we reflected on neoliberalism’s impact on our professional and academic experiences in US-based social work. Disconnection characterised our collective experiences of neoliberal social work across practice, research and education. The effects of this collective disconnecting emerged in three themes: (1) commodification; (2) compliance; and (3) disillusionment. We offer recommendations on how the field of social work can resist neoliberalism’s effects and encourage: (1) recentring social work practice, education and research around social work values; (2) a strategic use of self to form connections between the personal and the professional; and (3) the adoption of collective impact as the model for social work education and research.

Abstract

Neoliberalism emerged as a powerful force across the globe, adding market-based pressures to social work practice, education and research. Using a collaborative autoethnographic approach, we reflected on neoliberalism’s impact on our professional and academic experiences in US-based social work. Disconnection characterised our collective experiences of neoliberal social work across practice, research and education. The effects of this collective disconnecting emerged in three themes: (1) commodification; (2) compliance; and (3) disillusionment. We offer recommendations on how the field of social work can resist neoliberalism’s effects and encourage: (1) recentring social work practice, education and research around social work values; (2) a strategic use of self to form connections between the personal and the professional; and (3) the adoption of collective impact as the model for social work education and research.

Introduction

Beginning in the 1970s, the market-based pressures of neoliberalism commodified human services and higher education. At the same time, the ideological underpinnings of neoliberalism influenced the epistemological foundation of social science and beliefs about what is empirical truth. Using a collaborative autoethnographic (CAE) approach, our group, which includes a doctoral candidate, post-doctoral fellow and assistant professor, all located in the US, found commonalities in the ways that neoliberalism shaped our experiences in social work practice, education and research. Neoliberalism disconnected us from our professional identities, others within our practitioner and scholarly communities, and the professional values and ethics we were taught to embrace. In totality, neoliberalism narrowed the scope of our social work practice. The historic tension in US-based social work of social workers being viewed as either agents of transformation or agents of social control is implicated in our experiences (Gil, 1998). Neoliberalism flourished in US-based social work, in part, because social work has historically been used as a tool for assimilation and control (Reisch, 1998).

Historical perspective and the professionalisation of social work in the US

The history of US social work is characterised by two differing traditions – the casework tradition promoted by the Charitable Organization Societies (COS) and the tradition of settlement houses – both of which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to industrialisation and immigration. The COS, which were populated primarily by wealthy, socially advantaged, white women acting as the ‘friendly visitor’, launched as organising entities that coordinated the efforts of multiple smaller organisations to address specific social concerns (Murdach, 2011). COS workers encouraged cultural and economic assimilation by imparting the skills needed to become members of the industrial workforce, making judgements about those worthy of such investments. Settlement houses, whose leaders connect social and economic concerns to systemic rather than individual shortcomings, are designed to be self-sustaining communities meeting the social and economic needs of their members, while advocating for political change (Netting, 2013). However, settlement houses had religious and moralistic missions, often with assimilationist rather than transformative agendas (Reisch, 1998). Further, upper- and middle-class reformers entered communities to lead organising, and while identifying as ‘neighbours’ rather than visitors, they held paternalistic assumptions about neighbourhood inhabitants (Jane Addams Hull House Museum, no date). Black Americans were largely excluded from settlement houses or lived in segregated settlement houses (Hansan, 2011).

During this time, efforts to professionalise occupations across the US were under way. The Progressive Era brought the concept of technical rationality, which coupled the positivism of the Enlightenment period with the technological development of the late 19th century (Adams, 1993). Social work shifted from ‘on-the-ground’ training to professional degree programmes in institutions of higher education, and with it, opposing perspectives about the social work profession emerged. One view of social work emphasised a skills-based curriculum that developed technical abilities to work in the social welfare sector, while the other emphasised a broad social science-based curriculum for political advocacy and engagement (Shoemaker, 1998). Economic collapse during the Great Depression enshrined the social welfare sector through the New Deal, positioning social workers as gatekeepers to services seeking to adapt and conform recipients to existing social and economic systems (Gil, 1998). The emergence and development of the US social work profession is deeply tied to political and economic events in service of a market-based agenda.

Emergence of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism emerged in the 1970s in response to the social activism of the 1960s (Soss et al, 2011). It is premised on the idea that the well-being of society is realised when resources are allocated through free markets, which extends the rationale governing economic transactions to social and political relations (Giroux, 2017). Throughout the 1980s, neoliberalism took hold throughout Western countries, notably, in the US, UK, Australia and Germany. Neoliberal macroeconomic policies were also imposed on developing countries through institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (Kentikelenis and Babb, 2019). However, Connell and Dados (2014) argue that neoliberalism is largely understood through the lens of the Global North. Neoliberalism in the Global South involves unique issues such as the role of the military in the state, expansion of the international commodity trade and development of rural communities (Connell and Dados, 2014).

Devaluing and restricting services, and an emphasis on managerialism to improve efficiency and effectiveness, characterise neoliberalism across contexts (Spolander et al, 2014; Singh and Cowden, 2015). In a six-country (Finland, India, Italy, South Africa, Russia and England) study of the impact of neoliberalism on social work practice, public health and vulnerable population groups, four common themes were identified (Spolander et al, 2014), including: (1) the marketisation of care and embrace of neoliberal ideals by social work; (2) the standardisation of care and risk-based approaches that de-emphasise prevention and universal social work services; (3) policing who can do social work and emphasizing efficiency, resulting in non-social workers completing tasks previously done by social workers; and (4) supervising to ensure effective risk management and the implementation of evidence-based practices, while managing to ensure targets are met.

Across international contexts, neoliberalism impacted the value placed on social work skills and knowledge (Wallace and Pease, 2011; Spolander et al, 2016), undermining the relationship between social workers and clients, and directly challenging the social justice identity held by social workers (Spolander et al, 2016). Social work education and research have also heeded marketisation pressures, resulting in an emphasis on producing and training workers to implement standardised approaches that maximise efficiency and service delivery (Hanesworth, 2017).

Social work resistance to neoliberalism

Spolander et al (2016: 643) argue that resistance to neoliberalism on the part of social workers is challenged by the diversity of practice and socio-political contexts because there is ‘no coordinated European or international understandings’ of neoliberalism, which does not allow for a uniform response, therefore ‘muting’ the professional voice. Research indicates that many social workers are failing to make connections between their individual practice experiences and globalised trends due, in part, to their unawareness of them (Findley and McCormack, 2005). Spolander et al (2014) argue for global collectives and collaborative methodologies that would facilitate the development of a collective professional voice and unified strategies to disrupt and respond to neoliberalism.

Grand challenges and university–community partnerships

In the US and Canada, many social work researchers embraced the Grand Challenges for Social Work as a method of uniting scholars to address the most pressing challenges facing social workers in the 21st century (Uehara et al, 2013). Borrowing the grand challenge technique used by other technical fields, the Grand Challenges for Social Work are a continuation of the ‘professionalisation’ of the discipline. The Grand Challenges simultaneously challenge and reinforce neoliberalism. The goal of breaking down silos and bringing together researchers around a shared goal could serve to build much-needed connections between the research and practice communities. Yet, the reliance on technical expertise and rationality to confront deeply entrenched social and economic issues may perpetuate the efficiency aims of neoliberalism.

Partnerships and collaboration between universities and communities increased in popularity, ranging from community engagement initiatives, like service-learning programmes, to collective action endeavours, where university and community members jointly seek solutions to issues (Adamuti-Trache and Hyle, 2015). In social work, universities and community-based providers have shared interests in developing effective practices (Begun et al, 2010). For example, a survey of social work programmes in the US, Israel and Canada found that institutions were utilising collaboration inside and outside the university as part of social work training programmes (Bronstein et al, 2010); however, the outcomes of these efforts or the best methods for teaching and assessing collaboration-related competencies are not clear. Issues of greater complexity, like power dynamics and historical inequities, further undermine collaborative efforts (Price et al, 2013). In traditional research relationships between the university and community, faculty members and administrators maintain control; however, in many of these emergent university–community partnerships, there is no ‘ultimate power’, as egalitarian relationships are prioritised (Price et al, 2013). For example, in Michigan, the outcomes of a community partnership between faculty and service providers focused on building capacity in African, Arab and Hispanic communities, which challenged faculty members to consider what knowledge is and who experts are, and all participants to consider what are just courses of action (Lockwood et al, 2011).

University-community partnerships risk being co-opted by the doctrine of marketisation (Lazzarato, 2009). Social entrepreneurship, seeking to integrate social and economic goals, has emerged from the business and non-profit communities (Nandan and Scott, 2013). Nandan and Scott (2013) identify social entrepreneurship as emerging with trends such as the privatisation of governmental programmes, reduced governmental revenues and critiques of the social welfare system, consistent with a neoliberal orientation.

Relational social work

A renewed commitment to relational social work is challenging traditional boundaries between social workers and clients, which, as social work professionalised, came to largely mimic practices in the medical community to ensure client protection (O’Leary et al, 2013). Consequently, professional boundaries place limits on the reciprocity expressed between workers and clients, as well as on the role of identity in social worker–client relationships. Due to the professional boundaries as currently constituted, there is indication that social workers in the field may experience disconnection between their training or ethical standards and the demands of practice (Alexander and Charles, 2009). Challenges to current professional boundaries advocate shifting to practices that better fit the realities of the work (Alexander and Charles, 2009; O’Leary et al, 2013).

Purpose

As scholars new to the field, we were motivated to explore our experiences as practitioners, researchers and educators/learners within the modern context of neoliberalism. After collaborating on prior projects and regularly returning to both literature and conversations about the relationship between neoliberalism and social work, we decided to systematically explore these topics as they manifest within our own collective experiences. Our aim was to do so in service of identifying ways forward.

Our group consists of three members who are in the US; therefore, our experiences can only speak to those within the context of the US. We are newly entering the profession and, therefore, along with our colleagues, shoulder the responsibility of shepherding the profession forward, especially as we seek to become social work educators and researchers. Each of us identifies as white, and, consequently, racial privilege limits our experiences and how we interpret them (for short author autobiographies, see Box 1).

Author autobiographies Catherine

I am a white, heterosexual and cisgender woman who entered the social work profession in my mid-20s after first beginning a career in public administration. As an adult, I benefit from economic advantage, though as a child, I was less secure. At the time of data collection, I worked for a private agency, but my work is paid for by county government, and families are referred by child protective services. Often, I work with families who are struggling economically and experience social isolation and exclusion. I am also a doctoral candidate in social welfare at a research university.

Darren

I am a white, queer, genderqueer person who grew up in a middle-class family living in a rural community in the north-east. I have spent many years working in the fields of adolescent sexuality education and LGBTQ+ youth development. In my early 30s, I completed my Master in Social Work and offered clinical services to LGBTQ+ youth, young adults and families. I have also worked as a substance use counsellor for older adults in recovery. Currently, I am a second-year assistant professor teaching social work and engaging in participatory action research (PAR) with transgender and nonbinary young people.

Jonah

I am a white, queer, transmasculine person who has benefitted from class and educational privilege. Prior to pursuing doctoral studies in social work, I worked in youth development and child welfare, and earned a master’s in social policy. I have taught at all levels of social work education: undergraduate, master’s and doctoral. I am currently a postdoctoral scholar. My research focuses on the resilience and service needs of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.

We collaborated to produce three research questions:

  1. How has neoliberalism influenced social work education and research in academia?

  2. How has neoliberalism shaped social work practice?

  3. What are the strategies for promoting critical and socially transformative social work education, research and practice?

Methodology

Like autoethnography, CAE is the study of sociocultural phenomena using the self as subject. Used as both a broad methodology and a specific tool, autoethnography combines the traditions of ethnography and autobiography (Hughes and Pennington, 2017). CAE allows researchers to conduct the same critical and reflexive study of self as with an autoethnography, except the research process is conducted jointly with others (Chang et al, 2012). The iterative process of CAE involves phases where researchers individually write and reflect, and then share their written data with the team for critical examination and group reflection, with the data being coded individually and by the group.

From an epistemological perspective, CAE is a tool to resist positivist and colonising trends in the social sciences. These trends, which are rooted in white, Eurocentric and male-dominated paradigms, value objectivity (or what is assumed to be objective), producing rigid notions of what makes research ‘valid’ (Santiago et al, 2017). With an interest in exploring neoliberalisation and resisting it, we used CAE to build upon the tradition of critical autoethnography to understand academia, and our collaborative approach as a tool to complicate positivist assertions of truth fostered collegiality, thereby embracing the value of our convergent and divergent experiential realities.

Nordbäck et al (2021) note the ways that autoethnography increased in popularity in research that sought critical examination of the experiences of academics and academic institutions. Further, citing McDonald (2016) and Tienari (2019), they suggest that ‘autoethnographies enable us to illuminate social phenomena, experiences, and identities that would be difficult to capture otherwise’ (Nordbäck et al, 2021: 6). Valuing the diversity in our personal identities (albeit all white), as well as the varied experiences we each have had within social work practice and academia, CAE presented us with the opportunity to bring a multi-voiced understanding of the systems and institutions we wished to explore.

Data collection

Our application of CAE involved multiple forms of data collection, encouraging each of us to reflect upon experiences with social work education, research and practice. Prior to the formation of research questions, we engaged in individual journaling. Our entries were short narratives that documented experiences as we reflected on our understanding of, and relationship to, key moments in our education, scholarship and practice.

We took one month to complete our reflective writing and shared them with one another. During our initial readings, we took notes and documented reflections, specifically attending to experiences that seemed either convergent or divergent from our own. As a group, we discussed reflections, observed similarities in experiences across research, education and practice, and developed our research questions.

Following the articulation of our questions, we sought to bring greater depth and intention to our data collection by interviewing each other using a semi-structured guide. Each group member was interviewed by one team member, who audio-recorded the conversation. Due to geographic locations, two of the three interviews occurred over the phone and the third took place in person. All interviews were professionally transcribed. Interview transcripts were reviewed by the team, and we took reflective notes that we discussed during a team meeting.

Data analysis

Each team member coded the interview where they were neither participant nor interviewee. Additionally, we each coded another’s reflective writing. Through this initial analysis, preliminary codes were developed and shared. We developed a codebook, and each returned to the data we individually coded and revised our codes based upon the collective codebook. During this second round of coding, our team continued meeting to discuss coding variations and our interpretive observations. Once all data were coded, we individually identified salient themes that addressed our research questions. We met bimonthly to agree upon our final thematic analysis.

Findings

Disconnection characterised our collective experiences of neoliberal social work across practice, research and education. The effects of collective disconnecting narrowed the mission of the social work profession to people-processing systems in service of assimilating clients to the status quo and maintaining current power structures. We will explore disconnection through three salient themes: (1) commodification; (2) compliance; and (3) disillusionment.

Commodification

Across our data, we discussed the emphasis on resource efficiency, productivity and competition we experienced in social work practice, research and education. Jonah connected this trend with a “scarcity mindset” that results from agencies and providers having to do more while competing for increasingly limited financial resources. We were struck by the common experience that services needed to be delivered on the ‘cheap’, communicating the value placed on human potential and quality of life. As Jonah shared:

‘As soon as we find a promising intervention, we are encouraged to find a way to make it cheaper and faster. I see this most explicitly in my work as a scholar of homelessness, where there is a profound scarcity of resources for the scale of the problem and where an obsession with developing cost-effective solutions seems to mask a larger lack of political will to simply fund existing programmes sufficiently. While I certainly think it is important to eliminate financial waste, I have yet to see an organisation serving people experiencing homelessness that had money to waste.’

Similarly, Catherine reflected on the consequence of competition, which disconnects service providers from each other and undermines collaboration. The impact on clients is profound, especially those who are involved in multiple organisations and systems. She said:

‘Other service agencies are our competitors. We do not trust each other. And even if we want to, the demands make regular collaboration a low priority, especially when it is not something that is reimbursable. It is deprioritised among the many demands that keep the lights on and not considered among our menu of therapeutic services. And this is with other social workers and other therapeutic service providers. Forget working across different sectors and systems.’

Competition for resources is not limited to social service delivery agencies, but also a concern for schools of social work. While educational pressures can result in creativity, innovation and emphasis on a student-centred experience, they also introduce incentives to train students to have those skills prized and rewarded by the market, rather than educating students to advance the ideals of the profession, and they disrupt allegiance to serving and improving social welfare. These systems are reinforcing. Consequently, as Jonah shared:

‘Students want to know that their degree is a good investment and, therefore, are very preoccupied with the marketable skills that they will gain. Schools create new and innovative concentrations or study-abroad programmes to attract both applicants (to make their admissions more selective) and students. These concentrations and study-abroad programmes are innovative and interesting; however, they are usually created based on faculty passions or connections, and not necessarily after considering the needs of the clients and communities that we serve.’

Neoliberal educational institutions were not just the site of social work education; they also served as training grounds for us to become researchers and be acculturated into the academy. As we reflected upon our experience as students and emerging scholars, we found ourselves becoming increasingly aware of the expectation that our research should, first and foremost, be fundable and serve the agenda of the evidence-based practice (EBP) body of literature for achieving a faster and cheaper mandate. Topic areas that are not ‘in vogue’, or methodologies that do not render large sample sizes or widely generalisable findings, seemed to be of lesser value regardless of their potential contributions to the work of practitioners or to addressing complex social problems. Catherine shared her experience of proposing a qualitative study of relationships among youth who experienced trauma:

‘When I spoke about my interest in research questions that came out of my fieldwork, what I was doing at the time, I was met with, “But who will care about that in the literature? Does it fill gaps? Can it be published in a high-tier journal?” My response that it is what I saw practitioners caring about right now as I was out in the field myself, and that they believed these questions had implications on the lives of those they worked with, was lightly brushed aside.’

The values we perceived in these encounters centred the importance of scholarly work as income or status generating. As critical scholars interested in and using community-based and participatory methodologies, these research priorities raised concern around the power dynamics embedded in whose knowledge gets presented as truth and how such knowledge comes to be constructed. As Jonah noted: “It is frustrating to feel like there is a strong incentive to modify your research agenda to get access to funding, which comes with prestige, right? And to advance your career, you must focus on these things that have been determined to be desirable by funders.”

Compliance

Our interviews and reflections also illuminated dynamics of compliance across our individual and shared experiences. We conceptualised compliance as moments when it was easier, or there was greater incentive, to conform to the status quo than to push back against the values of productivity, efficiency and competition. Our reflections on our practice experience highlighted the ways that social work is informed and aligned with the medical model and the bureaucracy of the healthcare system, to the extent that the effects of economic and social marginalisation are treated as illnesses. As Catherine noted:

‘I had to diagnose my clients with disorders to get them services when what they needed most was what all young people need for development: a caring adult who is invested in them and their development; a stable environment where they can grow, thrive and develop their identities. Their problems are less the function of mental health disorders and more a rational response to deteriorating neighbourhoods and opportunity structures.’

Her comment highlights the tension between social works’ ‘person in environment’ ethic and medical systems’ individually focused treatment strategies. We train social work students to have a holistic, macro-level focus on the issues in their clients’ lives, yet we have few tangible macro-level solutions to the problems of community violence, underinvestment in impoverished communities or systematic oppression. In many instances, it is easier to get a client medication or therapy than to provide other social and economic opportunities that facilitate development. Catherine noted that these challenges and the pressure to comply contribute to burnout among social workers:

‘I get frustrated. I get burned out. So, I am going to do what’s in my best interest and promote my career. Have the kid come in and do the stuff with them and get through my day and whatever. That’s what I think a lot of people are doing.’

Catherine attributed burnout and the ensuing compliance to high caseloads and the lack of available tools to support clients with more meaningful change, rather than individual social workers’ sense of motivation: “The reality is when you have so many clients, you can’t do the robust and holistic work that I think should go along with social work practice.” Seeing client after client coming in with shared problems and continuing to treat ‘symptoms’ rather than causes can undermine clinicians’ sense of professional efficacy.

Darren articulated the ways that they felt pressured to comply with the medical model of care for their transgender clients. Darren wrote in their reflection:

‘While I would never use my role in this way, is the assumption that trans people need caretaking and a professional to determine the validity of their experience? There is an expectation that the worker serves as the expert in someone else’s life, often determining which treatment doors will open or close.’

Darren’s reflection highlights the fact that social workers’ compliance in existing systems of care has differential impacts on clients. Clients who hold more marginalised identities (for example, people of colour and LGBTQ community members) or who have unique needs (people with disabilities and people experiencing homelessness) are more reliant on social workers to get their needs met than people with fewer marginalised identities or needs. In our reflections and interviews, each of us questioned when it is appropriate to comply with a flawed system to help an individual and when it is appropriate to push back against that system to provide a more meaningful level of care.

We also noted the tensions in our role as social work educators, as we questioned whether our goal as educators was to prepare students to work inside existing systems or to challenge systems. We observed that the rise of EBP in social work research and practice contributed to the forms of compliance that we were expected to teach to our students. In our group conversation, Catherine said: “There is so much of an idea that we can approach these problems like they’re technical ones. Like, yes, maybe they’re complicated, but here’s the intervention, process it through, you’ll get this outcome – just like you get a Big Mac at McDonald’s anywhere in the world.” Catherine went on to say that the practices of teaching “silver-bullet” strategies left our students ill-equipped to handle the messiness of social work practice: “This idea – which honestly sets people up so poorly for when they go out in the field – it crumbles under the weight of the reality of our communities.”

We reflected on our experiences as social work students. Given that we were two doctoral students and a postdoctoral scholar at the time of data collection and analysis, the academic job market emerged as a major force of compliance for budding social work researchers. We each shared our experiences of being socialised as researchers and the messages received about how to succeed in the academy. Darren and Catherine both shared instances of feedback when they were told that their research topics would not be successful in the social work academy. As Darren described:

‘I was told [my research agenda] was more appropriate for a PhD in sexuality or gender studies and that I should focus more on mental health since that’s what hiring universities were interested in. I was also told that it was a good topic to get grant funding for. I interpreted this as it is the grant not the topic that should be the motivator.’

Further, we noted that the academy, like any hierarchy, is led by those who both succeeded in their professional careers and benefitted from existing social hierarchies. These leaders are less likely to challenge these hierarchies and the neoliberal status quo, creating a culture of compliance that trickles down to other faculty and students. As Catherine noted: “People who have also benefited from the system are sometimes even more concerned about questioning it because, of course, what does that say about what they have accomplished.” She elaborated, drawing upon her experiences and those she observed: “Critiquing the system can be perceived as a critique of the individual.”

We discussed how the fragmentation and extreme busyness of the academic work culture create barriers to challenging the neoliberal status quo and a culture of compliance. We noted that our roles as doctoral students and junior faculty members, just like most roles in the social work academy, require us to work on many different projects at the same time. In our group conversation, we called it, “that feeling like you’re being pulled in a million directions in a million different ways”. We noted that this caused us to bring less intentionality to our work. As Catherine described:

‘You’re so busy trying to meet all these different demands of what you need to do to prove yourself to be worthy and this good doctoral student, this good faculty member, this good job candidate, that you’re just so fragmented that I just feel like I bring less of myself to everything and just feel exhausted. I think that has a very real impact on feeling like I can do meaningful or transformative work.’

This frenetic busyness and fragmentation contribute to the culture of compliance among social work academics, as we lack the time and energy to imagine new, non-neoliberal, possibilities or solutions.

Disillusionment

Across our data were many examples of the disillusionment we experienced when we found ourselves coming to terms with the tensions between our personal/professional values as social work scholars and the demands and cultural expectations of the reality of work across the three domains. We each reflected upon choosing the field of social work due to our perception that it prioritised social justice and transformation, as well as aligned with a critical world view. Despite these priorities being codified within the National Association of Social Work’s code of ethics, we frequently found ourselves struggling to adhere to these ideals as we navigated both practice settings and the academy. As a group, we discussed becoming acculturated into academia through our doctoral programmes. Although these experiences were enriching in many ways, they stuck us as central to our experiences with disillusionment.

For Darren, this challenge was best exemplified in many of the responses they received when expressing a desire to pursue a PAR dissertation. Darren entered their doctoral studies interested in PAR and valuing the view that the methodology aligned with social work values. Yet, early on, Darren was warned that PAR takes “too long”, is “messy” and would not yield the scholarly production needed to be successful. Further, Darren was warned that PAR was not always taken “seriously” by “real researchers” and, consequently, might not be that attractive for grant funding. From Darren’s perspective, it became evident that “appeal” was more important than community impact and adherence to professional values, which not only signified the ways that research was a commodity and had to comply with the status quo, but also led Darren to question their participation in the academy.

Our experiences were further complicated by misalignment between the practice values we were taught in the classroom and the realities we observed in our direct practice and community work. While we learned about the important roles social workers played as social change agents, our professional commitments to anti-oppression work and community engagement, our practice experiences reflected the neoliberal pressures that manifest as the commodification of human services. Again, Darren reflected on their practice work in a clinic:

‘[At one of the clinics I worked at, the focus was]: how efficient are we? What’s the least amount of time we can spend with somebody and get billed for? What EBP models can we use? That pressure is very, very real. Not that this isn’t important, but there is an imbalance in the amount of time that I spent actually working with somebody compared to doing paperwork about them, which is all tied up in insurance, audits and things like that.’

Neoliberal panic in the context of US social work and beyond

Our experiences as commodified and compliance oriented resulted in our disillusionment with our chosen path, which is consistent with the literature on the impact of neoliberalism on human services. Broadly, neoliberalism effectively narrowed the scope of social work so that our roles were consigned to assimilators and maintainers. Our role is to ‘empower’ clients to assimilate to their socially and economically marginalised and isolated positions in order to ensure social cohesion, limit unrest and enable economic functioning.

While our study is rooted in our experiences and reflects the ways that neoliberalism manifests and impacts social work education and practice in the US, neoliberalism is a global phenomenon affecting social services around the world. Research documented the introduction of market forces into social services in Hong Kong (Chi-Leung and Hoi-Kin, 2013), Australia (Wallace and Pease, 2011) and the UK (Cummins, 2020).

This aligns with our observation about how social services and education have been commodified. Similarly, Harris (2014: 16) describes commodification a ‘menu of service options’ that quantify and cost outputs. Harris (2014: 16) concludes that this ‘reduces social work to a series of one-off transactions, depriving it of meaningful working relationships with and commitments to service users’. This echoes our own findings about how the commodification of social services led to disconnections between clinicians, colleagues and clients.

Future of social work in the US

Neoliberalism came to dominate social welfare and, coupled with globalisation, shifted the mission and goals of social work (Reisch, 2013). While we do not dispute that neoliberalism represents an inflection point in the profession – it inspired our inquiry and research questions – we challenge the idea that social workers have ever had as robust of a transformist tradition within the profession, at least in the US. Further, we agree with Reisch that social work’s shallow and superficial embrace of empowerment, cultural competence and social justice advocacy represents the manifestation of neoliberalism in the profession in modern times. Whether neoliberalism marked a shift in the profession or solidified well-established traditions is germane to the question of where we go next. Rather than perceive this as a question of the profession returning to its roots, it is instead a call for social work to return to its contested historical ground for familiar debates in a modern context.

New vision of social work

The recommendations we offer are limited. They are limited by our primary positioning within the academy as opposed to the field, by the many social and economic privileges we benefit from, and by the fact that our assertion is grand and requires dialogue beyond what we are equipped to offer. These recommendations are an invitation to others to contribute to this conversation and our hope to see a critical mass contribute to it across social work literature and conferences. The effect of neoliberalism was disconnection, so resistance must come in the form of connection. Recommendations include: (1) recentre social work practice, education and research around social work values; (2) a strategic use of self to form connections between the personal and the professional; and (3) adopt collective impact as the model for social work education and research.

Recentre social work research, practice and education around social work values

While we assert that research, practice and education should be connected to social work values, such values (while similar) are not hegemonic, but nuanced from one cultural context to the next. We recognise that social work scholars, educators and practitioners are not engaging in work with the clear intent of having it diverge from professional values. Nonetheless, the profession is due for a re-evaluation of its values and what it means to put them into action, as well as how to assess them. Reisch (2013) argues that embracing the trend of social work professionalisation naturally discourages the embracing of the field’s social justice mission. While the proliferation of professionalised and standardised practices promotes quality control and the ethical treatment of service users, questions arise regarding whose interests such practices serve. Do they align the profession with a control function manifested in the power of the state, or with those who have been marginalised and disenfranchised by inequitable systems? Do social workers contribute to oppression and perpetuate inequities, for example: the disparate rates of incarcerated black and brown people (Kovera, 2019); the over-representation of black and brown children and families in the child welfare system (Kolivoski et al, 2014); or an economic system with a permanent class of chronically poor?

A strategic use of self to form connections between the personal and the professional

To first achieve connection, the work starts within by intentionally connecting personal identities and experiences to professional work. Social work is dependent upon the self as a tool, yet students are rarely taught how to meaningfully engage their ‘use of self’ in ways that are authentic and beneficial, and report ongoing emotional disconnection, burnout and compassion fatigue (Pyles et al, 2021). Research suggests that mindfulness-based and authentic connection between social workers and clients is beneficial to both parties, as well as their therapeutic relationship ((Pyles et al, 2021). In contrast, for many, practice is focused on increasing caseload volume and prioritising the documentation of billable services, and routinely prioritises such aims over the well-being of those delivering care. Rather than regulating self and identity as a footnote, the use of self in both practice and research within the communities that practitioners belong or are aligned to allows for the advancement of initiatives that are motivated by emic knowledge and community priorities.

Schools of social work as hubs for social innovation

We recommend a fundamental shift in the model of social work education and research in the academy to foster connection and reorient focus. We propose that schools of social work position themselves as the coordinators of collaboration and partnership across their communities for the purpose of advocacy, service delivery and research. Existing models such as collective impact – actors from different sectors, professions and organisations united under a common agenda and set of goals – offer blueprints (Kania and Kramer, 2011). These collaborations require leadership and the support of organisations, such as schools of social work, with the requisite expertise and resources for coordination (Hanleybrown et al, 2012).

Opportunities for education are rich, as schools are now an integrated and active part of the community, connected to a network of agencies and organisations in interdependent ways. Expertise housed within universities in areas like research bear on pressing social issues identified and prioritised through university–community partnerships, and coordinated through schools of social work. We believe this cross-sector and interdisciplinary approach is better positioned to achieve what Reisch (2013) advocated for when he called for social work to connect social and economic development, as is done in practice elsewhere in the world, notably, Latin America and South Africa.

Exemplars of this model in practice exist in higher education institutions around the US and the world. For example, University of Denver Grand Challenges combines collective impact with community engagement frameworks to guide a university-wide agenda of community research and action (DU Grand Challenges, 2020). Our recommendation here is that these models be elevated and taken to scale in schools of social work. We believe the effects could be revolutionary by helping to connect researchers and practitioners in a more coordinated way for the purposes of educating and cultivating those entering the process, developing a knowledge base directly connected to the community, and bringing together a critical mass of knowledge and organisations to have more meaningful impact on policy and systems change.

Limitations

This study offers a rich analysis of personal and professional experiences within the context of current literature focusing on both higher education and social work practice. While this work adds insight and perspective to the ongoing scholarly conversation, there are notable limitations. First, we discuss limitations relating to our positionality and, second, we note limitations stemming from our methodology.

While our co-authorship reflects diversity in gender and sexuality, we are homogeneous when it comes to age, race and ethnicity (we are all white and in our mid- to late 30s). Consequently, our findings do not represent the experiences of social work scholars of colour, who may find themselves increasingly marginalised within predominantly white institutions. Moreover, we have not reflected the perspectives of senior faculty, who may have uniquely different insights resulting from established careers in social work education and research. Our perspectives are based on our experiences as practitioners, scholars and educators in social work. Absent from our study are the perspectives of those with lived experience as service recipients (Spolander et al, 2014; 2016). This is a significant limitation to the development of resistance strategies because it limits our collective understanding of the full impacts of neoliberalism and the participation of the social work profession in the creation and maintenance of systems embracing neoliberalism. However, the authors urge a note of caution in laying responsibility for resistance to neoliberalism or the ‘fixing’ of our profession on service users. It is social workers, and, collectively, social workers as a profession, who have this burden and responsibility.

Perhaps most relevant to this journal’s readership, our perspectives are solely based within the US context. While we have reviewed an international body of literature, and subsequently interpreted our experiences through such a lens, our perspectives do not reflect the unique nuances of neoliberalism found around the world.

We assert that the subjective nature of CAE is a strength, in that it allows for a deep and rich expression of perspectives not otherwise readily represented (Lapadat, 2017; Nordbäck et al, 2021). Nonetheless, important methodological limitations have been noted throughout the literature. Lapadat (2017) raises the issue that there are relational ethics concerns resulting from the subject and researcher being one and the same in autoethnographic methodologies, and a restricted scope that results from such work. While CAE is argued to be more ‘rigorous’ than solo autoethnography due to its multidimensional nature (Chang et al, 2016; Lapadat, 2017), others have suggested that working as a team can pose a challenge to the degree of honesty and vulnerability that the method demands (Wells et al, 2019). While a reasonable concern, especially given the competitive and performative nature of academia, we believe this limitation has been minimised, as we embarked upon this study only after developing authentic and trusting relationships through the course of several other scholarly endeavours together.

Conclusion

Our CAE guided a critical inquiry that shifted our thinking about current social work practice, education and research. Curious about the influence and implications of neoliberalism, we have explored our individual and collective experiences within that framework and the profession’s history. Tensions best characterise our history, as the profession wrestled with defining an identity within the socio-political and economic context that shaped us. Interestingly, these tensions are not ghosts of the profession’s past, but salient realities in modern practice. Within this historical context, we have noted the ways that the field’s compliance with neoliberalism has resulted in the hyper-capitalist commodification of our profession’s values and services, resulting in the disillusionment we experience.

Funding

The authors received no funding to support this study.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Nandan, M. and Scott, P.A. (2013) Social entrepreneurship and social work: the need for a transdisciplinary educational model, Administration in Social Work, 37(3): 25771. doi: 10.1080/03643107.2012.684428

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Price, S.K., Foreman Kready, S.B., Mogul, M., Cohen-Filipic, K. and Davey, T.L. (2013) Partnership process guidelines: social work perspectives on creating and sustaining real-world university–community partnerships, Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, 6(1): 4554.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Adamuti-Trache, M. and Hyle, A.E. (2015) Building university–community partnerships: expectations and challenges, in W. James Jacob, Stewart E. Sutin, John C. Weidman and John L. Yeager (eds) Community Engagement in Higher Education, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, pp 7388. doi: 10.1007/978-94-6300-007-9

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Alexander, C. and Charles, G. (2009) Caring, mutuality and reciprocity in social worker–client relationships: rethinking principles of practice, Journal of Social Work, 9(1): 522. doi: 10.1177/1468017308098420

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Begun, A.L., Berger, L.K., Otto-Salaj, L.L. and Rose, S.J. (2010) Developing effective social work university–community research collaborations, Social Work, 55(1): 5462. doi: 10.1093/sw/55.1.54

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bronstein, L., Mizrahi, T., Korazim-Kőrösy, Y. and McPhee, D. (2010) Interdisciplinary collaboration in social work education in the USA, Israel and Canada: deans’ and directors’ perspectives, International Social Work, 53(4): 45773. doi: 10.1177/0020872809358399

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chang, H., Ngunjiri, F. and Hernandez, K.A.C. (2016) Collaborative Autoethnography, New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Chi-Leung, L. and Hoi-Kin, T. (2013) Adversity and resistance: neoliberal social services and social work in Hong Kong, Critical and Radical Social Work, New York, NY, 1(2): 26771. doi: 10.1332/204986013X673335

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Connell, R. and Dados, N. (2014) Where in the world does neoliberalism come from?, Theory and Society, 43(2): 11738. doi: 10.1007/s11186-014-9212-9

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cummins, I. (2020) Using Fraser’s model of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ to analyse deinstitutionalisation and community care, Critical and Radical Social Work, 8(1): 7793. doi: 10.1332/204986020X15783175560038

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DU Grand Challenges (University of Denver Grand Challenges) (2020) Home page, https://grandchallenges.du.edu/.

  • Findlay, M. and McCormack, J. (2005) Globalisation and social work: a snapshot of Australian practitioners’ views, Australian Social Work, 58(3): 23143. doi: 10.1111/j.1447-0748.2005.00217.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gil, D. (1998) Confronting Injustice and Oppression: Concepts and Strategies for Social Workers, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Giroux, H.A. (2017) Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy, New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Hanesworth, C. (2017) Neoliberal influences on American higher education and the consequences for social work programmes, Critical and Radical Social Work, 5(1): 4157. doi: 10.1332/204986017X14835298292776

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hanleybrown, F., Kania, J. and Kramer, M. (2012) Channeling Change: Making collective impact work, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 18, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/channeling_change_making_collective_impact_work

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hansan, J.E. (2011) Settlement houses: an introduction, Social Welfare History Project, http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/settlement-houses/settlement-houses/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harris, J. (2014) (Against) Neoliberal social work, Critical and Radical Social Work, 2(1): 722. doi: 10.1332/204986014X13912564145528

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hughes, S.A. and Pennington, J.L. (2017) Autoethnography: Process, Product, and Possibility for Critical Social Research, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jane Addams Hull House Museum (no date) About Jane Addams and Hull-House settlement, www.hullhousemuseum.org/about-jane-addams.

  • Kania, J. and Kramer, M. (2011) Collective impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, pp 3641, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/collective_impact

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kentikelenis, A.E. and Babb, S. (2019) The making of neoliberal globalization: norm substitution and the politics of clandestine institutional change, American Journal of Sociology, 124(6): 172062. doi: 10.1086/702900

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kolivoski, K., Weaver, A. and Constance-Huggins, M. (2014) Critical race theory: opportunities for application in social work practice and policy, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 95(4): 26976, doi: 10.1606/1044-3894.2014.95.36

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kovera, M.B. (2019) Racial disparities in the criminal justice system: prevalence, causes, and a search for solutions, Journal of Social Issues, 75(4): 113964. doi: 10.1111/josi.12355

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lapadat, J.C. (2017) Ethics in autoethnography and collaborative autoethnography, Qualitative Inquiry, 23(8): 589603. doi: 10.1177/1077800417704462

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lazzarato, M. (2009) Neoliberalism in action: inequality, insecurity, and the reconstitution of the social, Theory, Culture & Society, 26(6): 10933. doi: 10.1177/0263276409350283

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lockwood, D.K., Lockwood, J., Krajewski-Jaime, E.R. and Wiencek, P. (2011) University and community partnerships: a model of social work practice, International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 6(1):3946.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McDonald, J. (2016) Expanding queer reflexivity: the closet as a guiding metaphor for reflexive practice, Management Learning, 47(4): 391406. doi: 10.1177/1350507615610029

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Murdach, A.D. (2011) Mary Richmond and the image of social work, Social Work, 56(1): 924. doi: 10.1093/sw/56.1.92

  • Nandan, M. and Scott, P.A. (2013) Social entrepreneurship and social work: the need for a transdisciplinary educational model, Administration in Social Work, 37(3): 25771. doi: 10.1080/03643107.2012.684428

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Netting, F. (2013) Macro social work practice, Encyclopedia of Social Work, https://oxfordre.com/socialwork/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.001.0001/acrefore-9780199975839-e-230.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nordbäck, E., Hakonen, M. and Tienari, J. (2021) Academic identities and sense of place: a collaborative autoethnography in the neoliberal university, Management Learning, 19 doi: 10.1177%2F13505076211006543

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Leary, P., Tsui, M.S. and Ruch, G. (2013) The boundaries of the social work relationship revisited: towards a connected, inclusive and dynamic conceptualization, British Journal of Social Work, 43(1): 13553.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Price, S.K., Foreman Kready, S.B., Mogul, M., Cohen-Filipic, K. and Davey, T.L. (2013) Partnership process guidelines: social work perspectives on creating and sustaining real-world university–community partnerships, Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, 6(1): 4554.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pyles, L., Cosgrove, D.T., Gardner, E., Raheim, S., Adam, G.J., Chakravarty, S. and Cooke, C. (2021) “Could We Just Breathe for 30 Seconds?”: Social Worker Experiences of Holistic Engagement Practice Training, Social work, 66(4): 28596. doi: 10.1093/sw/swab031

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reisch, M. (1998) The socio-political context and social work method, 1890–1950, Social Service Review, 72(2): 16181. doi: 10.1086/515748

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reisch, M. (2013) What is the future of social work?, Critical and Radical Social Work, 1(1): 6785. doi: 10.1332/204986013X665974

  • Santiago, I.C., Karimi, N. and Alicea, Z.R.A. (2017) Neoliberalism and higher education: a collective autoethnography of brown women teaching assistants, Gender and Education, 29(1): 4865. doi: 10.1080/09540253.2016.1197383

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shoemaker, L.M. (1998) Early conflicts in social work education, Social Service Review, 72(2): 18291. doi: 10.1086/515749

  • Singh, G. and Cowden, S. (2015) The intensification of neoliberalism and the commodification of human need – a social work perspective, Critical and Radical Social Work, 3(3): 37587. doi: 10.1332/204986015X14417170590709

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Soss, J., Fording, R.C., Schram, S.F. and Schram, S. (2011) Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spolander, G., Engelbrecht, L., Martin, L., Strydom, M., Pervova, I., Marjanen, P. and Adaikalam, F. (2014) The implications of neoliberalism for social work: reflections from a six-country international research collaboration, International Social Work, 57(4): 30112. doi: 10.1177/0020872814524964

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spolander, G., Engelbrecht, L. and Pullen Sansfaçon, A. (2016) Social work and macro-economic neoliberalism: beyond the social justice rhetoric, European Journal of Social Work, 19(5): 63449. doi: 10.1080/13691457.2015.1066761

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tienari, J. (2019) One flew over the duck pond: autoethnography, academic identity and language, Management Learning, 50(5): 57690. doi: 10.1177/1350507619875887

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Uehara, E. et al (2013) Grand challenges for social work, Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, 4(3): 16570. doi: 10.5243/jsswr.2013.11

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wallace, J. and Pease, B. (2011) Neoliberalism and Australian social work: accommodation or resistance?, Journal of Social Work, 11(2): 13242. doi: 10.1177/1468017310387318

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  • Wells, P., Dickens, K.N., McBraer, J.S. and Cleveland, R.E. (2019) ‘If I don’t laugh, I’m going to cry’: meaning making in the promotion, tenure, and retention process: a collaborative autoethnography, The Qualitative Report, 24(2): 33451.

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  • 1 University at Albany, State University of New York, , USA
  • | 2 Miami University, , USA
  • | 3 Colorado State University, , USA

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