Welcome to this, the tenth, issue of CRSW. It certainly does not seem like the journal has been going for ten years; in fact, it seems only recently that Iain Ferguson and myself sat down with Julia Mortimer from Policy Press to discuss the idea of having a journal committed to publishing critical and radical social work articles. The idea for the journal grew out of the rebirth of the radical social work movement, particularly associated with the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) in the UK, Ireland and Greece. SWAN itself developed out of an online manifesto written by Chris Jones, Iain Ferguson, Laura Penketh and myself in 2004.
Many of us entered social work – and many still do – out of a commitment to social justice or, at the very least, to bring about positive change in people’s lives. Yet increasingly the scope for doing so is curtailed.
Instead, our work is shaped by managerialism, by the fragmentation of services, by financial restrictions and lack of resources, by increased bureaucracy and work-loads, by the domination of care-management approaches with their associated performance indicators and by the increased use of the private sector. While these trends have long been present in state social work, they now dominate the day-to-day work of front line social workers and shape the welfare services that are offered to clients. The effect has been to increase the distance between managers and front line workers on the one hand, and between workers and service users on the other. The main concern of too many social work managers today is the control of budgets rather than the welfare of service users, while worker–client relationships are increasingly characterised by control and supervision rather than care. (Jones et al, 2004)
Faced with this situation the manifesto went on to look at what we called the ‘resources of hope’ that could be developed to help shape a rejuvenated and engaged social work practice. Those resources were rooted in the social movements that had grown over the previous period. These included the service users’ movements, where social work service users had demanded the right to be heard with the slogan: ‘Nothing about us, without us’. The then contemporary global justice (or anti-capitalist) movement had grown rapidly at the turn of the century to protest about the impact of neoliberal capitalism on myriad aspects of social life; embodied in this movement was a critique of neoliberalism, of privatisation and of consumerism. It included a reassertion of the rights of workers, communities and minority groups, and it focused on our relationship with the environment and our ecological systems, noting the way in which modern capitalism was destroying our world. Finally, at the time, there was the rapidly expanding anti-war movement that grew in response to US and UK military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001 (9/11). Again, this movement looked at questions of imperialism, of the human consequences of war and of the stigmatisation and vilification of communities that war brings (most obviously, the ways in which Islamophobia became embedded in much mainstream political discourse). It was in these movements, we suggested, that new ‘ways of seeing’ could develop to refocus the social work project away from the restrictions of neoliberalism.
The response to the manifesto’s publication took us all by surprise. Thousands of social workers from across the globe added their name as supporters of the manifesto. Iain Ferguson and myself then organised a series of meetings around the country, talking about the manifesto, organised around the title ‘I didn’t come into social work for this!’. At these meetings, always far bigger than we anticipated, social workers came along and spoke movingly about the degeneration of social work, about the impact of the managerialism of the social work task and about the ‘deprofessionalisation’ they felt was taking place – the attempt to remove their discretionary practice, to control their work task and to bring their work in line with the demands of New Public Management.
By the late summer of 2005, we decided that we should try to organise a conference on these themes. Working with two PhD students at the time (Dora Teloni and Vasilios Ioakimidis), we put together a two-day event to consider what was happening to contemporary social work. Again, we were unsure how many people would come, but over 300 did. At the end of the conference, we held a session (culminating in a vote) that declared the setting up of a new campaigning network within social work – and so SWAN was born.
SWAN was committed to campaigning around relevant social work issues. To give several examples: it organised several convoys to support refugees stuck in Calais; it was involved in a campaign in Liverpool to save mental health centres; it led a campaign against a taxi firm run by an open fascist that had won a contract to transport vulnerable children to school; and it gained a voice in a series of national campaigns against racism, against austerity cuts and for minority rights.
Each year, SWAN organised a national conference, which became one of the largest annual events in social work in the UK. The conference brought together academics, practitioners, students, service users and carers, and the sessions were a mixture of workshops and academic-type papers with more agitational meetings. There was always space for discussion, and the debates were always lively. Each year, the conference attracted international visitors. Soon, there were SWAN sections in Ireland and Greece, but visitors from Hong Kong, the US and Canada established links with similar organisations in those countries.
The regular social work international conferences provided a space for like-minded academics to meet and discuss strategies to infuse radical and critical social work theories into debates. Indeed, at the international conferences in Hong Kong (in 2010), Stockholm (in 2012), Melbourne (in 2014), Seoul (in 2016) and Dublin (in 2018), sessions were put on by SWAN. In addition, a number of conference fringe events were put on, often in conjunction with local social work activist groups.
Finally, several academics within SWAN started to seek out publishers willing to produce radical social work texts and monographs. A few early books were published by Sage (Ferguson et al, 2002, 2005), and the British Association of Social Work’s publishing operation, Venture Press, also published a collection explicitly on the radical tradition (Lavalette and Ferguson, 2007); however, a very fruitful relationship was soon struck up with Policy Press in Bristol, leading to several book publications (Ferguson and Woodward, 2009; Lavalette, 2011; Lavalette and Ioakimidis, 2011) and, from 2014, a series of short counterblast debates, Critical and Radical Debates in Social Work.
The developing relationship with Policy Press provided the ground for discussion about establishing a new journal. In the summer of 2010, Iain Ferguson and myself met with Julia Mortimer from Policy Press to discuss the possibilities. I think that it is fair to say that we probably underestimated the scale of the task we had set ourselves! We had to put a formal proposal together; we had to establish a board and an international advisory board; we had to learn the ways of ‘Editorial Manager’; and then we had to approach people to write for a journal that, as yet, did not exist!
However, we were also keen that the journal should have a variety of sections. Of course, there should be appropriately peer-reviewed academic articles, but we wanted space for other contributions. Commentaries on articles, policy developments or key issues in social work. These would be peer reviewed, of course, but with a view to a quicker turnaround in order to promote debate. We were aware that some in the profession still wanted to argue that ‘radical social work’ was a minority current, limited to the academic community in a small number of ‘Western societies’ in the late 1960s and 1970s. We disagreed! There has, we argued, always been a ‘radical kernel’ in social work – though it has often been silenced and often written out of history. Therefore, we wanted to have a section on our Radical Pioneers. Finally, we wanted to have an open-access section written by practitioners, social movement activists, service users, carers and students; hence, Voices from the Front Line was born.
The first couple of issues were always tight, and we were always anxious that we would have enough material, but the journal has gradually grown and attracted academics from across the globe. Looking back over the last ten years, we have published pieces from across Canada, the US and Latin America, from Australia and New Zealand, from China, India, Japan and Hong Kong, from Africa and the Middle East, and from across Europe. It has become a forum for radical social work academics and practitioners to present their work, to debate key issues and to engage in debate, shaped at all times by a commitment to a social work committed to social justice: a better social work for a different world!
For the tenth edition, we have planned a number of themed and special issues. Our world continues to be wracked by war and environmental destruction, both posing existential threats to human existence. We will continue to look at these issues as they apply to social work. Questions of racism and oppression remain to the fore in debates about the nature of society and also about the nature of social work practice. Later this year, we will have a special issue on Black Lives Matter, but issues of racism, women’s oppression and trans rights will feature across all issues this year. Collective approaches to social problems have been marginalised over the last two decades; a themed issue later in the year will try to reassert the importance of the collective within social work. Finally, a strong commitment to learning from colleagues globally means that we will ensure that we have articles from social work colleagues across the world, helping to create a forum where international scholars, practitioners and activists can hear from and learn from each other in order to help us all grasp the problems of the age and think creatively about what solutions we may offer.
Conflict of interest
The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.
Jones, C., Ferguson, I., Lavalette, M. and Penketh, L. (2004) Social work and social justice: a manifesto for a new engaged practice, https://socialworkfuture.org/social-work-and-social-justice-a-manifesto-for-a-new-engaged-practice