About Boundaries and Social Work/Social Care – Social Work Journal Club Chat 29/8/13 8pm

28 08 2013

The article for the chat tomorrow at 8pm can be found here. It is published in the open access online journal ‘Social Work and Society’ and is called “Setting and Crossing Boundaries: Professionalization of Social Work and Social Work Professionalism” and is written by Catrin Heite from the University of Zurich. It’s the first time we’ll have been out of the UK in terms of discussing an article and I hope it’s as interesting to others as it is to me!

I’m interested in boundaries and power in social work. Boundaries between social workers and people who use services. Boundaries between practice educators and students. Boundaries between social work managers and social workers. Boundaries between social work academics and social work students. There are all different interpretations and some fluidly but I think, in an age where social media can break down some barriers, it’s worth reflecting on which ones need to be maintained and why.

Heite looks at the boundary between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’. This is an issue in social care too where I have seen some hierarchical pandering to the increased ‘professionalisation’ of social work. Does social work need ‘professionalisation’ – is it a matter of status or will it actually make the work we do better? The craving of social workers to be ‘respected’ like nurses/teachers/doctors – (I’m not convinced yet that they aren’t,  but I think the profession has a collective inferiority complex where it becomes obsessed by ‘status’)  is that real or imagined slight? ‘Noone likes social workers’ really? Have we seen some of the press nurses have been getting recently – but back to the article.

Some of the language in the article isn’t terribly ‘user friendly’ so I’m going to sum up some of my thoughts in response to it.

Heite starts by looking at what ‘boundaries’ are. Boundaries are artificial contructs which we create to provide some order and a sense of hierarchy and power. She says

The boundary classifies, categorizes, sorts, normalizes, includes and excludes, privileges and de-privileges, allocates rights and removes them; the boundary is an expression of power relations and governance, and a medium for their maintenance

So around boundaries we have issues of power and who has it and who doesn’t. I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced on this 100%. Power is at the heart of the reason for boundaries but it isn’t always people in ‘power’ who create and maintain them. Sometimes the fact that people with power can’t maintain boundaries is an abuse of their power.

Heite talks about how professionalisation creates a boundaries between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’.

Professionalization and the securing of the status of profession is a process of defining the boundary between profession and non-profession by agreeing upon definitions of reality and by disputing and acquiring status and monopolizing resources. This involves claiming, and recognizing, that a certain field of occupational action is a professional field or is in need of professionalization

She goes on to say

Boundary-setting is efficient in defining what a profession is and is not, debarring other occupations from a certain professional realm, monopolizing this occupational area, and also claiming professional authority over a sphere.

so an interesting question arising from this text is around what ‘social work’ is? Does it exist as a ‘profession’. We have, over decades, seen the hiving off of different tasks of ‘social work’ yet we have (at the moment and I assume only temporarily, a generic training route). My idea of social work is very different from someone who works in child protection and again from someone who works in care management or leaving care team or fostering and adoption. Is it one profession?

How different is (or should be) social work from social care work? When I started in the field people who worked in residential care were called residential social workers regardless of training and background. Weren’t they doing ‘social work’? No, now it’s a ‘protected title’ but who does it protect? Has hiving off ‘social work’ as a ‘profession’ weakened ‘social care’?

Heite turns to look at the history of social work and relates it to the ‘women’s movement’. Social work is, she says a ‘female profession’ and as she terms it ‘the social question’.

It is concerned with the boundaries between normal and deviant, integration and disintegration, as well as with those vulnerable and disconnected people who have to survive at the boundaries of society.

She touches on the professions routes from the Christian charities in the 19th century and the increasing involvement of middle-class women in the ‘social question’ through initially voluntary and then vocational work.  An interesting point she touches on which is increasingly relevant is the place that the image of the ‘deserving’ v ‘undeserving’ poor had in the mind of those middle class ‘helping’ professionals.

Unannounced visits to the home and questions asked of neighbours about the family being supported, among other means, represented techniques for the bourgeois monitoring of proletarian lifestyles, in the sense of disciplinary interventions across class boundaries. In this way, the class-specific power dynamics between bourgeois and proletarian women found in the context of the invention and professionalization of social work a new location for moralizing, disciplining and monitoring

I expect social workers today may feel uncomfortable with this – I do – but I can also see there’s an aspect of these attitudes that roll over in making decisions about how people live their lives and spend their money. How people from working classes have much more involvement with ‘social services’ than those who are middle class. There is, perhaps a hang over and the move of social work into a profession creates further divides (I have to wonder about the ‘elite’ Frontline ‘fast-trackers’ moving into ‘leadership’ and how this builds higher boundaries and makes me ponder what social work is? Is it just about education/training?)

So what makes a profession?

Heite looks at how knowledge, theory, science (and social science) created a knowledge base for social work which creates a profession of it.  She looks at the move from vocational to professional in social work which is interesting in itself.

She says

The perception of professional work both as intellectual, science-based, ethically consolidated, autonomous, self-controlled, and also as engaged, impassionate, emotional and dedicated is a feature that is difficult to calibrate when demarcating the boundary between profession and non-profession.

We can calibrate when we are assessed on these issues – you are either ‘qualified’ or not. You are either ‘registered’ as a social worker (here in the UK) or not. But what about people who are registered and not doing a job that requires a social work qualification (me, for example) or people who are qualified but working in an ‘unqualified’ post. There are always differences but there is a boundary that is set clearly in terms of registration/regulation of social workers.

Heite looks at the move from the mid 1970s towards the professionalisation within social work and of social work.

She relates social work as work on the boundaries – boundaries between ‘functional’ and ‘non-functional’ between ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’. I think we have to look at the scale of work done by social workers to understand better but it’s interesting to think what makes someone a ‘user’ of social work services. It isn’t always as clear cut and depends very much on the issues. Certainly in the team I used to work in many people had parents who received social work services and we were simultaneously providers of services and receivers of services as family members.

Perhaps more of those barriers are fading yet, it is vitally important to hold on – not to maintain professional status but to protect those who have less power.

It’s interesting that Heite says

“the boundary” offers a theoretical, analytical, practical and political perspective for social work as a science and a profession. As shown above in addressing the analytic notion of the boundary, the boundary not only deprives and excludes, but also moves players to take action against these deprivations and to disregard them, and to transform and shift boundaries.

So those with power have the ability to set and to move those boundaries and that’s an important issue to remember. Whose boundaries are they and who are they for? Who do boundaries protect? Personally, I think as someone with power, I need to create and maintain boundaries to protect those I work with. Is that a patriarchal assumption I’m making to make me feel better or ‘more distant’ from those who use the services I provide? Maybe but maybe not. I’d justify it by saying that while I have power, the relationship I have with people I work with has to address that. That’s why I think the issue is the same with lecturers and social work students, practice educators and students.

Heite emphasises that boundaries create professionalism.

Socio-pedagogical professionalism can thus be understood as a means – varying in content and full of contradiction – of dealing with boundaries: supporting and enabling, but also monitoring and disciplining.

I’d hope, like Heite does, that these boundaries enable and support rather than push hierarchy and power on to people.

– Questions

So some questions to think about if you do want to join for the chat tonight

-What is social work? How does it differ from social care work? Where is the boundary?

-Has professionalism improves social work delivery?

-Who is professionalism ‘for’?

-Are boundaries useful? How are boundaries useful?

-Do boundaries make hierarchies better or worse?

-Should boundaries come down? Whose decision is it?

-How has more fluid communication (like social media) effected boundaries?

-Are boundaries between academics/practice educators and students different from boundaries between people who use services and professionals by their nature?

I’m sure there are many other questions I’ll think of and please join me and add your own!




3 responses

29 08 2013

Social work is also boundary crossing in relationship building with other professions and people using services.
I have just posted a piece on my blog on boundary spanners. I wrote this a while ago but have not really got into blogging yet. http://katekarban.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/boundaries-and-boundary-spanners-2/

29 08 2013

Sorry, I was sure I had posted this. Try again now if anyone is interested to read this:

29 08 2013
Social Work, Professionalism and Boundaries #sjwcchat Discussion 29/8/13 | Social Work Journal Club

[…] is the chat log from the Social Work Journal Club chat on 29/8/13. Many thanks to all who participated and read from […]

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