Social work is a broad church, encompassing a wide variety of specialist domains brought together — at least in principle — by a shared understanding of the broadly defined social roots of social problems and the attendant need to intervene socially to alleviate their impact, whether at the level of the individual or the collective. So far, so straightforward. In this scenesetting chapter, I review a number of enduring debates in the history and development of social work which, to some extent, complicate but also define what social work is and how it should be done. In doing so, two particular themes are highlighted: firstly, the contested nature of social work; and secondly, the potential challenge that the rise of risk poses to the nature and function of practice. I begin by focusing on the nature of the relationship between individual and state, as it applies in social work; how different formulations of this relationship have impacted on the theory/practice dynamic in social work; whether the aims and objectives of social work, and means of achieving these, are best understood as care or control; and finally whether social work ought best to be understood as ‘art’ or ‘science’. These latter two controversies are particularly relevant to my concern with the effects of risk in social work: the former because risk is directly implicated in a shift from care to control as the dominant objective and method of social work; the latter because it is concerned with the extent to which the knowledge upon which social workers act can and should be broadly intuitive, informal and subjective rather than systematic, formal and objective.
KeywordsSocial Work Social Problem Service User Governing Risk Social Work Practice
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