From radical social work to social justice

19 October 2011

Mobilising community interest in social-justice values is the key to improving social-work practice, according to Professor of Social Work and Social Justice Jude Irwin.

Professor Irwin made the statement as she reflected on more than 30 years' involvement with social work, in the professorial address that marked her appointment.

"I joined the University of Sydney in the 1970s when a new approach to social work was just beginning to emerge.

"Known as 'radical social work' many of its tenets, that were seen at the time as extreme and outlandish, are now central to social work practice.

"Radical social work laid the foundation for social work to be concerned with the root causes of social injustice which can contribute to individual people's problems. It aimed to replace a culture of elitism with a more equal relationship with clients and placed a new emphasis on collective responses to disadvantage, such as community action."

The focus on collective action led to the development of movements by specific client groups, such as those with disabilities, mental health conditions or in domestic violence situations.

A commitment to a social justice and human rights agenda was included in the definition of social work jointly agreed to by the International Federation of Social Workers and International Association of Schools of Social Work in 2001.

Despite this Professor Irwin believes the current social, political and economic context poses "massive challenges for social workers being able to achieve, or even work towards, social justice.

"The growth of neo-liberalism in the 1990s, has led to deregulation and the rule of the market. The state's role in providing public services has been drastically reduced and the concept of a public good replaced with that of individual responsibility."

The resulting culture of economic rationalism and managerialism has had a widespread impact on the practice of social work, Professor Irwin said. The changes include a larger bureaucracy to administrate greater individual accountability, greater reliance on the private sector and a stigmatisation of clients. It has also damaged the relationship between managers, increasingly preoccupied with budgets and formal supervision, and their frontline workers.

"I advocate that both universities and practising social workers resist these changes - by calling organisations to account, by realigning themselves with clients and frontline workers and by reasserting the critical importance of social justice values to social work," Professor Irwin said.

Professor Jude Irwin's career highlights include research that has had a direct impact on policy and practice in the area of domestic violence, child protection, mental health and community capacity building.

She played a key role in the establishment of the Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research and has been appointed to government and non-government boards and advisory committees, including NSW Ombudsman Child Death Review Advisory Committee, NSW Child Death Review Team, Advisory Board Australian Research Centre on Child Protection, NSW Council on Violence Against Women, Research Board, ACON and Barnardos. She is the co-author/editor of six books.