Critical social work

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Critical social work is the application to social work of a critical theory perspective. Critical social work seeks to address social injustices, as opposed to focusing on individualized issues. Critical theories explain social problems as arising from various forms of oppression and injustice in globalized capitalist societies and forms of neoliberal governance. This approach to social work theory is formed by a polyglot of theories from across the humanities and social sciences, borrowing from various schools of thought, including Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, social democracy, and anarchism.[1]


Social workers have an ethical commitment to working to overcome inequality and oppression. For radical social workers, this implies working towards the transformation of capitalist society towards building social arrangements which are more compatible with these commitments. Mullaly & Keating (1991) suggest three schools of radical thought corresponding to three versions of socialist analysis; social democracy, eurocommunist, and revolutionary Marxism. However, they work in institutional contexts which paradoxically implicates them in maintaining capitalist functions.[1] Social work theories have three possible strategies of analysis, as identified by Rojek et al. (1986). These are:

  • The progressive position. Social work is seen as a catalyst for social change. Social workers work with the oppressed and marginalized and so are in a good position to harness class resistance to capitalism and transform society into a more social democracy or socialist state. ( Bailey & Brake, 1975,[2] Galper, 1975, Simpkin, 1979, Ginsberg, 1979)
  • The reproductive position. Social work is seen as an indispensable tool of the capitalist social order. Its function is to produce and maintain the capitalist state machine and to ensure working class subordination. Social workers are the ‘soft cops’ of the capitalist state machine. (Althusser, 1971, Poulantzas, 1975, Donzelot, 1976, Muller & Neususs, 1978, Webb, 2016)
  • The contradictory position. Social work can undermine capitalism and class society. While it acts as an instrument of class control it can simultaneously create the conditions for the overthrow of capitalist social relations. (Corrigan & Leonard, Phillipson, 1979, Bolger, 1981)[1]


Critical social work is heavily influenced by Marxism, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and by the earlier approach of Radical social work, which was focused on class oppression. Critical social work evolved from this to oppose all forms of oppression. Several writers helped codify radical social work, such as Jeffry Galper (1975), Mike Brake (1975) and Harold Throssell (1975). They were building on the views expounded by earlier social workers such as Octavia Hill, Jane Addams & Bertha Reynolds, who had at various points over the previous 200 years sought to make social work & charity more focused on structural forces. More recently writers such as Stephen A. Webb, Iain Ferguson, Susan White, Lena Dominelli, Paul Michael-Garrett, and Stan Houston have further developed the paradigm by incorporating inter-disciplinary ideas from contemporary political philosophy, anthropology and social theory. These include the ideas of Michel Foucault, Jacques Donzelot, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Pierre Bourdieu and Jürgen Habermas. More recently the writings of Italian political philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito, especially their theorizing about community and governance have come to the fore in critical social work.

A new journal published by Policy Press called Critical and Radical Social Work: An international journal promotes debate and scholarship around a range of engaged social work themes and issues. The journal publishes papers which seek to analyze and respond to issues, such as the impact of global neo-liberalism on social welfare; austerity and social work; social work and social movements; social work, inequality and oppression.[3] Stephen A. Webb was commissioned by Routledge to edit a major international reference work 'A Handbook of Critical Social Work' (due for publication 2018). Webb published 'The New Politics of Social Work' in 2013 written closely in the tradition of critical social work.


Major themes that critical social work seeks to address are:


As critical social work grew out of radical social work, it split into various theories. They are listed below, with a selection of writers who have influenced the theory.

  • Structural social work theory ( Ann Davis, Maurice Moreau, Robert Mullaly)
  • Anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive social work theory (Neil Thompson, Dalrymple & Burke)
  • Postcolonial social work theory (Linda Briskman)
  • New structural social work theory (Robert Mullaly)
  • Critical social work theory (Jan Fook, Karen Healy, Stephen A. Webb, Bob Pease, Paul Michael Garrett)
  • Radical social work theory (Mike Brake, Iain Ferguson)


Structural and Dialectic critiques of human agency[edit]

While critical social work has a strong commitment to structural change, it does not discount the role of agency, albeit a constrained form of potential. Critical analysis in social work looks at competing forces such as the capitalist economic system, the welfare state as all affecting individual choices. Therefore, according to the critical theory, the aim of social work is to emancipate people from oppression and allow a critique of the ideology of "operativity", State law and governance. Critical social work takes a stance against common assumptions about the necessity of work, capitalist labor and managerial systems of control.

"A dialectical approach to social work avoids the simplistic linear cause-effect notion of historical materialism and the naïve romanticism associated with the notion of totally free human will." (Mullaly and Keating, 1991). "Dialectical analysis helps to illuminate the complex interplay between people and the world around them and to indicate the role of social work within society" (Mullaly, 2007:241).[1]

Critical Practice models[edit]

Various practice theories influence critical social work including:

  • Working collectively and recognizing that "community" emerges temporarily around issues and matters of concern.
  • Relationship based social work (Sue White and Brigid Featherstone)
  • Finding ways in which community, cooperation and consciousness can empower disadvantaged people
  • Helping people to understand the social consequences of the market system, neo liberalism and the economisation of life
  • Helping people deal collectively with social issues rather than individualising them
  • Making alliances with working class organisations and recognise social workers as 'workers' themselves
  • Civil disobedience, such as the intentional and surreptitious violation of agency policies that perpetuate capitalist oppression [1][1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Original material adapted from presentation by M. Hanlon, School of Social Work, ACU
  2. ^ Bailey, Roy; Mike Brake (1975). Radical Social Work. Pantheon Books.
  3. ^ - See more at: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-08-01. Retrieved 2015-08-22.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

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