C. Wright Mills’ idea of a sociological imagination that frames personal troubles in the context of social structure could have been written with social workers in mind, suggests Mike Thomas.

Social Work’s superpower?

For much of the last decade I have had the pleasure of introducing undergraduate and postgraduate social work students to aspects of sociology.  This is by far the most rewarding aspect of my life as an academic, and students usually respond enthusiastically to sociological ideas.  Sociology helps put their developing professional identity and practice into context, as well as providing new ways of understanding their own biographies and identities.  But they seem hesitant in using sociology as part of their toolkit for social work practice.

Sociology should be their superpower as social workers of the future, so why are students apparently reluctant to go out and apply sociological ideas?  This is all the more puzzling as sociology is a key pillar of knowledge for social workers.  The Professional Capabilities Framework for Social Workers in England makes clear that members of the profession are expected to understand diversity, draw on the social sciences and research to inform their practice, and apply critical reflection to their work. 

If we want to see applied sociology in action, then social work should be the obvious place to look.  C Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination could have been written with social workers in mind.  Mills reminds us that history and biography are intertwined.  This in itself is a powerful call to the social work profession to raise the level of its gaze from the ‘problematic’ individual or family to tackling the systemic root-causes of inequality and human suffering.

Opportunities and challenges

The possibilities for applying sociology to social work are seemingly endless.  Socialisation is a key concept in understanding the primary role of caregivers in raising infants and children.  An awareness of competing and evolving social constructions of family life can also help social workers understand diversity and challenge their own assumptions and biases about what ‘good’ parenting or care look like.   

Similarly, exploring the fine grain of social interaction offers students invaluable insights into how to build effective working relationships with service users.  Much of social work practice with adults is more or less concerned with the Bourdieusian concept of developing social, economic and even cultural capital. 

And if we turn to medical sociology, then social models of health, illness and disability can help practitioners move away from a narrow view that locates problems at the level of individual service users rather than within the wider social environment.  At the broadest level, sociology helps social workers navigate many of the the tensions between structure and agency that an individual might experience across the lifespan. 

So why is there so little evidence of sociology in the student practice portfolios I see?  Sociology provides us with important clues as to the problem and the solution.  As social work educators, we are essentially socialising students into fitting into the professional role they aspire to.  All students are required to a significant proportion of their time on placement, where they work under the supervision of a qualified social worker.  In essence, their future professional status rests on getting a tick in a box from an experienced social worker. 

Fitting in is an important part of this professional socialisation, and an elementary understanding of power dynamics tells us that only the brave or foolhardy novice would be tempted to draw attention to a supervisor’s narrow knowledge base or view of practice.  So we have a model that tends towards a status quo that overlooks sociology, or at best harnesses our discipline in a reductive way that prioritises ‘fixing’ problematic families over emancipation and social change.  

Such a view of social work practice is, of course, a stereotype.   Most social workers are driven by a commitment to social justice, and occupy a lonely and much misunderstood position on the frontline of austerity- a political project that has increased demand for their services while at the same time restricting the resources and kinds of help they can access.  The last thing they need is friendly fire from sociologists.

The promise of sociology as a discipline is that we all have experience of sociological phenomena as members of society and of family, personal, occupational and other social networks. So, for social work education, the challenge seems to lie in getting students to make these linkages to practice and in reigniting their practice supervisors’ passion for sociology. 

Looking ahead

There are some positive signs: the range of sociological texts aimed specifically at social workers and social work students is growing year on year, and research continues to apply sociological theory to practice contexts.  At Brunel, we are trying new approaches such as forms of assessment that ask students to analyse their own biographies from sociological perspectives.  As well as raising consciousness and self-awareness, we hope this will give them a firmer foundation for thinking sociologically when they hear the stories service users and carers tell them about their own lives. 

At a time of global social crisis, it seems we need social workers more than ever to help heal the social divisions that lead to material inequalities, and to develop responses to existential threats such as Covid-19 and climate change.  To meet these challenges, social workers are more likely than ever to need to draw on sociology as their superpower.  As sociologists, we should do whatever we can to assist in this process.  Social work education seems a good place to start.

Dr Mike Thomas is a senior lecturer in Social Work at Brunel University London and a registered social worker.


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