Reflections on values and ethics in social work practice
When social work combined to form a single generic profession it brought together different strands of thought about what social work was – at a time when post-war social democracy was attempting to renew itself. It was a period in which social work was validated both by the ‘Old Left’ of Harold Wilson and of the ‘New Left’ of the late 1960s. The ‘Old Left’ could see social work as a kind of fulfilment of Beveridge’s vision and it could also be seen as one of the new ways to ‘socially administer’ the newly perceived social problems that Beveridge’s policies were failing to address. The influence of the ‘New Left’ suggested that social workers could adopt a radical, challenging stance in relation to the oppressive elements of the establishment (Seed 1973). Left-wing debates and divisions featured attention to new social forces – feminism and anti-racist politics increased their legitimacy and effectiveness. The 1960s preoccupation with the individual psyche gave way to preoccupation with the social and political. During the 1970s, traditional left-wing analyses based on class led to wider interpretations of oppression centred on gender, race and disability. This involved debate between opposed brands of left-wing traditionalism on the one hand and of the advocates of gender-based, race-based, sexuality-based political advocates on the other (Gamble 1991). These different political concerns embedded themselves in social work practice during the 1970s and early 1980s. At the same time the consensus that gave rise to professional social work began to unravel. The economic crises of the 1970s led to a crisis of ideas on the political left. The ‘Old Left’ was seen as ideologically bankrupt and more radical left-wing alternative perspectives found it difficult to achieve any kind of lasting consensus or effective political alliance to effectively challenge the ‘New Right’. The inception of professional social work in the 1970s saw the end of social work’s organizational fragmentation, but through the course of the 1970s the ideas which had supported its birth were in crisis and splintered in different directions (Prynn 2008). The crisis of ideas on the political left led to a series of concerns within social work which remain with us today (Davis 2006). Political analyses, not ethical analyses, were used to distinguish ideologically correct ways of thinking and
practising social work. Ethics was seen as an associate of individualist rather than collectivist thinking and a concern for politics drove out, or at least diminished, ethical thinking in social work practice until fairly recently.