Educating Social Workers for Lifeworld and System
In this chapter I will be arguing for a new, Habermasian, critique of some of the current problems besetting social work education and the practice for which it qualifi es, if not prepares, practitioners. The work of Jürgen Habermas has received widespread critical discussion and his ideas have a particular theoretical applicability to the personal and social services professions that work with people and their social circumstances. Professional social workers are unique in the extent to which they need to be expert ‘boundary-spanners’ and to be able to practice across the complex intermeshing of different and often confl icting institutional structures and individual lives. Social work is a linchpin operator in this social domain which Habermas characterizes as system and lifeworld. The balance between accountability to system demands while discharging professional responsibility to the needs of vulnerable people is a constant tension. Social work education is on the front line of this battleground between government policies, employer interests, professional values and service user perspectives. As such it plays a key role in enabling entrants to the profession to maintain a critical awareness of, and constructively work within, competing demands. The critical ideas of Habermas are a powerful tool with which to analyze and understand the rationales that underpin this balance between institutions and individuals. Social work remains a complex and little understood activity, operating within the ambiguous dilemmas that characterize public welfare interventions into people’s lives. A Habermasian examination of social work education is much needed. In this chapter I will be mainly drawing upon his early work of knowledge interests, system and lifeworld but will also be making reference to illustrative quotes from his later theory of communicative action. There are three key aspects of his ideas and critical insights that are of particular relevance and I will consider them in turn, but these ideas are not discrete; they are highly interrelated and so an understanding of each as they apply to social work education will be reached through a discussion of all three. These are, fi rst, his elemental distinction between work and social interaction; second, his threefold categorization of
‘human interests’ into strategic, communicative and emancipatory rationalities. Third, I will be examining his concept of the ‘lifeworld’ and its relation to the technocratic infl uences of social systems (Habermas 1984, 1986, 1987).