A Constantly Shifting Paradigm

Posted by GVT Admin on Jan 17, 2024 2:45:43 PM

social work and the dynamics of politics

Social workers who identify with the marginalized populations they are sworn to support are now caught up in a shifting social paradigm that has turned identifying with certain needy groups into dangerous divisive politics. This paradigm shift has been so gradual it almost went unnoticed until it finally crystallized into hard political positions. The last place that devoted, well-meaning social workers want to find themselves is being pushed to the hard right or the far left when it comes to identifying need and taking action to alleviate suffering. How did this shift happen?

“Old” Social Movements Morph...

  • “Old” social movements focused on “organizing the poor” around class and labor related issues like the labor movements of the Progressive and New Deal eras (1900s-1940s), which worked to establish labor unions, increase wages, improve working conditions, decrease unemployment, and expand welfare benefits.
  • The civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s did not fit neatly into analyses of class conflict and economic redistribution but rather marked the transition into a post-industrial era of “new” social movements, which are largely organized around issues of identity, exclusion, and oppression.
  • The political goals embedded within new social movements go beyond conflicts between labor and capital to combat “oppressive discrimination, cultural intrusions, bureaucratic domination, unrestrained militarism, and environmental devastation.

Into “New” Social Movements...

  • Many issues involved in new social movements cut across multiple identities. Recruitment into these movements often involves appeals regarding the issue’s impact on members of particular identity groups.
  • Unfortunately, these new social movements morphed into divisive identity politics. Though the term identity politics is laden with many different meanings, it generally has come to signify a strategy of gaining political favor by appealing to the narrow interests of groups that share a collective identity, usually minority groups, as defined by categories of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
  • Collective identity is identified as an individual’s cognitive, moral, and emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution. It implies a perceived sense of relation or shared status and carries with it positive feelings for others in the group. Thus, building a movement around collective identity can contain a broad coalition across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, and other categories—so long as the collective identity around which the movement is organized remains inclusive.

Followed by Resource Mobilization...

Resource mobilization (RM) views formal organizations rather than individuals as central to the analysis of social movements. Social movement organizations (SMO) are complex, centralized, formal, highly developed, professional groups that articulate the goals of the more general social movement and translate them into political action. Any given social movement may have several social movement organizations working toward mobilizing organizations for change, effectively comprising a social movement industry.

Voila - Social Work Becomes Political Action

Now we find ourselves in the danger zone. The kindly, caring social worker has become the hardened political operative. This paradigm shift has occurred in the most well-meaning social workers who gradually realized that they would have to ban together with like-minded people to affect meaningful social change. Their sympathy and empathy for the needy they work with and for every day motivates them to become political activists. It is almost unavoidable.

Bad or Good?

The history of social work is replete with political activists. This is a good thing until collective identities become hardened into positions that are unable to entertain any opposing narrative. Then, "helping the needy" morphs into "winning at all costs".

Perhaps this quote from Jane Addams, the originator of social work as we have come to know it in America, will help temper the enthusiasm that comes with collective empowerment and guide us through this era of a constantly shifting social work paradigm:

"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secure for all of us and incorporated into our common life."


Topics: social workers, social issues

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