July 30, 2008

Social Work As Counterculture

I have developed the habit of reading before bed and while I should probably be reading light fiction or some such thing, I tend towards the heavier stuff. I'll find myself immersed in some weird therapy book with case studies, or "how to" book on dialectic behavior therapy. Needless to say, this does interesting things to my dreams. But that's for another post, as this isn't about my dreams.

Anyways, a week or so ago, I picked up Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House. This book is basically a history of counterculture across time, from myth to reality. I'm thoroughly enjoying it so far and as I'm reading it, I'm coming to realize that, in many ways, social work is a counterculture activity.

Counterculture is loosely defined as a culture, or subculture that runs counter to the prevailing attitudes of the mainstream culture. Much of the work we do is on the fringes of society, where people do not want to look or have to deal with. There is not much more countercultural than that. While mainstream society wants the homeless out of their way, we jump right in and advocate for them. While mainstream society wants addiction out of view, we look at ways to have the people with a problem looked at as people again. They want cuts to social programs, we want increases. They want the status quo, we want change. And on and on and on.

I'm working my way through the book, so along the way, I will try to write about some parallels that I observe between what I read and the profession. I've always been fascinated with the fringe, so maybe this is my way of trying to be a part of it. This is also probably my way of trying to make social work look cool. Someone's gotta try, don't they?

Oh yeah, this is my first image in post, so I should give credit. This picture is one of my favorites from Banksy. The contradiction of it really appeals to me.



Reas Kroicowl said...

An interesting idea--perhaps we are counterculture. Hey, I'm cooler than I thought!

cb said...

No-one's accused me of being cool for about 15 years :) It sounds like an interesting idea - and you have to think at what point does counterculture become acceptable. Perhaps once it has been designated as 'cool' it has already made that shift.

I would argue that Banksy has shifted into the fringes of the mainstream. He even had an exhibition a couple of months back (granted it was in a disused railway tunnel).
I think there are some aspects of the work we do that a parallel may be able to be made as 'the mainstream' doesn't like difference, and poverty and being presented with it's rather ugly reflection from time to time. Will be interesting to follow your thoughts!

antiSWer said...

I think once it becomes part of the mainstream. I think something can be considered "cool" by the fringe and still be counter to the cultural norms. How to calculate when it enters mainstream is beyond my reach, though.

I think a good example is the Che Guevara shirt. While Che was (and is) definitely countercultural, the shirt has moved into the mainstream. It's everywhere and worn by everyone.

Maybe a good measuring stick of when things enter the mainstream is when you can get them at Walmart. When Walmart has social workers, we'll no longer be countercultural. ;)

Anonymous said...

The timing of your post was really interesting because I read it right after cb's post on modern vs postmodern social work, which focused on how much social workers feel compelled to do what the middle class dictates. I do feel that pressure to be less countercultural increases once out of school. In theory, we are the profession that bucks the system and works for the underdog. In practice, one realizes that we receive our funding to work for the underdog in very specific middle class driven ways. The tension is something else to negotiate, but it keeps me on my toes!

Thanks for reminding me that in theory we are countercultural, though. It does feel good to be reminded that we're supposed to be the cool ones.

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