August 9, 2008

Social Work As Counterculture - Part II

A week or so ago, I posted about how I thought social work was a part of the counterculture after starting to read the book Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House.

Now, in reading some of the comments that were generated, as well as thinking about it more, I have to refine it down a little bit. I think that the ideal of what social work aspires to is definitely countercultural. On the other hand, our actual practice often differs. While we come out of school idealistic and approach our practice in this way, it is a difficult road and we are not always able to hold on.

In the book, there are three characteristics of counterculture listed:

Countercultures embraces individual and social change
Does this apply to social work? Well, yeah! It's pretty much what we're all about! We're committed to improving the social situations of individuals, groups, societies, whoever! We're all about the social justice. Yay, one point for social work!
Countercultures challenge authoritarianism in both obvious and subtle forms
This one is a little tougher. While I don't think we're all big fans of authoritarianism, social work promotes some pretty socialistic ideals that could be seen in the same vein as authoritarianism by some groups. However, that's countered by the TYPE of freedoms that we are pursuing. By aiming for these socialist ideals, we are looking at things such as "freedom from want". Then again, as an instructor once told me, social workers can become, as she said "thinly veiled agents of social control".  I'm gonna go with a half point on this one.
Countercultures assign primacy to individuality at the expense of social conventions and governmental constraints
I'm stuck on this one. Either I don't fully understand it, or I just don't know what to do with it. My first thoughts is that we're all about the social conventions and governmental constraints. Do we not help people fit within the bounds of society better? Yes, we try to change the system, but do we really ever see that happen enough to actually see it? Our problem is that we're fundamentally against this system that we're bound by. Do we even get a point here?
What it comes down to is that gap between our ideals and what we actually do. I believe that our roots are definitely countercultural, and we have to find a way to bring our roots into our work, even if it's a little bit at a time. As to whether we're "counter" or "cool", I'm gonna go with who the hell cares? We're gonna do what we do anyways, and really, when you have to ask if you're cool, that pretty much means you're not.

So, like, honestly, do you think I'm cool? ;)



    cb said...

    Firstly - of course you're cool :)
    As you said, the first point is a no-brainer. Embracing individual and social change is a good summation.
    Second one, I'm with you again and would say 'to a point' - that point being that the social worker is an agent of state control.
    I wouldn't give a point on the third one. Which seems to be where your argument is heading.
    In my case anyway, I feel I am a part of the constraints imposed by the government. Individuality - what is it? Especially in the field of mental health, it's partly about attitudes and what is acceptable by society. One man's eccentric is another man's danger.
    Take the example of someone who has a compulsion to collect stamps. His house is filled with stamps, he has rooms and rooms full of them. He doesn't bother anyone and noone bothers him.
    What if the obsession is a celebrity? A car? Foodstuffs that turn bad and rot in his home? A next door neighbour?
    Is the actual mental condition different? Or is it the acceptability to society that changes?
    When he keeps himself to himself we are fine with that, but when it impinges on others, it isn't?
    What about responsibility for the possible mental distress he might be feeling - do we ignore that until it affects other people?
    Fairly simplistic arguments but I think they are all about what society says is acceptable behaviour.
    And you're right - when I stopped worrying about being cool, I knew I was.
    Now, at this point, I don't have to prove it to anyone anymore :)
    Sorry for rambling!

    Anonymous said...

    I like the way you presented this analysis in such an organized way--it allowed me to step back and do my own thinking. It seems to me that the more time I spend as a social worker, the more beneficial the skills of negotiation and reframing are. I cannot possibly get anything done if I divorce myself from our social and government systems, or try to actually tear them down with no viable alternatives. Yet while I work in and through them, I try very hard to retain the advocacy piece of social work--trying to be in the system but not of it, if you know what I mean. The hope is that this will result in very slow, non-dramatic movement--little waves.

    Because I don't want to do in my clients, who actually have to use social and govenrment systems in their existing forms, I'm rarely highly confrontational with with systems I work with. But I still think it helps to plant seeds about things that can be improved. Maybe this is more like a co-culture than a counter culture--just trying to reframe and challenge as I go along, hoping it may lead to change some day.

    antiSWer said...

    @ cb - that reminds me of how the drug problem is always about the street use, and not the other use in the "higher" classes. If we don't see it, it's not a problem, right? Also, about the mental distress: I wonder how much society causes the distress by calling it a mental illness. If people were allowed to exist as who they were, how many of the problems wouldn't really be problems? This is simplification, but I know at least a few people who were made especially worse because of the system that entrapped them after they became "ill".

    @ bluejeansocialwork - "trying to be in the system but not of it". I love that. I would think that's a counterculture attitude.

    Thanks for the comments. Good things to think about.

    therapydoc said...

    My only problem with this is the definition. We live in a diverse world with s many cultures interacting with one another. Awfully hard to say which one is dominent and it depends upon the context.

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