1. Struggle of professional social work with complexity, ambitious expectations and blaming

Struggle for recognition of the autonomy and status of professional social work has always run the risk of driving social work to individually-oriented and conservative ideas rather than to a critical social analysis of social problems in our societies, of how these problems intervene in service users’ lives, and how we might challenge and change this. Scholars have therefore argued for the necessary paradigmatic openness of social work as a democratic profession, in order to be able to shape the relationship between the individual and society and therefore maintaining “the social mandate” of social work (see Garrett, 2021; Lorenz, 2016).

Embracing ambiguity

The attention for this critical and reflexive role of social work implies that social work should cherish rather than overcome its alleged “imperfection”. Whereas social work cannot “solve” social problems because of their complexity and systemic enmeshment so that every answer to social problems is incomplete and raises new issues, at the same time it has to remain committed to challenge social issues and engage constructively and with a focus on social justice in these processes. Embracing ambiguity refers to the awareness that social work is simultaneously limited and meaningful: limited because social work will never be able to solve the social problems it is confronted with, yet meaningful since social work can actually support and mediate in the situations of individuals and families while participating in the public and democratic debate on these social problems in our societies, which might lead to social change in the direction of greater social justice. This orientation is a key characteristic of critical and democratic social work. We need social work and social workers who see this never completed task while still remaining committed to open up new questions. Raising questions concerning the limitations of existing “solutions” might be more essential than giving answers from a detached position. Raising questions in this perspective holds the potential to shift taken-for-granted meanings and to expose unjust realities, social inequalities, and power relationships in our societies and transform questions thereby into provocative issues (Roose et al., 2013). This refers to social work being involved in a permanent reflection on the meaning of the “social” in social work (Bouverne-De Bie et al.,  2014). As such we cannot expect social workers to play at being Super-Hero or Deus ex Machina who master all the necessary skills to develop social work practices that “work”, yet we need to embrace this ambiguity, and think about risks and mistakes.

Risks and mistakes

The key question here is whether there is openness to deal with risks and make mistakes in dialogue with service users, to jointly learn from this venture. This is a challenge, especially in the current context of a political climate that aims at the prevention and elimination of risks and mistakes, irrespective of the wider structural constraints in which service users live, which has actuality particularly in the field of child protection (Dewanckel et al., 2021; Parton, 1998; Saar-Heiman & Gupta, 2019). International comparisons confirm the widespread attempt in social policy areas to demand “total risk elimination” as performance goals in services (Beddoe, 2010), a trend that, as predicted by Beck, can only lead to an escalation of risk awareness and ever more stringent reliance on regulations and prescriptions that cover “all eventualities”. As a current strategy of ongoing professionalization (Scourfield & Welsch, 2003; Stanford, 2010), approaches to risk assessment and risk reduction tend to promote standardization, technical and diagnostic methods, tools, checklists and procedures rather than developing competences in more open-ended, uncertain, and dialogic ways of assessing and interpreting the ambiguous meaning of risk (Broadhurst et al., 2010).

Since this risk orientation implies allocating blame it might actually produce more “anxious professionals”. In view of this, Roose et al. (2012) argue for the importance of reflexive professionals dealing with risks differently by allowing for potentially making mistakes, the realization of which can serve as an opportunity to learn. Dialogical approaches to risk-taking attempt to embrace the ambiguity of the notion of risk by inserting social justice agendas into their work (Aronson & Smith, 2010; Stanford, 2010). Thereby, social workers might employ open-ended problem definitions of risk in complex situations as a starting point of dialogue with the service users involved. As such, risk is perceived in more positive terms as an opportunity to reclaim the emancipatory ethos that sits at the heart of the social work profession, since it can lead to democratic discussions about dilemmas, complexities and potential conflicts in the work with service users (Gillingham, 2006; Stanford, 2010).

With reference to mistakes, Sicora (2010) refers to the metaphor of Columbus, who discovered America “by mistake” while looking for a new route to India. In that vein, social workers need space to make mistakes and the opportunity to have open-minded discussions about these mistakes because, paradoxically, in many cases, it is the only way to develop a participatory approach and dialogue with service users and to enable social workers to find new ways to face the complexity of their work. This approach might enable social workers to consider mistakes as a point of departure for further actions: ‘the reflection on them and our failures is a promising field in which to develop strategies for the reinforcement of our professional skills, as social workers. Why? Because every mistake, especially those producing some forms of damage, are like open questions to our way of looking at the world and acting in accordance to it’ (Sicora, 2010, p. 157).

Allowing for mistakes in interpersonal relations, including those of a professional nature, and analyzing how they came about and could have been avoided therefore might create an increased attention to surprising knowledge, including life knowledge of service users, and the positive value of all that “does not fit”. This is the point where social workers might draw on the specific aspects of reflexivity, as a set of critical collective capacities incorporating democratic principles and practices. When reflecting individually, in groups or in the context of supervision focuses on the non-defensive examination of differences in perspectives and also on mistakes (Sicora, 2017), democratic competences can be developed thereby promoting the sharing of responsibilities instead of feeding into “blame-games” that render services of all kinds increasingly defensive (Pellinen et al., 2018).