4. Themes, case examples, and questions for reflexivity

4.5. Ambiguity, Risks, and Mistakes

At the beginning of the 20th century, Simon Nelson Patten (1855-1922), the economist who coined the notion of social work, defined case-based social work as a ‘vain struggle against impossibilities’, as its capacity to solve social problems was limited. Others, such as Flexner (1866-1995), commented in the same time period on the fact that social work was not a real profession, such as the medical profession, as social work had no real educational programs and no clear-cut methodical approach (Austin, 1983). In the course of the 20th century until now, a constant element of debate since the remarks of Patten and Flexner remains the question whether social work practice and social work education should focus on individual, psychosocial rather than structural social problems, or on both.

An important issue within this debate is the struggle for recognition of social work as a relatively autonomous field and profession. However, this 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 while keeping ‘the social’ in social work (see Lorenz, 2016; Garrett, 2021).

Embracing ambiguity

The attention for this critical and reflexive role of social work implies that social work should cherish rather than overcome its imperfection. Whereas social work cannot ‘solve’ social problems and every answer to social problems is incomplete, at the same time it has to remain committed to challenge and deal with social issues. Embracing this 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 feeding the public and democratic debate on these social problems in our societies, which might lead to social justice and social change. This is a key characteristic of critical and democratic social work. We need social work and social workers who see this imperfection while still remaining committed to open up new questions. Nevertheless, the question might be more essential than the answer, as every answer holds the potential to shift evident meanings and to transform unjust realities, social inequalities, and power relationships in our societies into provocative issues (Roose, Roets & Bouverne-De Bie, 2013). This refers to social work being involved in a permanent reflection on the meaning of the ‘social’ in social work (Bouverne-De Bie, Roose, Coussée, & Bradt, 2014). As such we cannot expect social workers to play Super-Heroes 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 (Parton, 1998; Saar-Heiman & Gupta, 2019; Dewanckel et al., 2021). 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 part of ongoing processes of professionalization (Scourfield & Welsch, 2003; Stanford, 2010), approaches to risk assessment rather promote standardization, technical and diagnostic methods, tools, checklists and procedures than developing competences in more open-ended, uncertain, and dialogic ways of assessing and interpreting the ambiguous meaning of risk (Broadhurst et al., 2010).

Rather than creating ‘anxious professionals’, Roose et al. (2013) argue for the importance of reflexive professionals dealing with risks and thus potentially making mistakes, which can serve as an opportunity to learn. Dialogical approaches to risk 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 involved service users. 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, p. 158) 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. Mistakes 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, 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).

Case example 1: Reflexive discretion and social assistance in adult social work in acute and chronic crises (Finland)

A case study from Finland focused on both acute crisis (the covid-19 pandemic) and chronic crisis (the transfer of the basic social assistance from the municipalities to Social Insurance Institution of Finland, or Kela), and on how street-level workers working in the public sector use discretion in dealing with these crises. In both cases, there were no certain outcomes and professionals had to work in new ways to be able to provide clients the help they needed. Crisis highlights the need for discretion and underlines street-level workers' ability to reflect on their own basis of knowledge and consequences that different courses of actions may have (Sipilä, 2011). In the context of crisis, street-level workers are challenged to evaluate ethical aspects when making decisions about which course of action to take. When basic social assistance was transferred to Kela and the covid-19 pandemic started, street-level workers needed to evaluate whether to follow the guidelines or make more creative solutions in individual clients' situations. Street-level workers needed to evaluate which values are the most important; to fulfill clients’ basic needs (for example money for food) or to follow the guidelines if clients’ needs and the guidelines are contrary. Creativity is important from the clients’ point of view because clients' needs and life situations can’t always be fitted into strict categories in line with the guideline. Both crises illustrate that social work and social services can change quickly in times of uncertainty by taking risks and making mistakes. For example, services provided on digital platforms made progress, even though this has had both good and bad consequences from the clients’ point of view. Digital platforms were good for those clients who have the equipment (like a computer) and digital skills, and bad for those who didn’t have them who were at higher risk of not getting the service they need. Social workers had to make creative solutions to provide service to those who had the possibility to use digital platforms as well as for those who didn’t have them (Iivonen & Kivipelto, 2022). Clients’ individual needs and crisis situations demand that professionals use discretion creatively and to be able to do this, the social workers’ professional and reflexive skills are crucial. Street-level workers play an important role in defending democracy during a crisis (Brodkin, 2021). Discretion used creatively by professionals can attenuate the unequal consequences that crisis could otherwise create.

Case example 2: Reflections about participation in the delivery of social work education: the SAOL Women’s Project (Ireland) 

One of the Irish case studies reflected on the participation of women in recovery from addiction via the ‘SAOL Women’s project’ in the delivery of social work education. In recent years there has been an increased emphasis on strengthening the integration of reflexivity and participatory approaches in social work education, research, and practice including the involvement of service users in curriculum planning and delivery (Social Work Registration Board, 2019). Universities are potentially a powerful resource for the public good (Facer et al., 2012) however, the international literature on participation suggests a number of challenges and opportunities. Of particular concern is the tendency towards ‘tokenism’ despite the intention of social work academics and the practical challenges of transfer of power to service users (Blomberg et al.2021). The case study of the SAOL project illustrates the importance of embracing ambiguity and taking a ‘leap of faith’ to strive for more meaningful engagement. This was demonstrated during Covid19 when teaching input by the SAOL service users was reduced and service users challenged what they perceived to be the ‘tokenistic nature’ of their involvement with the students, demanding more meaningful input or withdrawal from the teaching programme. This triggered a complete review and re-evaluation of the nature of SAOL’s involvement resulting in the reintroduction of additional teaching hours and a new co-designed video assignment for the students that the service users helped to design and jointly grade. This case study suggests that there may be a tendency to invite those who are ‘easiest’ to engage with which typically, this means highly educated, neuro-normal, verbal, trained, extrovert individuals (Locock et al.2022). As social work educators and researchers, we must challenge these embedded stereotypes of 'vulnerability' and recognise that vulnerability is a two-way process and that we are also vulnerable within participatory processes. When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: “Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can all be ‘heard’?” 

Critical questions for reflexivity

  • During the presentations, examples of working with students were provided several times. However, it was noted that students often expect certainty and delineated tasks in group assignments, which is in contrast to the uncertainty and ambiguity of social work. We believe social work education and group assignments can play a crucial part in articulating and developing knowledge to respond to uncertain circumstances in social work practices. While uncertainty might lead to a negative response such as fear and anxiety (Afrouz, 2021) among students, the ‘vulnerability’ of uncertainty could be approached positively through the openness for creativity (Fook, 2013). COVID-19 was a reminder of what uncertainty looks like and how this influences higher education in the development of the curriculum and pedagogical approaches (Afrouz, 2021). 
  • Social workers should not try to solve their ambiguous position, but do need to recognise it (Devlieghere & Roose, 2022). How can we make this approach tangible and usable for social workers in practice?