What ‘social work’ does the world need now?

Monday 28th June 2021

Professional social work in welfare state contexts is one response to the modern social question of how should we or might we live together. 

'The experience of our generation’, Walter Benjamin famously wrote in a note for his Arcades project during the 1930s, ‘is that capitalism will not die a natural death'. From late Victorian times to the modern, the professional social work project is thoroughly entangled with the infrastructures and imaginaries and technologies of capitalism and geopolitically located nation states. If there has been some structural relief from absolute poverty over time, there is no question that destitution, precarity and inequality persist despite the efforts of liberal and communitarian forms of democracy, and agencies such as social work. In turn, the global and international institutions and concord's of the post-war period have not evoked lasting peace or stability out of the lessons of violent histories and genocides.’

The challenges of the 21st Century are in many respects of a different order to those of the previous two centuries marked by the rise and decline of carbon fueled industrialisation, and by various reworkings of colonial expansion and extraction. The ‘future’ is more uncertain than ever (Auge, 2014; Berardi, 2017). Contingencies around the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, the threats and possibilities of new technologies to arcane political and economic processes, and the spectre of zoonotic disease are the conditions of the present from which possible futures will unfold. These concerns are however likely to feel remote from the everyday urgencies of state-sponsored professional social work rooted in various “localized socials” (O’Brien, 2004) in which the units of analysis and action, and indeed, the perceived problems and solutions, have remained relatively stable. Even the vanguard of critical social work remains tethered to modern concepts of liberalism and communitarianism, redistribution and recognition, (Boone et al., 2018; Lorenz, 2016; Vandekinderen et al., 2020; Webb, 2010). Of particular note are radical challenges to the ‘social question’ around which social work gathers. Traditionally conceptualized as a ‘creative tension between autonomy and mutual dependency’ (Lorenz, 2016, p. 15), the social question is these days destabilized by the increasingly unavoidable ‘biosocial question’ (Ingold & Palsson, 2013) in which human life is not separate from all life. If social work is to work creatively with the challenges of the 21st Century then this anchoring concept of ‘the social’ must be allowed to change to include soil and sea, vegetal and animal, microbe and machine.  We must find ways of surpassing ‘the anthropological machine’ (Agamben, 2004) that has perpetuated the modern lore of human exceptionalism.

Social work is not alone in wrestling with these sorts of major shifts in perceptions of the possible. In the broader (Anglo) academy changing perceptions are visible in an overall amplification of interdisciplinarity and the range of philosophies available, and in a general turn towards the natural sciences (e.g., science and technology studies, environmental social work, environmental humanities). One effect of these shifts is an increasing problematization of established units of analysis (e.g., methodological nationalism, anthropocentrism) and related methods (e.g., comparative and qualitative methods). In academic social work more specifically, aspects of these changes are evinced in literatures reflecting the historical (e.g., Feldon, de Chenu, & Weinstein, 2018; Gal, Köngeter, & Vicary, 2020; Lorenz, 2007; Maurer, 2007) and generational nature of social work (e.g., Brandt, Roose, & Verschelden, 2020); in work to revisit and refocus long-standing debates so as to move them somewhere new (e.g., Hicks, 2016; Joseph, 2015; Kemp & Samuels, 2019; McGregor, 2019); and in a range of commemorative issues and retrospectives (e.g., Cree, 2019; Jobling et al., 2017; Martinez-Brawley & Zorita, 2016; Todd & Savard, 2014).  The last decade has also seen new integrative theoretical heavy lifting towards alternative philosophies or paradigms for applied social work (e.g., Bell, 2012; Boetto, 2017; Bozalek & Pease, 2021; Shaw, 2018), as well as work to re-nuance established units of analysis and practice (e.g., Grimwood, 2020).

For this event we invite those working in social work and related fields to take the long view and consider the broad, speculative question of what social work the world needs now, and in the years to come. Our aim is to create a space that is at least partially removed from the claims making typically expected in university and profession (e.g., individualized insight; what social work can offer the world), tuning instead into disciplinary problematics and shared problems of knowledge. We expect participants will engage with and introduce interdisciplinary domains of learning and debate that social work, as both an academic unit and a particular entrance point into the world, might fruitfully engage. We assume that much of the work presented will be new to many in social work, and we hope to foster a collegial environment in which presenters can share and strengthen their work and connect with others similarly exploring the edges of what is currently intelligible. Examples of interdisciplinary conversations include but are not limited to:

  1. Community beyond anthropocentricism
  2. Emotion, as both perceived problem and solution (eg, populism, care)
  3. Environmental crisis, geopolitics and racializing imaginaries
  4. Questions of progress, theories of change
  5. Reconceptualizing crisis
  6. Revisiting the human, the biosocial question
  7. Science and technology, artificial intelligence, information infrastructures, datafication
  8. The limits of liberalism as a foundation for social work, questions of freedom and social engineering



Professor Susan Kemp
The University of Auckland

Professor Walter Lorenz
Bozen and Charles University Prague

Professor Stephen Webb
Glasgow Caledonian University

Social Work and Future Making
ABSTRACT This short paper discusses the tension between hope and antipathy in social work studies, suggesting that it reflects two converging developments: a sense of increasing unpredictability and crisis, and a sense of lack of political and ideological direction in possible trajectories for social work. In light of the recent BJSW debate on the "End of Social Work" and the burgeoning "Abolish Child Welfare" movement, I further identify two overall trends in the social work literature gathered under the rubric of hope: an emphasis on hopefulness against all odds and one on specific formations of hope and temporal reasoning. A critical focus on "endism" and experimental dissidence casts light on where we go from here



When: Monday 28th June 2021
This day-long online event will be scheduled across three timezones (GMT -4; GMT +1; GMT +13 ) with breaks between presentations blocks. Presentations will be recorded and posted online.

Abstracts: Please submit a 250 word abstract by Friday 30th April 2021. We will review and notify potential presenters by Friday 7th May 2021.

Registration: Registration for this event will remain open until Wednesday 23rd June 2021. There is a £10 registration fee for both presenters and general attendees. You can register for the event online.



This event is organised by the Social Work Futures? Research Group at Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland. For more information, or to submit an abstract, please email:

Dr. Tina Wilson tina.wilson@gcu.ac.uk

Dr. Heather Lynch heather.lynch@gcu.ac.uk



Agamben, G. (2004) The Open, Man and Animal, Stanford University Press, California.

Auge, M. (2014) The Future, London, Verso.

Bell, K. (2012). Towards a post-conventional philosophical base for social work. British Journal of Social Work, 42(3), 408-423. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcr073

Berardi, F. (2017) Futurabilty: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, London, Verso.

Boetto, H. (2017). A transformative eco-social model: Challenging modernist assumptions in social work. British Journal of Social Work, 47(1), 48-67 https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcw149

Boone, K., Roets, G., & Roose, R. (2018). Social Work, Poverty and Anti-Poverty Strategies: Creating Cultural Forums. The British Journal of Social Work. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcy006

Bozalek, V., & Pease, B. (Eds.) (2021). Post-anthropocentric social work: Critical posthuman and new materialist perspectives. https://www.routledge.com/Post-Anthropocentric-Social-Work-Critical-Posthuman-and-New-Materialist/Bozalek-Pease/p/book/9780367349653

Brandt, S., Roose, R., & Verschelden, G. (2020). The caged bird sings: The voice of the workfare generation. British Journal of Social Work, 50(7), 2022-2039. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcz101

Cree, V. E. (2019). ‘States of change’? One hundred years of the JUC. Social Work Education, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2019.1627308

Feldon, P., de Chenu, L., & Weinstein, J. (2018). The Case Con generation, 1970–75. Critical & Radical Social Work, 6(1), 107-114. https://doi.org/10.1332/204986018x15199229647953

Gal, J., Köngeter, S., & Vicary, S. (Eds.) (2020). The settlement house movement revisited: A transnational history. Policy Press.

Grimwood, T. (2020): The rhetoric of urgency and theory-practice tensions, European Journal of Social Work, DOI: 10.1080/13691457.2020.1843408

Hicks, S. (2016). Theory and social work: A conceptual review of the literature. International Journal of Social Welfare, 25(4), 399-414. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijsw.12215

Ingold, T. & Palsson, G. (2013) Biosocial Becomings, Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge.

Jobling, H., Shaw, I., Jang, I. H., Czarnecki, S., & Ramatowski, A. (2017). A case study of applied scholarship: The British Journal of Social Work 1971–2013. British Journal of Social Work, 47(8), 1-31. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcx140

Joseph, A. J. (2015). Beyond intersectionalities of identity or interlocking analyses of difference: Confluence and the problematic of “anti”-oppression. Intersectionalities, 4(1), 15-39.

Kemp, S. P., & Samuels, G. M. (2019). Theory in social work science.  In J. S. Brekke & J. W. Anastas (Eds.), Shaping a science of social work: Professional knowledge and identity (pp. 1-30). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190880668.003.0007

Lorenz, W. (2007). Practising history: Memory and contemporary professional practice. International Social Work, 50(5), 597-612. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020872807079918

Lorenz, W. (2016). Rediscovering the social question. European Journal of Social Work, 19(1), 4–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691457.2015.1082984

Martinez-Brawley, E., & Zorita, P. M.-B. (2016). Philosophical thinking in social work: An analysis of 30 years of social work editorials. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(Sup 1), S6-S15.

Maurer, S. (2007). Thinking governmentality ‘from below’: social work and social movements as (collective) actors in movable/mobile orders. Counterpoints, 292(Why Foucault? New Directions in Educational Research), 125-137.

McGregor, C. (2019). A paradigm framework for social work theory for early 21st century practice. British Journal of Social Work, 49(8), 2112-2129 doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcz006

O’Brien, M. (2004). What is social about social work? Social Work & Social Sciences Review, 11(2), 5-19.

Shaw, J. (2010). Homines Curans and the social work imaginary: Post-liberalism and the ethics of care. British Journal of Social Work, 49(1), 183-197. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcy026

Todd, S., & Savard, S. (2014). Introduction: A celebration. Canadian Social Work Review, 30(2), 109-119. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43486765?seq=1

Vandekinderen, C., Roose, R., Raeymaeckers, P., & Hermans, K. (2020). The DNA of social work as a human rights practice from a frontline social workers’ perspective in Flanders. European Journal of Social Work, 23(5), 876–888. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691457.2019.1663408

Webb, S. A. (2010). (Re)Assembling the Left: The Politics of Redistribution and Recognition in Social Work. British Journal of Social Work, 40(8), 2364–2379. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcq070