Social Work and Disappointment

Michael Balkow argues that social work is inevitably a profession that must attend to the inevitable limitations of our human situation, but that this has its own special value.

Author: Michael Balkow

There is probably never an easy time to enter the social work profession, and with the Conservatives having put in place plans for social workers to face up to five years in jail for failing to protect children (DoH 2014) and with The College of Social Work now closed, in part due to lack of government funding; it is easy to feel unease, and as a profession – somewhat unloved. 

The current political climate for those that use social services is also turbulent. Figures released by the Department of Work and Pensions, shows that between December 2011 and February 2014: 2,380 people have died after their claim for employment and support allowance ended because a work capability assessment found they were fit for work (DWP 2015, see also Butler 2015). This is just one aspect of the government’s welfare reform that demonstrates the pernicious consequence of austerity, and the results upon some of the most vulnerable groups within society, groups that social workers regularly come into contact with.

It could be argued that social work begins in idealistic notions and ends in disappointment. As I embark on my own career, I carry around some natural trepidation but try to supplant this with an optimistic outlook for the possibilities of the profession. It has often been pointed out to me – and mainly in good humour – that students and newly qualified social workers start their careers idealistic and enthusiastic, brimming with aspirations of making a difference and changing lives. Entrants into the profession begin eager and green, however when met with an onslaught of high and unsustainable caseloads, managerial structures that stifle and consume time spent with service users, compounded by an imperceptible fear of an erroneous decision that may result in tragedy – their enthusiasm rapidly dissipates.

Social work frequently involves the assessing of risk, which can, if done accurately, be reduced or managed. However, risk can never be fully eradicated, making protection work subject to the ever present possibility of crisis. To borrow slightly from Heidegger in the manner of pastiche (see Being and Time), as beings-in-the-world we are always a few heartbeats away from such tragedies, a few footsteps from oncoming traffic, an unexpected fall, or the abhorrent horror of harm inflicted upon someone vulnerable, someone who as professionals we came into contact with, but through confusion or complexity or error or hesitancy – we failed to act. Social work stands at the edge of this constant yawning precipice, at all times in danger of falling into the abyss.

The philosopher Simon Critchley argues that philosophy begins with an experience of disappointment that is both religious and political (Critchley 2004). The latter concerns the problem of justice, questioning how justice can ever be effective in a violently unjust world. Critchley uses Emmanuel Levinas’ conception of justice which arises from our ethical relation to others. This operates within the public and political realm, but these realms can never fully embody justice, which will always remain ultimately unobtainable, placing upon ourselves "a response to suffering that provokes an infinite responsibility and the attempt to minimize cruelty"(Critchley 2009 p102). I began with social work, as many do, with a commitment to the very aspect Critchley feels emanates disappointment; namely social justice, creating a fairer and a more just society, as well as the chance to advocate for the rights of the disadvantaged and the marginalised – the amelioration of poverty and the reduction of cruelty, whilst fraught with the fog of complexity; still remain important and pertinent points of social work.

Critchley expands upon this in relation to the French philosopher Jacque Derrida in his lecture turned essay Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority (Derrida 1989). Derrida discusses justice relative to his concept of deconstruction, whereby he argues that law is deconstructable and must remain so for political progress, whereas justice remains outside and beyond the law, being something unobtainable ‘the mystical’, ‘the impossible’ and therefore beyond deconstruction. Law is in some respects, interpretable and subject to historical change – think of the increasing of the age of consent or the gradual legalisation of same-sex marriage across the world.

Derrida sees the law as calculable, creating decisions that ‘cut and divide’ involving the distribution of justice, however for Derrida one could never say that these decisions were wholly ‘just, purely just’, (just used as an adjective) merely that they are legal, legitimate or in conformity with law (Derrida 1989). Eagleton (2009) views Derrida’s stance as being that the law is finite and largely negative and justice is infinite and supremely positive. This stems in part from Derrida’s distaste for conformity and his suspicion of elements of language that are seen to be fixed, however he largely ignores the fact that law protects and safeguards people from harm, creating responsibility, culpability and duty within communities. The law changes and adapts and is always subject to interpretation and challenge. As Eagleton states "applying rules is itself a creative practice, there would be no liberty without it" (Eagleton 2009 p252).

Whilst laws may be contingent, the ideals that underpin them are the common threads of decency that hold our societies in twine. It seems perhaps pessimistic in outlook then, when Derrida argues that justice is ‘unobtainable.’ As though justice is a far-flung utopian, idyllic, chimera – great on paper, or postcard – but as distant from us as any perfect horizon. To use deconstruction as a tool, is one way to tackle inherent complexity, to go beyond the usual prescribed rational order and cut a deeper rift into what can appear to be the unassailable. Derrida’s deconstruction – although far from clear-cut as a concept – can alter our thinking and refresh our perspectives. We can move away from dichotomies of binary opposites such as ‘good and bad’, ‘rich and poor’ , ‘father and mother’ which can promote established beliefs or preconceived ideals, fostering fixity whilst denying fluidity and the possibility of radical change. One example would be a parent who fails to get their children to school on a consistent basis, who may be labelled as bad. However they may be loving, caring and affectionate and provide all other of their child’s needs. As a social worker we seek to understand the motivation behind such a contradiction, in part by considering the myriad factors and causalities that contribute to a families lived experience.

To lift us from the tangle of philosophical arguments and place ourselves within the daily realities of social work practice, we can take many examples where workers strive for justice. The protection of children who have suffered abuse, the advocating on behalf of a patient detained under the Mental Health Act, or ensuring people with disabilities are able to live as independently as possible. These are just some instances of the myriad of points where social workers meet with injustice and oppression. Justice and just causes permeate many levels of social work and enshrined in the definition provided by the International Federation of Social Work is: "Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities." (IFSW 2015).

Reasons To Be Cheerful

A criticism of social work has been the lack of coherence and collaboration between its varying governing bodies (Croisdale-Appleby, 2014). We have the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), and must adhere to separate code of ethics stipulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Statutory social work is also answerable to a local authority, each with its own policy and procedures based upon law and government policy. However, recently an historic collaborative joint statement has been released from several different organisations, including amongst others the BASW, SWAN (Social Work Action Network), the Association of Professors of Social Work (APSW) and the relevant representatives from UNISON.

The statement "condemns the impact of welfare transformation and austerity on the lives of some of the most vulnerable communities in Britain." It is also notable not just for the collective weight of the bodies involved, but also for its opposition to government policies such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which it claims will exacerbate problems caused by the privatisation of welfare provision (BASW 2015). The statement articulates much that is expressed in the theory of both radical and critical social work, often seen as beginning with Radical Social Work (Bailey and Brake 1975), and continuing to be revisited by many social work academics (see Lavalette 2011, Rogowski 2013, Gray and Webb 2013).

These theories frequently come to the fore in times of economic crisis, as they question the deleterious effects of neoliberalism, the fragile nature of capitalism and the inequality that arises from it. These arguments are well-worn, as with many in social work, and frequently echo previous sentiments. It is perhaps worth noting that many professions have their areas of contention, in-fighting, varied schools of thought, radical departures, splits and fall-outs – perhaps social work also falls prey to this. However, whether this radical approach will make a difference in social policy terms, remains to be seen. Ultimately, I would argue that these debates are worth having, inequality and injustice inevitably pervade society, the pursuit of justice is; an indefatigable demand that is worthy and welcoming of persistence.

Conflating disappointment with pessimism is perhaps inevitable but somewhat unfair. Even the gloomily pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer – a man who argued that "happiness does not exist, as an unfulfilled wish only brings pain, and attainment brings only satiety" (cited in Russell 2010 p. 683) – still maintained that the basis of morality is compassion: "Only insofar as an action has sprung from compassion does it have moral value; and every action resulting from any other motives has none" (Schopenhauer 2000). Given the onslaught and hardship it frequently faces, the social work profession must continue its commitment to compassion, whilst maintaining that disappointment is a perennial point that is reached when we are striving – when we are pushing ourselves and our values to their limits.


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SCHOPENHAUER, A. (2000) On The Basis Of Morality. USA, Berghahn Books.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Social Work and Disappointment © Michael Balkow 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 26.05.17

politics, social care, England, Article

Michael Balkow


Children's Social Worker

Michael Balkow


Children's Social Worker

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