Can social work do magic?

24 January 2017 00:00

As social professionals we work with nuanced skills that are difficult to explain or recognise. There is something that happens which social professionals might understand as being more than the sum of all our techno-rational parts; something that makes our work unique.  I was recently discussing this in supervision with a social work student who said, ‘Oh, that's where the magic happens'. It is true there is something that sparkles in our skills, that makes us carry on in difficult circumstances and come out hopeful and smiling.

If you are a social worker, you might agree that we spend a lot of  time thinking on our feet, regardless of how many forms we fill in. You might also agree that 'thinking on our feet' is not the same as 'making it up as we go along'. We use our growing knowledge and experience to understand what is in front of us and how best to deal with it. My experience as a social professional tells me that the families we work with all have different feelings, needs and views are entirely unique to them, even if their circumstances may seem familiar. These are the times when as workers our knowledge and our perceived common sense collide and we try to get inside that uniqueness of each family and strive to do our best for them.  Here is where we might use some other power that is not about procedures, but that provides critical insights into our work. As well as understanding the evidence base and theoretical knowledge this might require the use of our imagination or intutition, the unknown areas that arise from the creative area of our brains. There is so much psychology discussing the amazing functions and capacities of this instrument, especially dreaming.

There is no academic writing about the magic of social work that I can find. But there is certainly a great deal of interest in social work’s more elusive qualities of creativity, imagination and ourselves in practice. In 1966 Rappaport wrote, “Social Work, like art, is engaged in problem solving, be it the problem of expression, communication, transformation, or change. Both deal with human materials or human themes and both require ultimate “knowledge and contact”. Both call for creative and imaginative use of self" (Rappaport, 1968, p.151). In 1986 England wrote a book that challenged the profession to consider social work as 'art' and said, 'In order to master the controlled, conscious and imaginative use of self, the social work practitioner must possess a high degree of maturity and a deep sense of personal and social responsibility.” (England, 1986, p.44)'. Both authors believed there is a need to blend art and science in social work in order to absorb our work into our being. The mixing of imagination with professional skills, knowledge and science is considered to be ‘mastery’ or  'practice Wisdom'.  Here, there is a certain amount of alchemy; the skill of mixing chemicals in such a way as to turn them into gold! Or maybe in the case of social work, mixing oil with water! There does indeed seem to be a touch of the mysterious in our work. Each day social work professionals meet people who live on the precarious shifting sands of society and we are hoping we might perform ‘little miracles’ with ever decreasing resources. There is often a 'thing', which we might call gut instinct, that weighs up something about a situation which is not necessarily on a checklist, or where the assessment form just can't tell the whole story. This is where our 'craft' comes in and we become story tellers and creative solution finders.

Does magic happen somewhere in our social work craft?  Of course many notions of magic are problematic when applying them to social work. This discussion for example has little to do with fairy tales or the dark arts, although even here there may be more to be said (there will be a blog discussing fairy tales later). However, the idea of magic brings professionals in touch with a different language of social work; one where dreaming, imagining and crafting solutions are part of the processes. It’s also the place where consciousness plays a role and a critical eye to ‘common sense’ is needed by asking who we are in all of this and what impact it will have on the people, children and families we work with.  Obvious solutions require rigorous questioning. Thinking on our feet is all very well but it must involve the people we work with in the mix, by being in their world and standing beside them. Its knowing when to act, when to step back and when to step in. There is often something happening in these processes that are inexplicable. Like the times when we know we’ve made a real difference but can’t explain it in words. That’s magic!

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