March 18, 2013, by Lisa Warwick
Social Work: A Question of Love?
It is taboo to talk about love in social work academia. But for me, social work is about issues of the heart. I by no means mean romantic or sexual love; what I rather mean are fierce, passionate, and at times heartbreaking emotions that I feel everyday when at work. I loved my role as a social worker: it inspired, motivated and enraged me at times. But at the very least I came home from work each night secure in the knowledge that I had made a difference. I now battle daily with the conflict between being ‘out there’ as social worker and existing in the cocoon of university life, merely writing about social work. Social research evidently requires deep intellectual processing, personal discipline and dedicated commitment to academic excellence – but what is all this worth if we do not change a thing? With this question in mind, social work academics should hold an ethical commitment to actively and critically engaging with past and present practice in order to improve the future lives of the most vulnerable.
The decision to embark on an academic career, at least for the next four years, was not motivated by a desire to have a title. Nor was it to be admired or an arrogant self-appreciating pursuit of recognition. It was more than that. Etched in my mind are the haunted eyes and broken bodies of the children and adults I have met throughout my career; my research is motivated by a desire to examine a multifaceted area of practice that I believe is both under-researched and misunderstood. Equally, going to work in residential homes alongside my studies is fundamental, it’s part of who I am and I never want that part of me to disappear; and crucially, it also serves as a reminder that it’s not about me, it’s about them.
Balancing practice and academia is challenging. Sometimes I do want to forget that basic human rights are violated every day, I want to pretend that children and adults are not subject to abject poverty, suffering and abuse. I want to pretend that my relatively middle-class existence is the experience of all. But my biggest challenge – and arguably my biggest fear – is that I become blasé. It scares me when I catch myself not feeling anything. I read an article last week about ‘Baby P’ [Peter Connolly] and I was repulsed that I had become so engrossed with drinking coffee and working out ‘P’ values that I had forgotten how I used to feel about social work. I catch myself forgetting about the bravery, dedication and empathetic performances of social workers who dedicate their lives to working with the UK’s most marginalised individuals. Instead choosing, and indeed at times preferring, to sit in my own ivory tower passing judgement on performance – forgetting what it is like to balance disproportionate bureaucratic navigation, blatant societal injustice and palpable individual human pain. And so I go to work wanting and indeed needing to see it all again. Growing up and developing professional resilience and wisdom is, of course, imperative to professional development and necessary in order to protect yourself. But growing complacent and worse, self-righteous, is not imperative – not at all.
So I argue that social work is about issues of the heart. Committing to ethically informed inquiries motivated by a want for understanding and a motivation to change the lives of those whom we study should be at the heart of social work research. For every child I’ve met along my journey – each of whom have taught me as much as any book could – I write this and pursue my studies, in some way I hope at least, for you. If talking about love in social work is taboo then I suppose you should call me a deviant, for I think it should be at the very heart of what we do.