This is what I had to tell my upper level social welfare class today: Folks,
I’ve been thinking a lot about some things that are troubling me in our discussions lately. I’m trying to figure out (a) exactly how to explain what is worrying me, (b) why we have gotten here, and (c) how to try to convince you that this is a problem. Let me give it a try here – and feel free to sound off in the comments. These are just my IDEAS.
(1) As you have heard me mention, almost every day for the past 3 weeks, I am concerned that we are INDIVIDUALIZING our understandings of social welfare, need, and social workers. We are spending a lot of time saying things like “well, it all depends on the case worker” or “it is different for every family,” etc. Be wary. If this is true, if we cannot come up with some generalized or systematic or patterned understandings of need, of problems, of social welfare programs – then there is NO POINT in either research OR policy. No point. We need to have more generalized conclusions about what = need, harm, appropriate action, effective social work, etc. Otherwise – there are no policies, no practices, no employee evaluations, no research to evaluate the effectiveness of policy, etc. When we devolve down to individual variation we not only argue against sociology, but, really, against every social science.
(2) When we individualize like this, we end up focusing on BLAME. Who is a better case worker? Which kind of parent is worse? That doesn’t do us too much good either. Watkins-Hayes’ point WAS NOT that efficiency engineers were worse, or were wrong in their understandings of the social work profession. They simply applied for and occupied a different job: one that was actively created by their institution. Social workers are not necessarily doing right or wrong when they remove kids from homes; they are using institutionally shaped understandings of appropriate family life and child care characteristics in order to perform an important job task. What is perhaps MOST interesting to think about is these institutionally-shaped understandings – not the individual implementation of them.
(3) My goal for you in this class is to examine critically the social forces that have shaped these policies. If you stay at the level of individual family/case worker, you are going to get intellectual whiplash in the last two weeks when I FORCE you back to structural thinking, as we explore neoliberalism and charity. And I will not let you dwell at the level of the individual, or of platitudes, when we do this work!!
(4) Why am I being so adamant? The rest of American society WANTS you to think about the individual, and only the individual. The individual who is at fault for being poor, the individual who chooses to do good works – or not – in their voluntarism. Sociology (and related disciplines, we don’t corner the market) is a place to challenge that. To say that the individual MATTERS, sure, but in the context of social forces that shape our choices and interactions. Please keep challenging yourself to push past the easier answers, engage what we have to offer here.
Keep on pushing, thinking critically, and engaging in class. BIG thanks.