Special Articles / M. Nadarajah / Social Work Profession in India: An Uncertain Future
In 1979, I joined a course in MA social work at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), specializing in community development. I left the course in a year’s time having become disenchanted with the programme: I experienced a conflict inside me between my classroom and fieldwork experiences. My fieldwork in the slums of Madras (now Chennai) showed me dynamics that were increasingly not covered in the classroom. Increasing tension between theory of social work and social work practice led me to consider other ways to serve or work with individuals and communities. This and for a number of other reasons, I left the course.
The experience at MSSW was however invaluable. When I applied for MA in social work, I was a graduate in science (having majored in Chemistry and minored in Physics and Mathematics). The short period I was in the MA course brought the ‘social’ strongly to my attention. It was a life-changing impact for I never became a practising chemist but a practising sociologist…one who worked with the social, trying to understand it at times and intervene on it at other times, hopefully, for the better.
For all those years that I was not a ‘professional’ social worker, I think my work and contributions to a large extent can be seen as a sort of ‘social work’. Looking back after about 30 years, I think I never really left social work!
What is Social Work?
It is important that once in a while we visit the basics, or foundational issues, so that we orient and/or re-orient ourselves and stay on course, or question the course we have taken. It helps both engaging with the social world effectively and having a meaningful purpose in personal and professional lives. So, in this context, it is important that we make some effort to explore “What is ‘social work’ ?” without taking it for granted.
To begin with, all work is social. So what is distinctive about ‘social work’? First, is social work, ‘work’ at all? Should it be work, as we understand ‘salaried work’ today? What kind of work could it be for it to be social work? And if it is work with the social, what is this ‘social’ we are referring to? Is it static? Is it changing? Is there ‘one social’ or ‘many socials’? And what is the nature or method of intervention in the social? What is the nature of relationship between social work and the social? And, as some among us would understand, for work to be called social work, should it not be served spiritually and selflessly? And what is the purpose of social work, or what ends do we expect from engaging with it? These questions are often taken for granted, even seen as a waste of time, but seeking answers for them actively orient our approach to social work, ways we carry it out and/or transform it, when and where necessary.
An Orientation to Social Work
One of the critical concerns of social sciences (especially sociology) is explaining, or making sense of, social life in terms of its orderedness , a desirable state of affairs for social life to be possible and to be reproduced, or to be systematically changed. At a popular level, the ‘social’ is a taken for granted thing – we live in society where life-sustaining patterns exist and life goes on. However, if we pause for a while and consider what social order is or how social order or life is possible, explaining or making sense of social order/social life is not really that straightforward. It assumes a level of complexity and needs to be examined and explained or made sense of.
Let us start deliberating on this. Following the mainstream sociological tradition, Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of Western sociology, offered a discussion on social order by referring to the twin processes of (a) integration and (b) regulation.1 The former indicates sharing of values or goals while the latter refers to the limiting or channelling of people’s needs and drives in socially acceptable ways.
Here, I would like to extend this discussion, by considering the fact of social life by separating the component that is normally combined with integration and by adding it as one more component to the two proposed by Durkheim. Thus, social life is achieved by the interplay of three components: (a) integration, (b) attachment and (c) regulation. (See figure 1: Social Order, below) Of these processes, we need to concentrate on the former two, i.e., integration and attachment, to make sense of social work, professional or otherwise.
You may be wondering: What has all these got to do with social work? To re-focus my deliberation: Is not social work’s aim restoring social order by addressing a rupture in that order? So, the queries: What is social work’s value to social order? What mediates between social work and social order? In attempting to answer these questions, let me explore two important conceptual/emotional orientations: (i) the reality and relevance of our moral sense and (ii) the reality and distribution of misery/suffering2 in society. We will address (i) in the next section and take up (ii) in the section that follows the next. And we will relate these discussions to social order.
Social Work as Moral Sense
What does moral sense mean? According to James Wilson (1993) , our moral sense simply means “an intuitive or directly felt belief about how one ought to act when one is free to act voluntarily (that is, not under duress)”. “How one ought to act” is the key. Wilson elaborates two meanings of the term moral sense: “First, virtually everyone, beginning at a very young age, makes moral judgment that, though they may vary greatly in complexity, sophistication, and wisdom, distinguish between actions on the grounds that some are right and others wrong, and virtually everyone recognises that for these distinctions to be persuasive to others they must be, or at least appear to be, disinterested. Second, virtually everyone, beginning at a very young age, acquires a set of social habits that we ordinarily find pleasing in others and satisfying when we practice them ourselves. There are, to be sure, some people who, again from a very young age, seem to have no regular habits that make their company pleasurable to decent people and lack any tendency to judge as right and wrong in a disinterested way”.
Wilson continues to capture four sentiments as basic and contributing to our sense of what is moral: (a) sympathy, (b) fairness, (c) self-control and (d) duty. These four components allow the articulation of our moral sense. Evolutionarily and functionally speaking, our moral sense developed because of its importance to our collective social and biological survival. If it did not, “natural selection would have worked against people who had such useless traits as sympathy, self-control, or a desire for fairness and in favour of those with the opposite tendencies…” Based on this elaboration, and with the adding of “sympathy” with “compassion”, we can now expand figure 1 to figure 2: Social order and the four “foundational sentiments”. It is also worthwhile considering these foundational sentiments, particularly sympathy/compassion, as constitutive of the controversial ‘spiritual self ’.
All social life is therefore, in an important sense, based on a “structure of sentiments”, defining our moral sense. In this, I follow closely Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of ‘disposition’ or ‘habitus’, which “designates a way of being, a habitual state…and in particular, a predisposition, tendency, propensity, or inclination”. To tie up, the processes of integration, attachment and regulation that are so central to making social life possible and sustainable depend on a ‘structure of sentiment’, our moral sense.
It is now possible to relate social work to social order. It is not difficult to perceive social work as a specific mode of engagement with the world, falling within the ambience of the sympathetic/compassionate sentiment, of course supported by the other sentiments. It means “the human capacity for being affected by the feelings and experiences of others. Sometimes sympathy leads us to act altruistically…More often it restrains us from acting cruelly…sympathy is an important source of moral standards by which we judge others and ourselves. Sympathy, in other words, is both a motive and a norm…[it] is not an idle sentiment: on the contrary, it often – but not always – leads to benevolence. A person who feels distress at the plight of another is more likely to help that one....though specific aspects of the situation and of the person will influence his response” (Wilson, 1993).
Having said this, one may wonder as to where this moral sense in general, and our sympathetic/compassionate sense in particular, emerge. Wilson traces a complex reality as the source of this sentiment: “The two most striking facts about human society are that each is organized around kinship patterns and that children, no matter how burdensome, are not abandoned in large numbers…kinship and child rearing cannot wholly be explained on grounds of personal self-interest; they involve an important element of obligation…[Sympathy] is rooted in part in a sense of kinship (and the closer the kin, the more we are inclined towards generosity); in part in those dispositions that prepare us to make sacrifices over long periods of time for highly dependent children; in part in those sensory cues that remind us of things that we find appealing about our infants (and by extension of infants generally); and in part in our capacity (itself the product of the long period of dependence that we experience as children) to imagine and even experience, vicariously, the joys and sorrow of others. The innate sociability of the child is the vital embryo in which a capacity for sympathy and an inclination to generosity can be found, and from which parents may help produce a sympathetic adult”.
Social work, as a mode of engagement, is therefore an expression of our sympathetic/compassionate sentiment, born out of our sociability, and it is essentially directed at those in need of help. Social work stems from (a) the general concern for the wellbeing of the other and (b) the particular concern for those in distress or difficult situations. It is directed, on a voluntary basis, at helping people, both materially and/or non-materially. It is enabled by our moral sense, supports integration, and attachment and, directly or indirectly, contributes to the orderedness of social life, to the sustainability of society. Today, social work, through our sympathetic/compassionate sense has also extended beyond the human world to include all of nature.
Let me continue this discussion and frame social work as a type of human action or engagement, and how this is changing. Human social action comes in many forms. In order to introduce social work as a form of engaging action, understanding the various possible types of social action will be helpful. Three types can be identified – instrumental, expressive and moral.3
Instrumental action4 is action oriented to realise explicit specific goals efficiently (and usually with self-interest/selfishness and material benefits). Expressive action is oriented to realise emotional satisfaction and is usually an end in itself. Moral action is directed at realizing standards of right and wrong, usually directed at what is preferable or promoting sustainable social order. In general, social work as action has a directional component: it moves from kin groups, through friends, through religious communities, ethnic affiliations to acquaintances to strangers at large. It also moves from the close to the distant, living to non-living, from humans to non-human entities.
The traditional social work is an action type that can be placed as part of moral-expressive action. It is important to keep in mind changes in this perception. With professionalization of social work, social work action can now be framed “more” as part of instrumental action, changing its form and nature from the earlier type.
Social Work and the ‘Distribution of Misery’
Problematising Social Order
The discussion on social order (orderedness of social life) in the section above has been presented without considering the problematic reality of social order. It was also conceived from a point of view of social integration and the role of social work in that. However, the reality is far from this.
In order to capture a more realistic picture of society, I will introduce two opposing social conditions in society – consensus and conflict. These conditions will change the nature and expression of social order (social life) and, therefore, our view of social work. Consider the following diagram in relation to the two different pathways to social order.
What are the central characteristics of these pathways? One is hegemonic, i.e., it is achieved through military, political and cultural domination and overt or covert coercion. It reflects individual-group interests dynamics and the power of the dominant class (or group) to direct this group dynamics in its favour. The other is consensual, i.e., based on shared values and goals, belongingness, participation, negotiation and dialogue. Social order in this sense, which is arrived through participation, negotiation and dialogue (as in consensual order), would be markedly different in content, structures and dynamics from the order reached through hegemonic domination and coercion. These pathways have impact on the nature of social work and its mode of action/engagement.
In a society that achieves social order through authentic and democratic consensus and dialogue, the occurrence, experience and spread of human social misery would be drastically less. Society will have in place the social apparatus to respond to and handle the occurrences of human misery. In such kind of a social arrangement, human misery will be largely confined to ‘objective risks’, originating from any kind of social or technological innovations, from natural calamities or from health-related conditions over which human beings have little or no control. These occurrences cannot be got rid off, as it is part of the inevitable unpredictability of human existence and social life, and the natural course of events. In such situations, social work interventions will be confined to limited situations.
The “real world” is quite contrary to the above characterisation. Social order, and our experience of social life are arrived at through overt or covert coercion or domination achieved through hegemonic structures and processes. All these present a number of critical challenges. First, such a society is essentially structured with a number of “social faultlines”. Second, the social groups (class, gender, ethnic, age, local and migrant, digital haves and have nots, etc) across the faultlines are not only pervasive in contemporary societies but are also organized hierarchically, as unequal social groups. The structured inequalities are complex, mutually reinforce each other and articulate at various sites and levels — local, national, regional, and global. Third, there is differential distribution of social, cultural, economic, and political power, creating some who have more control over their lives, resources and structures, and others who don’t. Fourth, this places both real and potential conflicts as integral part of contemporary society (local, national, regional and global). And lastly, in such social arrangements, the sites of human misery (or suffering) are widespread, affecting a lot of people – individuals and communities. And beyond, i.e., the impact goes beyond the human world and affects other animals, the environment we live in, the climate, etc. As it is structured and systemic, human misery only tends to multiply and intensify, without drastic changes in the social structures. Today this is perceived as a very unsustainable social and ecological situation.
Such an understanding and characterisation of social order complicate the expression of social work and its ‘targets’, i.e., the beneficiaries of social work interventions. In order to make sense of this, let us consider the more realistic unequal and unjust world we live in. There is structural inequality of class (national and transnational), gender (male, female, transgender) and ethnicity (many forms). There is also the domination of northern nations on southern ones (the “third world”) in an unfair global economic, cultural and communication hegemonic order. All these and more are widespread, globally. They throw up many, many sites of human misery/suffering. Such a scenario presents three social work concerns and targets (or constituencies of interventions).
These concerns and targets are actively engaged through three orientations to social work, namely, charity, welfarism and activism.
Let us now arrive at a more realistic picture of social work engagement/ orientation in the contemporary real world where hegemonic coercion, control and domination are our everyday experiences that we may or may not be conscious.
Assuming that we are sympathetic/compassionate creatures, we know there are people, individuals and/or groups/communities/nations, in all kinds of distress situations, going through suffering/misery. We also know human misery is a fact of life and that many people are in need of help. As individuals we respond to this impulsively or institutionally in the form of charity. Thus, individualized social work as response to misery can be casual or routinised, as voluntarism. Another form of intervention is welfarist and can involve the targeting of individuals, communities or issues. Here, this is seen as usually carried out by non-governmental organisations, political parties, government and business concerns. In both the above forms, the structures or policies that cause human misery are hardly the concern. Of course, there are situations in society, which require these forms of orientation. But at a societal level, it usually involves “tinkering the system” (not “rocking the boat”). Prevention is not necessarily in their agenda. Or it is a lesser concern. The third form of engagement takes the activist form, addressing critical social realities causing, and/or having the potential to cause or escalate human misery/suffering. It usually involves structured social criticism, peaceful or violent demand for structural change of the status quo that causes or generates human misery/suffering, and offer of solutions for a more humane and sustainable future(s). The focus is on prevention and sustainable solutions. Non-governmental or civil society organisations, and some political parties, largely contribute to this form of engagement.
From the point of view of social order achieved through controlling conflicts and through hegemonic consent (where one class or group is able to “bend” all social resources to benefit their interest, and where they effectively sell their images of the present and futures as ones beneficial for all), the social environment selects and promotes the first two forms of social work engagement, i.e., charity and welfarism. Both these forms, while addressing human misery/suffering incrementally, neither address the cause of social suffering nor challenge status quo that produces them. These forms of social work engagement and orientation leave the unsustainable structures alone, uncontested. “Rocking the boat” is not an acceptable value, even when it is necessary.
On the other hand, support for activism is not exactly tolerated. The internal components of activism like social criticism, examination of causes of social suffering rather than treatment of symptoms, structural changes and conception of alternative developmental trajectories that displace entrenched interests all go against even recognizing activism as a form of engagement born out of our sympathetic/ compassionate sense. In the popular mind, social work is confined to charity or welfarism, which while contributing a great deal to certain aspects of societal response to social misery, certainly involves direct or indirect support to status quo.
Commodification and Social Work
Briefly, the kind of society we live in, which is built largely on overt or covert coercion and consent through economic and cultural domination, is one in which commodification and profit maximization is central to economic activity and social life.5 The commodification process pervasively influences all aspects of our social life – private, professional and communal. Though a rather complicated social reality, commodification simply refers to that process in which a thing or a service is transformed into a commodity, an object with an economic exchange value, which can be bought/sold in the market. “The perfect commodity would be one that is exchangeable with anything and everything else, as the perfectly commoditised world would be one in which everything is exchangeable for sale” (Kopytoff, 1986). In a perfectly commodified world, there are no sacred or meaningful sites or objects. Commodification puts a price tag on everything we do and makes sure that we serve an ‘interest ecology’ that leads directly or indirectly to profit — monetary or material gains or otherwise.
Globally speaking, this is the general drift of the real world. This is no more a phenomena just involving the local human realities or something associated with only the human world. It involves the human world as well as the living and non-living world. Everything is drawn into the commodification process. The problems created by the growing and unabated commodification process continue to increase the sites of human miseries in the world, both at local and global levels. It also leads to unsustainability; we cannot sustain our world if we continue to commodify.
In this real world scenario, social work has a critical role to play, i.e., to engage and overcome human misery, both at individual and structural levels. Such an activity involves our sympathetic/compassionate sense. It also involves the voluntary help we render to the unfortunate without any concern for personal benefit and, even, personal safety. But the commodification process has impacted on this and changed it.
Social work is today a profession in the economy and job market. It has also been commodified, bringing it within the universe of profit motive. While social work has the features that I have raised here, in relation to addressing human misery, it has also assumed features that are towards profit maximization. In as much as it is in this orientation, there must be a constant supply of human misery. The general effort of professional social work as an institution will not be directed at social prevention but towards curative activities, much like how the medical industry works. It fact, the model of contemporary social work is modern medicine which structurally and strategically marginalises social and preventive medicine. Modern medicine needs a good supply of sick people.So does professionalised social work. A society where people engage at all levels to address human suffering and consider radical structural reforms and prevention would not be in the interest of modern, professionalised social work.
In this context, the right of social work professionals or activists to an income should also be critically understood. There are many types of social work approaches because of the complexity of the real world. We need to distinguish intentions from outcomes. While one directs its activities to profit making in addressing human misery/suffering, the other directs its resources to address the same by trying to address and overcome human misery, an activity which is seen as an end in itself. To add, there are social workers and NGOs that do not question the status quo and take the charity or welfarist pathways. Such kind of social workers or NGOs can be seen as merely modifying and humanizing what is essentially dehumanizing processes, processes that produce and distribute human misery/suffering. It is not that charity and welfarist model are bad, but there are limitations to them in providing lasting solutions to human misery. The activist model offers not only understanding of the charity and welfarist approaches but also the need to go beyond them in the direction of restructuring society. These categories of social workers not only seek to reduce or eliminate sites and causes of human misery and suffering but also extend compassionate action to non-human contexts and entities.
The cognitive exercise in the preceding sections is basically directed at an attempt to understand social work – the idea, the emotion and the action. The effort has been to look at certain basic concepts to develop some critical thought about social work as passion, work and profession.
Social work, like most social behaviour, is rather complex. In the context of a particular ordering of society in which the distribution of the sites of human misery/suffering seems inevitable, the sympathetic/compassionate sense of our moral being, in fact our spiritual being, is crucial. The ensuing compassion has the character of sustaining life by going out to help those who need help because of natural calamities, health-related problems or socially generated events. Social misery/suffering is arguably produced by natural course of events or by unequal and undemocratic ideology, social institutions, processes and practices. “Real society” has to deal with social misery in these two contexts.
The mode of social work engagement has undergone a further complication with the pervasive process of commodification. When social work was professionalized, it was also slowly commodified. This pathway takes professional social workers off the way to radically restructure society and increasingly distance them from our ancient spiritual self, from our compassionate being. If we can consciously address this, recover our connection to compassion for all, and put us on the way to de-commodify the world, we will be in a better position to strengthen our spiritual self and its “organic” relationship with social work. It will actively contribute to structure or re-structure our worlds and our futures. It will help build a compassion-based, sustainable global social order where social work as we understand it today may just disappear.
Subscribers please login to access full text of the article
New 1 Year Subscription to Digital Archives at just Rs.500
your articles to
to publish in our website.
Our Other Websites
Receive email updates on the new books & offers
for the subjects of interest to you.