Key themes in contemporary social work

There are concepts in social work that prove tricky to define in the context of social work. Some of these include risk and need. This paper seeks to find a way away from the ambiguity in these concepts by looking a t how the relationship between the two concepts informs the understanding of challenges in the contemporary practice of social work. This will be achieved through a historical recap of developments in the contemporary practice of social work and challenges therein faced, in-depth analysis of the concept of risk and need, performance frameworks in social work, professional and relational issues and finally service users in social work. The importance of performance management frameworks and effective relationship frameworks in social work will be stressed.


The escalating of time and the changes that come with it, for example globalization; has translated into evolution in the field of social work. There are new social problems created that social workers need to address, changes in labour processes, shift in demands of social work and even development of various theories in social work. This can be traced down the history lane through various factors in social work such as social space in social work, progress, neoliberalism, modernity among other factors.

Social work is gradually shifting to a surface perspective from a depth perspective, it is a shift from the actor to the act. In the past, social workers were more concerned with the reasons as to why their clients did certain things. However, today the focus is more on what is done by the clients than on the reasons as to why they do such as this enable them make the appropriate response to the act and this enables them tackle similar cases. Social work began centuries back, before there was in existence of any state of today. In this time, it was like charity work majorly performed by religious organisations. This cannot be said of the present times as professionals are involved in handling societal problems such as inequality and poverty in the society. This has led to things like supervision in social work, limiting the social space within which social work is performed.

Looking at the progress in social work, it is more than a continuity of what was started centuries back than a retreat. Social workers form among the largest fractions of workers in most nations and these includes clinical social workers who carry out diagnosis and treatment on mental illness. Modernity in social work refers to social changes accustomed to developments such as industrialization and urbanization. Social work today conceptualizes the world as a form of human construction and through this perception helps solve the problems in social work.

The shift from welfare to neoliberalism has brought in a feel of managerialism in social work. Social workers today are required to do away with bureaucracy fast enough for fast and easier rationing of resources for the assessment and management of risks and poverty in social work.

Risk and Need

It is difficult if not confusing in defining what risk and need is in the context of social work. In trying to give meaning to risk and need; these are the anticipated losses that can occur from events considered and the probability of the same happening whereas need translates to insufficiency when the resources at the disposal of individuals and groups of persons such as children and adults as in this case are not adequate to meet the risk.

In social work, risk can be a means through which state intervention is organised. It is proper for social workers to define what constitutes children in the population they are working with, for example in children and adults. This way the government can put in measures to safeguard interests of such groups from the anticipated risk or protect them from the effects of the risks after the occurrence. An exemplary case of risk being a way through which state intervention is organised can well be seen in the United Kingdom in the periods between nineteen ninety to two thousand eight where the government through the aid of social workers established what amounted to risk for children and afterwards devised means to safeguard against the risks.

The concept of a culture of poverty was developed by Charles Murray; which blamed every poor man for his situation. He asserted that poor people are not defined by their condition but rather by the kind of behaviour they exude in the status quo. From this line of thinking, we can then delve deeper into risk society and uncertainty.

The definition of risk society is premised on change and uncertainty. With change and uncertainty defining risk society, it is evident that social workers lack a social model of what risk is. This calls for risk management as risk cannot be prevented with the most appropriate ways in this case being establishing ways of controlling the attitudes of the persons involved devising approaches that are empowering in the face of risks.

The logic of security crops in social work; in the relationship between the social worker and the clients. The transactions that take place in the context of social work are of confidence and a client will always rely on the social worker to act in good faith in the course of their social relation. This makes the relationship between the social worker and the client a fragile one and if a breakdown in trust occurs, there can be a total breakdown in the relationship, which is a blow to the social worker as the mandate can never be fulfilled without the client.

In social work, it is important to establish the relationship between risk society, neoliberalism and life planning. Risk society can be interpreted to mean the organization of the society, and especially the modern society, when faced with a risk. Neoliberalism in social work implies transformation in social work through the liberation from constraints of social democracy and life planning involves making preparations for various stages of life in social work; for example childhood and adulthood.

Changes have occurred in social work, for example the onset of managerial aspects in social work. Insecurities and risks have also increased with modernity in social work. This calls for a different approach towards analysis social work; this should take into account not only social aspects but also political and economic aspects.

The work of a social worker can never be complete without data relating to need gathered and presented. It is through these data that various assessments are made. This could include strengths and weaknesses of the clients, assets available for tackling risks for both clients and social workers and finally the capacity building ability of the social workers to tackle various problems arising from risks in social work. These way, need aids in assessment in social work.

There are instances where by persons exposed to certain risks considered in social work are reliant on an external bodies such as the state for aid. An illustration of this is whereby the state make available job opportunities for adults exposed to poverty for a reason or another. This is a way of identifying the strengths of the population in focus and using the same to alleviate them from a situation. In critiquing this, recognizing the strengths in the clients by social workers is not an implication that the challenges these people face are ignored or that their struggles have been changed into strengths. This is just part of social work whereby social workers collaborate with their clients to ensure that they can be self-reliant when faced with any risk.

Social workers establish the probability of a risk harming their clients through risk assessment. When a risk threatens a certain group, for example to children, social workers can carry out a risk assessment exercise so as to establish the extent to which this can affect the children and from this work out the ways in which to curb the same. Performance frameworks can be put in place to help determine the intervention strategies that can be employed by the social workers to effectively reduce the harm posed to the children by the risk.

Performance Frameworks

As seen in the preceding part of this discussion, performance management frameworks are forms of risk management. It also came out clearly that uncertainty and breakdown in trust are some of the issues that engulfs social work. In this part of the paper, performance frameworks being forms of risk management designed to address uncertainty and breakdown in trust will be discussed.

Social workers are goal oriented and service to the society is what they give priority to. It was unthinkable way back then that goals could be set in social work as this was considered merely a show of charity. However, performance frameworks have set in in social work and these ensure that social workers align their thinking towards attainment of a common goal; a goal that will result into eventual stability of their clientele in the future in whatever area they were offering help in. Effective performance frameworks than can do away with the uncertainty accustomed to social work should be a guide to the social workers on how they carry on with their duties to the masses and also provide for client feedback; this will reduce uncertainty and even improve trust between social workers and clients.

Relationship breakdown in social work results from among other factors misunderstandings between service providers and service users in social work. The shift from welfare to neoliberalism has led to transformation in social work whereby audits are carried out and rules of trust and agency apply. This impacts either positively on the social-worker relationship as the pressure may be too much to make the relationship toxic or it can ensure requirements such as confidentiality in relationship is kept.

The existence of complex structures in social work in these modern times also impact on the relationship between social workers and service users. Various explanations have to be given not only to individuals but also to certain structures such as government bodies as to the conduct of social workers in the course of their duty. This in turn not only influences the way social workers engage with their clients but also how they view and understand them.

Social workers are supposed to be aided of structural and socio-psychological determinants in identifying the reasons as to the cause of a situation for the clients they are dealing with. Like in this case where the service users are children and adults, it could be a case for homelessness among children or poverty among adults. Structural determinants for example in the children can be factors in their growing up whereas for adults it could be a mind-set that influences their behaviour. Such findings can be made through performance management frameworks and they aid towards clearing the issues of uncertainty associated with social work.

In relation social capital to relation practice in the field of social work immensely affected by modernity, social capital today has huge and positive impact on social work. The greater the social capital, the better results realised in social work. This should not however take the light off relational practice as this is the basis through which social work is performed. Positive relational practice couple with adequate and effective social capital culminates into the best performance and fruitful results in social work.

Social workers also bear certain risks in the performance of their duties, for example in breach of confidentiality, which should be a rule governing the relationship between service provider and service user. Social workers themselves take individual risks in their interaction with clients as opposed to collective risks.

Poverty is a social problem and can lead to other social problems such as increase in crime rates. Social workers for example those working with homeless children and adults who earn less than a dollar a day in a bid to better their conditions need to adapt rehabilitative ideals that first of all will lead to changes in behaviour so that the individual can take measures to change that situation where appropriate and this should end where the ultimate goal has been achieved. Audit of the same should be made to ensure that the goals of social work in such a context are achieved within a limited time frame. In as much as social work has moved toward neoliberalism, the welfare aspect of social work should not be ignored as these facilitates progress and brings out the relational aspect of social work.

Professional and Relational Issues

The purpose of social work is to aid various groups in society improve on various circumstances that surround their lives. To improve on these people’s lives, there are rules set and boundaries that must be taken into consideration by social workers. Service workers do complain in cases whereby social workers breach their professional responsibilities. Workers have to set boundaries between professional and relational issues to avoid punitive measures for misconduct in the course of practice of social work.

There are terms common in the field of social work and ‘street level bureaucrat’ is one of them. This implies to a person who has huge impacts on a group of persons in the society for example children, young adults or even people living in abject poverty as they interact with them almost on a daily basis. Social workers can be described as ‘street level bureaucrats’ as they interact with their clientele almost on a daily basis. As the history provided on social work reveals, the space in social work is getting strained by the day, there is more managerial and oversight activities on social workers, bringing changes to the space in social work.

Codes of practice do exist for social workers in modern day social work practice. This is so as to protect the various clients of social work and especially of confidential information and data. Any social worker who breaches these takes individual responsibility for the same. This is among the implications of the shift from welfare to neoliberalism in the field of social work.

Service Users

Social work is based on building relationships. For this matter it is between the social worker and the service user. The voice of the service user needs to be heard and their interests should come first for any social worker. Most of social work involves face to face interaction between service users and social work providers. Taking care of service users’ interests and hearing their voice builds trusts and respect in that kind of a relationship. This facilitates the work and the fruits of an undertaking are realized soon enough.

Service users are aided in improving on circumstances in their life. Active support and engagement with providers of social work ensures that they are able to register improvements in short spans.

Having pointed out that social work is built on relationships; it is important to define these relationships and how they translate to professional capability. Social work practitioners build relationships not only with service users but also their colleagues. These kind of relationships interrelate to influence the outcome of social work in a number of ways and more so positive ways.

Relationship based social work first recognizes the uniqueness in the undertaking of every social work.  It also understands the complexity that the behaviour of man is since the interaction between men is what brings out the success out of an undertaking. This kind of social work also acknowledges that man is affected factors from within a person and those in the external environment, as some theories explain the conditions of man such as poverty. Lastly, there is no forgetting that social work is a professional undertaking which creates a professional relationship that makes any intervention made in light of social work a failure or a success. This way, service users get the services they need without discrimination and social work practitioners have the space they need to deliver to the societies they are serving in.

This also calls for involvement of service users in the assessment of the progress of the undertakings to change circumstances in their life as this is the most ideal way of establishing the impact of the input. In dealing with children and adults, their voice will not be heard if follow ups cannot be made and the capacity of the adults involves as service users in social work enhances the ability to establish their ability to deal with circumstances in which they are aided in.


To conclude, Social work has evolved over time and one of the reasons for the evolution is the onset of modernity. Definition of what risk and need and the recognition of performance management frameworks as a way of managing the risks in the context of social work is key to effective implementation of social work. Finally, it is also important to recognize relationships as the basis of social work.




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