Book Review: Social Work and Social Theory- Making Connections by Paul Michael Garrett

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Book Review: Social Work and Social Theory- Making Connections by Paul Michael Garrett (Polity Press, 2013)

1SWST_PMGAt the outset of this text Garrett outlines his view that there is a frequently unrecognised value in applying social theory to social worker’s day-to-day education and practice. In this book, he makes the case that theoretical engagement can help social workers to navigate those “indeterminate zones of practice” (p.1). Garrett notes in his introduction that social work is often seen and represented as a practical, common sense profession- an ideal activity for “retired City bankers and ex-insurance brokers” as Garrett notes, quoting a UK government official (p.2). The reality is, of course, far more complex than this and Garrett positions himself in opposition to the harmful, yet enduring, belief that social work is, or indeed can be, “theory-less”

The book concentrates on critical social theory developed in Europe by contemporary thinkers and attempts to highlight where these theoretical positions and social work may meet, intersect and be beneficial to social work. At the outset of the book, Garrett explains two theoretical omissions from the text. The first of these being the work of Michel Foucault which he explains by way of noting that much has already been written linking Foucault’s work to social work. Furthermore, Foucauldian theory is thought to a greater or lesser extent on many post-graduate social work courses and I felt the omission could be justified. The second omission which Garrett addresses is around feminist theorists. Garrett acknowledges the absence of feminist theory in the text but states that the book itself is informed by a feminist analysis.

Garrett’s first chapter proper is focussed on the questioning theories of modernisation. He begins by questioning what happened to post-modernity, and its relationship to social work education. Garrett makes two important claims- firstly, that social work academia came to postmodernist thought much later than other disciplines and secondly, that the social work academy’s short engagement with postmodernist theorisation did not impact upon the day-to-day practice of social work professionals primarily because of the complex, sometimes impenetrable language of postmodernist theorisation. However, Garrett does acknowledge that the postmodernist turn in social work and the “blurring of boundaries between professionals” (p.23) along with the move toward actuarialism in social work did change how services were delivered. In line with this shift toward counting, and drawing on the work of Fredric Jameson (2000), Garrett argues that “a new kind of superficiality” (Jameson, 2000:196, quoted by Garrett) evident in late-capitalism was mirrored in the development of one-size fits all social work “tools” which have become increasingly prevalent, particularly in child protection and probation practice.

Garrett moves on to look at theorising modernity focussing on the work of Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, and the influence their work has had within the social work academy as evidenced in some of the work of Harry Ferguson which he skilfully interrogates. Garrett describes the work of Giddens and Beck, and subsequently Ferguson, as arguing that we now live a ‘post-traditional order’ with increased personal freedom and choice. Garrett suggests that this theory could be argued against within the social work academy and professional practice, given the resiliency of economic and social dynamics associated with “simple modernity” and how these factors impact on many people who need social work services. Garrett criticises the work of Beck and Giddens for failing to examine the continuing importance of these “historical forms”. Furthermore, Garrett admonishes Giddens for his “cavalier attitude” (p.32) around women’s reproductive rights, where Giddens argues that there is now a plurality of choice. Garrett rightly notes that this range of choice does not exist everywhere for all women. Indeed, I thought this was a central argument of Garrett’s notably in his criticism of Ferguson’s (2001, 2003) “life politics” theorisation.

In the third chapter, Garrett considers the work of Zygmunt Bauman particularly with reference to the relevance of Bauman’s concepts of “solid” and “liquid” modernity and how Bauman’s work could contribute to our understanding of social work and social and penal policy in Ireland. Garrett begins by outlining a number of emerging themes in Bauman’s work including the fluidity of modernity, with the gradual loss of collectivism and a rise of individualism marked by a deep ontological insecurity. I found the concept of ontological insecurity particularly useful here in terms of those using social work services. Garrett, quoting Bauman, notes that there is now an “excess of options, yet a palpable scarcity of reliable signposts and authoritative guides” (in Bauman and Haugaard, 2008, p. 115). Given that those who use social work services often occupy the most insecure and perilous positions within society the insecurity they face is intensified. These people experience what Young (1999, 2007) has described as the “downward gaze” from people within and outside of their communities as well as the tyranny of their own “upward gaze” at what one should be and should have. In analysing Bauman’s work on the holocaust (1989) in relation to social work provision, Garrett raises the issue of how social work’s aims can be adversely guided within a socially unjust political regime. Here, he raises valuable question about how the power of social work agencies can be used and against who that power is used. This has relevance in the current era of austerity especially given that social workers are subject to downward pressures within services and agencies and that this pressure can influence decisions.

Far too often, far too little attention is paid to who is subject to the gaze of the state, particularly with “involuntary clients” (Trotter) of social work services. There is a value in reflecting on this issue through the work of Bauman. This reflection would be strengthened when one considers the “twilight areas” (Bauman 1989, quoted on p.52) where many social work service users reside and the services are offered. Garrett notes the potential for abuse when all is hidden from sight- in an Irish context this has become chillingly clear with numerous reports on institutional abuse (Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee, 2013) along with more contemporary revelations about St Patrick’s Institution (Reilly, 2012).

Moving back from the work of Bauman, Garrett draws on the relevance of Marx’s Das Kapital in chapter four. Garrett outlines how the work of Marx has been argued against as being archaic and irrelevant to social work education citing the fall of the Soviet Union, Marx’s alleged irrelevance to the pace of modern life and a broader anti-intellectualism within social work. Garrett calls for a more nuanced consideration of Marx’s work here, rather than attempting to place a traditional Marxist analysis on social work practice where it does not fit. Rather, than focus on social work users here, Garrett instead turns his attention to the labour of social work and how some social worker’s labour has become increasingly perilous particularly in the United Kingdom with the trend of privatising public care provision and social work services. These arguments extend into Chapter five where Garrett considers the neo-liberal project. Again here, Garrett connects the broader neo-liberal project with all its inherent unevenness and contradictions to the practice of social work provision. Of particular note here is the “common sense” and hegemonic nature of neo-liberal policy particularly in the increasing acceptance of “work for welfare” schemes where Garrett’s critique is excellent.

Toward the end of this chapter, Garrett calls on the work of Loïc Wacquant (2005) and his concept of “prison fare”- the idea that increased imprisonment of poor (men) in the United States is directly related to decreasing welfare provision introduced by the Clinton government. While one would have a lot of sympathy with Wacquant’s arguments and it is understandable why Garrett drew upon them here there is another trend which may have been worth exploring. In light of the economic crisis and bloated prison numbers many states among them Ireland, South Africa and states in the US have sought to reduce prison numbers through at best “community supervision and support” and at worst, “punishment in the community”. This increased use of community sanction certainly has some positive features but equally it could be prone to the influence of neo-liberal policy with the potential for privatisation of community sanctions. Furthermore, the concept of “punishment in the community” espoused by British Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, is based in old-style law and order conservatism with a modern twist.

In the second half of Social Work and Social Theory, Garrett calls upon the work of a number of social theorists and considers how their ideas and concepts could be usefully applied to social work education and practice. In doing this Garrett examines themes which would get traditionally raised as part of social work education – such as how power is handled, the use and power of language, critical reflection and recognition – but perhaps, would not be addressed through these theoretical perspectives. Of the theorists that Garrett discusses here, I found his analyses of the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Nancy Fraser particularly impressive in both its tone and its outlining of a potential incorporation into social work education and practice.

In relation to Bourdieu, Garrett draws upon Bourdieu’s own comments of the contradiction in social work between “the initiative, the inventiveness” of practitioners “least imprisoned in their function” and the strictly defined boundaries of bureaucracy in which social work is administered. Garrett argues that a social work informed by Bourdieusian thought could contribute toward a ‘radical social work for the 21st century” (p146). Firstly, in terms of Bourdieu’s warnings about the ease with which some practitioners remain loyal to hegemonic understandings of both the state and its problems. Garret notes that there is potential for “apparatus social workers and social work academics”, all too willing to contribute to the dominant pathological state.

Garrett notes that Bourdieu may be helpful for social workers in developing better practice notably in the area of how the body is seen as “an instrument of cultural capital” (Garrett quoting Bourdieu et al, 2002). He argues that this embodiment of class position should be recognised by social work practitioners in both the ease in which they, by virtue of their education and position of power navigate complex systems and language and also, how working class service users maybe be ill-equipped to navigate these systems. Garrett offers the practical example of child protection case conferences, but of course, wherever social work is practiced, be it in courts, hospitals or prisons, these issues are pertinent. Garrett further notes how the work of Bourdieu can be revealing for social workers in terms of certain geographical spaces having negative symbolic capital and the impact that this has upon the people living and working in these communities. Interestingly, Garrett also considers the field of social work as lacking in symbolic capital vis-à-vis other professions which impacts upon the profession’s ability to withstand and respond to criticism of the profession. I have raised similar themes previously in noting how social work has been overly negative represented, primarily in the British press and how it has struggled to construct an appropriate response (Broomfield 2007)

In his discussion of Nancy Fraser’s work on recognition and her distancing from psychological reductionism, Garrett draws out her argument that those who suffer from recognition deficits may suffer from a dual process of internalised self-blame and victim blaming from the outside. The importance of ‘mis-recognition ‘ in relation to those coming into contact with social work services is perhaps not fully discussed or recognised by social work personnel. Furthermore, Garrett outlines Fraser’s concern the ‘recognition’ may begin to take priority over ‘redistribution’. In relation to social work practice Garrett argues that social work discourse has, at various points in time and location, prioritised diversity and difference over class inequality. Garrett echoes Fraser’s claim for an interrelated theory of social justice that sees recognition and redistribution play equal roles. These ideas have been drawn upon and expanded on by Baker et al. (2009) whose equality of condition thesis also outlines the affective systems as being important in the creation of inequalities. While Garrett draws out Fraser’s thesis well here, I would have been interested in his thoughts on Baker et al. (2009) work given its potential application to social work education and training.

In conclusion, Garrett has set himself an ambitious task in writing a book which draws on a broad range of social theorists in examining what relevance they have to social work as an academic subject, a professional practice and as a response to problems which will inevitably emerge under the present social order. The strengths in this text lie in Garrett’s own evident passion for the topic and his acute observations of the theories discussed. There were times while reading this text that I would have liked to hear Garrett’s thoughts on other issues such as the interrelation between Bauman’s work, penal policy and the work of probation officers. Given that the Probation Service is the second largest employer of social workers in the state I felt this would have been useful. Further, I was curious as to why Garrett did not explicitly draw on masculinity theorists and how these theories relate to social work practice. The fact that I was left wanting to hear from Garrett on related topics is indicative of the value of his observations in Social Work and Social Theory. I believe this book is an excellent contribution to social work literature in Ireland and further afield and may be what social work needs, if not necessarily what it wants.

Darren Broomfield is a practising social worker and a PhD candidate at the School of Social Justice at UCD. His research interests include social justice orientated responses to criminalisation, masculinities and social exclusion.


Baker, J., K. Lynch, S. Cantillon and J. Walsh (2009) Equality- From Theory to Action, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Bauman, Z. (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust, Cambridge: Polity

Bauman, Z. and M. Haugaard (2008) ‘Liquid Modernity and Power: a Dialogue with Zygmaunt Bauman’, Journal of Power, 1(2):111-130

Bourdieu, P. et al. (2002) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Modern Society, Cambridge: Polity

Broomfield, D. (2007) The Same Old Story- an Examination of Social Work’s Representation in the Press, Unpublished Thesis

Ferguson, H. (2001) ‘Social Work, Individualisation and Life Politics’, British Journal of Social Work, 31(1):41-55

Ferguson, H. (2003) ‘In defence (and celebration) of Individualisation and Life Politics for Social Work’, British Journal of Social Work, 33(5):699-707

Jameson, F. (2000) ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, in M. Hardt and K. Weeks (eds.) The Jameson Reader, Oxford: Blackwell

Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (2013), available at:, accessed on 28/04/2013

Reilly, M. (2012) Report on an Inspection of St. Patrick’s Institution by the Inspector of Prisons, Dublin: The Stationary Office

Wacquant, L. (2005) Punishing the Poor- The Neo-liberal Government of Social Insecurity, Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press

Young, J. (1999) The Exclusive Society, London: Sage

Young, J. (2007) The Vertigo of Late Modernity, London: Sage