NUMBER 320• 25 JULY 2003 • OF THEORY

The usual bitter complaint from social scientists as they pursue the objective truths attained by the natural sciences is why can natural science progress and develop its frontiers of knowledge, whilst social science goes round and round the same familiar sight-seeing tour. Now, Social Work Theory, a new annexe to the overgrown social science maze, has achieved a similar recognition of the same problem. Perhaps the epitome of this unusual and fruitless pastime of chasing one’s tail is heralded by the magical, medical analogy so often expounded by pundits of residential care courses. Children meriting placement in community schools are now deemed ‘sick’ not ‘delinguent’, their behaviour is ‘disturbed’ and no longer ‘naughty’, they are sent for ‘treatment’. This rather naive attempt by social work theorists to enviously copy the clinical, non-emotional, non-people sciences has dangerous implications but, until very recently, it has been thought better to let sleeping dogma lie. Geoffrey Pearson (1975) has recently highlighted one of the implications.

If deviance and social problems can be wound up in this neutral, scientific rhetoric, then uneasy consciences can be put to sleep: action taken against the misfit, which might in any other light appear morally ambiguous, is beyond all moral ambiguity when it is called ‘treatment’ or ‘therapy’. Again part of the social work theorists’ patter is to speak of children having made ‘contracts’ in order that they might ‘receive the help they need’.

Philip Bean (1976) tackles the issue.

Some experts argue that a ‘contract’ exists between them and the offender. This is misleading and a misuse of the term contract. There is no bargaining in the relationship in the sense that free bargaining takes place before a normal contract is made, and no real element of choice. Any ‘contract’ that might exist is drawn up by the expert and stated in his terms . . . ‘Treatment’ becomes no less an imposition than training; the only difference is that it is usually presented as it training is forcibly imposed whereas treatment is not.

Of theoreticians
Sociology of deviance, transactionalism and labelling theory all feed parastically from the same medical analogy and resultant hypocritical approach to client treatment; their difference is in the orientation. Deviance is seen as health and not as sicknesss, it is a brave stand made by the under-privileged against the bourgeois forces of repression. Rightness and wrongness are not only value judgements, but middle class judgements based on self interest. To quote Pearson (1975) yet further,

The ‘inside codes’ of social work’s occupational culture—those codes which are unwritten (or only half written)—are filled with this rebellious spirit. A study of ‘industrial deviance’ in social work demonstrates a wide-spread acceptance of rule-breaking and rule-bending among social workers as ‘part of the job.’

Or again,

If mainstream social work had emphasised the individual’s personal troubles. ‘radical social work’ pointed to the material problems of whole communities and to social structural inequalities. It urged a technique of ‘advocacy’ through which social workers should act as partisans who struggle alongside clients . . . But, ironically, it …became absent-minded about both personal problems, and political structure. Personal troubles were lost in that ‘radical social work’ replaced casework with abstract formulae through which clients could secure their welfare rights: as if the wand of material abundance could wish human subjectivity away.

No wonder then people became lost in causes and social work utterly thrown into collusion with amorality and occasionally deviance itself. The theoretical base established was neither conducive to better practice nor to client welfare. Its ideals were politically charged and to be implemented at the expense of the people it alleged to help.


Hart, D. A. (1975) But what of practice? In David Evans (Ed.) The best of gazette. Surrey: Social Care Association. pp. 177-178























Bean, P. (1976). Rehabilitation and deviance. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 66-67
Pearson, G. (1975) The deviant imagination. London: Macmillan.