29th July 2022
Ideology, Critical Social Work and the Tyranny of Resilience
Chapter 14: Di Galpin, Annastasia Maksymluk and Andy Whiteford in The Routledge Handbook of International Critical Social Work
(Available for pre-order on September 27, 2022. Item will ship after October 18, 2022)
The research contained in this chapter was triggered via anecdotal information shared with the authors by children and family social work practitioners in the United Kingdom (UK). What we heard suggested the term ‘resilience’ was being used by employers to focus on individuals’ failures, rather than exploring the wider context of practice. Workers told the authors resilience was being used to divert attention away from failures in the system, caused by significant issues such as funding cuts and workforce instability as practitioners left the profession due to high levels of stress.
This prompted the authors to research the place and meaning of resilience and reflection in social work practice. Our aim was to discover practitioners’ perception and experience of the place and meaning of resilience in social work practice.
Findings: an intersection of ideology and theory
The authors research suggests the current application of resilience reflects the intersection of neoliberal ideology with popular positive psychological theory. Resilience and reflection is thus a cultural form which influences patterns of behaviour in institutions, manifested in regulatory systems and practices. Adams et al (2019) suggests positive psychological knowledge is imbued with neoliberal biases. Such biases are reflected in:
‘a radical abstraction of self from social and material context, with an understanding of self as an ongoing development project, an imperative for personal growth and fulfilment, and an emphasis on affect management for self-regulation.’
Framing resilience as an individual activity de-contextualises the practice of critical and radical social work by increasing the spotlight upon the perceived ‘failings’ of individuals. In this context the individual carries the weight of responsibility to ‘work’ on themselves to prevent such failure in the future, rather than receiving encouragement within social work institutions (places of learning and training and social work agencies) to challenge the structural factors that undermine ‘resilience’.
The issues highlights in our research on the place and meaning of resilience in professional practice also highlighted the synergies between resilience and critical reflection, where the focus can again be decontextualised and lead to a focus on individual failings as a professional.
To try and shift the troubling discourse that surrounds both resilience and reflection the authors took the opportunity to develop a pilot for the NHS which introduces a new approach that sought to enable the voice of practitioners to inform practice, via the reflective process, and thus develop and support their professional resilience.
Whilst embedding critical thinking within the pilot was integral to the content development, equally important was the mode of assessment. Drawing on both critical thinking and reflective practice, the pilot sought to develop a mode that extended critical thinking and reflection into an additional research method, where practitioner’s reflections were reframed as ‘data’ to enable them to have an opportunity to develop ‘practice informed research’, as a variation on traditional approaches to ‘research informed practice’.
Health and social care professionals, educators, and researchers alike, work within increasingly prescriptive professional requirements, which have embedded an understanding of reflection that has become increasingly (re)aligned to the ‘technical-rational activity’ that Schon’s theorisations had, in the first instance, set to challenge. Indeed, the pilot authors challenged current dominant constructions of ‘reflection’, which leave knowledge created by practitioner ‘reflection’ as undervalued and invalidated as ‘subjective’. This, in turn, diminishes the potential for reflection to act as a transformative process assisting workers, and those they work with, to develop their resilience by contributing to meaningful, purposeful change on an individual and systemic level.
Adams, G., & Estrada-Villalta, S. (2019) ‘The Psychology of Neoliberalism and the Neoliberalism of Psychology’ Journal of Social Issues, 75(1):189-216. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12305
Schon, D. A. (1984) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action, New York: Basic Books.