Social Work as a ‘Bullshit Job’: Critiques of Social Work’s Potential for Social Justice in the Context of Professionalization and its Code of Ethics


I recently participated in a focus group examining “contemporary social work students’ responses to social justice practice principles as stated in the Social Work Code of Ethics”, and thought I’d collect some of the ideas I had shared about the topic.

Some see the code of ethics and mobilization within the profession as a venue for the furthering of social justice, but a broader analysis of social work and my experience in the field has led me to find this problematic. I do believe, as Bonnycastle’s “From Social Equality to Compassion: A Critique of the 2005 CASW Code of Ethics” expressed, that the code can illuminate trends that are occurring in the field. Bonnycastle specifically suggested that the trends seem to sway towards neoliberalism. The removal of mentions of egalitarianism and humanitarianism from the code’s preamble was telling, but I believe that even the elements of the code referring to social justice that have remained are not liberatory. The problem is, “Value 2: In Pursuit of Social Justice” makes no mention of collective action; social justice is understood through the lens of social welfare and policy. Social justice is understood as a service provided to people. With this underlying assumption, it is unsurprising that there is no identification of broader systems and discourses (of capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy etc.) as a target of resistance. Instead, the code serves either as a call to innocence by avoiding mention of these processes (rendering these processes invisible – despite the impacts of these processes being ever present) or a reinforcement of end of history narratives that presuppose capitalist liberal democracy as a bygone conclusion, that resistance to these structures are futile or irrational.

For example, there are calls for equal protection under the law but no acknowledgement that the foundations of law itself, its very existence, was formed for the subjugation of and through the subjugation of others – whether in terms of colonial relationships or property rights. As well, there is an understanding of injustice as purely individual, instead of systemic. And by individual, I mean an understanding of injustice as issues of misguided intentions, ‘prejudices’, and stereotyping. I am not saying that these aren’t important to address, but a significant erasure has occurred by not bringing into account the broader discourses that lead to these behaviours. By not addressing the root causes, not only does this ‘social justice approach’ only serve as bandages at best, it serves to reinforce systemic oppression by implying that the issue is only to be addressed at an individual level, at worst.

Unsurprisingly, the definition of advocacy we often see and hear talked about in the field is largely limited to an individual micro level. For example, a social worker might help a client appeal an ODSP judgment; a social worker might challenge a psychiatrist’s understanding of a client’s self-expression; I even had a manager tell me once that I was doing good advocacy work by speaking to a psychiatrist to allow my client to stay at the hospital longer. Once again, this is not unimportant work. it is work that makes measurable differences to the lives of people we work with (well, at least in some of the examples), but they do not serve a liberatory end goal. They do not challenge the legitimacy of the existing social order and thus, can easily be appropriated and absorbed into dominant discourses, especially when the work does not occur in the context of collective action that challenges it. Like with diseases, emphasis on these forms of advocacy over others (mutations) can serve to make the dominant discourses more resistant to forces that challenge it, by giving an impression that substantive change can occur within its confines.

However, I think the bigger problem – the reason why mobilization around the code or to social work curriculum as it stands is unlikely to be very effective in achieving goals of social justice – is that it doesn’t challenge the central assumption of professionalization. And, this view is hardly a fringe perspective within the history of the field. Jane Addams, now considered a founder of the field, hated calling herself a social worker; she opposed professionalization. Instead, Addams believed in mutual aid, unlike the charity perspective that has become and remained predominant. She believed in considering the people we work with as ‘neighbours’ and ‘comrades’, instead of ‘clients’ or ‘service users’. Through this understanding, we can both provide the emotional and physical sustenance needed, while building movements to challenge broader discourses.

Importantly, this definition also allows us to recognize and legitimize the healing work of many outside the privileged white middle-class – whether it is pow wow ceremonies with First Nations, mutual aid societies in the Chinese migrant communities, or the Black Panther Party’s breakfast and medical programs. This recognition could also lead to acknowledgment that the broader conditions of colonialism and capitalism have taken away the capacity for communities to self-organize, heal, and remain autonomous – whether it is the banning of pow-wows or the proliferation of wage slavery through enclosure (I am specifically thinking of the examples of parents having to work multiple jobs etc. and having less time for relationships). It is only through this context and history that ‘professional’ service provider had emerged. We, as social workers, are an example of what Graeber called bullshit jobs, arbitrary jobs that have emerged through bureaucratization in capitalism. And just as some of the jobs that Graeber had focused on – bankers, managers – are the exclusive realms of the largely white middle-class, care and healing work has also become increasingly exclusive. Now, in order to be deemed a legitimate care-given or provider of resources, one often has to obtain a MSW, a major obstacle to those without the money or know-how to navigate academia. While historically, responses to loss or tragedy would have been to emphasize community support, today, a grief counsellor is brought in – with limited measurable improvements. The gap between the service-provider and the receiver has continued to increase and with it, the emphasis on discourses that paint the people we work with as objects of intervention. This discourse stands in opposition to community mobilization and community approaches to problems. And despite genuine and well-intentioned attempts of some in the field to incorporate social critique in their work (e.g. narrative therapy, open dialogue approach, feminist therapy), these attempts often serve to reinforce or strengthen dominant discourses if this work does not occur in the context of community building and if this work does not challenge the idea of expert knowledge. I am still uncertain whether these contradictions can be reconciled.

Returning to questions of colonialism, a perfect example to what I am describing is the reservation system. Indigenous people were taken from their lands, places where they obtained sustenance, and had white ‘Indian agents’ that serve as gatekeepers to food and tools. As social workers, despite good intentions and the fact that we do sometimes do work that help mitigate the effects of oppressive discourses, we as professionals – perhaps more importantly – play a role of maintaining oppression, simply by being social workers. We must recognize that we are ‘Indian agents’ on a much broader scale.

Ryan offered an important critique regarding how the use of ‘Indian Agents’ as a metaphor “undermines the specificity of particular histories”. It’s also particularly important as social workers served literally as ‘Indian Agents’ in countless examples, such as the 60s scoop, when social workers took indigenous children away from their families.