Independent thought and political action in social work practice

A Book Review

Social Work Practice: a conceptual framework


South Yarra, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

182 pp., ISBN 9780420256611 $59.95 (paperback)


Uschi Bay invites us into her innovative framework for political social work practice; the small ‘p’ political practice that goes on between us as people in our public lives and our organisational contexts.  Bay, a Senior Lecturer at Australia’s MonashUniversity, uses the political philosophies of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault to build this conceptual framework. Using these two giants of the mid-twentieth century thinking Bay offers a way of operating politically as a social worker that will be both refreshing to practitioners, especially mature age ones like myself who are still running on a 20th century neural operating system.

By using the work of thinkers whose startling new visions have since become embedded as part of our thinking ’wallpaper’, combining these and relating them to contemporary challenges she gives us an accessible and shiny new prism through which to reflect and act on our lives, our world and our practice.

Bay reminds us, or informs us, that in Arendt’s world, thinking and acting must be united as praxis.   Arendt introduced the concept of ‘plurality’ in which there are many of us, and many differences between us but we are all human and thus equal. Foucault too was interested in excavating the variety of views that can be brought to explain and tell our lives.  Foucault also gave us a detailed exploration of the rise of the State management of people and how we, those people, come to internalise that management.

Both Arendt and Foucault saw traps in believing in contemporary or ‘taken for granted’ world views, and both saw an inherent danger of abuse in instrumentalising people; counting us, shifting us around, treating us as another form of resource. Together their

‘..concepts may stimulate social workers’ critical reflexivity in ways that enable ethical and political action…’ Bay p22

This has raised for me the issue of shame versus respect, and the lack of respect human service agencies can show to the people who use them. It has also elicited thinking about the place of strengths based practices in this framework, including solutions focussed and narrative practice. In particular I was able to see how a part of my own practice, in which I have purposely invited the opening up of a space for people who are affected by anxiety to see the genesis of that anxiety potentially  as outside of themselves, could fit within this philosophical and political conceptual framework.

Bay reminds us how a discourse can identify groups of people to be the subject of government management at the same time as they are held responsible for their own circumstances. Since as Social Workers we operate in the territory between the State that tends to define that discourse and the people who find themselves defined by it, we easily become confronted by challenges of empowerment versus alienation.

‘Social workers in hierarchical organisations also find themselves ruled and expected to carry through projects or initiatives developed by others often far removed from their day-to-day practice situation and the lives of those to be assisted.’ Bay p124

Social Work Practice – a conceptual framework invites us to re-visit this challenge of working to those whose thinking  is so distant from the site of operations and invites us to critically reflect on our choices for action. We need to be courageous and insightful enough to make our own informed judgements and to act on them.


Whilst it is possible to construct many useful frameworks for social work practice, if you like to be mindful of, careful about, and responsible for what you do, you are likely to be stimulated by this one. For me this has been a thought provoking, refreshing and informative read. It also took me on a most enjoyable tour back through my professional library.

This book is dense with professional language and concepts that will be beyond the average unguided undergraduate. Students with a background in sociology, politics or philosophy, and practitioners will be a better audience. Social work students using Bay’s book as part of a course with academic guidance however will not escape without a clear understanding of their location in the socio-political workplace.

Inevitably, part of our role is to keep politics alive and to contest interpretations through critical reflection and action. If Bay gets her way, as social workers we will take responsibility for our thoughts and our actions and be certain to act ‘with’ and not ‘on’ the people with whom we engage and within the world we share.

This entry was posted in Empowerment. Bookmark the permalink.