Social work and power dynamics

4 minute read

The nature of power in social work

An issue in social work that one almost cannot be too conscious of is the asymmetrical power dynamic inherent in the nature of the work. In my career working with adults with cognitive disabilities, I’ve seen - and perpetuated - a lack of reflexivity concerning the nature and extent of the power and control we as professionals exert upon those in our care.

This is a demographic where the professional responsibility is to constantly make decisions and perform choices on their behalf. They very often have no or little say in where to live, who to surround themselves with, which clothes to wear, when or which foodstuffs to eat. This comes as a consequence of not being equipped to manage their own lives (indeed, the prospect and notion of agency is a recurring dilemma, both practically and ethically, but that will be a post for another time).1They are not in possession of the required capabilities to maintain their own existence and/or function in society - hence living in an assisted care facility - and are utterly dependent on others to ensure their being, at various levels of the needs hierarchy.

When a person is so completely dependent upon an other, it seems obvious that this ‘other’ has a great deal of influence and control over them. This can be (and hopefully mostly is) benign in nature, but (depending on level of disability) is also very often all-encompassing.

This is laid out quite well by Stine Marie Hur, in which a Foucaltian perspective is employed, and the social worker is empowered to be a productive force in the life of the disadvantaged (Hur 2015)2.

To quote uncle Ben: “with great power comes great responsibility”. While a tired adage, it is nonetheless true. A lack of awareness of the systematic and inherent power asymmetry in social work can lead to worker uncertainty at best, and a toxic and abusive culture at worst. The most glaring example of the latter in Danish memory is the Strandvænget case of 2007 (Kirkebæk 2017)3.

Taken far enough, this lack of professional reflexivity turns into management saying outright “We do not exercise power here”4. Which is patently absurd, given the level of power and control exercised every day for a social worker to fulfill their responsibilities as caregiver. To be fair, what is probably intended in the above statement is no explicit power, such as physically restraining or forcefully relocating someone.

Except… that it does happen. Mostly it is justified, for example under consideration for the safety of the citizen and/or his surroundings. And the very clear incidents are (usually) reported to the authorities as proscribed by relevant law.

The clutches of uncertainty

The current laws in Denmark governing social work reflects a strong neoliberal discourse. With it, a co-dependent emphasis of everyone having both the right and responsibility to make their own decisions has robbed the social worker of means to legitimately exercise their power [@hurFrigorelsensMagt2015]. I believe this can lead to a dissonance between (the social worker’s perception of what constitutes) “proper care” and “law-given mandate”. For instance, last year’s kerfuffle over whether some doors and gates should be locked or not at Sølund (Gruber 2018)5. A locked gate to a garden is one man’s haven, and another’s involuntary incarceration6.

This brings me to my meandering point, and question for further discussion. How are uses of power, explicit or more manipulative, that are considered ‘beneficial’ and ‘good care’ and ‘proper social pedagogy’ (to force a danish term into english) discussed? How is it framed? Is quietly blocking the “wrong” (in my eyes) path on a walk protection, and thus care, or direct control, and thus an abuse of power? What about a verbal instruction? Or a hand on the shoulder, with me guiding physically?

I fear that the aforementioned (possible) lack of reflexivity regarding the necessary and immense power differential, including the framing of ‘beneficial’ interventions, leads to great professional uncertainty - what is to be reported? How can we tell the difference? Should an intervention be reported if it is clearly outside the mandate, but has clear benefits for the user?

This is a classic dilemma, and I can’t say I have an answer to the questions above, other than to keep the discussion alive. But an increased awareness, as well as acceptance, of the power inherent in working with others, can only help strengthen social work as a profession.

  1. How much actual say in these matters us more-or-less functioning members of society have is also a matter for another time 

  2. Hur, S. M. (2015). Frigørelsens magt. AU Library Scholarly Publishing Services. Retrieved from https://www.statsbiblioteket.dk/au/#/search?query=recordID%3A%22summon_FETCH-statsbiblioteket_omp_oai_omp_ebook_statsbiblioteket_dk_publicationFormat_523%22 

  3. Kirkebæk, B. (2017, February 21). Strandvænget – ti år efter. Retrieved October 2, 2018, from https://www.lev.dk/nyheder/2017/februar/strandvaenget-ti-aar-efter 

  4. True story. It still baffles me. 

  5. Gruber, T. (2018, February 15). Intens diskussion om låste døre. Retrieved September 24, 2018, from https://www.lev.dk/nyheder/2018/februar/intens-diskussion-om-laaste-doere 

  6. This is an ongoing balancing act at my current workplace as well