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To what extent do theories relating to risk inform our understanding of an aspect or aspects of contemporary social work? I am going to briefly discuss the meanings of risk. Whilst I am aware that there are many theories of risk, I have identified three main themes and will be exploring these in relation to contemporary social work, the themes of governmentality, cultural theory and risk society.
Present day social work is concerned with matters of vulnerability and risk (Kemshall et al, 1997), (Dalrymple and Burke, 2006), (Parton, 1996), (Titterton, 2005), (Hothersall and Mass-Lowit, 2010). Media coverage of serious case reviews regarding the deaths of children have led to an onslaught of criticism into social work practice.
In looking for definitions to define risk, I found several meanings. Traditionally risk was defined neutrally as a ‘chance’ or likelihood a behaviour or event will occur (Lishman, 2002: 154), (Munro, 2002:64), for example the possibility of a gain as well as a loss. Kemshall (2002) discusses the uses of risk to insurance and a mathematical probability approach to risk. In postmodern society, risk is now attributed to the terms of “danger” or “hazard” (Lupton, 1999 a: 12).
The concept of ‘Governmentality’ was developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in the later years of his life between the late 1970’s and his death in 1984. His concept provides an understanding of power, not just in terms of the power of the state from a top-down approach, but in the “more subtle forms of power exercised through a network of institutions, practices, procedures and techniques which act to regulate social conduct” (Joseph 2010:225). Power is noticeable in a positive way through the production of knowledge and discourses that are internalised by individuals, guiding the behaviour of populations and leading to more efficient forms of social control. Parton (1994) cited in Pease (2002) writes how individuals permit government at a distance through being encouraged and supported to exercise freedom and choice. Because power is de-centred individuals play a role in their own self-governance.
Criticisms of Foucault argue that he fails to recognise that power is not equal to all. It can also be argued that he lacks reference to the exercise of power in relation to race, age, gender and class, especially how accessible power is between different social groups. Cooper (1994: 450) argues about the “character” of the technologies of power regarding racist and gendered discourses being used. It was argued that Foucault was not attentive to how people respond to discourses in their daily lives (Lupton: 1999 b: 102). Critics also believed that Foucault lacked awareness in the power institutions had over individuals and that individuals behaviour in society was down to following rules of conventions (Hoy: 1986:151). Feminist critics such as Hartstock (1990:171-172) believe Foucault’s understanding of power diminishes individuals to objects of power than individuals able to resist.
Foucault’s work on defining the relations and mechanisms of power like governmentality can support social workers to think about their position of power within the structures (that maintain the oppression of service users) in their work. Empowerment uses social science to solve social problems and is a social justice discourse in social work. It allows social workers to redistribute power and knowledge in their practice, whilst challenging and combating injustice and oppression. Empowerment develops capacities of individuals, whilst emphasising individual responsibility. Pease (2002:137) argues that there is an assumption that power is something that can be given and empowering someone is to confer. Therefore as Braye and Preston-Shoot (2003:100) discuss, empowerment is about “oppressed people taking the power and demanding to be heard”. Because knowledge is central to understanding power within society, in order to empower service users there must be a reallocation of knowledge, an “insurrection of subjugated knowledge” as indicated by Foucault (1977). Listening to service users and allowing them to have more control over seeking solutions to their problems or identifying their needs within the wider social context, is another example of empowerment. We belong to many social groups, some by choice and some because they are forced upon us. Within these groups, some have more or less power over others. Social workers need to be aware of difference and diversity and develop a greater sense of self awareness about the risks of labelling, stereotyping and holding subjective beliefs.
The term ‘Risk Society’ describes a society that is exposed to harm as a result of human activity. German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992) first used the term, although British sociologist Anthony Giddens has also written on the same subject matter.
Both authors argue humans have always been subjected to risk, e.g. natural disasters but these are seen as being caused by non-human forces. Modern society is now exposed to risks such as terrorism, chemical pollution and nuclear power. Giddens (1999) defines these as ‘external’ and ‘manufactured risks’, external being risks arising from nature (e.g. flooding) and manufactured risks being the result of human activity, e.g. developments in science and technology. As humans are responsible for manufactured risks, both Beck and Giddens argue that societies can assess the level of risk being produced in a reflexive way that can alter the planned activity itself. People are now more wary of what professionals tell us, which is different to the view of the older generation. We are more critical of professionals and more likely to question them They believe there is an increase in reflexivity (the idea that society can adapt to new risks) as a response to risk and uncertainty in postmodern society, but Beck (1992:21) relates this to more risks and hazards being produced, where Giddens (1999:3) believes in human subjectivity being more sensitive to risk.
Criticisms of risk society question the level of risk in postmodern society. Turner (1994: 180) questions whether life has become more risky in the present day, than how it affected individuals in the past. Ungar, cited in Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009: 82) argues that the threats of today infuse fear as well as, not instead of the past fears. Culture, race and gender do not feature in both Beck and Giddens writings and it could be argued that it would be difficult for an individual to be reflexive regarding conflicts of this nature. Joffe (1999) argues that there had been a failure to recognise emotion in respect to how people cope with living in a risk society. Delanty (1999:171) draws from the criticisms by Lash, arguing that Beck and Giddens do not recognise the cultural dimension of reflexivity, due to disregarding collective agency such as the community in favour of individualism.
Social work has changed from a concern with need to one of risk (Kemshall, 2002). The media perception of social workers failing in their duty to prevent the deaths of children or protect the public from individuals known to be mentally ill, has led to more “bureaucratic solutions, through legislation, procedures and guidelines” (Ferguson, 2004). Blame is allocated due to the emphasis in risk (Douglas, 1992).
The regulation of risk replaces need as a focal point and reasoning for social work intervention. Lishman (2007: 164) writes how “working with risk will always remain a risky business, but with the assistance of sound methods and defensible decision-making it can be well managed”. Titterton (2005:50) argues “there is no such thing as a risk free option: all options hold potential risks”. Lishman explains further that in the climate of the blame culture, risk assessments need to be of a standard that contain “defensible decisions” that can hold up in cases where there has been a risk failure (2007:157).
There is the danger that in using risk assessments to check availability for a service, there is the potential for the social worker to be distanced from the service user. Involving the service user to do their own risk assessments and explain what they believe are the risks is a form of empowerment, which places them at the centre of the process. Clutton et al (2006: 18) links the involvement of the service user to empowerment, “Risk assessment may be empowering if it allows the service user to take an informed decision on future action”.
Social workers have to be able to asses the predicted outcomes of a potential risk to a service user but this is not always easy. Differing interpretations of a situation due to the cultural and social background of people and groups can make understanding risk and risk management difficult in decision making (Reed et al, 2004:149). Service users have started to make choices in how they interact with social services e.g. self-referral. In order to make plans about their lives, social workers need to interact with families in new ways that recognise their disadvantage and oppression in society. It could be asked if service users really have choice or do they have options within choice? Harris and White (2009:100) consider choice to be a key element of the government’s modernisation agenda and are established in services such as direct payments and choice of hospital.
Labelling of service users in assessments as ‘disturbed’, ‘at risk’, ‘in need’, describes behaviour from a value perspective (Dalrymple and Burke, 2006). Slovic (1999) writes how risk assessments are coloured by subjective judgements of the social worker at every stage of the assessment process. Hall et al (2006:23) argues however that categorisation of service users in reports, meetings and in the court is an expectation of social workers as a practical and professional duty to provide assessments and provide a course of action or services.
The notion of ‘Culture Theory’ developed by Mary Douglas (1966, 1798) and Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) has been influential in looking at perspectives on risk. Cultural theory aims to explain how personality and cultural traits influence risk perceptions and why different people and social groups fear different risks. Douglas argues the relation of risk to politics and its link to accountability responsibility and blame (Lupton, 1999:39). Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) introduced the ‘grid/group’ concept to explain how cultural proportions can compare society. It defines how people can be divided into four types that predict how they react to different types of hazards- Individualist, Egalitarian, Hierarchists and Fatalist. Thompson et al (1990:5) explain group as referring to how much the individual is integrated into enclosed units and grid to how much a person’s life is restricted as a cause of exterior compulsory instructions.
Douglas’s theory is not without criticism. Lupton (1999:7) questions the media’s contributory role to the risk knowledge of their audience. It can be argued that you cannot foresee how anyone will behave in response to a particular circumstance and that cultural theory is opaque, not taking into account the complexities of modern society (Rayner, 1992, Boholm, 1996). Tansey and O’ Riordan (1999) argue the theory is deterministic and takes no account of the free will of individuals. Ostrander (1992) makes a prominent argument, suggesting that cultural theory should apply to social environments in order to distinguish social systems as a whole. It could also be argued that as Douglas does not explain how risk perceptions regarding to individuals and organisations change over time, her theory could be seen as “static” (Bellaby (1990). Gross and Rayner (1985:18) argue that Douglas fails to explain, “what economic inducements or deprivations dispose persons to change their social position”.
Accountability means being answerable to others for the quality and efficiency of one’s efforts. Social workers are accountable to service users, the community, their department and their supervisors. They must be able to explain what it is they do, how it is done and that their work meets professional standards for competence. Mishra (1984), cited in Wilson et al, (2008:39) writes how there is a reduction in professional autonomy and control due to accountability and structural demands being placed on agencies. Social workers, through fear of miscalculating a situation can undertake cautious and defensive practice which falls short of considering the implications, risks and benefits to the service user of the decisions made and measures taken. Bamford (1990) writes how “social workers must develop a system of accountability which does not lose sight of the needs of the clients and their support systems”.
O’ Hanlon, cited in Parton and O’ Byrne (2000: 88), separates blame from accountability in that accountability features responsibility, is empowering and promotes self agency. Blame does not invite co-operation, is alienating and closes down possibilities. An example of the links between risk and blame is the case of baby Peter, who was killed by his mother’s partner and was the subject of a multiple amount of media attention, proportioning blame on the social workers in his care. The description of harm and danger portrayed by the media, the government and organisational responses to complaints and legal action, resulting in a blame culture is a consequence of risk aversion employed by some social workers (Furedi, 2002). This could leave social workers feeling the need to protect themselves and hesitant, leading to passing the blame onto other people. Webb, (2006:70) links blame culture to risk avoidance being the main priority, resulting in tighter measures of accountability and transparency being involved. Kemshall (2002: 94) suggests blame “serves to strengthen accountability, but also subtly to control information flow and usage and to reinforce loyalty and solidarity with particular viewpoints on risk”.
Responsibility of the social worker is linked to accountability. These are sustained in codes of practice, the law and daily verbal exchanges. Hall et al (2006: 16) describes how professionals are mindful of their interactions, should their speech causes their conduct to be accountable. Parton and O’Byrne (2000: 183) discuss the ethics of responsibility in which service users are able to talk freely about themselves, their situation and the best way to solve their problems. Social workers are supporting service users to take responsibility for their own actions, which replaces concepts of “cause and determination” Howe (1986), cited in Parton (1996:88). The responsibility of the social worker is to the well-being of service users, but there are times when they work in situations that are conflicting. Dominelli (2009:11) offers one explanation of this in a “care-control dilemma”, when there is a need to balance the determination of the service user with harm. The social workers responsibility to the wider society and adherence to the law mean that at times the well-being of the service users may not take priority.
In conclusion we have considered the impact of risk in the field of social work. In doing so we have identified three main theories, that of Govermentality, Risk Society and Culture Theory. We have analysed the impact of social work on these theories. Govermentality Theory helps us to understand power and the production of knowledge that enables individuals to govern themselves. Empowerment, as discussed previously enables service users to gain control over decisions that affect their lives. Risk Society Theory helps us to understand how communities are organised in its response to risk. This has been discussed in relation to social work in the media and the bureaucratic defensive practices that have developed as a result of extensive coverage of high profile service failings. Culture Theory seeks to explain how the social context in which we operate affects our responses to risk. As considered earlier, accountability is a means for social workers to explain their actions and the reasoning behind them, blame culture leads to social workers feeling apprehensive and self-preserving of their role. The social worker also has responsibility to the service users, but also to the wider society.
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