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Social work: The rise and fall of a profession? - book review

Posted: March 09 2023

Social Work student & staff projects, Social Work
Social Work student & staff projects, Social Work

Interested in Social Work and want to learn more about the subject? The book reviews written by our Social Work students and staff help you identify the best literature to advance your learning.

This week:

  • Title: Social work: The rise and fall of a profession?
  • Publisher: Bristol University Press, Policy Press
  • ISBN: 978-1447353140
  • Author/s: Steve Rogowski
  • Originally published in 2020
  • Reviewer/s: Abigail Doe, MSc Social Work student
  • Originally published by the Journal of Social Work Education


book cover of the rise and fall of a profession

Steve Rogowski states that his aim for writing the book ‘Social Work: The Rise and Fall of a Profession?’ was to inform its reader of the peaks and troughs of the social work profession, its history and development leading to 2020. The book’s audience is higher education social work and social science students, academics, and social work practitioners and managers.

Rogowski is a retired social worker with over 30 years of experience as a children and families social worker and a civil servant in England. He has a critical modernist view on social work and social policy and published on radical social work (Rogowski, 2018, 2021).

Rogowski bases his arguments on a vast literature and the experiences of social work recipients and social workers. His central belief that social work should be about equity, human rights and social justice chimes with the principles and values of social work (BASW, 2021; International Federation of Social Workers [IFSW], 2014).

Early in the book, Rogowski questions the professional status of social work. He compares Social Work as a semi-profession and traditional professions such as Medicine and Law, highlighting the different levels of professional autonomy between the two types.

Rogowski informs readers of the peaks of social work in the 1970s and the beginning of its decline in the 1980s. A steep decline occurred during the New Labour party in 1997 under Tony Blair. The party was more neoliberal than the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, with its ‘Third-way’ ideology. Neoliberalism posits that markets are superior and that society should pursue the free market with little governmental intervention. Capitalist ideology was then and is currently being broadened to every sphere of society by those with power. Rogowski develops his argument of the troughs of social work by highlighting the erosion of social workers’ professional autonomy, since the 1980s, by bureaucratic and managerial controls, budgetary restrictions, targets, administrative work, and standardization of practice. The collective name of these processes is managerialism. Managerialism is linked to neoliberalism and is related to employer values.

This book is well written but may require a dictionary to clarify the meaning of terms not used in everyday conversations. However, Rogowski clearly explains the social work jargon he used. The author’s flair for effective writing persuades readers to think critically about progressive policies and concepts such as neoliberalism, free-market superiority, and trickle- down economics. These concepts promote high inequality between social strata, whereby the wealthy become even wealthier at the expense of the poor. Socially, the poor are marginalized, stigmatized and receive punitive services. It would have been beneficial for Rogowski to provide examples of performance targets that he referred to as meaningless for most social work recipients and practitioners.

Rogowski criticizes managerialism, which he believes has led to the de-professionalism of social work, by referring to Daphne Statham, the former stalwart of the National Institute of Social Work, who ‘once said that it is still possible to “smuggle in” good practice despite managerial obstacles’ (p. 2). This statement might convey that good social work is practised covertly under managerialism. Practising good social work involving relationship-based practice and coproduction can be challenging within managerialism. However, it is still possible. In the introductory text, Rogowski gives an example of how social work could be under threat through standardization. For instance, he mentions the common assessment framework, which can be used by a housing officer and other professionals potentially involved in the lives of children and families without the consultation of a social worker (p. 7). It prompted me to question whether standardization is as beneficial as purported. On the one hand, it makes professional judgment explicit and reduces human errors or biases in thinking. But on the other hand, it may de-skill practitioners and reduce social work relationship-based practice.

Rogowski posits that a critical radical perspective can resurrect the fallen social work reputation. He concludes his book with an example of a radical approach to youth offending that involves partnership working. For example, eliciting the ideas of offenders on how to reduce institutional oppression, such as racism in the criminal justice system, and create positive outcomes. This notion is interesting as whilst coproduction is widely discussed in social work, it has yet to be a common practice for social workers to directly ask service users how to reduce oppression which can be the by-product of social work. Not only to seek the views of social work recipients but to work collectively to change unjust structural interventions. Radical social work, which is about challenging oppression, unfair policies, procedures, and practices, is at the heart of the values and ethics of social work practice (BASW, 2021; IFSW, 2014). Nevertheless, how many social workers in practice will potentially risk their jobs for a good cause?

It was apt that in his second edition of the book from 2020, Rogowski mentioned the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social work and the 2019 UK General Election, as these significant recent events are not in the book’s first edition. In sum, I believe Rogowski’s book has successfully met its aim of depicting the rise and fall of the social work profession with examples of historical political ideas which have shaped it.