The role of Social Work in Society, from an international perspective – An Interview with Willem Blok
Willem Blok is senior lecturer of social work studies at the NHL University of Applied Sciences in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. He is a qualified social worker and sociologist and has lectured and worked around the world.
In this interview he discusses his new textbook, Core Social Work: International Theory, Values and Practice, which provides a concise introduction to the core values and functions of social work and its role within society from an international perspective.
Why is it important for social work students and qualified social workers to understand the place of social work in society?
I believe that many social workers do not go beyond, or transcend, their everyday experiences with clients in face-to-face situations in their individual (micro) or organizational (meso) practice. An appreciation of the significance and function of their role — of their vital contribution to a humane, democratic functioning of society — is important for a social worker to be able to anchor their practice in national and international social policy and understand its place in society. In my home country, the Netherlands, I see progress in this respect. More than ever before, our political elite is aware of the contribution of social workers to a proper functioning of society.
How would you describe the key role, values and functions of social work?
The key role of social workers is to support people who, for whatever reason, are not able to fulfil their basic and secondary needs and to participate fully in social life. In my opinion, social workers, social services and social institutions are characteristics of a civilized society in which human rights, social justice and democracy are conceived of as vital values and standards. Social work contributes to the quality of life of all citizens, social cohesion and solidarity, while on the other hand supporting the established order and relations in society. In academic circles this is sometimes described as the ‘double function’ of social work. This does not have to be a dilemma for social workers, as long as the established order is a democratic one, with freedom of speech and organization, an independent judicial system, separation of political and judicial powers, and respect for human rights.
Do you think that the core values and functions of social work have changed since it first emerged as a profession?
They partly have, as societal structures and international law and relations have changed. For example, after both bloody World Wars — especially in Western countries — the new framework of the Welfare State evolved. Human rights enshrined within Conventions and Declarations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are identified as key principles of social work by the International Federation of Social Workers. Modern conceptions of citizenship have also become associated as core values.
In the UK, social workers rarely receive the same public support as teachers or nurses. Is the situation similar in the Netherlands and other countries in which you have worked, and do you have any advice on how its standing might be improved?
The important role that social work plays in society means that there are more than enough reasons to be proud of the profession: to unite with colleagues and to fight for further improvement of the position and status of the profession in society. The position of social workers in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the Scandinavian countries is comparable with that of teachers and highly educated nurses. In former communist countries in Eastern Europe, social workers are part of the modernization of social infrastructures and the development of a civil society.
The book is written from an international standpoint, but identifies the common elements that unite the varying models of social work practised throughout the world. Can you think of different approaches currently adopted in other countries which would benefit social work in the UK?
Because social work is part of the infrastructure of national states, the contexts and the conditions for social work inevitably differ. However, the common body of knowledge and shared values mean that social workers of different nations can communicate and interact with each other, and have opportunities to learn from different national approaches and methods. For example, countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden have an long-standing extensive system of social help and support and as a result can be a source of useful research and practice experience for those working in other countries.
What does the future of social work look like?
Individuals and communities will continue to face social disadvantages and challenges which require resources and help from the State and those social institutions financed by it. Social workers of all kinds are needed to raise and maintain the quality of social life, especially — but not only — for those in need. Social work also functions as a vital addition to health care and educational institutions. As I emphasized before, social workers are important to stimulate and support democratic processes and structures in society. Everything we experienced and learned in the 20th Century made it clear that civilized societies cannot do without modern, professional social work. I really look forward to the profession enduring for many years to come.
Finally, can you tell us about your own background and how you first came to write the book?
I am the oldest son of six children of an urban, working-class family from The Hague. I saw how my parents, grandparents and their siblings struggled to survive in the 1950s and 1960s; how they tried to give us the best they could. I admire them for their hard work in rough times. At the age of 17, I became involved in community work in my neighbourhood and started fighting for improvements in quality of life for ordinary people, starting with housing and vital services. For the next 17 years, I combined my studies – a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work, Master’s in sociology and Diploma in Non-profit Management – with activities as an activist and voluntary community worker. My first book, published in Dutch in 1984, was Between Doctors’ Power and Patient Complaints. It arose from a four-year campaign to improve health care in Zeeuwsch-Vlaanderen, a peripheral, thinly populated area of my country. From 1993 until 2007, I went on to develop and manage long term projects in Poland; one that introduced community work practice and education, and one that helped modernize local social policy and social work practice in Poland. I have written many reports about this work, and may still write a PhD and possibly a book based on it.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.