Some Thoughts on Role and Social Work Identity

Jim Donnelly, DSW, LCSW

I, and I’m sure many of us indeed, have been both puzzled and fascinated that we as a profession have been endlessly engaged in the struggle to define ourselves … to others as well as ourselves. Stumbling over this issue has led to its share of mischief within the profession: cause vs function, clinical vs concrete to name just two.

To me it is one of those questions that cannot and, indeed, should not be resolved; but used to work on keeping us true to the calling our profession represents.

A theoretical concept that has provided an arena of thought in order for this question to do its work has been for me: Role.

At the heart of Role theory is the notion of expectation. A role is a set of expectations within a context or network of expectations. A role is a definition within a context that is experienced as anticipated behaviors along with their explanations and rationales. As such, they are mutually defined expectations that are created, maintained and/or altered as a result of negotiations among the participants of a particular context. Of course, all specific contexts are contexts within contexts that represent the larger conversations of a society or community.

Of course this is as valid for families as well as nations. The variety of political systems, large P and small p, can be seen as systems of allowance or disallowance to access of participants to the negotiations. Roles, on a macro and micro level tend and are used to define who’s in and who’s out in any particular context. Role is the fabric that holds the issues of worth, dignity, diversity and meaning for us all.

Within these processes of mutually defining expectations in macro or micro contexts that roles articulate and define, the vibrancy and force of genuine mutuality is held active in the allowance and validity of ambiguity at the root of all relationships. It is in that creative space between us of the ‘yet-to-be-articulated and defined’ that the validity and power of inclusively, diversity, dignity, meaning and worth is maintained and brought forth.

That ‘space’ within the articulation of roles in any context is where the root of our identity as a profession abides. It is out of the historical shattering, brokenness and disregard of the validity of the role definitions in society that is the place that evoked the birth of our profession of social work.

The validity of the undefined and ambiguous is at the heart of our professional identity and cannot or must not be completely defined. We are drawn to contexts where roles are oppressively over defined and intervene to disrupt and redefine. We are called in to contexts where through human or natural disruptions roles are shattered or destroyed and intervene to re create.

In either case, it is into that space we are called and within that space is our root identity.

That space unifies everything we do and every arena of our practice, be it any of the variety of personal therapies, group work, community organization, policy … whatever.

We work essentially ‘underneath’ every role … including our own, declared or assigned, within the various contexts of our labors. Our mandate is to play while resisting definition. Even historically the attribution of social work as a profession has been a source of confusion and conflict; it has created a trail of problematic responses to the accusations that we are not. Of course we are; but maybe that fact forces a redefinition of what ‘profession’ may mean.

All this may be at the root of why in many of our contexts of work we are found to be both helpful and annoying.

This way of thinking can be expected to be problematic in our conversations within our own ranks and, even more so, with the other players in whatever our context. We need to define clearly what we offer in a situation, but must be weary about being defined by that.

We are not what we do. That may be a difficult concept to get one’s head around. But that in no way devalues or de-legitimizes what we do and are licensed to practice.

There are some implications that come to mind.

First, the future essentially is not held within the current forms of our practice. Our future lies in that within us that made those forms possible. Although the training of new social worker must equip them to work in current structures, the awareness, willingness and capacity to create new forms is essential is for our future as a profession. Although we all need salaries to pay mortgages and educate our kids, etc. social work is not a job. There is always a particular reality of risk in our practice. That aspect of risk rises and falls within a variety of conditions in the larger society. How to create networks, support systems and get money, it seems to me, are essential skills for the future.

Secondly, the various pillars of our profession: the schools, agencies, professional organizations, need to create more integrated structures of communication and interchange to enhance and support our students and workers in new and evolving fields.

Supervision and professional support are absolutely necessary if we are to meet the future that is either faithful to our core identity or will suffer being absorbed as performers of tasks in contexts where we are ill defined. The creation of the agency as a means of professional development and support was no accident. There was then and there is now a need for clear structural support for authentic social work practice.

Thirdly, any kind of leadership in our professions requires commitment and experience at actually struggling in the ‘in between’ places of society. Macro or micro, one cannot realistically model what social work is about without that experience. Increasingly, because of a number of factors, teachers, supervisors, administrators of social work find themselves in these positions without sufficient exposure to that experience. This does not bode well for our future.

Finally, the face of our student population is continuously variously and changing. There needs to be accommodation, logistic and financial support generated to ensure the vitality and commitment of our future professionals.

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