We are citizens too: sociological and social work contributions to rethinking vulnerability in the context of social work with social inequalities and health’.

H Barnes

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


    Social work seeks to promote the empowerment and wellbeing of the individual within a social context: ‘Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments’ (IASSW & IFSW, 2001). From this unique professional stance, social work draws upon theory from different disciplines, but sociological theory has always had importance. This has particular relevance in the current international health policy context which recognises the links of social inequalities to health, and pursues social models of intervention. Through its diverse theoretical legacy, social work, like sociology has struggled with the tensions between structural and agency understandings of peoples’ interaction with their environments. Significantly, however, social work values of self determination, its legacy from Enlightenment values influential in its origins – and in society today - have emphasised ‘active’ capacity-building approaches to empowerment, and social workers’ reluctance to engage in more ‘passive’ interventions with lived conditions such as poverty has repeatedly been evidenced (STrier & ref 2010) . As a consequence, social work today shares with policy social model approaches a concern with capabilities including strengths, social participation, coping strategies and self-management of health as the route to wellbeing and citizenship (Bartlett & O’Connor 2007). In contrast, notions of illness and vulnerability linked to lack of control, and traditional ‘passive’ welfare, therapeutic and medical responses to these are viewed as major sources of stigma, humiliation and disempowerment. However, active approaches resonate with the position of advantaged groups, and research tells a very different story for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The paper will explore this research, suggesting that although these service users seek respect and citizenship, many also have major concerns in the context of health inequalities with vulnerability: they experience the damaging impact of disadvantage, distress and illness, and often value traditional ‘passive’ service responses. If social work is therefore to be true to its values, it needs to take account of the issues for these groups – but its concern not to stigmatise through focussing on vulnerability works profoundly against this. The paper proposes that critical realist approaches in sociology can offer understandings of vulnerability which do justice to these issues while overcoming the stigma associated with them. To explore this, the paper will first utilise critical realist review methodologies to interrogate the assumptions, emergent from Enlightenment discourse, about vulnerability that are linked to stigma. These assumptions can then be challenged by critical realist understandings of the processes involved in vulnerability – understandings which attest to the significance of both social and biological processes in the relationship between social inequalities and health, and provide non-stigmatising theories of individual vulnerability to them. With these understandings, social work from within its wider knowledge base and focus on agency, can further develop approaches which tailor ‘passive’ interventions with the impact of bio-psycho-social processes upon the individual, with ‘active’ approaches in accord with individual needs, thus translating the ‘sociological imagination’ (Wright Mills 1970) with its recognition of agency and structure, citizenship and vulnerability, into social work practice. References Bartlett,R. & O'Connor, D. (2007). From personhood to citizenship: Broadening the lens for dementiapractice and research. Journal of Aging Studies 21 107–118. International Association of Schools of Social Work & The International Federation of Social Workers (IASSW & IFSW) (2001). Joint agreed definition, 27th June 2001, Copenhagen.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationhost publication
    Publication statusPublished - 2011
    EventSociology and Social Work - Institute for Social and Political Sciences, Technical University, Lisbon, Portugal..
    Duration: 27 May 201128 May 2011


    ConferenceSociology and Social Work
    CityInstitute for Social and Political Sciences, Technical University, Lisbon, Portugal..


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