Critical social work

Critical social work

Critical social work is the application of social work from a critical theory perspective. Critical social work seeks to address social injustices, as opposed to focusing on individual people's problems. Critical theories explain social problems as arising from various forms of oppression. This theory is like all social work theories, in that it is made up of a polyglot of theories from across the humanities and sciences, borrowing from many different schools of thought, including marxism, social democracy and anarchism.[1]



Social workers have an ethical commitment to working to overcome inequality and oppression. For radical social workers this implies working towards the transformation of capitalist society towards building social arrangements which are more compatible with these commitments. Mullaly & Keating (1991) suggest three schools of radical thought corresponding to three versions of socialist analysis; social democracy, revolutionary Marxism and evolutionary Marxism. However they work in institutional contexts which paradoxically implicates them in maintaining capitalist functions.[1] Social work theories have three possible aims, as identified by Rojek et al. (1986). These are:

  • The progressive position. Social work is seen as a catalyst for social change. Social workers work with the oppressed and marginalised and so are in a good position to harness class resistance to capitalism and transform society into a more social democracy or socialist state. ( Bailey & Brake, 1975,[2] Galper, 1975, Simpkin, 1979, Ginsberg, 1979)
  • The reproductive position. Social work seen as an indispensable tool of the capitalist social order. It’s function is to produce and maintain the capitalist state machine and to ensure working class subordination. Social workers are the ‘soft cops’ of the capitalist state machine. (Althusser, 1971, Poulantzas, 1975, Muller & Neususs, 1978)
  • The contradictory position. Social work can undermine capitalism and class society. While it acts as an instrument of class control it can simultaneously create the conditions for the overthrow of capitalist social relations. (Corrigan & Leonard, Phillipson, 1979, Bolger, 1981)



Critical social work is heavily influenced by Marxism, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and by the earlier approach of Radical social work, which was focused on class oppression. Critical social work evolved from this to oppose all forms of oppression. Several writers helped codify radical social work, such as Jeffry Galper (1975) and Harold Throssell (1975). They were building on the views expounded by earlier social workers such as Octavia Hill, Jane Addams & Bertha Reynolds, who had at various points over the previous 200 years sought to make social work & charity more focused on structural forces.

Focus of critical social work

Major themes that critical social work seeks to address are:


Sub-theories of critical social work

As critical social work grew out of radical social work, it split into various theories. They are listed below, with a selection of writers who have influenced the theory.

  • Structural social work theory ( Ann Davis, Maurice Moreau, Robert Mullaly)
  • Anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive social work theory (Neil Thompson, Dalrymple & Burke)
  • Post- colonial social work theory (Linda Briskman)
  • New structural social work theory (Robert Mullaly)
  • Critical social work theory (Jan Fook, Karen Healy)


Dialectic explanations of free will

While critical social work has a strong commitment to structural change, it does not discount the role of free will. Critical analysis in social work looks at competing forces such as the capitalist economic system, the welfare state or human free will as all affecting individual choices. Therefore, according to critical theory the aim of social work is to emancipate people from oppression and allow individual liberty to prevail.

“A dialectical approach to social work avoids the simplistic linear cause-effect notion of historical materialism and the naïve romanticism associated with the notion of totally free human will." (Mullaly and Keating, 1991). "Dialectical analysis helps to illuminate the complex interplay between people and the world around them and to indicate the role of social work within society” (Mullaly, 2007:241) [1]

Practice models

Some of the practice theories that critical social work utilises include:

  • Working collectively
  • Building cooperation and consciousness
  • Helping people to understand the social consequences of the market system
  • Helping people deal collectively with social problems rather than individualising them
  • Making alliances with working class organisations and recognise social workers as ‘workers’ themselves
  • Civil disobedience, such as the intentional and surreptitious violation of agency policies that perpetuate capitalist oppression [1]


See also

  • University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work
    • University of Denver Social Work Doctoral Program


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Original material adapted from presentation by M. Hanlon, School of Social Work, ACU
  2. ^ Bailey, Roy; Mike Brake (1975). Radical Social Work. Pantheon Books. 

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Social work — / child and youth worker Occupation Activity sectors Pursuit of social welfare and social change Social Work is a professional and academic discipline that seeks to improve the quality of life and wellbeing of an individual, group, or community… …   Wikipedia

  • Medical social work — is a sub discipline of social work, also known as hospital social work. Medical social workers typically work in a hospital, skilled nursing facility or hospice, have a graduate degree in the field, and work with patients and their families in… …   Wikipedia

  • McMaster School of Social Work — The McMaster School of Social Work is 1 of 11 departments under the Faculty of Social Sciences. The school was first established in 1968 and is geared for students who want to prepare themselves in a career in social work or any related… …   Wikipedia

  • Jane Addams College of Social Work — The Jane Addams College of Social Work is a division of the University of Illinois at Chicago and is located at 1040 West Harrison Street, Chicago, Illinois 60607 7134.Mission StatementThe Jane Addams College of Social Work carries the mission of …   Wikipedia

  • Critical theory — Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas David Rasmussen HEGEL, MARX AND THE IDEA OF A CRITICAL THEORY Critical theory1 is a metaphor for a certain kind of theoretical orientation which owes its origin to Hegel and Marx, its systematization to Horkheimer and …   History of philosophy

  • Critical legal studies — is a movement in legal thought that applied methods similar to those of critical theory (the Frankfurt School) to law. The abbreviations CLS and Crit are sometimes used to refer to the movement and its adherents. Contents 1 History 2 Themes 3… …   Wikipedia

  • Critical race theory — (CRT) is an academic discipline focused upon the intersection of race, law and power. Although no set of canonical doctrines or methodologies defines CRT, the movement is loosely unified by two common areas of inquiry. First, CRT has analyzed the …   Wikipedia

  • Critical management studies — (CMS) is a loose but extensive grouping of politically left wing and theoretically informed critiques of management, business and organisation, grounded originally in a critical theory perspective. Today it encompasses a wide range of… …   Wikipedia

  • Critical ethnography — applies a critical theory based approach to ethnography. It focuses on the implicit values expressed within ethnographic studies and, therefore, on the unacknowledged biases that may result from such implicit values.[1] It has been called… …   Wikipedia

  • Social theory — Social analysis redirects here. For the journal, see Social Analysis (journal). Sociology …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”