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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Why Should Students Be Lazy Radicals?

by Jane Fenton 06th August 2019

You don’t have to be a political activist to take a radical approach to social work. Jane Fenton makes the case for why social work students should be ‘lazy radicals’ in their daily practice.

I recently wrote a book called ‘Social Work for Lazy Radicals’. I know it’s surprising to find the word ‘lazy’ in the title of a book for social work students – social workers are not usually known for their laziness! However, ‘lazy’ in this context refers to the rejection of the requirement for radical social workers to have ‘involvement in a programme of political action’ (Baily and Brake, 1975, p.9) and the personal (lazy?) choice to lie on the settee eating crisps in the evening instead.

Lazy radical social work is about not feeling pressure to be activist, but to be radical within the ordinary daily practice of social work. So, how can students do this? Well the first thing to point out is that all of the key ideas in my book can be traced back to brilliant thinkers such as Zigmunt Bauman. Bauman suggested social work is about making a human-to-human connection with those groups whose existence is anathema to neoliberalism and who are easily viewed as ‘undeserving’. Hannah Arendt discussed the danger of non-thinking rule-followers and John Stuart Mill suggested we should allow free thought and speech rather than adherence to the known ‘orthodoxy’. These amazing thinkers are on the side of lazy radical social work!

In more practical terms, students can approach being radical in three stages:
  • Relationship building
  • Knowledge and critical thinking
  • Moral courage
I believe that the practice strand of radical social work should be operationalised within daily practice, that is: ‘to eliminate case work that supports the ruling class hegemony’ (Baily and Brake, 1975). In the contemporary world, the ‘ruling class hegemony’ is, of course, neoliberalism and its attendant self-sufficiency narrative: success or failure is entirely up to the individual – social work service users are often just lazy, feckless or lacking.

That self-sufficiency or individualistic narrative means that human problems are understood as problems of character or behaviour, as if wider structures such as poverty and inequality do not exist, or are not important to the choices people make. My own research) has shown that many beginning social work students have internalised that narrative, having been absolutely steeped in it and having no experience of an alternative (such as social democracy). My research reflects much more substantive research on the current generation from whom our students are drawn, which also demonstrates just how much the neoliberal narrative has taken hold in the minds of young people (Twenge, 2018, Grasso, 2017). The combination of the above factors leads to an attitude perhaps best captured by the following fictional but quite typical quote:
Why should we pay taxes for people who don’t want to work? They’re choosing to be lazy. Taxing the rich is unfair anyway as they have worked hard to get where they are. These parents who neglect their children need to be sent on parenting programmes because the problem is with their behaviour. If only they prioritised budgeting, school and hard work, there wouldn’t be a problem. I would never behave like that – and they’re not that poor, they have mobile phones for example.

I want to challenge all of the assumptions in that quote. The individualistic, blaming narrative is completely incompatible with social work values and requirements with the underpinning philosophy of social work, with the graduate requirement for critical thinking, and with the core value requirements of care and compassion (even for ‘undeserving’ people).

If we continue to produce social workers who think in a neoliberal, individualistic way then we are subjecting service users to either coercive, punitive and oppressive practice or to therapeutic practice which calls for counselling, parenting programmes, behaviour management programmes and a million other therapeutic inputs. Lazy radical practice, whilst recognising there might be a place for therapy, takes as the starting point a service user’s circumstances. We do not assume there is something wrong with the person (how absolutely superior of us to do that!) either morally (so needs punishment) or mentally (so needs therapy). Instead, we assume that this is an ordinary person in difficult circumstances and we look to see what we can do about that first. This also leads to proper human-to-human, empathetic or compassionate engagement – the heart of radical social work.

Featured image credit. Photo by Unknown. Avaliable on Pxhere via CC0