Some thoughts on social work histories, and on David Burnham’s ‘The Social Worker Speaks’ in particular

Posted by Claire Jarvis, Senior Commissioning Editor

Last month’s Third European Conference for Social Work Research held in Jyvaskyla, Finland was a big success. I was particularly interested in Adrienne Chambon’s keynote speech on social work histories. In it, she argues that it is important to overcome the ‘official’ histories of the discipline and make a real effort to look at local practices as experienced by social workers on the ground, so as to provide a ‘bottom-up’ account of social work.

The Social Worker SpeaksDavid Burnham’s The Social Worker Speaks is an excellent example of this approach as it charts the motivations, work activities and attitudes of workers in the public sector (from Poor Law to Social Services Departments), probation and workers in the voluntary field (including early century philanthropic visiting societies as well as specialist societies such as the Children’s Society and the NSPCC) across Britain from 1904 to 1989.

Burnham seeks to rectify the scant attention paid to who social workers were, what they believed, what they actually did, and what they thought of what they did. By deliberately including stories of how social workers behaved, their frustrations and triumphs, passions and occasional sins- it offers a more human history of social workers. This book is deliberately not a history of social work, but a history of social workers – the first of its kind.

The British Journal of Social Work said the following:

‘Most writers on social work history do not deal with the lives of individual front line social workers – for example, how they behaved, their attitudes, frustrations, triumphs and even occasional misdemeanours. Burnham’s book attempts to remedy this, dealing with the motivations and activities of workers in the public sector from the Poor Law to Social Services Departments, as well as those in probation and workers in the voluntary field, including philanthropic visiting societies and more specialist societies such as the NSPCC… Burnham has put together a rather impressive and unusual text – one which I found to be an easy and enjoyable read. It brought back some fond and some not-so-fond memories, and will certainly appeal to those wanting to gain an insight into the history of social workers and what their attitudes and activities involved.’

We’d like to offer a 20% discount on The Social Worker Speaks for the next two months if you order it off the website using the following promotion code: A13HOW (valid until 30/06/2013).

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