Social Work: Theory and Practice for a Changing Profession

Dominelli, Lena
Polity Press, Cambridge

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Cover of book What is the purpose of social work in the contemporary society? Is social work still recognised as a skilled profession in the eyes of the public? How can social workers defend themselves against harsh criticism over their decision-making and practice in day-to-day work? How can social workers deal with a wide range of service users such as the older people, offenders, children, divorced families effectively? These vexing questions are difficult to answer, and but Lena Dominelli provides us with interesting suggestions in Social Work: Theory and Practice for a Changing Profession. Its main aim is to 'take readers on a journey that explores the complex, interactive and multi-layered contexts of practice to unpack its professional depths, examine the dynamics underpinning particular approaches to social work and highlight their strengths and weaknesses' (p. 2). Dominelli articulates the key value of social work in promoting social justice and challenging existing social exclusion and oppression amongst the marginalized groups in the society. In line with her previous work, the book encourages practitioners to engage in a 'critical and reflexive practice' (p. 17) that places greater emphasis on practitioners' self-reflection of their everyday experiences (e.g. Dominelli, 2002a, 2002b).

The book is structured into nine chapters. The first three chapters give readers some basics surrounding the broader issues of social work in the British and international context. Chapter 1 examines the current form of social work pictured as a troubled profession across the world because of the numerous challenges imposed by policymakers, practitioners, social work educators and service users. For instance, while social workers are expected to do more with less given the reduction of public expenditure, service users' demands and expectations on the welfare provision are continuing to rise. In such a circumstance, practitioners may have to grapple with the problem of working in a cost-effective manner under resource constraints, while pursuing their commitments creatively to respond to conflicting agendas arising from the demands from various stakeholders such as service users and taxpayers. Chapter 2 highlights the changing nature of social work that is being shaped by specific socio-economic, political, cultural and environmental realities. More specifically, it analyses how globalization, internationalization, and political shifts in national policy frameworks including neo-liberal market ideologies and social inclusion and exclusion have impacted on both welfare provisions and professional social work practice with individuals, groups and communities. Despite the ever-changing nature of social work, Chapter 3 discusses the continued importance of maintaining social work values, professional identity and ethics in promoting social inclusion and client empowerment, and 'moving towards a more egalitarian social order' (p. 63).

Chapters 4 through 7 provide a broad overview of four fields of practice in social work. These chapters give readers 'flavours' of the emerging trends and issues of different practice settings. Dominelli acknowledges that the way she chose these fields is highly selective, and indeed it is based upon how British social work is currently organized. Chapter 4 primarily focuses on social work intervention with children, and argues for the creation of a child-centred welfare system that genuinely respects the rights of children and protects children at risk of abuse and neglect. Chapter 5 first looks at how ageing is socially constructed, and then discusses the physical, emotional and psychological problems encountered by older people. While social workers are encouraged to challenge ageism and negative stereotypes of older people, they should promote greater participation amongst the aged thereby affirming the citizenship rights. Chapter 6 is concerned with the roles of criminal justice social workers in addressing various kinds of offending behaviour and the victim's needs. Admittedly, probation officers nowadays are not required to have a social work qualification, but the author professes faith in the contribution of social work in addressing the social causes of crime. Chapter 7 is about social work intervention in communities, and it touches upon the concepts of partnerships, community mobilization and collective action, which intend to eliminate structural inequalities. Instead of providing empirical evidence or particular frameworks for practice in each specific setting, these chapters emphasize the core principles that include the commitment to human rights and value, user participation and active citizenship essential to professional practice.

The remaining two chapters point to new directions for social work to continue to be viable in the British context. Chapter 8 specifically illustrates how technical terms such as interdependence, reciprocity, citizenship and social justice are inter-related. Put simply, 'social workers can endorse citizenship and social justice through reciprocity and interdependence exercised in and through practice' (p. 231). The final chapter summarizes the discussion in the preceding chapters, and lists a number of principles that will help practitioners to face challenges as a result of changing political, social, economic and cultural environments.

Overall, Social Work: Theory and Practice for a Changing Profession is consistently well-written, comprehensive and wide ranging in scope. It could easily be used as a university text in social work, social care and human services. It provides background information which will acquaint readers with the current thought of social work in the British context. However, proponents for the evidence-based social work practice may find this book too theoretically-driven rather than data-driven.


DOMINELLI, L. (2002a) Anti-oppressive Social Work Theory and Practice, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

DOMINELLI, L. (2002b) Feminist Social Work Theory and Practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Wing Hong Chui
The University of Queensland, Australia