European Social Work Identity Dr. Elizabeth Frost


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European Social Work Identity

  • Dr. Elizabeth Frost,

  • University of The West of England, Bristol, UK


  • This talk will consider

  • How can we best understand the notion of a ‘collective identity’

  • Is there such a thing as a ‘European identity’

  • Is there such a thing as a ‘European social work identity’?



  • Identity – both individual and group -is a slippery concept with multiple meanings.

  • The idea of group ‘identities’ includes:

  • the external position of people – geographical, political, cultural, structural-

  • and the subjective experience of inhabiting these places and ideas.



  • For example ‘a social work identity’ would include

  • issues such as skills, attributes and a body of knowledge dictated by policy, law and practice contexts, interpreted through training and experience

  • self-concept and ethical issues, to do with a subjective understanding of who social workers see themselves as being, what they believe and believe in, what symbolic meanings form their understanding and how these things ‘mesh’ with the practices of being a social worker.



  • Another way of thinking about identity as a concept, then, is that it looks inward and outward.

  • ‘Identity’ is both about belonging – what we have in common with some people - with what/whom do we ‘identify’, and what differentiates us from others (Jenkins, 1996).

  • Collective identities are collective hopes, dreams and affiliations as well as objective similarities and shared activities.



  • Understanding collective (European) identities

  • The notion of European identity is an evolving one – like all identities, a process.

  • There is currently ‘an unfolding process’ of European identity, formed partially by the act of discussion and reflection upon the ideas of Europe/Europeans in itself (Preston, 2005, p 498)



  • In what ways can collective identity be discovered and understood? Can we really talk about a European collective identity?

  • 1) First let us approach collective identity as finding commonalities

  • Commonalities of, for example, history, culture, shared experience and so on . What kinds of commonalities and shared beliefs do we have in Europe?



  • Wintle: values that link to being the first industrialised countries, the first modern democratic countries and the first Christian cultures. ‘European culture is modernity –cumulative knowledge and progress, technology and wealth –along with nation states and ideas of freedom and equality’ (Wintle, 1996:11)



  • Steiner: (literary)

  • ‘the coffee house; the landscape on a traversable and human scale; these streets and squares named after statesmen scientists artists and writers of the past; our twofold descent from Athens and Jerusalem ; (2006, p7)



  • 2) A second way of understanding (European) collective identity is that seeking to be united in itself constitutes a useful indicator of collective identity.

  • Identity is a process not simply a product, and making attempts to collectivise is a register of how people(s) perceive their identities, who they see themselves as connected to and what they wish to develop with them.



  • Shared identity is demonstrable in the joint attempt to forge that very thing. In relation to European identity, it is possible to consider a group of countries themselves seeking to be united. ‘Since the second world war (itself a curiously unifying factor) there have been persistent attempts to create a European union…’( Macionis and Plummer, 2002; p88)



  • 3) Another way of understanding collective identities such as ‘European’ is to consider the formal and informal collectivisation: the ‘top down’ and bottom up’

  • It is not just the success of the process of attempting to politically forge a collective identity from the top that indicates collective identity

  • It is equally significant to analyses the ‘bottom up’ activities – the informal, people generated collective acts and organisation – which show a sense of the collective.



  • For example ‘top-down’ attempts to impose a shared currency, laws and policies, taxes and immigration controls, suggest collectivisation in Europe



  • But at the same time the informal’ (‘bottom-up’) is evident:

  • Sporting, cultural and educational networks and activities have proliferated in Europe over the last few decades. Grass roots politics including trade-unions, European unions of socialists and conservatives all reflect collective political identities. Bottom up organisations are both ubiquitous and burgeoning. (Wintle, 2000, p. 20-21.)



  • On the basis of using these three analytical frameworks for considering collective identity – shared cultures/histories; working towards collectivisation; ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ activities – there is some evidence of a collective European identity at this point in time



  • European social work identities ?

  • So then I am claiming at least some kinds of European identities. Is it possible to also establish that there are European social work identities?

  • Using Macionis’s first measure of what collective identity means (outlined above: tracing shared histories, languages, cultures, etc.) Can this be claimed for pan-European social work? Or is there little common ground?



  • Unlikely that social work across Europe would share a great many ‘cultural’ features. Social work as a profession and institution is constructed through nation states – in terms of policy, legal systems, economics and practice (Erath et. al. 2001) and therefore must reflect the diversity of European national politics.

  • From this ‘top-down’ perspective, social work is likely to reflect its separate national identities. As such, it will present a nationally defined and circumscribed range of differing historical and policy specifics which are reflected in education, research and practice.



  • However, if we consider further the kinds of ethical, practice, self-identity and related issues within European social work – the ‘bottom-up’ aspects – there may be significant commonalities at work too.



  • In 2003, the social work thematic network co-sponsoring this conference undertook an impressionistic project on similarity and diversity.

  • Each of the twenty-four European countries involved in the network were asked to describe, from their own viewpoint, the history, definition, education, roles, status and activities of social work in their country. (Campanini and Frost, 2004).

  • This produced a picture of both similarity and differences in the whole notion of social work



  • Overall, what the project suggested is that in terms of the ‘top-down’- the laws policy, history and the very definition of the term ‘social worker’- there was little evidence of collective identity in Europe.

  • For example, even what the term ‘social worker’ means has enormous variation between countries.



  • However when we considered more subtle and more meaning-based issues the picture was more blurred. For example

  • in most countries social work identity was changing and fluid and the process of professional identity definition was subject to regular variation and over-haul

  • Does the notion of similarly experienced instability and change – ‘we are all equally unsettled about who we are’’ - constitute a shared identity?

  • It may help to generate a shared sense of threat/excitement – a shared idea that change is possible, and redefinition, which may also include working towards a common redefinition.



  • If a ‘bottom-up’ analysis is applied, the common struggles, mutual problems and themes become evident. ‘Bottom-up’ here would include the intellectual and ideological underpinnings and the ethical, moral and philosophical beliefs found in social work(ers), with which the profession itself identifies and through which it defines itself .



  • Intellectually and ideologically, the ‘two-fold descent from Athens and Jerusalem’ refered to above, impacts on most pan-European social work identities to some extent. However, European social work’s inheritance (one might argue the whole European intellectual tradition including social analysis) is equally dominated by the immeasurable, continuing modernist inheitance: the ‘two-fold descent’ from Vienna and Germany: that of Freud and Marx.



  • Ethically and morally

  • The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships, and the empowerment and liberation of people in order to enhance well-being.

  • ‘… Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.’ Of the IASSW’s ‘Core purposes of the Social Work Profession’, at the top of the list is to, ‘facilitate the inclusion of marginalized, socially excluded dispossessed, vulnerable and at-risk groups of people, and the successive point is to ‘address and challenge barriers to inequalities and injustices existing in society.’ (IASSW, 2004, p2).



  • It is possible then to trace cultural and historical themes, intellectual traditions and common practices, as well as a shared ethical and moral base to establish a collective European social work

  • Using the ‘attempts to collectivise as a register of collectivity’ approach to collective identity, there is also evidence of a European social work identity being currently forged



    • Social Work Education developing European social work identity
  • One of the issues which became evident in the project mentioned above, was that all European countries who discussed the social work of that country, commented upon the role social work education plays in this process of ‘Europeanisation’. There is evidence to suggest that an increased International/European orientation in most of the European countries (Labonte-Roset, 2004).



  • For example The European section of the association, EASSW, has established a European accreditation agency, called the ‘European Network for Quality Assurance for Social Professions’ (ENQASP),

  • Involvement in student mobility and teaching staff exchange. Modules that address various aspects of social work from a comparative perspective.



  • Programs carried out in the English language and summer schools European social work training at Masters level

  • Additonally educational projects, such as, ‘The European Centre for Resources and Research in Social Work’ with the aim of developing a database of research in the area of social work or related areas.

  • Us here now!



  • Given the models of collective identity outlined above, which highlight the process of developing collective actions as being indicative of collective identities, as well as shared beliefs, values and cultures, a collective European social work identity can certainly be demonstrated.



  • References

  • Campanini, A. and Frost, E. Eds. (2004) European Social Work: Diversity and Commonalities. Rome: Carocci

  • Labonte-Roset, R. (2004-unpublished) The European Higher Education Area and Research-oriented Social Work training. Magdeburg: Conference paper

  • International Association of Schools of Social Work (2004) Global Standards For The Education and Training of The Social Work Profession. Adelaide

  • Macionis, J and Plummer, K (2002) Sociology: a Global Introduction. Harlow: Prentice Hall

  • Preston, P. (2005) Reading the Ongoing Changes: European Identity, The Political Quarterly, Spring.

  • Steiner, G. (2006) The Ideal of Europe. The Liberal. Hay Festival Edition, pp4-8






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