Educating social workers for lifeworld and system

Cooper, Barry (2010). Educating social workers for lifeworld and system. In: Murphy, Mark and Fleming, Ted eds. Habermas, Critical Theory and Education. International Studies in the Philosophy of Education. London: Routledge, pp. 169–184.



This chapter draws upon key ideas from Habermas’ writings to help identify and illuminate a new critique of some of the current problems besetting both social work practice and social work education. Habermas’ pivotal 'work / social interaction' distinction has tremendous critical application within social work. The 'work' of social work is of course social interaction. Therefore, the distinction becomes intriguingly conflated. This unique position is both a strength and a weakness. All industrialised nations have needed to create a social work service to work across the system and lifeworld boundaries. However, this dual location renders social work both ambiguous and hugely contestable. This contestability offers potential to explore and understand ways in which the profession is changing. Unpicking the dynamics, between work and social interaction, leads into Habermas’ three-fold model of human interests or underlying rationalities.

A number of strands of argument are developed from ‘knowledge and human interests’ to propose that the ‘lifeworld’ of social work is indeed being ‘colonised’ by strategic rationalities. Social work, through the ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ measures of marketisation and managerialism, is critiqued as being driven by systems of targets and outcomes through a modernist search for uniformity, consistency and certainty. These same processes have transformed the nature of social work education. The introduction of competency-based education and training and the imposition of detailed regulatory curriculum frameworks of national occupational standards have deformed the educational experience. This institutional level imposition of ‘standards’ through practice requirements and evidence indicators are argued to clearly indicate an increasing colonisation of the educational ‘lifeworld’ by systems of strategic instrumentalism. Despite the resilient rhetoric proclaiming the centrality of professional ‘values’, social work remains in danger of losing focus upon its primary raison d’être of people-centred practices through continued regulatory attempts to define educational outcomes as a way of ensuring ‘good practice’ standards. Whilst arguments can be made for a minimum threshold standard of qualificatory entry to social work, from a continuing education point of view an instrumental regulatory approach to practice and education is at best irrelevant and at worst undermining of authentic professional learning for practice.

Viewing alternatives

No digital document available to download for this item

Item Actions