Criticality and reflexivity: Best practice in uncertain environments

Cooper, Barry (2010). Criticality and reflexivity: Best practice in uncertain environments. In: Seden, Janet; Morgan, Alun; Matthews, Sarah and McCormick, Michael eds. Professional Development in Social Work: Complex Issues in Practice. London: Routledge, pp. 17–23.


Social work in the UK operates across those boundaries where public services impact upon private lives. It is a risky business, in changing and uncertain environments, and social workers are required to meet the very different demands of institutions as well as the needs of individuals that depend upon the services they provide. These two perspectives, institutional and individual, are often conflicting and in recent years efforts to improve confidence in the effectiveness of institutional ‘systems’ have taken priority over regard to the personal, relationship-based services that traditionally characterised a social work service. Much energy continues to be afforded to the organisational and systemic structures that support social work and foundational legislative changes continue to be introduced to ‘modernise’, ‘raise standards’ and increase the ‘quality’ of social work (Department of Health 1998; Department of Health 2000; Department for Children Schools and Families 2009) while raising the profile of service user involvement. The underlying rationale of regulation has been to modernise and standardise social work procedures through the increased use of schedules and ICT recording systems; to try and provide a greater consistency of service through threshold criteria and benchmarking; and overall to increase a ‘service user perspective’ that aims to rebalance the inherent risks of professional interventions into private lives. On the face of things it seems counter-productive, if not positively Canute-like, to argue against attempts to ‘modernise’ and deliver risk-free certitude and assurance. However, I will argue that such an approach cannot be the sole road to success without the necessarily challenging, and risky, professional social work practices of criticality and reflexivity. It is the central paradox of social work that an acceptance of creative ambiguity offers the only sustainable basis for best professional social work practice in times of uncertainty.

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