‘all professions are conspiracies against the laity’ George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma, 1906

British social services, without doubt, represent one of the best systems of social work throughout the world for protecting children, supporting families where circumstances and experience make them vulnerable and ensuring people with mental health problems are appropriately sustained. That notwithstanding, social work services in Britain, and in England in particular, have journeyed towards a more individualistic model of care and treatment promoted primarily in the US, and the roots of community action and practice that are truly ‘social’ have become less visible. This places our social work services, excellent as they are in key areas, on the margins of international understandings of social work.

Perhaps the changes articulated above are understandable given our affaire de Coeur with neoliberal philosophies and our celebration of the cult of the individual derived from Margaret Thatcher’s governments, perpetuated by Tony Blair and continued aggressively by the Coalition government of the day.

These changes have significant impact on people and their communities, reassigning blame from social structure to the individuals themselves. Also, there remains a potentially negative impact on social work globally. Many countries have followed the US and British social work models to develop services, sometimes as a direct result of colonialism, sometimes because of implicit global power relations. There is a legitimate concern that adoption of an individualistic approach reflects a neo-imperialist agenda, with problems resulting for those communities and groups made invisible within this process.

Our new book Professional Social Work (edited by Jonathan Parker BU & Mark Doel Sheffield Hallam) seeks to address some of these challenges. We suggest there is such a thing as ‘professional’ social work, that it must be distinct from ‘unprofessional’ social work. Our thesis is that it is imperative that we reclaim social work and its former radicalism and iconoclastically confront governmental established priorities, emphasising humanity’s social condition rather than its atomisation. In the book, we grapple with the fraught and complex definitions, practices and understandings of ‘professionalism’, exploring how the concept can be used to justify differing perspectives.

Including the work of some of the foremost thinkers in contemporary British social work (Stephen Cowden & Gurnam Singh, Pat Higham, Graham Ixer, Ray Jones, Malcolm Payne, Gillian Ruch, Steven Shardlow, Roger Smith, Neil Thompson, Sue Whist, and Marion Bogo from Canada) we promote professional social work practices that are relational, critical and reflexive, that challenge and help people and their communities to reconstruct themselves in their chosen ways.