The battle for admiration in a hero-worship world

Social workers are inextricably tangled with positive and negative readings of welfare. University of Auckland Associate Professor Liz Beddoe tries to pick a way forward for a profession that tries to balance not just public perceptions but their own.

There is a long-standing belief among social workers that the profession gets a tough time in the media. Like used-car sales people and estate agents, we are rarely in the news for doing good – and then we suffer the disparaging epithet ‘do-gooder’.

Public perception of the profession is more difficult to pin down. If we look at comments on websites for people who feel mistreated by social work, or those posted on news stories about social work failures, we might give up on any aspirations to be admired and respected.

But studies overseas paint a different picture of how the profession is perceived by the public. In a recent study of 2500 people in the United Kingdom, half were positive about social work and only a quarter held a negative view. Study leader Professor Stephen Webb says: “The results challenge some deeply entrenched narratives about, and within, the profession.”  

Further, he says: “I think there’s a misunderstanding around media’s influence. The press courts controversy and uproar. And controversy, as an event, is impactful, but only in the moment. It has a short-term emotive impact, then people re-adjust.”

Social work may, therefore, be oversensitive – but then, we have always had a problem of identity. For example, many social workers who don’t work in child protection feel sheer frustration about the overarching association of the profession with child protection – especially when that practice is seen as authoritarian.

But the reality is, social work is often the only visible profession undertaking child protection, at least in the public view. Police, lawyers, judges, psychologists, counsellors, probation officers and others professionally involved in child protection remain conveniently invisible in the media and therefore free from the public gaze.

Professor Webb is right to be concerned about the impact of all this negativity. My colleagues in the university’s school of counselling, human services and social work, Dr Barbara Staniforth, Professor Christa Fouche, and I, recently published an article called ‘Proud of what I do but often … I would be happier to say I drive trucks: Ambiguity in social workers’ self-perception’. The title came from a social worker who, like others in the same study, was ambivalent about identifying their profession to strangers.

So what way forward? Some ask, why don’t we change our name?  ‘Social worker’ is seen as such a negative label. But discussions of alternatives rarely go anywhere. And like it or not, we are part of an international ‘social work’ profession (in 180 countries) with the potential to contribute to the growing movement against the failed ideology of neoliberalism which has brought poverty and cruel welfare sanctions to millions.

The fact is, we are inextricably tangled with positive and negative readings of welfare and now, to add something new to the problem of the social work tag, is the current discussion about referring to ourselves as heroes or super-heroes. I understand why this might be welcomed as an attempt to talk us up and raise pride. But, while social workers do often show courage and leadership, they mostly want to work alongside people rather than rescue them.

In an excellent recent blog on why the hero narrative in the human professions is damaging, a UK-based social worker wrote: “A hero narrative fuels the ‘done to’ approach to supporting people. They are ‘done to’ and in turn, they become ‘better’. This is a necessary process to fulfil the hero narrative. The person who comes in to save the day, without whom, the other would be doomed.

“[Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo] Freire had us think about this in the form of charity. A person doing for someone else. ‘Doing to’, as a concept, furthers oppression, by providing something that is just enough to keep people in their place. It maintains the social order, or the status quo. Through this lens, the person doing the saving is the oppressor and liberation becomes an impossibility. It pushes the dominant, oppressor view of the world on other people — assuming their version of ‘better’ is a common held view.”

So, I’m also for rejecting the hero label. Social workers are courageous – especially when we speak truth to empower and challenge orthodoxy, or face criticism and even belittlement when we stand up for people who are struggling. But our aim is for solidarity.

As Nick, the social work blogger quoted above, says: “A position of solidarity, however, requires an alignment. It is a radical position. It means fighting side by side, not fighting for people. Freire talks about objective reality a lot and the conditioning of people into conformity, to fear liberation. It requires people to be alongside others, with the fight focused on changing the perception of the objective reality. This does not entail acts of charity, or acts of kindness, or indeed acts of saving. It demands love and respect. It requires genuine connection, humility. It does not require sacrifice, as the hero narrative suggests.”

So while media and public perceptions of social work is always of interest, we should not worry about why a website carries a meme “social workers are like prawns, no guts, spineless and full of shit”, which made me laugh. Instead, we should listen to criticism, engage in respectful debate and try to do better.

We are not heroes most of the time, and nor are doctors, nurses or engineers, and we’re definitely not super-heroes. We are doing the best we can with all the training, resources and support we can muster. The next few years will be challenging as we face the much-needed public inquiry into abuse in state care in Aotearoa, and changes and challenges the Labour-led coalition Government will bring. So regardless of our name, and the image imposed by the media, let us be honest, brave and ask good questions.  

A version of this article featured on the blog Re-imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.

With thanks to our partners