‘A Profession of Faith’ or a Profession: Social Work, Knowledge and Professional Capital

Liz Beddoe


For over a decade I have been interested in the professionalisation journey of social work.

This became the focus of my doctoral work, although I started off studying social workers’ engagement in continuing education. My research led me to critique the uncritical acceptance of ‘the learning organisation’ in the human services based on my discovery of practitioner scepticism about corporate ‘learning and development’ efforts (Beddoe, 2009). This post draws on work published as Beddoe(2013a), see below for access.

I have developed an understanding of  professional capital in social work following my qualitative study of New Zealand social workers’ involvement in continuing education in which raising the status of their profession emerged as a motivation for career development (reported in Beddoe  2009; 2011; 2013, a b c). As my exploration of my research data deepened I found that social workers conceptualised the activities of scholarship and research as in part seeking the means to increase the professional capital of their profession. Social work could be observed hovering in an intermediary zone between service users of health and welfare services and the large bureaucracies that maintain them. Social workers were highly conscious of the constant need to negotiate role and status within this zone.  There were complex links between perceived status of social work within complex institutional settings and the aspirations of practitioners.

To understand this better I needed to think a great deal about the location of social work as an aspiring profession. Social work shares with other helping professions, (for example, health workers and teachers) a marginal place between the everyday lives of citizens and the major contemporary social systems. Where social work differs perhaps, is that it is a social practice born in modernity, its development propelled forward by the shift in focus within social policy from human improvement and social need, to the current obsession with risk (Webb, 2006).  Caught up in this shift, social work has inevitably become more embedded in the state apparatus in some countries, especially in child welfare and youth services and in commercial health services in others, and while this expansion has bought some gains, it has led to increasing ambiguity about its core mission as a profession concerned with human rights and social justice (Olson, 2007). I found Bourdieu’s (1984) concept of a ‘distinctive space’ to be very useful in developing the construct of professional capital in social work in New Zealand.

Contemporary social theory assists us to investigate and analyse the nature of social work in order to better understand practitioners’ understandings of the status of their profession and the nature of its journey to date.  Contemporary social work scholars have drawn on the work of Bourdieu to assist in this interrogation (Garrett, 2007a, 2007b; Houston, 2002).  Bourdieu’s work helped me understand better how social workers’ personal aspirations were so bound up in their hopes for the profession. Bourdieu provided an explanation for the emergence and strengthening of social work.

Jenkins (1992) cites Bourdieu (1984) in suggesting that middle class people who were able to access higher education in the 1960s created ‘a disjuncture between their subjective expectations and their objective probabilities’…. became social workers. Those who were unable to find other middle class employment ‘move into the occupational niches between the teaching and medical professions’ (Jenkins, 1992, pp.144 -145). Bourdieu (1984, p.369) describes such a journey as part of

the exemplary history of all those who started by professing a faith and ended up making it a profession, especially of all those associations which, in the areas of social work, adult education, cultural organization or advice on child-rearing and sexuality, have moved, in the space of a generation, from the enthusiastic uncertainties of voluntary evangelism to the security of quasi-civil-servant status.

Bourdieu (in Bourdieu et al., 1999) was not unsympathetic to social work and recognized the contradictions inherent in the profession very clearly. This passage was written following his interview with a municipal social worker in the north of France:

 ‘Social workers must fight unceasingly on two fronts: on the one hand, against those they want to help and who are often too demoralized to take in hand their own interest, let alone the interest of the collective; on the other hand, against the administrations and bureaucrats divided and enclosed in separate universes (Bourdieu, 1999, p.190)”.

In this passage Bourdieu captures a strong element of the day-to-day discourse of social workers as they talk about their experience.  Their sense of being in authentic communication with clients within complex health and social care systems while having to establish  a distinctive  and contested territory within those systems resonates with Bourdieu’s ‘fight on two fronts’(Beddoe, 2013b).  The profession’s emancipatory goal is problematized however, as in Bourdieu’s analysis social work is an agent of the state “shot through with the contradictions of the State” (Bourdieu, 1999, p.184). The attachment of social work to the modern welfare state, and its normative inclinations to manage citizens’ messy problems, has intertwined its loftier aims with the drive of the state to intervene in the domestic sphere, of citizens. It is an essential player in the ‘policing of families’ (Donzelot, 1980). In this current era social work is increasingly involved in a broad range of activities beyond child protection (for example, in health education and promotion, parenting ‘training’, sexuality education) that further intensifies its normative functions.

Bourdieu’s conceptual framework of fields, habitus and capital proved helpful in understanding contemporary social work. Social work may be viewed as a group of ‘agents’ occupying a field, in Bourdieu’s terms a “structured social space, a field of forces” (Bourdieu, 1998, p.40).  In his discussion of the usefulness of Bourdieu’s work for analysis of social work, Garrett (2007a, p.230) writes that fields:

“are crucial in terms of the evolution of the habitus of those located or positioned there. Second, a field seeks to maintain its autonomy. So, for Bourdieu …maintaining the autonomy of the fields of cultural and scientific production was to become increasingly important, indeed urgent, as the forces of neo-liberalism attempt to penetrate them, undermining this (relative) autonomy”.

A further feature of fields is the competition between players which takes place within them for the accumulation of different kinds of capital (Garrett, 2007a, p.230). Within the broad territories of health and social welfare, a profession can be seen to be defined by its position relative to other agents and by its ability to be competitive in acquiring various kinds of capital, especially social and cultural capital. Professions legitimated by the state are in a complex position when the prevailing ideologies propose leaving many aspects of social and economic life to the logic of the market (Bourdieu, 1999). We live the inevitable contradictions every day as social workers.In the current climate privatization of services is an ever present  threat to free, secular, public services. Social workers in my research felt vulnerable and unsure of who might defend their value. Undertaking scholarship and research was part of a strategy to survive (Beddoe, 2011).

Read moreBeddoe , L. (2013a). A ‘Profession of faith’ or a profession: Social work, knowledge and professional capital New Zealand Sociology 28(2), 44-63. Or email me at e.beddoe@auckland.ac.nz



Beddoe, L. (2009). Creating continuous conversation: Social workers and learning organizations Social Work Education-The International Journal, 28(7), 722 – 736 Read here.

Beddoe, L. (2011). Investing in the future: Social workers talk about research. British Journal of Social Work, 41(3), 557-575.

Beddoe , L. (2013). A ‘Profession of faith’ or a profession: Social work, knowledge and professional capital New Zealand Sociology 28(2), 44-63.

Beddoe, L. (2013b). Health social work: Professional identity and knowledge. Qualitative Social Work, 12(1), 24-40.

Beddoe, L. (2013c). Continuing education, registration and professional identity in New Zealand social work. International Social Work, 58(1), 165-174. doi:10.1177/0020872812473139

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (R. Nice, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Bourdieu, P. (1998). On television and journalism. (P. P. Ferguson, Trans). London: Pluto Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1999). ‘The abdication of the State’ and ‘An impossible mission’. In Bourdieu, P., Accardo, A. et al. (Ed & Trans P. Parkhurst- Ferguson ). The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society (pp. 181-202). Palo Alto CA: Stanford University Press.

Donzelot, J. (1980). The Policing of Families (R. Hurley, Trans.). London: Hutchinson.

Garrett, P.M. (2007a) .Making social work more Bourdieusian: Why the social professions should critically engage with the work of Pierre Bourdieu. European Journal of Social Work. 10(2): 225 – 243.

Garrett, P. M. (2007b). The relevance of Bourdieu for social work: a reflection on obstacles and omissions. Journal of Social Work, 7(3): 355-379.

Houston, S. (2002) Reflecting on habitus, field and capital: Towards a culturally sensitive social work. Journal of Social Work, 2(2): 149-167.

Jenkins, R (1992). Key sociologists: Pierre Bourdieu. London: Routledge

Olson, J. J. (2007). Social work’s professional and social justice projects: Discourses in conflict. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 18(1): 45-69

Webb, S. A. (2006). Social Work in a Risk Society: Social and Political Perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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