Time to say goodbye to Flexner

Liz Beddoe

Sage ( @SAGEsocialwork) just tweeted that Abraham Flexner’s 1915 article “Is social work a profession?” is the top paper. This was republished in 2001. Read here. I checked Google Scholar and it has 986 citations, including dozens just in 2014. [ 1041 now in the 101st year] Publication of this paper would have been very good for his REF or PBRF if scholars had cared about such things in the early 20th century. I have cited him in my own work on the professionalisation of social work.
So why do we still keep asking that question?
My response is to ask another question- is there such a thing as a social work profession? From my own research I have discovered that there are many understandings of professions and what is much more interesting than lists of professional attributes is the thoughtful reflection on the process of the professionalisation of social work (Beddoe 2011, 2013 a,b). The term has somewhat lost its original meaning. What a profession IS is not fixed or objectively measured. Rather: a profession is constructed and given meaning by members, and those other agents and stakeholders who interact with it. At its core a profession is an exchange, it needs interaction with many parties to have meaning. Since Flexner’s essay in 1915 many new occupations have developed and now everyone is a professional (Wilensky, 1964).
Consideration of the process is much more interesting as it recognises the social mobility of occupational groups, while recognizing that professional activity is not completely independent or autonomous. Statutory regulation of professions with protection of title, for example, as we know well in Aotearoa New Zealand, can’t happen without approval of the government. Political patronage is usually required for any occupational group to achieve greater control of its work, education and regulation. (Beddoe, 2013a).
What we often mean in social work when we worry about being a profession is: Are we respected? Do people see us as skilled and competent? Do we have definable knowledge and a location for our practice that is understood? Are we safe and valued in the fields where we practice? Do we make a difference? Social work is a profession (because we say it is!) and yet is very concerned with issues of identity (Beddoe,2013b) and knowledge (Beddoe, 2011).
Let’s focus on what we do and say in 2015. Thanks Abraham,you’ve been a great stimulus for discussion for 99 years but the question is meaningless now in a world where there is no definitive answer. For a start there is not one profession. We are many professions and while bridges are being built at the international level in many countries we still speak and write as if there is one social work. And all professions are now subject to micromanaging neoliberal controllers. Ask any academic.
So bye Flexner, it’s been a great century but let’s ask bigger and better questions in 2015.

Readers, please comment on the questions we should be addressing.

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

Beddoe, L. (2013)b. Health social work: Professional identity and knowledge. Qualitative Social Work, 12(1), 24-40. doi:10.1177/1473325011415455 Read here.

Beddoe, L. (2011). Investing in the future: Social workers talk about research. British Journal of Social Work, 41(3), 557-575. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcq138 Read here.

Flexner, A. (1915). Is social work a profession? Research on Social Work Practice, 11(2), 152-165. Read here.

Flexner, A. (1915). Is social work a profession? In National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections at the Forty-second annual session held in Baltimore, Maryland, May 12-19, 1915. Chicago: Hildmann.

Wilensky, H. L. (1964). The Professionalization of everyone? The American Journal of Sociology, 70(2), 137-158.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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8 Responses to Time to say goodbye to Flexner

  1. Hi Liz,

    A very interesting and thought-provoking blog post. Hadn’t realised the bold Dr. Flexner was still riding so high in the citations! From a historical perspective it’s interesting that the social workers organising the National Conference of Charities and Correction in Baltimore thought it sensible to invite a medical doctor to speak on the of topic of whether social work is a profession. As you know this was mirrored, to an extent, at the 1962 Social Work Study Conference in Dunedin when a University of Otago psychiatrist (Professor Ironside) held forth on the skills required by social workers.

    I guess, way back then, when people were looking for “professional” models, then doctors and psychiatrists looked like something to model yourself on. Well, I suspect some social workers thought that way. Of course they were also models of white, male, phallogocentric power.

    I agree that “a profession is constructed and given meaning by members, and those other agents and stakeholders who interact with it”, and also that we need to move on. There’s something about the endless debates on professionalisation (and de-professionalisation) that just doesn’t seem to achieve anything.

    What social work is, is performed into existence every day by the individuals and organisations doing it, and others who relate to it. Better to think of it as verb than a noun. As a performance, as something that is constantly being done. Done differently in different places; sometimes well, sometimes poorly. We work in and on the social, we are social working. As to what ‘the social’ is, well that’s a discussion for another day.

    Thanks for the provoking the thought 😉


    • socialworknz says:

      Hi Neil- I think it’s a really important part of our history as a profession. I agree that it’s interesting that he was a medical doctor. Most of the current debate in the sociology of the professions is around process approaches – given the huge change that has happened with the bureaucratisation of even powerful professions like medicine. We probably have much more in common in modern ‘managed’ organisations than we allow for. The journal Research in SW has called for papers for a special issue “100 years since Flexner” and I was tempted to write something ….

      • Oh you should write something. Although it will just inflate his citations further 😉

        Can you recommend a good reading on the process approach to professions? My own thinking on this is influenced by my current immersion in actor-network theory (ANT). I don’t think ANT has been used to any great extent in the context of professionalisation, although I can see how it might.

    • socialworknz says:

      Oh and I meant to comment also on the attendance of Ivan Illich at the 1982 social work conference.

  2. socialworknz says:

    Yes I wish that I had been at that conference.

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